I’ve never felt such an overwhelming compulsion to plagiarize. But there’s no better way to describe The Guns at Last Light — the final volume of Rick Atkinson’s epic World War II trilogy — than to steal his own summary of the Battle of the Bulge: “War is never linear, but rather a chaotic, desultory enterprise of reversal and advance, blunder and élan, despair and elation. Valor, cowardice, courage — each had been displayed in this spectacle of a marching world.”
For 14 years (and almost 2,400 pages), Atkinson has chronicled the blood, sweat and tears shed as the Allies confronted Hitler’s armies in the Mediterranean and Western Europe. And The Guns at Last Light, an account of the final 11 months of the war that began with the D-Day invasion of France, is the bloodiest, sweatiest and most tearful book yet.
That may strike some readers as unexpected and even counterintuitive. The series’ first two works, An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, covered the early days of the war in North Africa and Italy, when the British were reeling from an unbroken string of defeats at the hands of Germany and Japan, and the Americans were untested rookies learning the trade of war one blunder at a time.
The final phase of the war, in a collective American consciousness shaped increasingly by such movies as Saving Private Ryan rather than the memories of the dwindling few who were there, is thought to have been much different: a bloody day on the beach at Normandy followed by a lightning sweep into Germany as Hitler’s military imploded.
Atkinson’s book is an agonized, eloquent corrective to the record. It’s a counter-cliché narrative in which a nurse in one military field hospital surveys a ward littered with broken corpses and severed limbs and declares, “Maybe it’s a good thing their mothers can’t see them when they die,” while another ends a letter home with the forlorn question, “God, where are you?”
Most soldiers in those hospitals were probably victims of the Germans. But many weren’t. Bombs and bullets almost never hit their targets. During the massive bombing of Normandy during the hours before D-Day, 98 percent of the shells missed the assault zone completely. Allied ships lobbed 1,200 artillery rounds at a single German battery overlooking one of the beachheads and hit it only once.
Allied generals cold-bloodedly accepted the error rate and the damage it inflicted on their own men. After ordering a tight-quarters bombing raid which, he was warned, would result in 1,800 pounds of explosives hitting his own troops, Gen. Omar Bradley chillingly referred to his men as “tools” and added: “War has neither the time nor heart to concern itself with the individual and the dignity of man.”
Atkinson, happily, does. Like war-correspondent-turned-historian Cornelius Ryan, whose books on World War II peppered strategic analysis with grunt’s-eye anecdotes from the battlefield, Atkinson never loses track of the men who fought the war. Mining their diaries and letters, he has produced an account that is achingly human:
A paratrooper’s frantic prayer, as he flies to his drop zone: “Give me guts. Give me guts.” A Canadian pilot, radioing home as his shot-to-pieces bomber plunged into the Atlantic: “Order me a late tea.” A badly wounded GI lying on a stretcher next to a bleeding German prisoner, murmuring aloud: “I’d kill him if I could move.”
There are tales of appalling atrocities and tales of breathtaking heroism, and it is not always easy to tell them apart. When one of Sgt. Audie Murphy’s men was shot dead by a German pretending to surrender, Murphy — who won a Medal of Honor for his deeds that day — raged through German lines hurling grenades and firing a machine gun from his hip, slaughtering everyone in his path. With no one left to kill, he sat down and cried.
The Guns at Last Light also contains comic moments, as when the American expatriate writer Alice B. Toklas presented the American unit that liberated her town in the south of France with a fruitcake. (Atkinson is discreetly silent on whether it contained the magic ingredient of the famed Toklas brownies.) Or when surrendering German troops ran out of white flags and began, so aptly, waving chickens. Even at its grimmest, it’s a terrific read.
The book’s greatest service may be the demolition of the myth of Good War, a conflict of moral certainties and military competence. Though Atkinson never says it, his account makes World War II sound a lot more like Vietnam or Iraq than we may care to acknowledge.
Military intelligence was haunted by paranoid fears about weapons of mass destruction. Doctors were told to promptly report any mysteriously fogged X-ray film, which might suggest the Germans were using radioactive “dirty bombs.”
As the war dragged on, many soldiers grew to mistrust their officers. Gen. Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, brooded about his men’s “lack of respect (amounting to near hatred) for certain senior generals . . . lack of desire to kill Germans; lack of understanding of political necessity for fighting the war; general personal lassitude.” Some troops went to fearful lengths to escape: During its first two months in France, the First Army Group alone reported more than 500 self-inflicted gunshot wounds by men who decided that a ticket home was worth the loss of a foot.
Others took out their rage on the enemy, killing unarmed prisoners (Gen. George Patton’s diary records his worry that word of the frequent executions would leak into the press) and collecting bags of their broken teeth and severed ears. Some simply went crazy: The army alone hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons. “Sound mental health requires a satisfactory life-purpose and faith in a friendly universe,” one army chaplain noted. Says Atkinson: “On the battlefields of Europe in 1944, no such cosmology seemed likely.”
Allied generals proclaimed victories based on cockeyed body counts. (Patton simply multiplied the number of prisoners he took by 10 to come up with a figure for German dead.) And they dropped napalm on civilians with horrifying regularity, lied about it insouciantly and censored any reporter who found out. The Pentagon even hired Hollywood set designers to create mock neighborhoods in the Nevada desert to discover which bombing tricks most quickly set a city ablaze.
Even with the military practicing Draconian censorship on dispatches from the front, doubts crept into news reporting. “Perhaps more men should know the expense of war,” wrote a Life reporter, “for it is neither a fit way to live nor to die.” Atkinson has added up those expenses with meticulous and riveting accuracy.
Glenn Garvin is The Miami Herald’s television critic.