Thursday, August 12, 2010

A tale of two (military history) books:

After reading the excellent war fiction Killing Rommel, I pulled the trigger on another North Africa campaign book, this one the recent military history text by rick Atkinson, Army at Dawn. The class of warriors that led us through the breach WWII are leaving us at the cyclic rate these days, to the detriment of our corporate knowledge and experience. I thought that North Africa would be a good topic, for it is where our Army as a world power was first bloodied - the dogfaces that stormed ashore at Omaha and Utah had first gotten their blood up at places like Kasserine and Sidi bou Zid. Sure, the Marines got bloody noses at every island in the Pacific from early '42 onward, but that had been happening to the Marines for years during the interwar period anyway.

An Army at Dawn skips the majority of the British Eighth Army's retreat to and subsequent drive out of El Alamein and begins with the Allied invasion landings at Morocco and Algiers. Atkinson ably chronologizes the personalities of the key characters of Operation Torch and devotes some time to the political and diplomatic interplay that form the underpinnings of any tactical maneuver of that size. Because of this, the focus on generals and interpersonal strife of the key players (which I grant is a key element of how things turn out in this sort of event), rather than the big blue arrows on the battlefield or the average Joe mucking it out, I had a hard time getting into this book. It is well researched and annotated, and provides a terrific bird-eye view of the strategic and operational levels. But it just wasn't a bell-ringer for me, although I'll try out the other two books in the trilogy just for res gestae's sake. To be quite honest, what really through me from the beginning was a writing style that was cumbersome and unreadable, with ridiculously long sentences and poorly chosen transition words. I recognize this might be law school speaking, but I just felt like I was slogging through each page.

On the other hand, although I have gotten just 30 pages into The Road to Guilford Courthouse, I can already tell it will be a favorite. Despite writing about the 18th century campaign of the British in the Colonial South, the pages fly by like the minutes in a battle and you quickly find yourself much more engaged than you anticipated. This single volume account of the American Revolution as it unfolded in the souther colonies of the Carolinas addresses an oft-overlooked aspect of that fight. Like John Keegan, Buchanan focuses on the sociological makeup of the armies involved and the civilizations that fielded them in searching for connections between similar results. It helps that the terrain is very familiar - from the battle of Fort Sullivan (later Fort Moultrie) and skirmishes at Breach Inlet, to landings at Seabrook and fighting at Cowpens and Greensboro, this is a story that unfolds in the backyard of my upbringing. I am looking forward to finishing this one.

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