Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (2002) — Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


13 October 2015



Magnificent, yet profoundly irritating at the same time


An Army at Dawn is an epic historical sweep burdened by disconnected detail, incomplete and poorly referenced footnotes, and a lack of substantive theme.


Note — added 24 November 2015

This is the first volume of the author’s Liberation Trilogy and arguably the (still admirable) weakest.

I reviewed the subsequent two books, here.



Rick Atkinson’s journalistic background may explain the entertaining strengths and aggravating scholarly weaknesses of this first volume, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2003. Son of an Army officer, Atkinson (BA and MA in English and literature) began his writing career as a reporter, rising to become a prominent journalist and editor at the Washington Post.


An Army at Dawn skillfully cobbles together staccato glimpses of commanders’ thinking and combat’s life and death — but without giving readers a coherent view of either or of the overall thrust of military actions. Even his focus on individually named troops becomes tedious because the author almost never follows through with more than a few seconds of their lives.


His historical account jumps frenetically and erratically — pretty much like demented frog might around a pond that has too many insect offerings.



Perhaps this disconnectedness was intentional, the fog of war and all that, but . . .


Atkinson’s style led a few thoughtful reviewers at Amazon dot com to negatively comment, among them R. Albin:



To be a real campaign history, Atkinson would have to provide a good deal more information about the Germans and Italians.


Nor does Atkinson provide much information about crucial aspects of the campaign such as the air war, which clearly proved to be decisive, or naval features.


There is little description or analysis of the actual experience of campaign from the soldier's point of view. If the campaign did produce improvements in American combat capacity, how did this actually happen?


Atkinson does relatively poorly in describing geography, usually a key feature in determining the character of battle.


Atkinson is generally a good writer but he occasionally veers into unfortunate purple prose.


© 2008 R. Albin, Innocents Abroad [re An Army at Dawn], Amazon (09 February 2008) (paragraph split)



Poor contextual perspective


Army at Dawn essentially begins after the First Battle of El Alamein (01-27 July 1942) and during the Second (23 October through 11 November 1942). However, Atkinson does not provide readers with perspective-enhancing details about the context and tide-turning nature of these engagements.


This oversight is like trying to strategically summarize pivotal events in late 1944, without first addressing (for example) Stalingrad, Kursk and D-Day.



A journalistic-style history at heart


Marco Antonio Abarca captured Mr. Atkinson’s non-scholarly bent with his Amazon book review entitled, Reads Like a Long USA Today Article:



How did the United States Army evolve from a green and untested force into a battle hardened and victorious army?


[T]here are several ways to tell this compelling story. One approach is to concentrate at the command level and tell the story as seen by generals and politicians. Show the readers the war as it is seen from the top. Another approach would be to focus on the men who were at the sharp end of the stick. Tell us their story using their own words. Yet another approach to this story would be to concentrate on the technology and learning curve needed to transform an army.


My problem with this book is that there is no real point of view. Atkinson weaves a story that meanders back and forth through a number of approaches to telling this story. He touches on many key subjects but does not have the time to really develop them.


A general history requires the type of wisdom that comes from many years dedicated to the study of a single topic. (Historians like Shelby Foote, Michael Howard, Dennis Showalter and Douglas Porch come to mind.)


[I]t became very clear to me that Atkinson is a gifted journalist but he is not an historian. His writing style reminded me of the numerous pithy articles that one reads in USA Today or any other mass circulation newspapers. Well written and entertaining but not that deep or especially insightful.


An Army at Dawn is a good popular history but will leave serious military history readers disappointed.


Marco Antonio Abarca, Reads Like a Long USA Today Article [re An Army at Dawn], Amazon (05 May 2003) (misspellings corrected)


A comment appended to Mr. Abarca’s critique said concisely:



Agree with this review. This book is a collection of bits and pieces but as a whole it lacks focus.


I will not call it a classic--notwithstanding the Pulitzer. Perhaps this book represents what our current civilization is all about--form not substance.


© 2008 HistoryBuff [re Reads Like a Long USA Today Article] (17 January 2008)



Even assessed from a journalistic perspective, An Army at Dawn has coherency issues


For example:



Atkinson jumps around aimlessly, often losing me in the process. In his effort to tell a grand story of Americans in battle, he winds up telling so many little stories in so many settings that I grew weary trying to keep up with it all. For example, his presentation of the fighting around Oran was so spread out and disjointed that the battle for the city became incoherent.


For those of us who take our history a bit more seriously, I recommend passing on this.


© 2008 Dubarnik, Poorly Written, Poorly Constructed [re An Army at Dawn], Amazon (20 September 2008)



Writing samples illustrate the worth and weaknesses of Atkinson’s approach


Illustrating a journalist’s power of incisive description



Watching this performance with heavily lidded eyes was General Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial Staff and among the greatest soldiers of the war. Immaculate, punctilious, utterly fluent in French, Brooke came from a family of Northern Ireland baronets known as “the fighting Brookes.” With brillantine-black hair and a face as pinched as an ax blade, he had narrow shoulders, spindly legs, and the unnerving habit—as described by an admirer—of “shooting his tongue out and round his lips with the speed of a chameleon.”


© 2002 Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Henry Holt Company, 2002) (at page 281)


This passage also, however, illustrates Atkinson’s disregard for proof. Nowhere in An Army at Dawn does he demonstrate why Brooke was “among the greatest soldiers of the war.” Indeed, General Brooke hardly surfaces after the above description of January 1943’s Casablanca leadership meeting.


Authorial self-contradiction, as well as an evidently weak grasp of military history and strategy



[President] Roosevelt had had enough. The time had come to end the protracted stalemate [over where to attack the Germans (France or North Africa)]. . . . There would be no [Operation] SLEDGEHAMMER against France. The African offensive was to occur “at the earliest possible date,” preferably within two months.


The president had made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British . . . . He had repudiated an American military tradition of annihilation, choosing to encircle the enemy and hack at his limbs rather than directly at his heart. And he had based his fiat on instinct and a political calculation that the time was ripe.


In choosing Operation TORCH . . . Roosevelt made several miscalculations. Despite [General] Marshall’s warning, he refused to believe that a diversion to North Africa in 1942 precluded a cross-Channel invasion in 1943. He failed to see that the Mediterranean strategy of encirclement precluded other strategies, or that more than a million American soldiers, and millions of tons of materiel, would be sucked into the Mediterranean in the next three years, utterly eviscerating the buildup in Britain.


Yet the president’s decision was plausible, if not precisely wise. . . . With some planners estimating that an invasion of France required at least 7,000 landing craft, and others believing the number was really triple that . . . by the fall of 1942 all the landing craft in Britain could carry only 20,000 men. Yet a U.S. War Department study had concluded that to draw significant numbers of German troops from the Russian front required at least 600,000 Allied soldiers in France.


Roosevelt had saved his countrymen from their own ardor.


© 2002 Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Henry Holt Company, 2002) (at pages 16-17) (extracts)


There are arguable errors in the above paragraphs. Not the least is the statement that President Roosevelt was incorrect, followed almost immediately by evidence that proves him right.


Indeed, Roosevelt’s alleged miscalculations in regard to the African landings are logically beside the point. As the North African campaign immediately demonstrated — even via Atkinson’s own account of it — the United States was militarily too inept to have mounted a successful French landing in 1942 or 1943. The President made the only reasonable decision that he could have at the time. His clouded crystal ball had no substantive effect on anything actually workable at the time. So why criticize his thinking, as Atkinson does?


Second, Mr. Atkinson’s assertion that Roosevelt contradicted previous American military philosophy and campaigns is questionable. From the Revolution through the Civil War and on to the First World War, American troop actions were sometimes about (a) avoiding the annihilation of US armies and corps and/or (b) striking at strategically valuable points on an adversary’s circumference.



On the other hand — Atkinson’s admirable ability to shine light on poorly known subjects



“I saw men from another outfit shoot Arabs just to watch them jump and fall,” Edward Boehm later recounted.


Such atrocities were committed by a very small percentage of American troops, but provost marshall and judge advocate files reflected a disturbing indiscipline.


[C]rimes went unavenged. On March 31, [French general] Giraud sent Eisenhower a letter citing incidents “in which U.S. and British troops have molested, assaulted and killed natives.” Several weeks later, a secret . . . memorandum reported that Giraud’s chief of staff “again called our attention to a situation which has come up repeatedly in the past month. This is the continuing cases of rape in the forward areas . . . against Arab women.”


In mid-April, drunken troops from an American engineering company reportedly terrorized Le Tarf for two days. Witness statements . . . recounted gang rapes of six Arab women . . . A fifteen-year-old and a forty-year-old widowed mother reported escaping after a chase by predatory soldiers. Several Arab men alleged being beaten with rifle butts and fists.


© 2002 Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Henry Holt Company, 2002) (at pages 462-463) (extracts)


Even here, though, there is an odd disconnect. Despite having written An Army at Dawn after 1990’s Gulf War — and in light of the long and painful Middle Eastern history that went with it — Atkinson (almost perversely) does not bother to point out that the United States’ inexcusable mistreatment of Arab and African populations is a rightfully continuing sore point with Islamic peoples, especially.


History made in 1942 continues to ferment violently. Curious that a purported historian would miss commenting on that, at least in a footnote. History is, after all, mainly about educating ourselves and others.


An example of Atkinson’s combat writing



The American force looked puny in the expanse of the Tunisian plain, and puniness against Germans in the desert usually proved fatal. . . . the enemy had fortified Faïd Pass with machine guns, mortars, and the 88mm guns whose existence [General] McQuillin had denied. . . .


“The men got a terrific raking over by the enemy as they fell back.” One commander signaled McQuillin, “Too much tank and gun fire . . . Infantry can not go on without great loss.” Fifteen panzers swung out from Faïd Pass and enfiladed the infantry with fire on the left flank until checked by countercharging American Shermans. “They shook us like we had been dragged over a plowed field,” one sergeant wrote.


About the only solace for the Allies on this Monday afternoon was the fatal wounding of General Wolfgang Fischer, whose leadership of the 10th Panzer Division had helped win the day for the Axis at Tébourba and Longstop Hill in December. Wandering into an improperly marked minefield west of Kairouan, Fischer’s staff car detonated an Italian “devil’s egg” that blew off both the general’s legs and his left arm. He called for a notebook and managed to scribble a page and a half to his wife, of which the last words were “It will soon be over.”


© 2002 Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Henry Holt Company, 2002) (at pages 310-312) (extracts)


I like that last part about General Fisher. Thinking of his wife, while himself in extremis, and making the probably painful physical and mental effort to wish her farewell.


This is an example of Atkinson’s supreme strength as a journalistic historian. He catches individualized humanity’s moments.



However, one of my peeves — probably shared by virtually no other readers — lousy footnotes


A properly footnoted history inserts numbers directly into the text, a practice which usually removes doubt as to the note’s scope of coverage. Instead, this book relegates notes to the back, where large clumps of them run together, tagged by the page (number) that they refer to.


Snippets from Atkinson's text are supposed to orient the reader as to which portion of the annotated paragraph is being supported with the citation. These sentence fragments often appear after the cited reference, a formatting style that is backwards from the way most writers more helpfully do it. In other words, we read notes left to right. Not right to left.


And in some instances, the page numbers for the footnotes are wrong, which makes retrieving citations even more difficult.


Atkinson is also “guilty” of not footnoting some interesting items. He defends this practice:



To provide an individual citation for every fact in this book would result in an extraordinarily cumbersome and pedantic ream of notes. I have instead . . . .


© 2002 Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Henry Holt Company, 2002) (at page 443)


Maybe so. But when an author has gone to trouble to dig out some little known fact, as Atkinson very frequently (and laudably) does, I think it requires a note. He is not consistent in this regard. Perhaps the mass of material (understandably) got away from him.



Additionally, Atkinson’s citation format forces readers to flip both to the front and back of the footnote section to make what is recorded within each note comprehensible.


For example:



The French possessed almost no: Truscott, Command Missions, 135; Anderson, “Operations in North West Africa,” June 7, 1943, London Gazette; Ankrum, 207, 225; Liebling, Mollie & Other War Pieces, 92 (“goats set out”); msg, Advance AFHQ to AFHQ, Feb. 3 and 4, NARA, AFHQ micro, R-100-D, 319.1 (“somewhat discouraged”).

This past week”; “Memo for diary,” Jan. 19, 1943, Chandler, 909; Three Years, 242-43 (“one of the world’s greatest”), 244-245 (“Mud is a silly alibi”), 250; DDE to J. T. McNarney, Jan. 19, 1943, Chandler, 914 (“There is no use”) . . . .

© 2002 Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 (Henry Holt Company, 2002) (at page 588, note to page 303) (paragraph split)


In interpreting AFHQ micro in the above quoted note, one has to leaf back to the beginning of the note section, where we learn that it stands for Allied Forces Headquarters microfilm, NARA RG 331. And NARA means National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.


To investigate what Ankrum and Chandler refer to, one has to leaf in the other direction (toward the back of the book to its bibliography section) where we find:



Homer Ankrum, Dogfaces Who Smiled Through Tears, Graphic Publishing, 1987


Alfred Chandler, ed. The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower: The War Years, Vols. 1,2,5, Johns Hopkins Press, 1970



The moral? — Recommended to most, but with caveats


I admire Rick Atkinson’s almost unbelievable effort at portraying History’s sweep. And I equally laud his mostly successful attempt to humanize his findings by giving readers staccato snippets of young life and abrupt death.


On the other hand, these impressionistic traits work against thoughtful cogency, strategic understanding and substantive memorability.


If one is after admirably competent journalism about times past, An Army at Dawn rates 5 stars. But if one values thoughtfully considered and written History, as well as confidence-inspiring fact sourcing, this book gets only 2 or 3 stars.


Magnificent and irritating at the same time.