Review by Admiral Stavridis: The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2013)

 

On the 6th of June, 1944, over 12,000 men died in the invasion of Europe that is the opening set-piece of Rick Atkinson’s superb story of the eleven months that concluded the war in Western Europe from 1944-1945.

To put that single-day’s butcher’s bill in perspective, consider that it is nearly twice the number of US killed in action in both Iraq and Afghanistan over a ten year period.  War is certainly hell today as well, but the quantities of casualties in the Second World War had a quality all their own, to paraphrase Lenin.

Atkinson is a gifted writer and this book reflects an enormous level of research (650 detailed notes, dozens of pages of sources, 29 clear maps) that manages to read like a novel – a big, brawny, rollicking burlesque of a novel.  Incident after anecdote after clever one-liners delivered deadpan just keep rolling out in a stream of consciousness of a story, sailing relentlessly at the reader like the invasion wave at Normandy.

The stories of the liberation of Paris – from the reappearance of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their dog Basket to the streetwalkers and the prophylactic dispensaries sprouting across Paris – are worth the price of the book alone.  “Our soldiers were devastated by aphrodisiac dreams,” said one officer.  O, as Atkinson describes it, “Paris soldiered on, or perhaps sashayed.”

Characters appear, strut their hour on the stage, and generally disappear.  Those who remain – the central cast – are drawn in sharp bas-relief that illuminates their flaws and virtues.

One of my favorites was Brigadier General Ted Roosevelt, son of the turn-of-the-last century President and his namesake.  Despite a heart condition and a bad limp (the result of a WWI wound) he insisted on going ashore with his division at D-Day, saying “[The troops] will figure that if a general is with them, it can’t be that rough.”  He survived the landing, but died shortly afterward of a heart attack he had to know was coming.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Utah Beach.

Or take Eisenhower, for example.  He quoted Napoleon saying that a military genius is “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.”  There was indeed something seemingly average about Eisenhower, a kind of disarming charm which he used to his advantage in building teams.  And some of his subordinates would easily have made him crazy if he’d allowed them too.  The irascible British General Bernard Montgomery once said of Ike that “When it comes to war, Ike doesn’t know the difference between Christmas and Easter.”   Patton was famously difficult.  De Gaulle could make a grown man weep at his ego and intransigence.  Yet Ike held them all together and kept driving them relentlessly toward Berlin and the heart of the Nazi beast.

Coalition warfare, of course, is one key theme of The Guns At Last Light that echoes so clearly today.  In Afghanistan, a fifty troop contributing coalition – far larger than WWII in terms of numbers of nations — has had as many as 150,000 troops on the ground in a complex counter-insurgency for a decade.

After spending the last four years working coalition issues from the sublime to the ridiculous, I can attest personally to the challenges Eisenhower (who after the War became NATO’s first and greatest Supreme Allied Commander) faced.  What Ike did so brilliantly was submerge his ego, lean on the talents of subordinates, calm the politicians, and steadily advance toward his goal.  I doubt any commander has come close, before or since, to that level of coalition mastery.

The other theme that echoes across the decades since the events described in Atkinson’s re-telling of this story is the epic human cost.  We will never really know the numbers of Europeans killed in the conflict, but certainly it is in the high tens of millions, including millions of murdered Jews and 26 million dead Russian citizens, only a third of whom were soldiers.  The US alone lost 140,000 killed in action and over 350,000 wounded in just the eleven months described in The Guns at Last Light.

And so many of the US dead remain in Europe today in the beautifully maintained American Battlefield Commission cemeteries; one hopes they sleep peacefully there.  One American daughter wrote of her reaction after seeing the grave of her father, an Army major who was killed in Normandy and buried at Colleville, above Omaha Beach, when she was one year old:  “I cried for the joy of being there and the sadness of my father’s death.  I cried for all the times I needed a father and never had one.  I cried for all the words I had wanted to say and wanted to hear but had not.  I cried and cried.”

Yet for all the tragedy and death, the spirit of Atkinson’s book is in the end decidedly uplifting.  First and most obviously, the ultimate success of the coalition over Nazi atrocity is evident and real.  It serves as an example of Churchill’s old saw that “the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.”  We will continue to use a coalition approach in the vast majority of our operations in this turbulent 21st century.

But where the book really soars is describing the allied soldiers.  As he did so well in the first two volumes of this trilogy (An Army at Dawn, and The Day of Battle), Atkinson again and again finds the very human moments that give rise to the mantle – an earned one – of the “Greatest Generation.”

These were momentous times, when brave young men and women stood and delivered under horrific circumstances.  Their heroism shines through the decades since their “crowded hour”, and is brightly reflected forward to the young men and women of today’s armed forces as well.  Atkinson captures that spirit perfectly, and for that reason alone the book deserves a place on the shelf of any serious student of battle, along with the first two volumes.

As a Navy man, I must say that I hope he will next bring his talented pen to the maritime campaigns of the Pacific theater in the Second World War!

 

Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret) served as the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009-2013.  As of mid-summer he will become the Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Chair of the Board at the U.S. Naval Institute.