In a passage in Moby Dick, Herman Melville offered this counsel to other authors: "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme." Rick Atkinson emphatically does both in his newest work, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. This initial volume of his Liberation Trilogy covers the crucial first years of America's involvement in World War II, the most destructive war in the planet's history. The book's main strength is its arsenal of battle-by-battle accounts, which will engross military history fans and have war buffs hovering over their maps for hours.

Complementing the battlefield exploits, Atkinson drawing upon thousands of letters, diaries, memoirs and official and unofficial records has unpacked facts that will lift many eyebrows. For instance, he finds Churchill, in Casablanca for a meeting with Roosevelt, lounging about in a pink gown and sipping breakfast from a bottle of wine. We're told that Patton in front of a mirror practiced the scowl to accompany the salty language that marked his s.o.b. demeanor. Atkinson also reports that throughout the campaign Montgomery kept a photograph of arch foe Rommel hanging above his desk. And we learn that Rommel, after Hitler angrily rejected one of his suggestions, confided to his son about the Fuhrer: Sometimes you feel that he's not quite normal. Although the war ended in 1945, An Army at Dawn is sure to rekindle the debate over the lingering question: Could the fighting have been brought to a quicker end if the Allies had first struck Hitler's forces in Europe? Whatever the answer, Atkinson leaves no doubt he thinks the effort spent in North Africa was critically important because it enabled an inexperienced, bumbling U.S. army to forge itself into an effective fighting machine.

A former Washington Post assistant managing editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, Atkinson's book puts him on a fast track toward becoming one of our most ambitious and distinguished military chroniclers. An Army at Dawn takes us as far as Montgomery's defeat of Rommel and the liberation of Africa. Then the Allies as Atkinson will do in his next book looked northward to another continent.

An Army veteran and ex-newsman, Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami.

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