There are tales of appalling atrocities and tales of breathtaking heroism, and it is not always easy to tell them apart. When one of Sgt. Audie Murphy’s men was shot dead by a German pretending to surrender, Murphy — who won a Medal of Honor for his deeds that day — raged through German lines hurling grenades and firing a machine gun from his hip, slaughtering everyone in his path. With no one left to kill, he sat down and cried.
The Guns at Last Light also contains comic moments, as when the American expatriate writer Alice B. Toklas presented the American unit that liberated her town in the south of France with a fruitcake. (Atkinson is discreetly silent on whether it contained the magic ingredient of the famed Toklas brownies.) Or when surrendering German troops ran out of white flags and began, so aptly, waving chickens. Even at its grimmest, it’s a terrific read.
The book’s greatest service may be the demolition of the myth of Good War, a conflict of moral certainties and military competence. Though Atkinson never says it, his account makes World War II sound a lot more like Vietnam or Iraq than we may care to acknowledge.
Military intelligence was haunted by paranoid fears about weapons of mass destruction. Doctors were told to promptly report any mysteriously fogged X-ray film, which might suggest the Germans were using radioactive “dirty bombs.”
As the war dragged on, many soldiers grew to mistrust their officers. Gen. Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, brooded about his men’s “lack of respect (amounting to near hatred) for certain senior generals . . . lack of desire to kill Germans; lack of understanding of political necessity for fighting the war; general personal lassitude.” Some troops went to fearful lengths to escape: During its first two months in France, the First Army Group alone reported more than 500 self-inflicted gunshot wounds by men who decided that a ticket home was worth the loss of a foot.
Others took out their rage on the enemy, killing unarmed prisoners (Gen. George Patton’s diary records his worry that word of the frequent executions would leak into the press) and collecting bags of their broken teeth and severed ears. Some simply went crazy: The army alone hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons. “Sound mental health requires a satisfactory life-purpose and faith in a friendly universe,” one army chaplain noted. Says Atkinson: “On the battlefields of Europe in 1944, no such cosmology seemed likely.”
Allied generals proclaimed victories based on cockeyed body counts. (Patton simply multiplied the number of prisoners he took by 10 to come up with a figure for German dead.) And they dropped napalm on civilians with horrifying regularity, lied about it insouciantly and censored any reporter who found out. The Pentagon even hired Hollywood set designers to create mock neighborhoods in the Nevada desert to discover which bombing tricks most quickly set a city ablaze.
Even with the military practicing Draconian censorship on dispatches from the front, doubts crept into news reporting. “Perhaps more men should know the expense of war,” wrote a Life reporter, “for it is neither a fit way to live nor to die.” Atkinson has added up those expenses with meticulous and riveting accuracy.
Glenn Garvin is The Miami Herald’s television critic.