things have changed since Rick Atkinson, then a Berlin
correspondent for The Washington Post, covered the 50th
anniversary of D-Day in 1994.
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."
big change since then: Atkinson now stands as the most
prominent American historian of that war.
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
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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
task is to correct misconceptions.
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.
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.’"
the other hand, he notes, "These are our
roots." And there are the joys that any historian,
or reader of history, can relate to.
as engaging as I had hoped it would be. And the
characters are beyond the power of any novelist to