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Rick Atkinson explains our endless fascination with World War II

June 2, 2014

Some things have changed since Rick Atkinson, then a Berlin correspondent for The Washington Post, covered the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.

Time has claimed many veterans who were alive then. Many of the dwindling number of survivors are in their 90s. That has made the country more nostalgic about those survivors, Atkinson says. "Because the generation really is vanishing."

Another big change since then: Atkinson now stands as the most prominent American historian of that war.

"An Army at Dawn," which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for history, told the story of the American military’s chaotic, often overlooked campaign in North Africa. "The Day of Battle," released in 2007, followed the army through the blood-soaked mud of Italy. And "The Guns at Last Light," which was just released in paperback, marches from the shores of Normandy in June 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.

"I think that happily, the appetite for understanding the Second World War is largely undiminished," he says by phone from his home in Washington, D.C. "And if anything, it seems to have grown some. I think that Stephen Ambrose, for good and ill, rekindled American interest in the war. … And a lot of us have ridden his coattails. Hopefully with a little more scholarship involved."

He says that much of the fascination stems from personal connections people have to the war. People hope that "by understanding what Dad or Grandma or Great-Grandpa did, I can understand something more about my own personal role in the world in the 21st century.

"And I think for a lot of people there’s a nostalgia — a dreadful nostalgia I would say — that all 130 million of us were rowing the boat in the same direction, that seems quite different from the body politic today."

Atkinson’s books could not be called nostalgic. He does discuss sweeping strategic matters — the "big arrows on the map," as he says. But he excels at finding details that drive home moments of heroism and horror alike. As a New York Times review said, "Atkinson is a master of what might be called ‘pointillism history,’ assembling the small dots of pure color into a vivid, tumbling narrative."

How does he find those details? "Well, first of all you have to be looking for them," he says. "You have to recognize that shades of gray — that’s the predominant shade of any landscape when you’re talking about war." He says that reporting from war zones in Iraq, Bosnia and elsewhere taught him that.

Even if World War II — "the biggest, baddest war in the history of mankind" — had a side that was clearly good and another that was clearly evil, he says, you have to acknowledge that "war makes good soldiers do bad things, and it makes bad solders do terrible things. That it has a really corrosive effect on almost everyone who is caught up in it."

The corrosive effect applies to him as well, he says. Having spent 14 years researching and writing 750,000 words on the subject, he had many moments of heartbreak in the archives.

"I find myself in fact getting furious at times at stupid decisions and venal behavior and childish behavior. I find myself certainly profoundly affected by individual deaths." Writing about the West Point Class of 1966 in his book "The Long Gray Line," he says, "I had the little epiphany that there’s a miracle of singularity to death: It’s like snowflakes or fingerprints. And I think part of the author’s task is, even in the aggregate of 60 million deaths in World War II, to remember that those 60 million died one at a time."

Another task is to correct misconceptions.

"The Second World War for many Americans is: ‘A bad thing happened at Pearl Harbor, and then we landed on D-Day at Normandy, and a bad thing happened at the Bulge, but all in all it was a kind of steady glide path to victory.’ Would that it were so. But it wasn’t." His writing about the bloodletting at places such as Hürtgen Forest makes that clear.

Atkinson is still writing about war, but he has gone back a couple of centuries, for a planned trilogy about the American Revolution. He faces fresh challenges: "These are 18th-century men. They seem distant to us, frequently. … People will not have the same sense of ‘Grandpa did this, and I would really like to know more about it.’"

On the other hand, he notes, "These are our roots." And there are the joys that any historian, or reader of history, can relate to.

"It’s as engaging as I had hoped it would be. And the characters are beyond the power of any novelist to invent."





 


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