The Best Defense

The last of Atkinson’s marvelous World War II series: ‘The Guns at Last Light’

As a holiday gift for myself, I read an advance copy of the last of Rick Atkinson's trilogy on World War II in Europe. The book is out in May, but you can pre-order on Amazon right now. 

It was like slipping into a warm bath: Good writing ("Sherman pyres on the Caen plain") and fine narrative.

But most of all, fascinating facts:

  • Prostitutes in blacked-out wartime London would feel for the rank insignia of prospects before naming their price. (And a quickie done standing up inside a overcoat was called "Marble Arch style.")
  • Nearly half the American troops arriving in Europe in 1944 were still teenagers. By contrast, by the end of that year, 2 million of Hitler's 3.6 million soldiers were older than thirty. 
  • Germans accustomed to the Eastern Front were stunned when moved to the West to battle Americans who enjoyed overwhelming air superiority -- it was, Rommel warned, like "being nailed to the ground."
  • Speaking of the Soviets, Stalin comes off a bit like Edward G. Robinson, speaking a few phrases of English, such as "You said it!" and "What the hell goes on around here?"
  • About 10 percent of all American combat casualties during the war came during the Battle of the Bulge.
  • The Red Army lost more soldiers at Stalingrad that the entire U.S. military did in the entire war.
  • The heaviest bombing month of the war was March 1945, with 130,000 tons dropped on Germany. 
  • After the war, 21 ships laden with dead American soldiers brought them home. The first carried 5,060 bodies. What a Homeric image.

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The Best Defense

‘The Generals’ gets two thumbs down

My book The Generals got its first entirely negative review, from Col. Gian Gentile. Why am I not surprised?

Colonel Gentile, a strategic bombing expert who also was a cavalry squadron commander in Iraq in 2006, concludes that I am both simplistic and dangerous: "In one sense Mr. Ricks is right that the American army has not produced strategic thinkers in its higher ranks. But his simplistic solution is also quite dangerous if the policymakers and others who read it come to believe it is true. America at war with Syria, Iran, Yemen, sure -- just relieve a few generals, get the right ones in place, and victory will be assured."

Then, in a really low blow for a historian, he accuses me of having the mindset of a political scientist: "He undertakes a political science approach to the exploration and analysis of history, developing a template and then compelling the past to conform to that template."

He also says the book is a regression from the works of John Keegan. Well, if I have to regress from anyone, I'll take Keegan. I am not as good a baseball player as Derek Jeter, either. 

What I don't get is that he accuses me of failing to show that relief of generals leads to better results. I don't know how he can say that, given that I discuss how Africa went better after Fredendall was ousted, Anzio went better after Lucas was booted and Truscott took over, Korea went better after Ridgway went over there and started cleaning house.

Does he think Vietnam would have gone any worse had any generals been relieved for being ineffective? But then Gentile is a big fan of Westmoreland -- "Westmoreland, I think, was very efficient, very proper, highly intelligent, a good organizer, a good manager, and I think up to a -- and I think a good leader" -- and I am not. 

Also, I'd like to file an objection to the way he uses "narrative" like it was some kind of dirty word. Rather, I think it is what makes us human -- putting together events to try to make sense of the rushing world of reality. We know other animals use tools, but as far as I know, we are the only animal that uses narrative.