Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

America has been blessed by history and geography in ways few other nations ever have, and it’s reflected in our national psyche to a large and occasionally unhealthy extent.  Convinced of our national goodness and rightness, there’s been a lesson that we’ve had to relearn a few times in our history, namely that being virtuous isn’t in itself enough to win you any wars.  This goes back a long way; in one of my college history classes I remember reading some letters by British troops during the French and Indian War complaining of how the colonial soldiers kept running away in battle and outside of battle kept crapping in the camp.

The idea at the time of course had been that you give an American a musket and he’d be as good a fighter as anyone in the world – which is true in the sense that anyone can be made into a soldier, and false in the sense that soldiering is a skill, which needs those same 10,000 hours of practice as anything else.

In addition, there’s also a lot of mythmaking and hagiography surrounding America’s participation in World War II.  When I was a kid the Soviet Union were the bad guys, so it makes sense that no one really wanted to talk about the Eastern Front that much.  Sure, I knew that they were our allies in the war, but a student would come away from basic history lessons by thinking that the Americans and British won the war while the Soviets were doing . . . I don’t know, something or other.  Now I’m older, and I know better; the Red Army was losing men by the million while the Western Allies were still trying to get their armies together.  And it’s not that US forces weren’t valiant and brave, and didn’t win impressive victories of their own, but there’s simply a lot more to it than is generally discussed.

Atkinson’s book looks at some of the lesser explored elements of the war, namely the first days of US ground participation.  And one of the first things that strikes you about this book is how the war made the entire world go insane for a while.  Here’s a good example as to why - the first combat action of American troops in the war against Germany was an amphibious landing against French troops in North Africa.  Wait, what?  We started out fighting against our ostensible allies about as far away from Germany as you can get?  Well, remember that the Vichy rump state of defeated France was technically allied with no one and that the Germans allowed it to run the former Third Republic’s overseas territories, because that way the Germans didn’t have to.  In any event, attacking North Africa meant that the Germans either had to fight there or concede the area, and forcing the enemy to do something that they don’t necessarily want to do in a place they don’t really have any reason to be is Total War Strategy #1.  And controlling the southern Mediterranean was strategically important, so off we went.

The British, specifically Churchill, thought that this was a good plan and Roosevelt agreed to go along with it.  Some of the more gung-ho American generals were itching to land in France instead and give the Germans a good kicking right along their borders.  The British were a little more leery of the idea of returning to France right away, perhaps since they’d just had to evacuate off of it not too long before.  Although Atkinson doesn’t come right out and say that the idea of an immediate European invasion was a stupid plan and would have gotten all of our troops killed or captured, he proceeds to show in masterful detain that it was a stupid plan and would have gotten all of our troops killed or captured.

Not that the British come off looking all that wise and masterful.  Churchill was convinced that the path to victory went through Italy and the Southern Mediterranean, and if he and his generals had their way it’s entirely possible that there wouldn’t have been any cross-channel landing at all, or at least not before the Soviets got there, at which point getting them to leave might have proved difficult.  At the very least Stalin and his bunch wouldn’t have been happy about it, since they were coming as close to begging as Stalin ever came to begging for anything for a western front right from the start. 

But that is all in the future as regards this particular book.  There’s another feature about expanding a peacetime army to a wartime army, and that’s the quality of the leadership – the qualities that make a career officer when there’s no fighting to be done don’t necessarily transfer to battlefield effectiveness.  And, of course, the qualities that do transfer to battlefield effectiveness are mostly found in borderline crazy or otherwise unusual people.  Many of the generals in this campaign did not cover themselves in glory and quickly found themselves stateside, doing nothing very much from that point on.

So we have a disorganized mob here, without experience getting all their equipment where it needs to be, under the command of some guys you’ve never heard of and a couple that you have, like some guy named General Eisenhower.  But they get ashore, and they get their equipment, win a couple of battles against Vichy, and then make a deal with Admiral Darlan, the head of the Vichy forces in the area.  Eisenhower didn’t really want to make the deal, but the alternative was to keep fighting the French for no particular reason, and there you go.  Shortly thereafter Darlan got assassinated anyway, and while the assassin was executed for form’s sake it appears that no one in particular missed him, especially at Allied HQ.  Up to this point we’d been killing more of our own men through accidents and mishaps than anything else, and it’s pretty depressing.

Then the Germans showed up and ruined this perfectly lovely undertaking, as they tended to do back in those days.

For a child of the late Cold War such as myself, it’s always a little mystifying to read about a situation where Americans were ever outgunned.  But in this campaign the Allies didn’t always have air superiority, and their tanks weren’t as good as the Panzer IVs and Tigers, and their opponents had been fighting for a while and generally knew what they were about.  There’s nothing that’s quite as good a teacher as combat, and we learned quickly, but our boys were behind the curve.  It’s pretty sad.

At the end of the day the Allies won, of course, scooping up some Axis armies and shipping them across the Atlantic for the duration.  It was pretty harrowing, though.  This story of how the Allies and the US forces in particular went from naifs to the hardened badasses of the Italian and Normandy campaigns is definitely one to pick up if you have any interest in the subject at all.

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