World War II’s Italian theater has operatic touch

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World War II’s Italian theater has operatic touch

Author Rick Atkinson provided history buffs with a stunning account of the Allied triumph in North Africa in “An Army at Dawn.”

That tradition is continued in “The Day of Battle,” in which the British and American forces’ Italy campaign is clearly laid out for the reader.

From Sicily to Rome, Atkinson zooms in and out, giving readers the bigger picture, strategies and political climate before he zeros in on the battlefields.

He does it with verve and rhythm, a daunting task considering readers have to go close to 600 pages to conclude the campaign.

Part of the fascination is the author’s ability to lace the narrative with absorbing human stories.

Describing how allied forces went inland after their landing, Atkinson writes: “One soldier held a tiny carved wooden pig, murmuring as the shells thickened, ‘Pig, this one is not for us,’ or, ‘Pig, you know that the one that gets me, gets you.’”

Military history may be a subject increasingly shunned by academia, but I find it fascinating. Antiwar or not, the cultural and social aspects that war levels at society are worth studying. War is the worst human business. It’s cruel and bizarre and reveals the uncensored faces of humanity. There are plenty of anecdotes in The Day of Battle to describe humanity’s strangest phenomenon.

“Sometimes the living simply needed to be comforted. Seaman First Class Francis Carpenter, a former Broadway actor pressed into the service as a beachhead scout because he had twice vacationed in Sicily, came upon eight terrified peasants hiding in a cornfield. Carpenter, whose credits included the 1938 revival by Orson Welles of ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday,’ handed around his pack of cigarettes, then cleared his throat and sang ‘La donna e mobile,’ a winsome aria from ‘Rigoletto,’” writes the author.

Having served in the military, this particular passage strikes a cord. At times, when sorting out personnel for different tasks, the military tries to be scientific. Carpenter became a scout because he had vacationed in Sicily before the invasion, and I have seen similar cases. When I read this part, I had to laugh, finding myself nodding as it sounded just about right.

Atkinson was a reporter for the Washington Post. I am guessing that’s where he learned his trade of providing details such as the above, anecdotes that bring this particular part of history very much alive.

There is also an account where a German pilot of a bomber targets a medical compound outside Nettuno. After being shot down, he is treated at the same hospital he tried to destroy.

When describing how the Germans tried to annihilate a beachhead at Anzio by constant artillery bombardments, the carnage is described like this: “Much discussion was devoted to the fabled ‘million-dollar wound,’ which would excuse a soldier from further combat.

“The diggers tried to stay fifty holes ahead of demand, but keeping pace could be difficult when shells disinterred the dead, who required reburying.”

This is the second installment of “The Liberation Trilogy,” and while many military historians see the battles on the Eastern and European front as the main theater where the fate of the world was decided, anyone reading this book comes away with a question mark on that particular notion, thanks to Atkinson.

The Allies suffered about 310,000 casualties in the Italy campaign alone with even greater numbers on the German side.

The Day of Battle will tell readers the why and how.


By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
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