Tuesday, September 19, 2006

An Army at Dawn

I just finished reading “An Army at Dawn”, by Rick Atkinson. It is a history of the allied invasion of North Africa in 1942 and the subsequent 1942-43 campaign to drive the German and Italian forces from the continent. It is a very good book, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize.

The book actually came out several years ago, and I wanted to read it then but didn’t get around to it. When I saw it at the Camp Walker library in Korea, I knew it was time to read it. Unfortunately so much has been happening since then that I have only had time to read it in small snatches, and couldn’t really set it aside for later because I need to mail it back to the library before I leave. So I did the best I could under the circumstances. While I might have gotten more out of it had I had the time to sit down and read it in peace, I still enjoyed it and learned quite a bit.

The book is a very competent work of military history, with enough detailed maps and descriptions of unit dispositions and movements to satisfy a serious student (certainly much more detail than I could absorb or hope to remember). It is also very well written as a narrative account of the American (and to a lesser extent, the British) experiences in North Africa. Through first-person accounts, cogent analysis, and engaging writing that almost reads like a novel at times, the author conveys a very realistic and comprehensive picture of what it was like for soldiers from the highest levels of command down to the lowest private.

The title “An Army at Dawn” refers literally to the appearance of the combined American and British invasion forces off the coasts of Morocco and Algeria at dawn on November 8, 1942. I believe it also refers metaphorically to the U.S. Army at the dawn of its involvement in the European Theater in WWII.

The U.S. Army that sailed to Africa was inexperienced and unprepared for combat. Made up largely of National Guard and Reserve units, its equipment and tactics were new and untested by fire. One American general commented that if the landings had been opposed by the Germans instead of the Vichy French, we would never have gotten on shore at all.

The U.S. Army that finally rolled into Tunis and Bizerte six months later was wholly transformed. It was lean, mean, and filled with experienced combat veterans who would take their experience and form the nucleus of the much larger U.S. Army that would fight its way through Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany over the next two years.

The book is therefore a graphic depiction of the coming of age of the U.S. Army through the excruciatingly painful process of “trial by fire”. Many tragic mistakes were made and many lessons learned at a huge expense in destroyed equipment, lost lives, and human misery. But the U.S. soldiers learned these lessons. Their leaders learned how to lead and the soldiers learned how to fight and survive. Those who didn’t were weeded out, either by becoming casualties or by being replaced and sent home to non-combat assignments.

"One of the fascinations of the war was to see how Americans developed their great men so quickly," one British general observed. I can't find the exact quote right now, but another British officer said something to the effect that "no one is faster than Americans at learning from their mistakes and putting things right." There were certainly plenty of examples of that to be found in this campaign.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the focus on General Eisenhower's development as a leader. I suppose I had the typical view of him as kind of a genial diplomat, less of a general than a politician (everybody knows him by his "famous smile"). Eisenhower was a more complex personality than I had realized. Having read this book, I have a much better understanding of how he came to be able successfully to lead the allied armies and later to become President.

I won’t attempt to outline the course of the campaign or the book, other than to make a couple of observations that occurred to me while reading it:

At one point, right about the time I was commenting elsewhere in this journal about the seemingly pointless redundancy of having to go through the same mobilization processing multiple times at different locations, I read a comment in the book that made me smile. An unnamed American general was quoted as saying “The U.S. Army doesn’t solve its problems – it overwhelms them”. I guess not much has changed in 60+ years.

Another comment that caught my attention (as I sit here packing my stuff to go overseas) was by a British officer who criticized the Americans as being too “equipment-heavy”. While this could be interpreted as reflecting a bit of peevishness due to envy of our material wealth, it is can also be considered a legitimate criticism from a military standpoint. The “tooth to tail” ratio of U.S. forces has just about always been the lowest of any major army on earth. We drag along a lot of shit when we go to war, and other professional military organizations tend to look askance at the practice, preferring to travel lighter and leaner than we do. They have not only fewer material comforts, but also rely less on heavy weapons and airpower, and more on “boots on the ground” - infantry.

While this criticism may seem justified when analyzed as simple statistics on paper, it breaks down when you really look at the dynamics of war and what contributes to victory.

I believe that our willingness to support our troops comparatively lavishly in the field, our willingness to expend huge amounts of munitions through air and artillery bombardment before sending in infantry, and our willingness to provide expensive, very high-tech weapons and equipment to our troops are reflections of the relatively higher value we place upon the individual human life. Even when our troops were draftees instead of volunteers, we placed a higher value on them as individuals than do most other nations. I think this is part of the American character. Organizing and equipping our forces with this in mind results in a fighting force with not only a materially better ability to wage war, but a higher level of morale and the resultant willingness to fight.

My father once met a man in one of his classes in London who had been a German soldier in World War II. The man described having captured an American soldier, and upon searching him, finding a combat ration pack. Inside were not only food including meat, crackers, etc., but also toilet paper and chewing gum. This German soldier was only 50 miles from his hometown at that time, and didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. The moment he saw that his enemy, who was 3,000 miles from home, had these luxury items issued to him on a daily basis, he completely lost the will to fight, because, as he said, “I knew we could never beat you”.

I don’t want to discount the bravery or determination of today’s enemy, nor the value of sheer grit and determination to success in war. But other nations and peoples have consistently misunderstood Americans, thinking that because we are materially wealthy we are necessarily soft and weak.

This was not true in 1942-43, and I don’t think it’s true today. From what I have seen so far, the Army is in fighting trim and doing a good job over there. I only hope that our nation as a whole is waking up to the real threat of militant Islam and that the experience we are going through now might be characterized by future generations as having been a sort of “dawning of awareness” that we are in a war for our national survival.

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