Friendly fire: The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson

The fog of war.” This phrase, introduced by the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz in a book published in 1837, years after his death, is generally taken to mean that, in war, uncertainty and confusion demand fast and flexible thinking of military commanders. In Rick Atkinson‘s The Day of Battle, the second book in his three-volume account of the Allies in World War II, the term took on new meaning for me close to that of a phrase from contemporary slang, SNAFU (“situation normal, all f***d up”). Bumbling generals and friendly fire in WW2 were the least of it.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Military history often consists of maps dominated by thrusting arrows and accounts of generals’ battle plans as they unfold across borders and over time. In so much of the writing in the genre, there’s little sense of the experience of real people, combatants and civilians alike. Not so in The Day of Battle. Oh, the book features plenty of maps full of arrows, but the text often dwells on the indecision, the confusion, the clashing egos, and the miscalculations of the generals in the field — and the unconscionable toll of “friendly fire” that killed untold numbers of American soldiers.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 by Rick Atkinson (2007) 817 pages ★★★★★

An erroneous shipment of poisonous mustard gas on an American ship stuck in the harbor at Bari, Italy, struck by a German bomb in a sneak attack on the port, flooded military hospitals in the vicinity with victims of poisoning by the gas. Why was the ship sitting in the harbor in the first place? The shipment was secret, so most officials knew nothing about it, and gave it a low priority for unloading.

Thousands of U.S. paratroopers were dropped over Sicily in an effort to attack from behind the German lines — then everything went wrong. Virtually none of them landed anywhere close to their targets, and, because orders to American troops on the ground to ignore them went out half a day late, they were slaughtered and their planes shot down . . . by American guns. Much later, the paratroop commander, Matthew Ridgway, “would report that he could account for only 3,900 of the 5,300 paratroopers who had left North Africa for Sicily on the ninth and eleventh.”

If you’re not a pacifist before reading this book, you may well become one.

Skillful, in-depth research

Atkinson skillfully weaves together the results of his research into military memoirs, the contemporaneous accounts of reporters like Ernie Pyle and Eric Sevareid, the letters home from countless soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike, and conversations with World War II survivors to illuminate the victorious but tragically costly Allied campaign to take Italy out of the war and oust the Germans from Sicily and Italy in 1943-44.

Especially telling are the point-counterpoint disputes, the rivalries, and the blunders involving the Allied leadership who ran the war in the Mediterranean theater. Winston Churchill, who forced his generals to undertake a tragically undermanned and misguided landing at Anzio on the Italian coast, sacrificing thousands of lives and bottling up American and British troops for months. Dwight Eisenhower, whose inept strategy for the invasion of Sicily allowed hundreds of thousands of German troops to escape to the mainland and bedevil his soldiers for months to come.

A senior general who defied orders

Mark Clark, whose paranoia toward the British and desperate need for fame led him to disobey an explicit order and drive his troops to liberate Rome instead of tending to the strategic business of demolishing the German armies in central Italy. George Patton, whose disdain for logistics led his troops to run short of ammunition, his medical corps to lack medicine and bandages, and other vital supplies to languish in North Africa.

These guys, Americans and British alike, were a very, very mixed bag. Most are regarded by historians as brilliant generals, and there’s no disputing they won the war in the Mediterranean against a fanatically determined enemy, but at what a price!

“War corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit”

Atkinson notes “the saddest lesson, to be learned again and again . . . as they fought across Sicily, and in the coming months as they fought their way back toward a world at peace: that war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart would remain unstained.”

As I said, if you’re not a pacifist before reading this book, you may well become one. World War II was “the good war,” after all. How many bad ones have we Americans suffered through since then?

You’ll find this book listed on my post, 10 top nonfiction books about World War II.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels.

For more good books on the history of the US, see Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.

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