Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

An odd sensation grips this reader as he negotiates Zakaria’s 2008 cheerfully globalist 51rKArW6ZKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_work (an updated edition appeared in 2012) in the Era of Trump amid the Rise of the New Nationalisms. As a sympathizer with Zakaria’s internationalism, I acknowledge that the sureties he dispenses are now all contested. Or, perhaps, shouted down. We are the worse for it.

Everybody’s rising. Or almost everybody.

This is the opening shot of Zakaria’s Post-American World, for he argues in his first chapter (‘The Rise of the West’) that modern history has seen three great risings: that of the Western World, that of America, and—under our feet—the rise of the rest. Zakaria’s globalist outlook is evident from the start:

Power is shifting away from nation-states, up, down, and sideways. In such an atmosphere, the traditional applications of national power, both economic and military, have become less effective … At the politico-military level, we remain in a single-super-power world. But in every other dimension—industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving way from American dominance. That does not mean were are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.

If this sounds threatening to, say, American readers, well, that’s the problem!, Zakaria might say. We have won the battle of ideas and structures, but we cower like losers.

In the book’s second chapter (‘The Cup Runneth Over’), Zakaria argues—as the title suggests—that things are not as bad as they seem. This may sound a rather trite and even pollyannish claim to make in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. But that is exactly the author’s point: this counter-intuitive affirmation sounds absurd, yet the data back it up. Not only does the global economy power, seemingly immune to the shocks of war and terror, but ‘(i)t feels like a very dangerous world. But it isn’t. Your chances of dying as a consequence of organized violence of any kind are low and getting lower. The data reveal a broad trend away from wars among major countries, the kind of conflict that produces massive casualties.’

Now I write this review in 2017, nearly a decade after the book’s publication. It would be interesting to ask Fakaria whether his view has remained this sunny. Probably, it has. Probably, he would still cite the data against our more common and fearful intuition.

For Zakaria, even the threat of what we are once again calling ‘Islamic radicalism’ is a doomed and ultimately impotent one and that ’in some unspoken way, people have recognized that the best counterterrorism policy is resilience. Terrorism is unusual in that it is a military tactic defined by the response of the onlooker. If we are not terrorized, then it doesn’t work.’ Zakaria appears to suggest that a broader view of what is actually happening would lead precisely to the result that we would not be terrorized by violence that is unlikely to affect us directly.

In fact, ‘the Great Expansion’ has rolled along in a way that trumps what we used to call—at least in 2008 it seemed a matter for the past tense—political risk. ‘The expansion of the pie was so big that it overwhelmed day-to-day dislocations.’

How to explain all these cheerful developments? As a card-carrying globalist, Zakaria cedes pride of place to the free flow of capital. As free-market economists everywhere agree almost to the point of unspoken assumption—though the dynamics that make ‘socialism’ a desideratum and Bernie Sanders a credible presidential candidate may make us find our tongue once again—a million small decisions lead to much more rational asset allocation than any central government can hope to provide. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this seemed a Big Idea that had done the battle of ideas and hardly needed servicing by lips and pens.

Yet there is a fly in this soup and it’s kicking its legs. American diners peer into their bowls, consternated and a bit wounded. Nationalism is on the rise and Americans are dumbfounded by the perceived challenge to their hegemony. At this point in The Post-American World, Zakaria’s prescription for American health begins to become legible. It looks something like this: Americans need to take comfort from the triumph of Western/liberal ideas and the growth of the global economic pie, even if this means their nation no longer looms disproportionately over the whole mix.

For the United States, the arrow is pointing towards (a lesser dominance over the global scene). Economics is not a zero-sum game—the rise of other players expands the pie, which is good for all—but geopolitics is a struggle for influence and control. As other countries become more active, America’s enormous space for action will eventually diminish. Can the United States accommodate itself to the rise of other powers, of various political stripes, on several continents? This does not mean becoming resigned to chaos or aggression; far from it. But the only way for the United States to deter rogue actions will be to create a broad, durable coalition against them. And that will be possible only if Washington can show that it is willing to allow other countries to become stakeholders in the new order. In today’s international order, progress means compromise. No country will get its way entirely.

Now Zakaria touches upon a point that the 2016 presidential election and the emergence of the Trump presidency has thrown into sharp relief:

Americans rarely benchmark to global standards because they are sure that their way must be the best and most advanced. The result is that they are increasingly suspicious of this emerging global era. There is a growing gap between America’s worldly business elite and cosmopolitan class, on the one hand, and the majority of the American people, on the other. Without real efforts to bridge it, this divide could destroy America’s competitive edge and its political future.

That ‘growing gap’ may abbreviate nicely the recent results in this country’s Electoral College. And it requires a different kind of comment than Zakaria can bring, one that takes into account the emptiness in ten thousand villages, towns, and cities that is left by unrestrained globalism, no matter how many theoretical boats a rising tide lifts.

In an artful display of data-crunching and story-telling, Zakaria’s third chapter (‘A Non-Western World?) traces the nearly half-millennium of Western dominance in a world whose other potential ‘poles’ turned inward while ‘the West’ hungrily processed inputs and ideas from wherever they came. Zakaria show himself not be among the economic determinists, for his argument hinges on the layer upon layer of decisions that either add up to a dynamic culture or to its opposite.

One of the chapter’s subtitles hangs the question ‘Is Culture Destiny?’ over a section that itself begins by querying ‘Why did non-Western countries stand still while the West moved forward?’ The latter question is not well answered by a simple ‘yes’, that is, by the affirmation that culture is destiny. How would that question fare in the face of China’s and India’s recent and relatively sudden rise to behemoth status. Zakaria places a well-timed reference to another thinker against this series of questions:

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America’s leading scholar-senator, once said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” That gets it just about right. Culture is important, terribly important. But it can change. Cultures are complex. At any given moment, certain attributes are prominent and seem immutable. And then politics and economics shift, and those attributes wane in importance, making space for others.

The reader gathers that American culture, in Zakaria’s view, needs to be ‘saved from itself’ as it flirts with repeating the error of highly capable ancient medieval China in turning in on itself rather than looking outward for truths, ideas, and resources that would complement its native genius.

But this is to race ahead of the author’s carefully assembled argument. First, he wants to show that the the path that would take the non-West towards and into modernization was a path paved by Western ideas and processes that were disseminated via the virtues and sins of colonialism:

Postcolonial leaders tried to free themselves from the West politically but still wanted the Western path to modernity … Even today, when people in Asia or Africa criticize the West, they are often using arguments that were developed in London, Paris, or New York … They all believed in the glory of their own cultures. But they also believed that at that moment in history, in order to succeed economically, politically, and militarily, they had to borrow from the West.

Becoming a modern society is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities that make a society Western, in contrast, are special: the classical legacy, Christianity, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society. “Western civilization,” Huntington writes, “is precious not because it is universal but because it is unique.

So the future according to Zakaria is likely to be both Western and modern. It may just be possible that the future will distinguish rather severely between the two, but the distinction will be a blurred and messy one nonetheless. With this conceptual prologue in place, Zakaria turns next to address the prospects of ‘the two most important rising powers’: China and India.

The author reminds us in his fourth chapter (‘The Challenger’) that American love big, and nobody delivers up big quite like Rising China, a behemoth that—like the USA—is negotiating its way through the challenges of globalization and nationalism. Central planning is not supposed to work, yet at the time of Fakaria’s writing it seemed indisputable that China’s rejection of the Western consensus of liberalizing all spheres of civilization at once was actually producing results; specifically, economic liberalization carried out under the strong hand of the Chinese Communist Party was buying time for progress to be made and acknowledged before facing down the inevitable calls for political liberalization as well. Yet Fakaria points out the symptoms of insecurity among China’s rulers (for example, repression of the Falun Gong) that suggest fear that the Party might not be able to hold the whole, gargantuan thing together.

Can a nation like China pull of its rise without, for example, God? That is, without one of the key components of Western evolution towards demonstrable progress and global predominance? This is one way of asking the Cultural Question. Fakaria suggests that China will in fact do so, thus—and almost in passing—refuting the idea that culture, and specifically the elements that have been foundational to Western culture, are prerequisites for progress towards modernization. China will find ‘its own way’, without the necessary orientation of any of the Abrahamic creeds.

This chapter is rich with somewhat oblique counsel for American leaders, who will be wise to accommodate and even encourage China’s rise according to patterns and rhythms that are respectful and responsible to other players on the world stage. By this approach, the United States will make its own accommodation to a diminished global role but in a way that nourishes an ordered globalization that is to be desired by all participants. Yet Zakaria wonders whether America’s leaders know how to engage this sort of unconventional challenge. Especially when they need simultaneously to be thinking about the other rising superpower-in-the-making: India.

If America must find a way to accommodate a rising challenger in China, it will also need to think creatively about India, its rising ally (Chapter 5, ‘The Ally’). But Fakaria would not mislead the reader to imagine that India will be the next China. Emphatically, it is not. In fact, India’s rise—astonishing in its own ways—might be hidden to the eyes of Western visitors who will have their own inevitable encounter with levels of grime and poverty that one might avoid in China.

India’s ace in the hole is its astounding human capital.  India shares with the USA one key quality: ‘In both places, society has asserted its dominance over the state. Will that formula prove as successful in India as it has in America? Can society fill in for the state?’ Zakaria displays a striking similarity to another erudite observer, Niall Ferguson, in his willingness to find some enduring good in the colonial legacy of a nation like India. In some ways, the Indian inheritance and adaptation of British colonial institutions may contribute to the messy stability of Indian democracy in a way that—ironically—values India ahead of China in the ‘predictable stability’ tables.

Much remains to be seen. But Fakaria has at least a bullish possible scenario to offer as India finds its way forward in a post-American world. India’s ‘central paradox’ is that …

… (i)ts society is open, eager, and confident, ready to take on the world. But its state—its ruling class—is hesitant, cautious and suspicious of the changing realties around it. Nowhere is this tension more obvious than in the realm of foreign policy, the increasingly large and important task of determining how India should fit into the new world.

I find Zakaria at his strongest in this book when he explains how this most pro-American country found its way through the official anti-Americanism of Nehru and the Non-Aligned Movement to the innate and perhaps surprising observation that ‘Indians understand America. It is a no icy, open society with a chaotic democratic system, like theirs. Its capitalism looks distinctly like America’s free-for-all. Many urban Indians are familiar with America, speak its language, and actually know someone who lives there, possibly even a relative.’

India is in some ways a mystery, yet an oddly congenial one from an American point of view. Congenial, at least, if America’s leaders will recognize that the ingredients of a ‘special relationship’ are present in the paradoxical similar of these two allied nations.

A sixth chapter (‘American Power’) surveys the decline of the British Empire, after its notably long run. Of this essay, Fakaria states that ‘the fundamental point is that Britain was undone as a great global power not because of bad politics but because of bad economics.’ One wonders where Fakaria is going with what appears to be an ominous analogy to America’s imperial experience. Yet the author surprises us by noting first a glaring disconnection between British and American experience:

First … it is essential to note that the central feature of Britain’s decline—irreversible economic deterioration—does not really apply to the United States today. Britain’s unrivaled economic status last for a few decades; America’s unrivaled economic status lasted for a few decades; America’s has lasted for more than 130 years.

Surprisingly in the light of the foreboding sound of the book’s title, Zakaria finds in America’s economic dynamism, excellent universities, patterns of immigration, and entrepreneurial ambition a recipe for continues surprise. Yet each of these could easily be squandered by accumulated bad political decisions:

As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. An antiquated and overly rigid political system to begin with—about 225 years old—has been captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia—politics as theater—and very little substance, compromise, and action. A “condo” country is now saddled with a “do-nothing” political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.

And if this was true in 2007 … One shudders.

The real test for the United States—a very different situation than the one faced by Britain as its empire declined—‘is political—and it rests not just with America at large but with Washington in particular. Can Washington adjust and adapt to a world in which others have moved up … Can it thrive in a world it cannot dominate?’

Echoes of ‘America First!’ do not encourage this reader-reviewer in this Political Madhouse called 2017.

In one sense, the first six chapters of The Post-American World are merely Zakaria’s prelude to the book’s seventh and final chapter, titled ‘American Purpose’. If the informative mode of the first six chapters was healthily interpenetrated with not-so-veiled exhortations to America to change course, the tone becomes almost imperative in this final essay.

For Zakaria, America has been dealt a very fine hand of cards, particularly since the Allied victory and the United States’ emergence as world-maker in the post-war period. Yet these cards have been badly played, with the result that America is now an ‘enfeebled superpower’ and not in the best position for tackling the challenges where American ideas have won the day and led to the emergence of powers that the U.S. is able to view only as competitors.

Like evolutionary adaptations that outlive their usefulness, the American privilege of presiding over a unipolar world has badly served her. She has forgotten how to operate in a world that is less and less unipolar with every passing week.

Here is a glimpse of what American power looked like in a prior moment:

All these exertions served our interests, of course. They produced a pro-American world that was rich and secure. They lad the foundations for a booming global economy in which others could participate and in which America thrived. But it was an enlightened self-interest that took into account the interest of others. Above all, it reassured countries—through word and deed, style and substance—that America’s mammoth power was not to be feared.

Yet Fakaria believes that there is still (a little) time for this nation to re-engage with the world along lines that were familiar in a better diplomatic day:

This new role is quite different from the traditional superpower role. It involves consultation, cooperation, and even compromise. It derives it s power by setting the agenda, defining the issues, and mobilizing coalitions. It is not a top-down hierarchy in which the United States makes its decisions and then informs a grateful (or silent) world. But it is a crucial role because, in a world with many players, setting the agenda and organizing coalitions become primary forms of power. The chair of the board who can gently guide a group of independent directors is still a very powerful person.

Reasonable as these words are per se, they are painfully absurd when read against the rubble of expectations and disappointments handed to us by the 2016 presidential election campaign, its results, and the first six months of Donald Trump’s administration.

‘America First!’, particularly when pronounced with the snarl that too often accompanies it, is a universe apart from the kind of global leadership that Zakaria sketches out here. He goes so far as to prescribe six ‘simple guidelines’ that might serve a powerful America as operating principles in a multipolar world. They are:

  1. Choose.
  2. Build broad rules, not narrow interests.
  3. Be Bismarck not Britain.
  4. Order a la carte.
  5. Think assymetrically.
  6. Legitimacy is power.

This might sound a particularly Obama-esque menu of principles. For some, any such association will already be discrediting, particularly in the light of Obama’s wavering and hesitation when faced with circumstances that might have called for the deployment of hard power.

Yet one can imagine Fakaria’s ‘simple guidelines’ proving highly useful to an American president whose hand did not tremble at the prospect. The trouble is that the nation’s current president and present mood are not likely to produce anything like careful consideration of Fakaria’s strong prescription. A pity, for sure. A tragedy, perhaps.

Fakaria follows up his half-dozen principles with a pungent warning: ‘Before it can implement any of these specific strategies, however, the United States must make a much broader adjustment. It needs to stop cowering in fear.’ (emphasis added)

It is an odd exercise to review a book with a decade under its belt, particularly when an updated edition is available. This reader has done so largely as an exercise in seeing how far debate and discussion have shifted in the course of that turbulent decade. I do not find the results encouraging and the exercise has been, at points, excruciating.

In my judgement, our multi-polar world needs strong American leadership. Fakaria would agree with this. Perhaps our sad experiment with tribal division and  our over-reaction against the foreign-policy dithering of the Obama era will produce results so suddenly bad that we will pull ourselves away from the abyss and re-engage seriously with a world that no longer asks our permission to change; yet has not for that reason turned against us.

The evidence seems not to encourage hope in this regard. Yet Americans are good at this one thing, lurching towards the abyss and then pulling ourselves back from it. Perhaps we will do so again.

If so, even this ten-year-old work by a perceptive commentator, himself a grateful immigrant to the American experiment, might prove useful, once dusted off and consulted with a certain serenity.

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I never blog about stuff like this.

But the reports and video coming out regarding a passenger’s forceful removal from an aircraft at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport yesterday have me incensed.

Let me clarify my modest credentials for expressing my opinion: I am a Million Miler on United Airlines. My butt has been in a United Airlines seat more often than I care to remember. Sadly the incident that’s hitting the news today is the logical conclusion of the contempt for its passengers that United displays far too often. Many of us fly this airline only because we must.

I was safe at home in Indianapolis yesterday. But I feel like I’ve been on that plane in Chicago, minus the dragging of a passenger down the aisle, the bloody face, and most of the screaming.

With some regularity, United flight attendants, gate agents, and pilots show extraordinary human kindness and patience, often in the face of stunningly belligerent passengers. The ones who do know who they are and they are likely almost as embarrassed and upset about this incident as the passengers on that plane at O’Hare who were forced to live through what happened.

According to news reports, United needed to get four employees from Chicago to Louisville and could persuade no paid customers to defer their travel for a day in exchange for $800 in highly conditioned and caveated United travel vouchers (I’ve got enough of them to know) and a hotel voucher. I’m not surprised.

In regular life, this is a company problem, not a customer problem. United, true to form, chose not to find a way to solve its problem by itself (offer the passengers $2000 if that’s what it takes; get their employees to Louisville by another way, just as the four passengers who were forced to abandon the aircraft would need to find another way; good grief you can drive to Louisville).

Take some responsibility, United. And, please, turn off the ‘friendly skies’ music until you do. Is that too much to ask?

A lot went wrong here. An awful lot. Clearly, United could not have anticipated the behavior of the security officers charged with removing (forcibly if necessary) four ordinary passengers whose day went badly south in an instant.

I hope Mr. Muñoz, by all accounts a decisive and highly relational CEO, is on this. I hope he’s doing nothing else for the next week but fixing this problem and then getting in front of a camera to explain that this will never happen again at United Airlines.

Meanwhile, United Airlines, be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

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One wonders how the course of an epic war takes shape in the remembering mind. It is so easy to move to Normandy and the push across Europe towards Berlin. Yet Normandy and the reconquest of Europe came late in the war and were impossible without the unsung precursors. Like the invasion of Sicily and the hard slog up the Italian boot at a time when it was still possible to underestimate the enemy and, later, convenient to forget places like Anzio and Montecassino.

51kz5col-nl-_sx313_bo1204203200_In The Day of Battle, as elsewhere, Atkinson’s writing is not only fueled by the very best research. It also goes down smoothly as such a tale can.

The struggle that had begun in September 1939 was more than half over; yet if both commanders and commanded intuited that they were nearer the end than the beginning, they also sensed that less than half the butcher’s bill had been paid in a bloodletting that ultimately would claim sixty million lives: one life every three seconds for six years. They also knew that if the Allied powers—led by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union—now possessed the strategic initiative, the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan still held the real estate, including six thousand miles of European coastline and the entire western littoral of Asia.

Atkinson exegetes the butcher’s bill as few other military historians can.

In the little Pennsylvania town where this reviewer grew up, twenty-two names adorn the WWII memorial in the main cemetery. Two of these fell in Italy. Curiously, both were women: Carrie Sheetz, a nurse whose station was bombed by a rogue German fighter trying to escape pursuing allied planes at Anzio; and and a certain Josephine Strohecker, who perished in Naples.

Atkinson provides a context for understanding such unsought sacrifice on the part of so many citizen soldiers.

This second entry to the Liberation Trilogy is a gift to those who remember the unsung fallen.

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I had often heard of ‘Ernie Pyle’ from people who had been around to read his newspaper columns during ‘The War’ and—more often—from those whose parents had done so. But it was not until a solemn stroll through Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific brought me unexpectedly upon Pyle’s gravesite that he became a real human being to me. Ironically, for me he was humanized in his death. It is a sentiment that Pyle might have been expected to appreciate, for he humanized the American fighting man and woman precisely in their deepest extremis.51stormosil-_sx312_bo1204203200_

I immediately ordered this remarkable collection of Pyle’s columns, filed from a very mobile front as it made its way across Europe and towards Berlin.

It took a bit of time for Pyle’s writing to grow on me. His vocabulary, his pacing come—after all—from a different generation’s English. But grow on me it did.

By all accounts a complex man and by some accounts a troubled one, Pyle shines no light in these dispatches on himself. His singular focus is on the American GI and sailor. The title of this compilation might suggest a romantic touch. Yet romance is not what Pyle brought to war, and certainly not to his supremely empathetic picture of the American warrior in an epic conflict that not one of them had invited to interrupt his life.

I am tempted to say that every American school child should be required to read this book.

But that will never happen, and is hardly worth the words.

The good news is that some of us, more often than not those who have slowly grown to appreciate the citizen soldier with all his warts, will pick up and read this extraordinary collection of journalistic snapshots. Some of us will pause quietly at the end of one or more of the book’s 35 chapters. To wonder, perhaps, how we would have performed under similar duress. To honor those who endured. To grieve those who did not.

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From this reviewer’s, anything with the late David Halberstam’s name on it is ipso facto a worthy read. This aching recounting of a war no one saw coming and nearly everybody forgot is no exception.

51zmq1uhxsl-_ac_us436_ql65_In his introduction to The Coldest Winter, the author alludes to the ‘colossal gaffe’ of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s omission of South Korea when drawing America’s Asian defense perimeter. Sadly, the Korean Conflict was to offer a strong roster of competitors for ‘greatest colossal gaffe’ status. Per Halberstam’s statistics, the chaotic war without the title would claim 33,000 American lives alongside of 415,000 South Koreans and perhaps a million and a half Chinese and North Koreans.

Of the titans who come off badly, flailingly, blindly, Douglas MacArthur holds pride of place in Halberstam’s telling. The Coldest Winter complements other histories of the conflict by shining a light on an enduring tragedy: the intelligence to understand what the Chinese were willing to sacrifice for control of the peninsula was there to see. Military leaders on what would become a frigid field of battle saw it, often, but could not convince their leadership—particularly egotistic, far-away MacArthur—that it was there, right in front of them.

Halberstam is also merciless with the China hands who in his telling held on far too long to vain hopes that Chiang Kai-Shek was something other than a spent force and that an enduring Communist rule over the mainland China was a fact on the ground that would not be bombed or wished out of existence.

This decidedly non-specialist reviewer found Halberstam’s narrative of ‘the early Kim’ fascinating in light of contemporary developments in North Korea’s ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

A cold winter unfailingly causes an ache in the bones. Perhaps none so deep and enduring as the ache David Halberstam recovers for our consideration and our memory in his masterful The Coldest Winter.

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As the son of a Northwoods mother, I was drawn to this book as one part of my family’s reengagement with this marvelous corner of America.61vdhu3rnnl

James Brakken serves up a delightful tale of the villains and the honest men and women who logged the region in the 1880s, sadly virtually leveling it in the process. It was (and is) a cold place where big hearts and stout arms were necessary to survival. Loggers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, churchmen, hunters and fishermen of both Scandinavian descent and Ojibwe ethnicity collaborated (or failed to) in circumstances where the careless felling of a pine or a particularly bad snow could turn matters to life-and-death-in the blink of an eye.

The Treasure of Namakagon has the feel, in this reader’s hand, of a labor of love. Simply and appreciatively told. Spare and honest, like a reliable Northwoodsman.

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If from our increasingly remote distance, anything about the Allied victory in World War II looks inevitable, read Rick Atkinson’s compelling history of the 1942-43 North Africa Campaign and be disabused of that fiction.518XZOezryL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In prose that easily absorbs the non-specialist reader (as this reviewer is), Atkinson shows what a paltry and untested force America was able to field alongside of a decidedly unsung British deployment in what became what must have seemed like it would never be: a defeat of a strong German force within convenient range of the German homeland.

Before this could happen, the green American forces needed to lose their triumphalism and their British allies needed to learn how to fight to a win on an inhospitable battlefield that was complicated by both weather and colonial legacies. Many American readers (again, I am one) will be surprised by the complex French role at this early stage of the war, a story I will not spoil for potential readers in this short review.

Among military historians, it seems, two temptations are to be avoided. The first is to chronicle a conflict as though the evolving technology of weaponry were the main thing. The second is to paint the war in terms exclusively of the ideas and decisions of generals. Atkinson has become a great writer of military history in our time because he brings mastery of both of these elements to the more interesting story of the soldier whose prospects for life and death were shaped by those less personal forces.

Although Atkinson is serially quotable, the first paragraph of the book’s prologue captures his touch for the human drama of war and its cost:

Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with thirteen of the saddest words in our language: ‘Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.’ A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord.’

The toll was emblematic of a principle point of Atkinson’s book: America only really began to act like a world power on North Africa’s regrettable battleground. This stepping into a space that history had prepared for her marks, in retrospect, the turning point of this vast, global conflict. Churchill’s eulogy for the campaign proved right: The victory that awaited at the end of it was in fact ‘the end of the beginning’.

The genius of Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn lies, in part, in the author’s ability to help the reader understand why this was so while never losing sight of the boy from Iowa crouched in terror as the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht threw its best at him and his buddies, then eventually collapsed in ignominy as claims of invincibility came in for severest re-negotiation so very far from home.

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