Rick Atkinson: Compares WW II & Iraq

Historians in the News

[HNN Editor: This article features Rick Atkinson, the Washington Post reporter who is the author of a multi-volume history of the liberation o Europe from the Nazis. Volume one won the Pulitzer Prize. Volume two, The Day of Battle, appears this week in bookstores. The article focuses on the seige of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which th Allies bombed into rubble in 1944 during the invasion of Italy.]

... It is tricky to draw analogies with wars of the past, but sometimes comparisons invite themselves. The Germans repeatedly told the Allies they had no soldiers or weapons in the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Julius Schlegel, a Nazi lieutenant colonel, had evacuated manuscripts and art treasures from it. Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, the German commander of the Gustav Line — a former Rhodes scholar at Oxford and an Italophile like most educated Germans, who used to stroll up Monte Cassino with his walking stick surveying the troops and chatting with peasants — had scrupulously followed orders to keep his soldiers far from the building.

here were countless nooks in which to dig foxholes and bunkers and make oneself invisible. It was obvious why the enemy hadn’t needed to occupy the abbey on the top of the hill, where in fact they would be more exposed.

But German artillery and gunfire raining endlessly down from the mountain caused Allied troops to imagine that the monastery was the cause of their misery: it was the only thing they could clearly see. One day two American generals flew a Piper Cub over it and believed they spotted Germans in the courtyard. Another general flew by and saw nothing, and a French commander, Gen. Alphonse Pierre Juin, pleaded with the Americans to spare the building, saying an attack was folly.

Those in charge didn’t want to listen. “This monastery has accounted for the lives of upwards of 2,000 American boys,” reported an American Army Air Corps lieutenant colonel to his superiors the day before the attack. “The Germans do not understand anything human when total war is concerned. This monastery MUST be destroyed and everyone in it as there is no one in it but Germans.”

Mr. Atkinson said: “Crummy intelligence leads to crummy tactical decisions. There was a lot of bad intel floating around and a lot of cherry-picking of it.”...

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