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The Day of Battle:" | Courage, carnage and obsession: a review of The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson (Thomas Peelem, Contra Costa Times)
Patton's ego seems tame compared to that of Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the American Fifth Army in Italy. Atkinson paints Clark as so obsessed with capturing Rome himself that he pondered turning his own guns on the British if he thought they would enter the city ahead of him.

At the heart of "The Day of Battle," though, is the foot soldier, the men pinned down at Anzio, the troops sent relentlessly into fortified German lines. The Italian campaign was the battlefront that most resembled the battles of World War I, armies flinging themselves at each other again and again over the same ground.

Atkinson juxtaposes the fighting for inches with the grave realities of Allied war-making politics and how much blood was spilled because of clashing egos. He also explores many of the war's darkest secrets, from its largest incident of fratricide (Allied gunners in Sicily opening up on their own planes and paratroopers), to the disastrous results when a ship containing a cargo of mustard gas is bombed in an Italian harbor, to the atrocities committed on both sides.

His deeper exploration is whether the war in Italy needed to be fought at all. It was, history proved, of little strategic importance. But it was, Atkinson concludes, necessary for Stalin's appeasement and diverting German resources from the preparation of defenses for the invasion of France.

Or what? Stalin would have let Hitler take the USSR just to teach us a lesson? Tragic how appeasement is always an excuse for itself.

The book though is terrific, not just for what it reveals about the "Good War" but for what that reveals about our current "Bad War." Let us set aside, for now, the fundamental mistake of appeasing Stalin and trying to help the Soviets win and assume for the moment that this phase of the war was entirely justified and truly necessary. Consider that just in the initial hours and days of the invasion of Sicily you get not only that friendly fire incident--with an official count of 410 killed but an additional 1400 paratroopers unaccounted for--and several intentional massacres of prisoners, which were covered up not just to prevent Allied embarrassment but in order to possibly protect our own men from reprisals should they be captured. Add the general incompetence in areas from strategy to logistics and the rivalry between commanders of different nations as well as between services and between peers within each service and you begin to see how comparatively flawless the Iraq campaign has been, as well as how much more seriously the government and the press took winning said war, rather than exposing every mistake to be picked over in public and seized upon by the enemy. Note: I'm not actually suggesting that no mistakes have been made in the Iraq War, but that we lack all historical perspective either when we consider them in their worst light and look back at WWII in an absurdly glowing, near sacred, light.

Like all the best histories, Mr. Atkinson's book tells us as much about our own times as it does about the past and what it tells us is pretty unflattering about both.


Grade: (A)


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: