The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

It was not my intention to inaugurate my return with a book review on World War II.  However, it happened to be the first book I finished among the four I am currently juggling and I could not wait any longer to get back to writing.

There are two aspects of World War II I find particularly fascinating.  The first is how so much continues to be written about it.   Atkinson's book is the second in a dense trilogy he has composed over the last ten years.  Is there new material coming to light that was not known before?  Atkinson makes good use of many of the U.S. commanders' personal diaries.  However, I do not believe that these diaries were not available or referenced before.

Instead, the main reason is because there continues to be a large audience of readers interested in this subject.  World War II remains one of the greatest representations of U.S. supremacy and it therefore appeals to a broad readership who find great satisfaction and pride in its outcome.

I brought this argument up to a friend of mine who studies U.S. history.  What he described to me about the U.S. historical narrative proved very interesting.  Roughly speaking, the historical academics divide into two camps.  One is based on a cohesive, all-encompassing narrative that justifiably  declares all groups in society have a right to have "their" history shared.  These include includes the more marginalized in American history including women, Native Americans, and immigrants.  The historian, Howard Zinn, comes to mind as the flag bearer for this camp.

The second camp holds the belief of a history based on victory and success.  How can a country establish hegemony if it reflects too much on its occasional failures?  It is better to glorify its greatness in continual forms of declaration than wallow over a few mistakes made throughout its past.  A solidly constructed history based on achievement will withstand the tests of time.  

The second aspect of World War II I find intriguing is the role geography played throughout its course.  I am particularly drawn to Italian topography.  It is hard to not be fascinated by the battle of Cassino when you have looked up at its daunting rock face where the famous monastery sits.  The battles waged in the difficult Italian Apennines mountains, including Cassino, receive particular attention in this book.  Too many lives were lost in a terrain strikingly different than the softer images of the Italian land that generally would come to mind.

Another conclusion drawn from what is a thoroughly well-written and researched text, is the role logistics and military scale played in shifting the war in favor of the allies.  Other popular works such as Band of Brothers, often describe the more exciting and heroic individual battles fought by the infantry.  Their prominence makes it easy to forget how war may even be more about boring, efficient supply chains than anything else.  As Atkinson describes, the level of production of munitions, trucks, and airplanes by the U.S. come 1944 began to greatly surpass the German manufacturing machine.

The decision to invade Italy still remains a controversial one.  The Allied losses were significant in its campaigns to push up from Sicily to Rome.  And they did so based on a strategy whose foundation was set on the idea that any attack in Italy would shift German troops and resources away from France thus making the invasion at Normandy a less challenging feet.   A dear price to pay.


Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

New, Unpublished Material!  Back in 2010 I hit the wall, losing the ability to write new book reviews.  Then family matters took a big portion of my time - and still do.  However, the desire to write has returned and am I am happy to start things off by publishing this incomplete post I started to write two years ago but never finished.  I hope you enjoy it.  It is good to be back.

Subtitle: The History of the CIA

It was the right time in my life to read a book about the history of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The impression I had conjured up of the agency was still strongly based on the wild fascinations of my youth - one part Mission Impossible, one part gifted linguists, a touch of the Berlin Wall and deep KGB penetration as the garnish. Not the definition to carry me into this new decade at hand especially considering how this ongoing belief somehow prevented me from developing an updated opinion that took into account the blunders and deficiencies of the organization I was coming across in both history texts and current journalism. 

It is not my intention to base my opinions of the CIA on one book. There are always two sides to the story. However, it is fair to say that The Legacy of Ashes gives a solid starting point to begin the formation of one's opinion. It is a book whose every statement can be supported by documentation. The Notes section alone is 172 pages long. It is not a page turner packed with gripping stories of espionage. It is actually rather dry and the author, a NY Times journalist with years of experience covering the CIA, makes no intention for it to be anything but. It is an important piece of American history needing to be written in order to raise the curtains and open the windows of a shadowy organization. It does not bode well for the reputation of the CIA.

The CIA was born out of the intelligence arm of the military, the OSS, used during World War II. After the war's end, Harry Truman turned to them to provide information regarding the intentions of the Soviet Union. It was meant to provide almost newspaper-like details to foreign affairs which the president could refer to when needing to make decisions on foreign policy. Along the way it morphed into an entity consuming vast amounts of resources to promote democracy over the contaminating communist forms of government which were developing throughout the world. Instead of infiltrating the the communist parties in places like Greece, Italy, small Latin American countries and later Indonesia and Vietnam with agents capable of providing valuable intelligence, they used other, simpler and less-effective tactics. It was surprising to see how the majority of their efforts were concentrated on the financing of radio stations, newspapers, and democratic parties who they deemed capable of promoting democracy. Though this "push" form of marketing democracy may have promoted itself as superior to communism, it did little in providing intelligence.

The book continually sites examples where the CIA, with its thousands of agents scattered throughout the globe, time after time failed to foresee significant events that would happen in the specific countries they were suppose to be monitoring. Often these small, satellite countries with upcoming communist leaders such as Honduras or Vietnam received a disproportional amount of attention, and none the less saw events occur that the CIA was unprepared for.  On the other hand, the one country which required the most precise intelligence, the Soviet Union, proved to be a place they knew so little about. Their information was consistently inaccurate.

"The CIA would come in and paint the most scary picture possible about what the Soviets would do to us. They had charts on the wall, they had figures, and their conclusion was that in 10 years, the United States would be behind the Soviet Union in military capability, in economic growth. It was a scary presentation. The facts are they were 180 degress wrong. These were the best people we had, the CIA's so called experts," said former President Gerald Ford who sat on the secret budget committee for CIA funding in the 1960's.


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