About 600 World War II veterans are dying every day, historian says
Rick Atkinson, the son of U.S. Army officer and a 25-year veteran at The Washington Post, recently completed a three-volume history of World War II in Europe. The Liberation Trilogy started with "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43," continued with "The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44" and concluded with "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-45."
Atkinson has written three other books and won three Pulitzer Prizes, one for "An Army at Dawn" and two for work at the Post. He recently visited Portland to promote the paperback edition of "The Guns at Last Light" and revealed that he's deep into another trilogy, on the American Revolution. Our conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.
Congratulations on finishing up World War II.
I'm deep into another project so I can't say there's a lot of rest for the weary. But yeah, there is a sense of gratification that I fulfilled what I set out to do 15 years ago.
What's your other project?
I'm working on the American Revolution. I'm actually doing a trilogy on that, not because I'm fixated on trilogies but that's because the way the story seems to break narratively. I've been researching for about 10 months now with a long way to go. I decided some months ago that when I finished the third volume of the World War II trilogy that I would leave World War II. I wouldn't turn to the Pacific. For one thing, it would require me to start the war over again. I'd have to return to Pearl Harbor, before Pearl Harbor, and that didn't have much allure. I'm following that Doris Kearns Goodwin injunction that you should decide who you want to spend the next few years of your life with.
But the travel's good if you go to the Pacific.
It's not that good. Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Marshall Islands ... it can't be as good as it was for Europe. The food got better and better as the war went on (laughs).
It sounds daunting to do another trilogy on top of the one you just did.
I don't disagree with that. It is daunting. I'm shifting wars, shifting centuries, it's obviously a well-trod subject, as World War II was. I'm having to learn a whole new set of historiography. But I'm pretty captivated by it, I must say, and I think that as with World War II, all great events are fundamentally bottomless. You can find more to write about. There will be an enduring interest. And if you're an archive rat, as I am, you can find things that have not seen the light before, and I already have.
World War II veterans are dying rapidly, aren't they?
About 600 a day.
We're now at the point where if you were an 18-year-old enlistee after Pearl Harbor, you're now over 90.
Most of them are like my father, who enlisted in 1943 and will turn 90 in August. There aren't many who are a lot younger than that. There are about 1 million left out of the 16.1 million who served in uniform for the Americans in World War II. That number will slip below 1 million later in 2014. They are dying off at a rate of about 18,000 per month. Ten years from now the number will be below 100,000. It's part of the inevitable passing of the generations. They are a diminishing breed, for sure.
Are you more research and archive-based as a historian, or more interview-based?
I do very little interviewing, which is odd because I was a practicing journalist for 25 years, and it's what we do, right? It's the only skillset other than typing fast that I got out of all my years in journalism. I don't trust memories that are 70 years old. Even if you're completely competent, as my father is. There's a received version of events, stories that you've told over and over again. The contemporaneous record for World War II is so extraordinary, so deep and broad, that I find you don't really need oral histories told seven decades after the fact. There's an enormous trove of oral histories that were taken contemporaneously. The Army sent out Army historians and they did lots of interviews within sometimes hours of actions. They're very well done, done by good historians asking tough questions. That's just part of the gigantic trove of stuff. The U.S. Army records for World War II weighs more than 17,000 tons. There's no shortage of documentation. World War II is probably the best-documented event in human history.
Where is that material?
It's scattered all over. A lot of the stuff, including the things I just referred to, is in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The Library of Congress has all kinds of stuff. They have George Marshall's papers, for example. There is a wonderful repository at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Penn. Many state universities have a state World War II archive. And then I spend time in the U.K. I go to the British national archives, the Imperial War Museum, the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. And then there are lots of division archives or unit archives of one sort or another. The First Division, the Big Red One, has a tremendous museum outside of Chicago.
If you're an archive rat, then you're in your element in these places.
The mystery of what's in the next unopened box keeps you going, because it's a very tedious way of making a living. It can be frustrating, and it can be bottomless. But I have found, once I got into this in earnest 15 years ago, that I really do like it. You're panning for gold, you're looking for little flecks in the stream. Without doing that it's difficult to really feel that you're doing more than working the secondary sources.
What about your readers? Who are they, and what do they want to know?
They tend to be skew male and older but not exclusively. They are enthusiasts for military history or history generally but not exclusively. Frequently they feel a personal connection to World War II. Their father or grandfather served or their grandmother worked in a factory. They've got some connection and part of this is about their effort to find out who they are and where they came from, their family contribution to this stupendous event. It's pretty varied. I hear from kids. There's now a kid's version of the third book out, called "D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944."
World War II is like the Civil War in that there are people who are very passionate about it. They might have a job and a family, but it's their abiding interest.
Oh sure, there are aficionados, there are reenactors, there are people for whom World War II is not a hobby it's the hobby. Some are very knowledeable and have offered suggestions over the years. I get a torrent of over the transom stuff, particularly after the first volume came out in 2002. People would send me their father's diaries or letters or this or that. Some of it proved really quite useful.
Do you think part of the interest in World War II is there's less perceived moral ambiguity compared to subsequent U.S. wars? We were fighting fascism, it was tough for awhile, then we came in and cleaned up.
First of all, war is a horrible thing and it makes good soldiers do bad things and it makes bad soldiers do terrible things. It is a corrosive thing that affects everybody to larger or smaller extents, often in ways that are bad. There were more than 20,000 deserters from the U.S. Army wandering around in World War II. It's not like all the brothers were valiant and all the sisters were virtuous. Americans ought never forget that we had allies and our ally in the east, the Red Army, had more combat deaths at Stalingrad alone than the U.S. military had in the entire war in all theaters combined. The Red Army killed roughly nine times more German soldiers than the Americans and British combined. There are nuances to the war that are vitally important to remember. Those nuances have not only to do with geopolitics but with moral nuances.