Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jeff Shaara: The Rising Tide

I re-read The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara since I was about to read the second volume of his World War II trilogy, The Steel Wave. Jeff Shaara made his success with Civil War novels, picking up where his father (Michael Shaara) left off. The Shaara approach is to pick key players, particularly opposing generals, as well as representative small players, and to tell the story in their words.

These books are barely fiction. They are thoroughly researched. As well as can be told by any historian, events happened exactly as described. But Shaara invents dialog based on memoirs and letters, or in the case of the WW II, interviews. When Alan Eckert did this in the 1960s and 70s, he called it non-fiction, although that was controversial.

The Rising Tide covers the North African campaign, the Sicilian campaign, and the Allied invasion of Italy. It stops short of the grueling fighting in Italy. I was interested in the overlap with Rick Atkinson’s first two WW II non-fiction works, An Army at Dawn (North Africa) and The Day of Battle (Sicily and Italy through Rome). Both authors address the inexperience of American forces, and the rivalry between British and American commanders. Atkinson probably paints a starker picture of Allied screw-ups and near-criminal competition. But Shaara probably gives a better feel for the emotional context.

Some of Shaara’s main characters are Erwin Rommel, Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, and George Patton. He introduces us to a tanker named Jack Logan, and a paratrooper named Jessie Adams. Through these perspectives he tells of the fight across North Africa and Sicily.

The Americans were especially concerned about what kind of opposition they would have from the French when they landed. For the most part, landings were unopposed, but progress to reach and fight the Germans and Italians were slowed by French fighting. In all our nostalgia about Allied forces liberating France, it’s hard to remember that at this point of the war, the Vichy French forces were allied with Germany.

At the time, the Americans wanted to launch a cross-channel invasion of France, rather than fight in North Africca, Sicily, and Italy. The British insisted on the southern strategy. I think that both Shaara and Atkinson make it obvious that the Americans needed these fights as a bloody, costly training experience. Through these campaigns they weeded out incompetent commanders, inadequate equipment, and unrealistic tactics. It is easy to believe that an invasion of Northern France in 1942 would have ended in disaster.

The Rising Tide is not a fun escapist novel. But it is interesting and accurate history. Shaara’s style of putting words into the mouths of real people in real events makes the history accessible.

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