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In the end, they knew what they were fighting against

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Three times a Pulitzer Prize-winner, American author Rick Atkinson is one of the most acclaimed military historians alive today. One could read history for a lifetime and never encounter narratives of war as incisively crafted as his.

The first two books of his Liberation Trilogy, the Pulitzer- winning The Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, immersed readers in the first major Allied invasions and land battles of the Second World War.

In Vol. 3, he takes readers into the 11-month killing field that was the battle for Western Europe. It ended only when "the destroyer of others [was] herself destroyed."

Unconditional surrender was demanded, no mercy was shown, and in many fierce fights, Atkinson writes, it took a brave German to surrender to American, Canadian or British soldiers. The lives of Allied servicemen were stained, but not befouled.

The Second World War (1939-1945) has been minutely examined by historians, and Atkinson offers little new to alter the basic narrative. He does not pay tribute to power, worship generals or suffer fools lightly, of which there were many.

A significant part of his text focuses on the strategic and tactical conflicts between the Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, and Britain's Field-Marshall Bernard (Monty) Montgomery and the arrogance, the mistakes and the blunders that lengthened the war, causing unnecessary deaths.

Those who are interested in descriptions of strategy, tactics and the movement of mass armies will be more than satisfied with Atkinson's details.

Although his focus is on the American army's thrust through France and into Germany, the wartime experiences and sufferings of Canadian and British forces were not different, and Atkinson pays deserved homage to Canadian forces.

In The Day of Battle he recognized Canada's efforts when they engaged "the best German soldiers in Italy" in battle for the seaside town of Ortona (1943), also known as the "Italian Stalingrad." And in this volume, Atkinson praises Canada's significant contributions on D-Day, the battle for Normandy and the two-month bloody fight to take the West Scheldt Estuary and open the great port of Antwerp to Allied shipping.

However, what is special about Atkinson is that he offers readers a uniquely personal perspective on the modern American military.

Now 60, he is a Vietnam generation historian whose award-winning articles on the American army in Vietnam and post-Vietnam era contributed to his first Pulitzer. As well, he was embedded with American forces, for the Washington Post in 2003 and 2007, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arguably, Atkinson's writing has more in common with writers of William Shirer and Cornelius Ryan's generation than with modern academic writers like Max Hastings and Ian Kershaw.

All of Atkinson's books are infused with a personal understanding of war from the perspectives of front-line officers and ordinary soldiers. His commitment is to the men who fought on the battlefield, and his strength lies in his vivid accounts of their shared experiences, suffering and heroism.

American war correspondents, particularly Ernie Pyle, have a special place in Atkinson's heart. Pyle's moving series of columns on the American D-Day landing at Omaha Beach are quoted at length.

"It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore," Atkinson writes. "Men were sleeping in the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead."

Atkinson's American soldiers are the iconic "dog faces" of the war, typical of those captured by Bill Maudlin in his wartime cartoons for Stars and Stripes magazine.

They were bloodied from countless actions, dirty, wet and cold because winter clothing was not issued; they were afflicted with trench foot, tired and hungry.

They were the underdogs but they were the guys who won the war. They died by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands but, as Atkinson poignantly writes, we must remember they died one by one.

Few veterans talk about the war's psychological impact but, as Atkinson writes, hundreds of thousands of combat infantry men suffered from combat fatigue, called "shell shock" in the First World War and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the modern military.

Officers and doctors knew that GIs needed to be rotated out of combat after six months but most were not because there were no replacements.

After convalescing in hospital, 90 per cent were returned to active duty, but many were ruined as soldiers.

The stories of the Second World War are quickly fading from living memory and into the vapours of history. Many of the men Atkinson writes about may not have known exactly what they were fighting for. But in the end, he tells us, they had a sense of what they were fighting against.

Winnipeg writer and historian Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J10

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