Best-selling author Rick Atkinson knows something about the importance of the date Nov. 8 in world history. In fact, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa during World War II that took place on that day.
By fortunate coincidence, Atkinson will be the featured speaker on Nov. 8, 2012, during the Ogden School Foundation’s fall author event at the Eccles Conference Center.
Atkinson’s book “An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943” won the 2003 Pulitzer for history. It is the first in his acclaimed The Liberation Trilogy and won raves from reviewers accoss the country, including Max Boot who wrote in The Wall Street Journal:
“Mr. Atkinson intends to tell the entire story of the U.S. armed forces in the European theatre. Based on this book, he is off to a rip-roaring start. ‘An Army at Dawn’ may be the best World War II battle narrative since Cornelius Ryan’s classics, ‘The Longest Day’ and ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ ”
Janis Vause, executive director of the school foundation, is thrilled to have a speaker of Atkinson’s stature coming to Ogden to speak at the event. Over the years, the foundation has earned a reputation for booking high-profile authors such as Ray Bradbury, Chaim Potok, Ken Burns, Amy Tan and Geraldine Brooks. Vause said organizers did not realize until after they had landed Atkinson as a speaker for the fundraising event that it would coincide with the 70th anniversary of the invasion, which took place on Nov. 8, 1942.
“It was not planned, it was kind of a fluke,” Vause said.
Vause said the foundation is taking advantage of the coincidence by putting the focus of the student writing contest on the war in North Africa. The evening will include a tribute to all veterans, Vause said, and in particular a special salute to WWII veterans who served in North Africa, including Pleasant View resident Don Brimhall, a 95-year-old veteran who served in the North Africa campaign.
It’s allowing for some really fun additions to this evening,” Vause said. The event will include music by the Utah National Guard Army Band, an array of flags and a display of military uniforms and memorablia from various periods in American military history.
“It’s going to be way neat and extremely patriotic,” Vause said
A military specialist
Atkinson, a former staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post, is also the best-selling author of “The Long Gray Line,” a saga about the West Point class of 1966, and “Crusade,” a narrative history of the Persian Gulf War. He also wrote “In the Company of Soldiers,” an account of his time with General David H. Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The second volume of his Liberation Trilogy is “The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,” published in 2007. The final volume, to be published this spring, focuses on the last 11 months of the war in Europe, beginning on the eve of the Normandy invasion and through to the German surrender.
At Thursday’s event, “I’m going to talk about the legacy of World War II and specifically the Army that we sent forth to World War II,” Atkinson said in an interview with the Standard-Examiner. His address will also include writing about history and the challenges that presents.
“I will try to talk a bit about the art and the science of writing about military history and why it matters 70 years later, and what we can learn both from the war itself and from a study of history and military history.”
The legacy of WWII
Every American should know something about World War II, Atkinson said, and there are some key points he will address in his lecture — including the notion by some that America won the war by itself.
“Every American should be well aware of the fact that America did not win the war by itself,” Atkinson said. “American exceptionalism does not allow us to falsify history.”
Atkinson points out that of the 60 million to 70 million people who perished in the war, roughly 27 million of them were Soviets.
“It’s very important for people to remember the sacrifices that the Soviet Union, the British and others made for the Allied cause,” Atkinson said.
The war also had an extraordinary culural impact with issues that are still resonating today.
“The social impact of World War II is hard to overstate,” Atkinson said. “It’s such a game changer in our national evolution on issues having to do with race and gender particularly. Barack Obama would not have been elected president in 2008 had it not been for World War II and the accelerated social change that World War II wrought in the country.”
Atkinson also believes it’s important for people to understand how ill-prepared the American military was at the beginning of the war.
‘The powerful Army that swept across Europe in 1944 and 1945 had come from a really pathetic origin at the beginning of the war,” Atkinson said. “We had allowed the Army and the Navy ... to decline after World War I to the point that the services were really puny and weak.”
Atkinson said he is not making an argument for huge defense budgets, but history does offer some critical lessons.
“It’s irrefutable historically that when you allow it to decline to a certain degree, you end up paying in blood for that essential failure to preserve a reasonable armed forces,” he said.
A personal war
Writing about an event as enormous as World War II is a challenge on many levels — even for the best of historians. The war engulfed the entire planet and involved the majority of the world’s nations, with 100 million people in uniform, including more than 16.3 million American soldiers.
“That’s in a country of 130 million people,” Atkinson said. “So what you had at that time was that everyone in the country had skin in the game. Everyone had someone in harm’s way.”
During the war, Atkinson said, the relationship between American citizens and the armed forces was intimate and personal in a way that most people in the country have trouble understanding today.
Atkinson hopes to help readers better comprehend that unique connection and profound relationship. He looks on the Army as a living, breathing character: “The army to me is an organic creature.”
Born in Munich, Germany, Atkinson is the son of a U.S. Army officer who served during World War II. His father, who is now 88, is among the remaining 15 million World War II veterans who are now dying at a rate of about 800 per day.
“That’s about a batallion a day,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson grew up on military posts, and his familiarity with the military served him well when he began his reporting career at the Washington Post, where his first assignment was covering a military story.
“I had grown up in it and I knew the difference between an F-16 and M16, for example, and understood the culture to some extent,” he said.
Over the course of his career, Atkinson was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer for national reporting and the 1999 Pulitzer for public service, awarded to the Washington Post for a series of investigative articles he directed and edited. Atkinson worked for the newspaper until 1999, when he left to begin working on the World War II trilogy. Since his departure, he has returned to the newspaper for special war coverage assignments, but jokes that he is now a “recovering journalist.”
An archive rat
He has been at work for the better part of 15 years on the voluminous trilogy, in which his skills as a self-described “archive rat” have been put to the ultimate test. A search on Amazon alone comes up with more than 120,000 titles about the war, Atkinson said, and the amount of source material available is staggering.
“The Army’s archive alone for World War II weighs 17,000 tons,” Atkinson said. “That gives you some sense of the magnitude just by the paper itself.”
And keep in mind those are only the documents associated with the U.S. involvement in the war, he noted. The enormity of the war forced Atkinson to make some difficult editorial decisions for his trilogy.
“I write about the Eastern front almost not at all and I write about the Pacific not at all,” he said. “There is a little distant thunder occasionally, but it’s just not my theater. You begin to pare it down that way and those are hard choices, but necessary choices.”
Since so much has been written about the war, there is also the challenge of coming up with new material that is of interest and engaging for readers. His books include famous names such as Patton, Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler and others, but he also reacquaints readers with important generals and other leaders who are anonymous now to most people.
“Part of my ambition is to bring these people back from the dead and to make them walk again,” Atkinson said, noting he tries to write in a way that brings the war to life and makes it fresh and new for contemporary readers.
“I can’t change the ending … we still win,” Atkinson said. “But I can — by virtue of being an archive rat, which I am — find things that people have not found.”
And what he hasn’t discovered or written about, Atkinson knows future historians will continue to mine and write about a war that forever altered the world.
“My belief is that huge events — just like large historical characters — are bottomless, and people will be writing about World War II and hopefully will be interested in it 500 years from now the same way people are interested in Lincoln now and will be 500 years from now.”
WHO: Rick Atkinson
WHAT: Ogden School Foundation fall author event
WHEN: 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8
WHERE: Eccles Conference Center, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
TICKETS: Tables of 10 available for $700, $900, $1,200 or $1,500. Individual tickets, $70-$150. To reserve tickets, call the Ogden School Foundation at 801-737-7305.