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Rick Atkinson's Army at Dawn--for which he was awarded a Pulitzer, while embedded in Iraq--is a terrific first volume in a projected trilogy on the American infantry in WWII and he's already written one of the better volumes on the initial Iraq War in 1991, Crusade. So, it's easy to see why he'd have jumped at the chance to cover the desert warfare of the second Iraq War up close and personal.

Many will already be familiar with the dispatches he filed for the Washington Post during the conflict and he brings the immediacy of such reportage to this memoir of being embedded with the 101st Airborne, but that's both a strength and its weakness. It's a strength in so far as he provides us a gifted reporter's ground-eye-view of the challenges and confusions soldiers and commanders face in the midst of combat and in the build-up to and aftermath of war. But it's a weakness in that the intentional lack of perspective makes people--not least himself--seem silly and petulant at times. For instance, the most controversial story he contributed to while in theater was War Could Last Months, Officers Say (Thomas E. Ricks, March 27, 2003, Washington Post):
Despite the rapid advance of Army and Marine forces across Iraq over the past week, some senior U.S. military officers are now convinced that the war is likely to last months and will require considerably more combat power than is now on hand there and in Kuwait, senior defense officials said yesterday.

The combination of wretched weather, long and insecure supply lines, and an enemy that has refused to be supine in the face of American military might has led to a broad reassessment by some top generals of U.S. military expectations and timelines. Some of them see even the potential threat of a drawn-out fight that sucks in more and more U.S. forces. Both on the battlefield in Iraq and in Pentagon conference rooms, military commanders were talking yesterday about a longer, harder war than had been expected just a week ago, the officials said.

"Tell me how this ends," one senior officer said yesterday.
Read with the knowledge that the regime fell 21 days after the start of the war this can't help but seem even more hysterical now than it did then. Moreover, it seems likely that the Post and its correspondents, including Mr. Atkinson, were being used by the uniformed military, which wanted more troops, in bureaucratic infighting against the Pentagon's political leadership--Secretaries Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the like. In that case the story wasn't just absurd, as becomes obvious in retrospect, but an instance of the press allowing itself to be manipulated, willingly or not. At any rate, it's singularly unedifying and such despair is not uncommon in the book. One wonders how much easier the victory could have been but perhaps the answer is that for the men fighting them all wars just suck and every day is a quagmire. If so, that's a valuable enough lesson to learn, especially for those of us who get to sit home and send others out to fight, but it does suggest that we shouldn't take their complaints terribly seriously.

Somewhat allied to this problem of quagmirism is Mr. Atkinson's obvious opposition to the war. He has every right to disapprove of it, but he makes a couple of disturbing comments along the way. At one point he makes fun of two soldiers for arguing that it was not a war about oil. As events have shown, and as all but true partisans surely recognized at the time, they were right and he wrong. Another, even more galling, instance of his cynicism comes when the great journalist and fellow embed Michael Kelly is killed in an accident and Mr. Atkinson refers to it as "senseless." Now, perhaps he just means the accidental nature of the tragedy is senseless, but the death of a reporter in the very act of reporting on a dangerous situation seems the very opposite of senseless. It is noble.

On the plus side, and the plus side is considerable, Mr. Atkinson centers the book around the compelling figure of Major General David Petraeus, who he also >profiled extensively for the Post. The General exemplifies the intelligence, political sensitivity, hypercompetitiveness, and ambition of the modern officer corps. The portrayal of General Petraeus and of other senior officers in the 101st, like Lt. Gen. William Wallace, are excellent and give us much cause for pride in our armed forces. Also interesting are Mr. Atkinson's reports on events he was able to experience in real time--or at least their aftermaths--like the grenade and shooting attack by an American G.I who'd converted to Islam that took place just before the war kicked off while the 101st was stationed in Kuwait. And, as mentioned above, Mr. Atkinson's own confusion about the events going on around him--as well as that of the officers he was talking to--reminds us of the wisdom of Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, that the belief that commanders are in control of events is an illusion. War is by its nature a chaotic enterprise where what you think you know at any given moment is more than likely wrong.

Of course the story ends before we know how things will turn out in Iraq. By the end of Mr. Atkinson's stay it had already become obvious that diehards and extremists were going to cause significant problems as they resisted American, allied, and Iraqi efforts to reform the nation. But the pessimism with which the book concludes will hopefully turn out to be just one more case of being lost in the fog of war. When Mr. Atkinson sits down to write a history of the second Iraq War a few years from now it will be interesting to see how the perspective afforded by temporal distance changes the judgments he made here, while he was in the thick of things.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Rick Atkinson (3 books reviewed)
Rick Atkinson Links:

    -WAR IN IRAQ: Rick Atkinson (Washington Post)
    -BOOK SITE: An Army at Dawn
    -BOOK SITE: Day of Battle
    -EXCERPT: Prologue from An Army at Dawn
    -BOOKNOTES: An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson (C-SPAN, November 17, 2002)
    -AWARD: Pulitzer Prize for History: An Army at Dawn (2003)
    -INTERVIEW: CONVERSATION: AWARD WINNER: Margaret Warner speaks with Rick Atkinson, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, An Army at Dawn. (Online Newshour, May 5, 2003)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Back from the Frontlines (On Point, April 21, 2003)
    -ONLINE CHAT: Confronting Iraq: In The Field With The 101st Airborne (With Rick Atkinson, March 19, 2003, Washington Post)
    -INTERVIEW: frontline: the gulf war: oral history: rick atkinson
    -ARTICLE: Post Recalls Vets for War Coverage—Puts New Recruits on Front Lines (Harry Jaffe, 3/21/03, The Washingtonian)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Russell F. Weigley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Lawrence D. Freedman, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Ray Locker, Associated Press)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Patrick J. Garrity, The Ashbrook Center )
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Hew Strachan, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (ROBERT KUCHEM, Alaska Star)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (ALAN PRINCE, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (W.J. Rayment, Conservative Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Geeta Sharma-Jensen, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of Army at Dawn (Seth Stern, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Day of Battle (Robert Killebrew, Washington Post)

Book-related and General Links:

    -BOOK SITE: In the Company of Soldiers (Henry Holt)
    -ARCHIVES: Iraq (Washington Post)
    -ARCHIVES: Rick Atkinson in Iraq (Washington Post)
    -PROFILE: The Long, Blinding Road to War: Unexpected Challenges Tested Petraeus in Iraq (Rick Atkinson, March 7, 2004, Washington Post)
    -PROFILE: THE MAKING OF A COMBAT GENERAL : 'A Very Tough Place': Shifting Sands and Shifting Plans: Commander of 101st Finds Rhythm of Battle (Rick Atkinson, March 8, 2004, Washington Post)
    -PROFILE: THE MAKING OF A COMBAT GENERAL : 'Now Comes the Hard Part': After Chaos in the Capital, Losses Climbed (Rick Atkinson, March 9, 2004, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Confused Start, Swift Conclusion: Invasion Shaped by Miscues, Bold Risks and Unexpected Successes (Rick Atkinson, Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks, April 13, 2003, The Washington Post )
    -ARTICLE: U.S. Soldier Held for Another's Death in Grenade Attack (Rick Atkinson, , March 23, 2003, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson (Christopher Dickey, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of In the Company of Soldiers (Steve Weinberg, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of In the Company of Soldiers (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)