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Sometimes Victory Comes Hard

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 19, 2002
Wall Street Journal


In recent decades, Americans have come to take for granted that their liberty is protected by highly professional armed forces capable of whipping just about any opponent. No major buildup will be necessary to pulverize Saddam Hussein's legions; the standing forces should be sufficient for the job.

But this is a relatively recent development in U.S. history. Before the Cold War -- and sometimes even during the Cold War -- the U.S. military was so weak in peacetime that it fared poorly in the opening battles of many of its wars. In his gripping "An Army at Dawn," (Henry Holt, 681 pages, $30) Rick Atkinson skillfully chronicles one of those opening campaigns -- the invasion of North Africa in World War II.

Operation Torch began in November 1942 with Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria. The idea was to catch Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in a pincer between the Americans to the west and Gen. Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army pursuing them from the east.

The immediate challenge was dealing with the Vichy French. The Allied high command tried to cut a deal to prevent them from fighting at all, but it took three days of combat before they agreed to go over to the Allied side. The Germans then staged a landing of their own, putting ashore a substantial force in Tunisia, where it could join up with Rommel's remnants and attack the Allies on interior lines. The French, it should be noted, put up practically no resistance to this Nazi invasion. (Later, however, the French proved particularly vicious in their handling of German and Italian prisoners of war, even using some as human minefield sweepers.)

At first the contest between Allies and Axis was pretty one-sided. German tanks like the Tiger could knock out inferior American armor with impunity. German soldiers and their leaders were tough, seasoned professionals; America's citizen soldiers had never seen combat, and many of their leaders were fit to lead only a peacetime army. Their job was not made any easier by the fact that, at first, the Germans had air superiority; the North Africa campaign was the last time in history that GI's went into combat without control of the skies.

The Allies dithered in northwest Africa through the winter of 1943, leaving the initiative to the Germans. The Wehrmacht took advantage of this opportunity to stage spoiling attacks that mauled American forces at Sidi Bou Zid and the Kasserine Pass (in Tunisia). As panic spread in the ranks, "befuddled and frightened" American troops fled before the Panzer onslaught. Eventually an artillery barrage stopped the German advance, but to regain the initiative Gen. Eisenhower fired his hesitant II Corps commander, Lloyd Fredendall, and replaced him with George S. Patton.

Patton introduced himself to one of his division commanders by asking "Terry, where is your foxhole?" When Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen pointed to a slit trench outside his tent, Mr. Atkinson writes, "Patton unzipped his fly and urinated in it, thereby indicating his contempt of passive defenses."

With such dramatic gestures, Patton breathed fresh life into the U.S. Army, which went on to annihilate the veteran 10th Panzer Division at El Guettar in March 1943. Thereafter final Allied victory was only a matter of time, as sea and air forces interdicted German supply lines and Allied materiel poured in at astonishing rates. The American logistical advantage is sometimes taken for granted, but it is important to keep in mind that it was the product of a vibrant economy unlike any other in the world.

American combat effectiveness also improved as the campaign went along. Civilians in uniform became either killers or casualties. Generals became either legends or retirees. Writes Mr. Atkinson: "A great sorting out was under way: the competent from the incompetent, the courageous from the fearful, the lucky from the unlucky." The U.S. armed forces still had a long way to go, literally and figuratively, but in North Africa they had taken their first uncertain steps toward final victory.

The publisher calls "An Army at Dawn" the first volume of "The Liberation Trilogy," in which Mr. Atkinson intends to tell the entire story of the U.S. armed forces in the European theater. Based on this book, he is off to a rip-roaring start. "An Army at Dawn" may be the best World War II battle narrative since Cornelius Ryan's classics, "The Longest Day" and "A Bridge Too Far."

We can only hope that 21st-century American campaigns will be so successful, so fast that they will not furnish so much drama for future historians.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of The Savage Wars of Peace (Basic, 2002).