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The Guns at Last Light

Is there really anything more to be said about World War II? The third volume of Rick Atkinson's 'Liberation Trilogy' proves that there is.

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The role of airpower is another central theme. When the skies were clear, Allied forces had a powerful advantage. But when weather made flying impossible, Germans troops had great freedom of movement. Atkinson does not oversell the benefits of airpower – calling it “a blunt instrument, a bludgeon rather than a scalpel” – and he underscores the terrible impact of indiscriminate bombing on civilians. But he makes the reader well aware that control of the air was an extraordinary asset for the allies.  

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Ultimately, two things make this a riveting book. The first is the great emphasis that Atkinson gives to contemporaneous accounts such as diaries, letters, and unpublished manuscripts and the light this sheds on the thoughts and experiences of those who lived, fought, and often died in these battles. As a result, even at a remove of almost 70 years, the reader has some small idea of what it must have been like to fight on the front lines.  

There are compelling stories and anecdotes from soldiers on both sides. As a result, all the emotions the soldiers felt – everything from omnipresent fear to occasional pleasures and even boredom – are conveyed with brutal simplicity. He notes that the life expectancy of a Luftwaffe pilot was measured “in weeks if not hours” and quotes a letter from one airman which read, “Each time I close the canopy before take-off, I feel that I am closing the lid on my own coffin.” On the other hand, writing about American soldiers on leave in Paris, he quotes one writing to his wife that the city “...was wonderful but I slept on the floor because the bed was just too much like sleeping in butter.” 

Violence and death were omnipresent and soldiers became inured to it. A British soldier wrote home, “The question of killing does not present itself as a moral problem any more – or as a problem at all.” An American soldier tells his parents “Killing is an obsession.”  An American general whose only son was killed in fighting stood at the open grave and said “So long, son" and then added, ‘Well, he is not cold and wet and hungry.”

The second factor that sets this book apart is the combination of extensive research and superb writing. Simply put, few historians have Atkinson’s gift for language and few journalists pay as much attention to historical sources. The book has more than 150 pages of detailed footnotes and sources that provide an extraordinary level of detail and insight. At the same time, Atkinson writes with the descriptive and lyrical power of a first-rate novelist. The prologue and epilogue alone are worth the price of the book.

Rare will be the reader who is not moved by Atkinson’s powerful and moving prose in this compelling story.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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