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Posted on Aug 11, 2010 in War College

10 Questions: Rick Atkinson

By Jerry D. Morelock

Rick Atkinson (Avonlee Photography)

Atkinson will become the fourth recipient of the Pritzker Military Library’s Lifetime Achievement Award when he receives this medallion at the October 22, 2010 Gala in Chicago.The best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post journalist, Rick Atkinson, will receive the 2010 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing at an October 22 gala in Chicago. The award includes a $100,000 honorarium. Atkinson is the fourth recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Award, which has previously gone to James M. McPherson, Allan R. Millett and Gerhard L. Weinberg.

Atkinson’s acclaimed books include The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966; Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War; and In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat. He has published two volumes in his “Liberation Trilogy” on the U. S. Army in World War II – An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43 and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44. He is currently working on the third volume of this triology.

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Armchair General Editor in Chief, Jerry Morelock, posed these 10 questions to Atkinson in the weeks leading up to the award’s presentation.

1. ACG: What does winning the Pritzker Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?

ATKINSON: I’m particularly honored given the esteem in which I and most historians hold the previous three winners ― McPherson, Millett, and Weinberg. That’s awfully fine company. Also, the Pritzker Award recognizes and encourages the literary aspirations to be found in good military history, which is very close to my heart.

2. ACG: You were born in Munich, Germany, into a military family. How has your experience growing up as a “military brat” influenced your writing?

ATKINSON: Growing up in the Army probably gives me a visceral feel for the culture and the language of the institution, as well as a sympathy for the complexity and contradictions found in the American military. It’s a world.

3. ACG: What made you decide to focus on writing military history?

ATKINSON: Frankly I blundered into it. When I was a young reporter in Kansas City, I got interested in the tale of the West Point class of 1966 and wrote about it in depth, first as a newspaper series and subsequently as a book. A bit later, as a reporter for the Washington Post, fact that I knew the difference between a lieutenant and a lieutenant colonel, or between an M-16 and an F-16, meant that I sometimes ended up writing about the military, including stints as a foreign correspondent in places like Somalia, Bosnia, and Iraq. I found that moving from journalism to narrative history was a natural progression, although as a former graduate student in English literature I’ve had to teach myself historiography.

4. ACG: Your book, The Long Gray Line, really “hit home” with me since the book’s subjects, members of the West Point Class of 1966, were seniors during my Plebe Year (first year) at the Academy (1965-66) – I vividly recall the unenviable Plebe duty of delivering laundry to daunting First Classman Wesley Clark’s quarters, hoping to sneak in and out of his room without getting chewed out too badly. What was special about the Class of 1966 and its “American journey”?

ATKINSON: Certainly they’re cut from the same cloth as other West Point classes in the mid-1960s, but ’66 had the misfortune to have more deaths in Vietnam―thirty―than any other military academy class. They straddled a fault line of sorts in American history, and as such I found that telling their story from 1962 to 1987 really allowed me to tell our collective story during that quarter century. A great deal happened to them―before, during, and after Vietnam―and I remain deeply attached to the class. I’m sure Wes Clark would still like you to deliver his laundry.

5. ACG: Your book, In the Company of Soldiers, follows the 101st Airborne Division commanded by then-Major General David Petraeus during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Based on your experience in writing that book, can you offer any insight on how General Petraeus will approach his new assignment as the leader of our effort in Afghanistan?

ATKINSON: There are some characteristics of Dave Petraeus’s generalship that are likely to obtain in Afghanistan: intellectual intensity; a recognition that contemporary warfare is vastly more complex than simply killing adversaries; meticulous attention to civil and political affairs, intelligence, logistics; and a projection of relentless will. His aide in the 101st Airborne once said that Petraeus is the most competitive man on the planet; he really hates to lose. At this point he has about as much experience in combat high command as any general officer in the Army’s history―that’s remarkable to consider, isn’t it?–yet he’s managed not to be dogmatic or fossilized in his views on war. He has a very agile mind, a self-deprecating sense of irony, and a deep sense of duty; he’s going to need all that and more in this job.

6. ACG: Our Armchair General readers are always interested in gleaning leadership lessons from historical military leaders. Can you share some “leadership lessons” that stand out to you from your research and work, particularly in your Liberation Trilogy?

ATKINSON: Some lessons are relatively mundane, yet when they’re honored in the breach rather than the observance, the result can be disastrous. Fitness is one of them: those incapable of handling the physical and mental rigors of high-intensity combat tend to court failure. So when Eisenhower is smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, it’s a testament to an otherwise iron constitution that he’s able to handle the relentless stress of his job. The field commanders I find most compelling―Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., Matthew B. Ridgway, James Gavin, James Van Fleet―have substantial intellects, demanding personalities, physical and moral vigor, technical competence, and an intuitive sense for taking the right action at the right time. Some men are born to lead other men in the dark of night. Gavin called it “two o’clock in the morning courage.” Voltaire admired in the Duke of Marlborough a trait any good leader should possess: “That calm courage in the midst of tumult, that serenity of soul in danger … which is the greatest gift of nature for command.”

7. ACG: On that same “Leadership” subject, which national leaders and military commanders that you wrote about in the first two volumes of your Liberation Triology stand out – both good and bad?

ATKINSON: The greatest American soldier of the war is Franklin D. Roosevelt. I admire him deeply as a commander-in-chief, not least for his willingness to buck his uniformed brain trust and for his unflappable demeanor; he too was a casualty of the war. George C. Marshall is indeed the noblest Roman, as Churchill called him, while Churchill himself is indeed the largest figure of his time. How lucky we were, and are, to have had those three in our foxhole. I’ve mentioned several capable corps commanders, although there are others―particularly in the North African and Italian campaigns―who are badly overmatched: Lloyd Fredendall, Ernest Dawley, John Lucas, each of them relieved. I tend to believe that Omar Bradley and Courtney Hodges are less impressive in commanding Twelfth Army Group and First Army, respectively, while Jacob Devers and William Simpson get less than their due as commanders, respectively, of Sixth Army Group and Ninth Army.

8. ACG: Is there a distinctive “American style” of military leadership, any “common denominators” peculiar to U. S. military leaders that you noted in your works on World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion?

ATKINSON: Of course it’s tempting to see Prof. Russell Weigley’s “American way of war” expressed in the generalship of every senior commander since Grant, an impulse to both lunge for the jugular and to crush the enemy with our gross domestic product. When you’re the biggest kid in the neighborhood with the biggest stick, the instinct is to use brute strength to its best advantages. But frankly that overlooks the nuances and variations that run through the wars you cited. Roosevelt and Churchill are remarkable war leaders in part because they’re always looking for ways to avoid, or at least mitigate flinging their legions directly into the fire, whether it’s fighting first on the periphery in the Mediterranean or in letting the Soviets do as much of the bleeding for us as possible.

9. ACG: Can you give our readers a quick “preview” of the third volume of your Liberation Trilogy that you are currently working on?

ATKINSON: I’ve always considered the trilogy to really be one book―a single stupendous saga that will tell the greatest story of the 20th century for a 21st century audience in a succinct 750,000 words. So volume III will pick up chronologically where volume II ends, in the early summer of 1944, and carry us through the end of the war in Europe. Currently I’m outlining and organizing my notes, and I’ll start writing the manuscript toward the end of the year. Publication is scheduled for spring 2013. Only tomorrow!

Structurally the book will be identical to the first two volumes, with a prologue and an epilogue serving as bookends to a dozen chapters parcelled into four parts. The characters of course are beyond invention; they’re a narrative writer’s dream. After the better part of three years entombed in various archives around the world, I feel that I’ve come up with a number of enticing and entertaining wrinkles for this final volume. There’s no surprise ending―the Allies win―but I believe this story has a bottomless capacity to surprise, to infuriate, to beguile. It’s both the saddest tale of our time and the most inspiring.

10. ACG: Finally, we just have to ask you – how do you plan to spend the Pritzker Award’s $100,000 honorarium?

ATKINSON: Fiscally I’m very boring. As a passionate amateur gardener, I indulged myself by buying a half dozen small trees, mostly Japanese maples of various sorts. I can see four of them from my office window, and hope they’ll provide a little inspiration as I watch them grow.

Pritzker Military Library: For more information about the Pritzker Military Library, including the upcoming October 22, 2010 Gala in Chicago where Rick Atkinson will receive the library’s 2010 Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement, visit pritzkermilitarylibrary.org.

3 Comments

  1. This guy reminds me of Newt Gingrich. Army brat that did not ever wear the uniform. I am Navy brat and served in 1966. Really tired of hearing excuses for not going in. Mostly chicken I think. simple.

    • Often responses to questions about others, tell more about the person who is offering the opinion that about the person who is the subject of the opinion. Your experiences with others might be a guide to R. Atkinson’s attitudes, but it might also mean nothing. Perhaps you should base your opinion on Mr. Atkinson actions, rather than projecting your hostilities onto him, because other you know did not meet your definition for “courage.”

      I agree with you that many people who (and often attempt to disguise their shortcomings with a veneer of BS) do have a considerable lack of courage, which explains many of their decisions, my observations of Mr. Atkinson’s career do not support that conclusion for him.

      As you have said in your comment, I think you have revealed with your comment, more about your life, and the people with whom you are familiar than about Mr. Atkinson, about whom you seem to know little.

      • Most blog sites allow the original author a second attempt to correct errors such as typos even after the comment is posted, however this site does not. And, that difference was a surprise to me, and it explains the few errors which I did not correct.

        Be forewarned, there is no second chance to correct errors, after you click “post reply”.

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