For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Rick Atkinson, World War II is just in his blood.
“I was born in Germany as part of the occupation force,” the author of “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945” told CQ Roll Call. “If you grew up in Army posts in the 1950s and 1960s, World War II was very much a part of the culture and the landscape. There were a lot of veterans; it was just something you grew up in.”
Atkinson, who spent more than 20 years with The Washington Post, brought that sense of culture and history to what has become his life work, the Liberation Trilogy that chronicles the Allied victory in Africa and Europe.
After being steeped in post-war Germany both as a child and as The Post’s Berlin bureau chief, he began the work that would become the Liberation Trilogy in 1998.
The first volume, “An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943,” was released in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history. The second volume, “The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,” came out in 2007. In May, “The Guns at Last Light” came out, rounding out the trilogy.
“I knew it was going to take at least nine years. That was the projected timetable, although I recognized, I think the publisher recognized ... that was a guess,” Atkinson said.
Among the events that impeded that timeline were two more wars — modern ones that Atkinson went abroad to cover for The Post.
“In 2003, I went to Iraq for them. I wrote a little book about my experience with the 101st Airborne Division and my time with Dave Petraeus, so that threw me off schedule,” Atkinson said about reporting for the paper and writing “In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq.”
In 2007, Atkinson went to the war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan for about six months to report on roadside bombs. Since then, he’s been on the historian beat.
A Literary Approach
Atkinson’s writing shows how much literature has influenced him. He sets the stage for his latest book’s table of contents with a passage from the prologue of William Shakespeare’s immortal play of war and courage, “Henry V.”
The titles of his chapters show that “The Guns at Last Light” is no stodgy historical recitation of facts. Headers such as “The Implicated Woods” and “A Winter Shadow” see to that. The subchapters, with names including “To the Land of Doom” and “A Rendezvous in Some Flaming Town” continue the elegiac tone, as well as reflect how the soldiers, leaders and writers present viewed the long slog to victory.
He also draws heavily on the observations of iconic period writers, such as Evelyn Waugh and A.J. Liebling, as well as war correspondents who are sometimes neglected by other historians.