Rick Atkinson is a former Washington Post reporter who left the paper to write military history full time. He is an outstanding popular historian of the American military. His father was a career military officer and Atkinson’s sympathy for his subjects comes through in everything he writes. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Long Gray Line followed the West Point class of 1966 to Vietnam and beyond. It is a magnificent, deeply-affecting piece of reportage, one of the best books I have ever read.
Atkinson has now embarked on a trilogy devoted to recounting the experience of the American Army from North Africa to Europe in World War II, the first volume of which appeared in 2002 as An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. He won a second Pulitzer Prize for that book. Atkinson has titled the projected series World War II series “The Liberation Trilogy.”
During the war in Iraq Atkinson was an embedded reporter with the 101st Airborne Division. He lived with the division’s commander, Major General David H. Petraeus. Atkinson has taken a break from his trilogy to write In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq. The book will be published next week.
Starting this past Sunday, the Washington Post has run three excerpts from the book, all of which highlight Atkinson’s strengths as a reporter. I can’t vouch for the book, but the excerpts are fascinating. In order the three excerpts are: “The long, blinding road to war,” “Shifting sands and shifting plans,” and “After chaos in the capital, losses climbed.”
Our friend Glenn Ellmers of The Remedy points to this highlight of the first excerpt that serves to characterize General Petraeus:
Perhaps the most remarkable test of his luck and physical rigor came on Sept. 21, 1991. Shortly after taking command of a battalion in the 101st, Petraeus was watching an infantry squad practice assaulting a bunker with live grenades and ammunition. Forty yards away, a rifleman tripped and fell, hard. Petraeus never saw the muzzle flash. The M-16 round struck just above the “A” in his uniform name tag on the right side of his chest, and blew through his back. Had it hit above the “A” in “U.S. Army,” on the left side over his heart, he would have been dead before he hit the ground.
He staggered back and collapsed. Standing next to him was Brig. Gen. Jack Keane, the assistant division commander, who by 2003 had become the Army’s four-star vice chief of staff. “Dave, you’ve been shot,” Keane told him. “I want you to keep talking. You know what’s going on here, David. I don’t want you to go into shock.”
Keane later described the day for me. “He was getting weaker, you could see that. He said, ‘I’m gonna be okay. I’ll stay with it.’ We got him to the hospital at Campbell and they jammed a chest tube in. It’s excruciating. Normally a guy screams and his body comes right off the table. All Petraeus did was grunt a little bit. His body didn’t even move. The surgeon told me, ‘That’s the toughest guy I ever had my hands on.'”
A medevac helicopter flew Petraeus, with Keane at his side, to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, 60 miles away. “It was a Saturday and I was afraid the top guys wouldn’t be on duty. I had them call ahead to make sure their best thoracic surgeon was available,” Keane recalled. “We got off the helicopter and there’s this guy they’d called off the links, still in his golf outfit, pastel colors and everything.” It was Dr. Bill Frist, who a decade later would become majority leader of the U.S. Senate. More than five hours of surgery followed.
“Petraeus recuperated at the Fort Campbell hospital,” Keane continued, “and he was driving the hospital commander crazy, trying to convince the doctors to discharge him. He said, ‘I am not the norm. I’m ready to get out of here and I’m ready to prove it to you.’ He had them pull the tubes out of his arm. Then he hopped out of bed and did 50 push-ups. They let him go home.”