For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Rick Atkinson, World War II is just in his blood.
“I was born in Germany as part of the occupation force,” the author of “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945” told CQ Roll Call. “If you grew up in Army posts in the 1950s and 1960s, World War II was very much a part of the culture and the landscape. There were a lot of veterans; it was just something you grew up in.”
Atkinson, who spent more than 20 years with The Washington Post, brought that sense of culture and history to what has become his life work, the Liberation Trilogy that chronicles the Allied victory in Africa and Europe.
After being steeped in post-war Germany both as a child and as The Post’s Berlin bureau chief, he began the work that would become the Liberation Trilogy in 1998.
The first volume, “An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943,” was released in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history. The second volume, “The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,” came out in 2007. In May, “The Guns at Last Light” came out, rounding out the trilogy.
“I knew it was going to take at least nine years. That was the projected timetable, although I recognized, I think the publisher recognized … that was a guess,” Atkinson said.
Among the events that impeded that timeline were two more wars — modern ones that Atkinson went abroad to cover for The Post.
“In 2003, I went to Iraq for them. I wrote a little book about my experience with the 101st Airborne Division and my time with Dave Petraeus, so that threw me off schedule,” Atkinson said about reporting for the paper and writing “In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq.”
In 2007, Atkinson went to the war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan for about six months to report on roadside bombs. Since then, he’s been on the historian beat.
A Literary Approach
Atkinson’s writing shows how much literature has influenced him. He sets the stage for his latest book’s table of contents with a passage from the prologue of William Shakespeare’s immortal play of war and courage, “Henry V.”
The titles of his chapters show that “The Guns at Last Light” is no stodgy historical recitation of facts. Headers such as “The Implicated Woods” and “A Winter Shadow” see to that. The subchapters, with names including “To the Land of Doom” and “A Rendezvous in Some Flaming Town” continue the elegiac tone, as well as reflect how the soldiers, leaders and writers present viewed the long slog to victory.
He also draws heavily on the observations of iconic period writers, such as Evelyn Waugh and A.J. Liebling, as well as war correspondents who are sometimes neglected by other historians.
“I certainly draw as a writer on those writers from the 1940s. I use war correspondents more than most historians do, partly because I feel some kinship for them, and partly because they’re so damn good,” Atkinson said. “I think Alan Moorehead is fantastic, and I use him a lot. I use him at the very end of the book because he’s got not only a gift for narrative, but he’s got a very keen eye. And that cast of characters who became war correspondents, one sort or another — British, American, Australian — influenced me a lot as a writer about war.”
In addition to Moorehead, readers will see the likes of Martha Gellhorn, Ernie Pyle and a host of others in Atkinson’s telling.
That emphasis on narrative shines through on the pages. It’s not easy to make sing a list of supplies that an allied soldier has to pack for the trip to Normandy. But Atkinson seemed to have picked up a few techniques, not just from those war correspondents, but from other masters of the English language.
“I was an English literature graduate student … so I’m marinated in the classics, and particularly in 20th century British and American literature. I was a big reader of Faulkner and Joyce, the usual list,” he said.
Liberal arts majors, rejoice! Your efforts might not be all for naught.
Not Just Good for You, But Good
If all of those influences sound a bit heady, consider that it hasn’t hampered the popularity of “The Guns at Last Light,” either with critics or the public.
The book debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, and has spent 12 weeks on the list overall. Reviewing the volume in The Times, author Ben Macintyre wrote, “Atkinson is a master of what might be called ‘pointillism history,’ assembling the small dots of pure color into a vivid, tumbling narrative.”
It’s a statement that reflects the literary merit of the work, as well as Atkinson’s influences. “Pointillism history” could just as easily apply to Shakespeare’s England or Faulkner’s South.
“I think I was looking in part for a story to take me out of the newspaper world as a narrative writer,” Atkinson said. “I’d written a couple of books previously, narrative histories, but I was interested in the darker world, deeper world, of history, and World War II had been something that has been part of my life, all of my life.”
The Magnitude of the Thing
Atkinson’s success with the trilogy shows the lasting effect of World War II. Particularly during a time when the government seems incapable of fulfilling its most basic role, it’s hard to fathom the kind of effort, planning and cohesion required to wage such a war.
“Yeah, I think magnitude has something to do with it. Sixty million dead. War fought on six continents for six years. In America, a country of 130 million during World War II, we put more than 16 million in uniform,” he said, adding that the war continues to define world culture and geopolitics.
“It was a struggle between good and evil, frankly, and it was not hard to believe that we had the moral high ground. And then finally, the consequences of the war play out in the country and the world to this day. Consequences for women in the workplace, consequences for civil rights — the war profoundly affected those things. And then it affected the shape of the political world,” he said, noting that India, Pakistan, Israel and “many countries in Africa” all were born of the war.
Historically, Atkinson argues, the war is the equivalent of the Big Bang.
“Obviously, the Arab Spring in many ways is like the signal from the Big Bang. … You can still feel the repercussions and reverberations in the world today from the big bang of the 1940s.”
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, culminating with “The Guns at Last Light” does its part in illustrating how those reverberations started, with a bang.
As part of the Roll Call Book Club, Atkinson will discuss and sign “The Guns at Last Light” on Wednesday at the CQ Roll Call offices at 77 K St. NE. Free, at 6 p.m. To register, go to cqrcbooks.eventbrite.com.