By NICK DUKEJune 19, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga. (June 19, 2013) -- Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, military historian and author Rick Atkinson visited Marshall Auditorium Thursday to speak as part of the Combat Leader Speaker Program.
Atkinson has written six books, including his latest work, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. The book is the final installment of Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," a narrative history of the U.S. military's role in the liberation of Europe in World War II.
Atkinson spent the last 15 years working on the trilogy, an endeavor he said he took on in large part because of his fascination with the effect combat has on Soldiers.
"The great stress of combat really reveals character, whether you're talking about the Civil War or last week," Atkinson said. "That's what intrigues me."
As part of promotional efforts for his book, Atkinson frequently stops at military installations to speak to Soldiers.
He said that there are lessons Soldiers can learn from researching World War II, especially from a leadership perspective.
"There are elements of combat leadership that are eternal," he said. "Whether you go back 2,000 years to look at what made a successful combat leader in ancient times or whether you're looking at today in Afghanistan or a couple of years ago in Iraq, the things that you see are people who are physically fit, people who are adaptable and ... are not ruffled when things don't go according to plan because they never do in combat.
"I think that if you look at successful combat leaders from World War II or Korea or Vietnam or any of our other wars, including the Gulf War or Grenada and the more recent wars, what you see is Soldiers who can think through what they are doing. There's an element of reacting to it, but being able to maintain a calm center when everything around you is chaos and being able to resist the forces of stress and being able to make an effective, rational decision is what makes an effective combat leader."
While some may say that modern technology has made combat vastly different from World War II, Atkinson disagrees.
"I think combat Soldiers are combat Soldiers, whether you're talking about 2013 in Afghanistan or 1944 in the Battle of the Bulge or the Civil War or the American Revolution," he said.
"Aspects of leadership, physical fitness, taking care of each other, the leaders taking care of their Soldiers -- all of those things derive directly from combat experience in World War II. The successful combat leaders do it well and those who are not successful don't do it as well. I think that the lessons are pretty direct and pretty intimate, and I think that a Soldier today should feel a very direct connection to those Soldiers of 70 years ago."
Atkinson, who worked as a Washington Post journalist for 25 years, also offered advice to Soldiers on how to deal with members of the media during conflicts.
"There are several rules," he said. "Don't lie. Stay in your lane. Don't talk about what you don't understand or aren't authorized to talk about. Be direct. Bad news never improves with age. Don't think that a reporter you're talking to is not going to find out the seedier side of some controversy because they probably will and you don't want to find yourself having fibbed about it or trying to cover it up.
"Rely on your public affair officers and public affairs NCOs. They are responsible in part for acting as a liaison in that relationship ... The reporter is not there to carry water for you. The reporter is not there to help you do your job, but a reporter is there to understand what your job is. I think you can take that to the bank and it could make for a unique relationship."
Atkinson's father was an Army officer, something that he said helped to foster his interest in military history.
"(Military history) is part and parcel of who we are, where we came from and where we're going," he said. "For Americans to recognize the importance of military history is vital to understanding how we got here in 2013. It's all part of this giant tapestry that we call the American story. That's what I'm keen on telling."
"The Guns at Last Light" follows the American military from the days leading up to D-Day all the way through the end of the war in Europe.
Atkinson said the war grabbed his interest at an early age, and seems to hold an eternal appeal for many Americans.
"The war was so enormous and so terrible -- 60 million dead," he said. "Nothing like it before and nothing like it, I hope, that we will ever see again. That has a magnetic appeal to people. It was an existential war. It was about our very existence and the things we hold dearest. That has a relentless attraction for people."