Sunday, April 29, 2012
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.