Atkinson, Rick 1952-
ATKINSON, Rick 1952-
PERSONAL: Born Lawrence Rush Atkinson, IV, November 16, 1952, in Munich, West Germany (now Germany); U.S. citizen; son of Larry (a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army) and Margaret Jean (a teacher; maiden name, Howe) Atkinson; married Jane Ann Chestnut (a dentist), May 12, 1979; children: Rush, Sarah. Education: East Carolina State University, B.A., 1974; University of Chicago, M.A., 1975.
ADDRESSES: Home—6646 Barnaby St. NW, Washington, DC 20015. Office—1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. Agent—Raphael Sagalyn, The Sagalyn Literary Agency, 4825 Bethesda Ave., Ste. 302, Bethesda, MD 20814.
CAREER: Pittsburg Morning Sun, Pittsburg, KS, reporter, 1976-77; Kansas City Times, Kansas City, MO, reporter, 1977-83; Washington Post, Washington, DC, investigative reporter, 1983—, deputy national editor, 1985-87, Berlin (Germany) bureau chief, 1993-96, assistant managing editor for projects, 1996—. Guest on television programs, including Good Morning America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, 1982; Livingston Award for international reporting from University of Michigan; George Polk Award from Long Island University; John Hancock Award for excellence in business and financial journalism from John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co.; other awards in journalism.
The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.
Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.
SIDELIGHTS: Rick Atkinson is a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist whose first book, The Long Gray Line, received widespread critical attention. Subtitled The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966, the book focuses on one generation of army officers and the tremendous impact the Vietnam War had on their lives. For the book Atkinson conducted dozens of interviews with class members and their families, and the result is both a historical study and a group biography that Business Week reviewer Dave Griffiths called, "the best book out of Vietnam to-date."
When the book's subjects entered the United States Military Academy at West Point as cadets in 1962, they were naive and idealistic, inspired by the academy's motto—Duty, Honor, Country—and by President John F. Kennedy's challenge to "pay any price, bear any burden" for their country. Four difficult years at West Point did little to dampen their patriotic enthusiasm, but by the time they graduated in 1966, the U.S. Government had started sending soldiers to Vietnam to battle the communist North Vietnamese Army for control of the country. The conflict was not yet a divisive issue among the American public, and the cadets expected to "storm across the Pacific, win the war, and return to ticker tape parades, as their fathers had," noted Griffiths. In the next several years, though, the U.S. government's war strategy proved insufficient for gaining control of the country; the heavy American firepower had little effect on the mobile, flexible enemy army, and large numbers of U.S. troops died for minute territorial gains. As casualties mounted and the war effort stalled, many Americans turned against the war, blaming not only the government that directed the war but also the soldiers who fought in it. The United States conceded the country to the North Vietnamese and pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, but the war remained a contentious public issue for many more years.
Vietnam had a tremendous impact on West Point. Faced with widespread resignations after the war ended, the academy was further weakened by a massive cadet cheating scandal that surfaced in 1976. And the admission of women into West Point that same year caused significant turmoil. Not until the 1980s—with the onset of President Ronald Reagan's promilitary rhetoric and the successful 1983 invasion of Grenada, a tiny country in the West Indies that had been led by a Marxist government—did West Point begin to regain its stellar reputation among the American public.
Of the West Point classes that fought in Vietnam, the class of 1966 was hardest hit: thirty out of the class total of 579 died in the war, and more than one hundred were wounded. Among those who died were Buck Thompson, a popular cadet who was mortally wounded when American bombs were dropped in the wrong area, and Frank Rybicki, Jr., who was accidentally killed by his own rifle. Others survived but were badly injured, such as Bill Haneke, who lost a leg, an eye, and part of a foot in Vietnam. Three of the main characters in The Long Gray Line, John Wheeler, Tom Carhart, and George Crocker, survived the war but took widely varying paths after it ended. Wheeler and Carhart both resigned their commissions—as did many of their classmates—and became lawyers. Later, they were passionately involved in the efforts to build a memorial to veterans of the war but became enemies in the process: while Wheeler favored the final design—a long, stark stretch of black marble with engraved names of those who died in the war—Carhart was bitterly opposed to it. Unlike Wheeler and Carhart, Crocker's faith in the sanctity of the Army never wavered. He retained his commission after Vietnam ended and eventually became a full colonel.
Atkinson's ability to portray the complexities and scope of these characters' lives drew praise from critics, who noted that this feature gives his book an intimacy and drama normally found in fiction. Boston Sunday Globe contributor Cullen Murphy, for instance, commented that "although it is a work of nonfiction, The Long Gray Line shares the force and sweep of a Ben Hur or Gone with the Wind. The cast of characters is vast, and we see them grow and change and interact over a period of two full decades. . . . The result is an awesome feat of biographical reconstruction." Likewise, in his Philadelphia Inquirer review Nicholas Proffitt characterized the book as "a compelling collection of personal stories—stories that inspire even as they break your heart. . . . Through Atkinson's meticulous research, we are there during each phase of the cadets' epic journey, there to savor their successes and wince at their failures. We live with them and, in some cases, we die with them." Other critics had particular praise for the author's depiction of the subjects' early years at the academy. Atkinson "provides a remarkable picture of cadet life and of West Point itself," noted James Salter in the Washington Post Book World. He added: "The four years at West Point have a powerful romantic aura. . . . You come to have enormous sympathy for the main characters and the classmates who surround them."
Some reviewers felt that The Long Gray Line—at almost six hundred pages—is overlong and that the author attempts to tell too many stories. Writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, John Eisenhower commented that "in this otherwise brilliant book, [Atkinson] is guilty of overkill. He tries to characterize too many young men, as well as their wives and sweethearts, and as a result all but a few are two-dimensional." New York Times Book Review contributor Tom Buckley was more harsh, stating that The Long Gray Line "is not so much expanded as bloated—a shapeless grab bag, lacking selectivity, synthesis, a theme or, aside from an uncritical sympathy for one and all, a point of view." And Brian Mitchell of the National Review pointed out Atkinson's emphasis on description rather than critical commentary, stating: "The author should make some sense of things."
Still, Mitchell concluded that the book's myriad scenes "are often poignant and compelling, and Atkinson's stars are the kind of characters a novelist would invent if they had not been born." Proffitt praised the author's ability to tell his story through "brief and poetic narratives." "Enormously rich in detail and written with a novelist's brilliance," stated Proffitt, "the pages literally hurry before one." Members of West Point's class of 1966 praised Atkinson's objectivity and accuracy. Reviewing the book in the Washington Times, John Wheeler commented: "Why did the class of 1966 bare its soul to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter? Because we trust him." The class's regard for the author was evident in October, 1989, when about one hundred former classmates held a ceremony in honor of Atkinson and his book and presented him with a saber. As quoted by People magazine correspondent Linda Kramer, the inscription on the saber read: "With Deep Appreciation for What You Have Given to Our Class and The Long Gray Line."
Atkinson once told CA: "My interest in the West Point class of 1966 was piqued in 1981 when a graduate from the class, Michael B. Fuller, mentioned that his fifteenth reunion was coming up. I attended the reunion and began what was to be an eight-year effort to reconstruct the tale of this remarkable group of young men."
Atkinson's 1993 work, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, is a detailed study of the war, events leading up to it, its progression, and its aftermath. Atkinson drew on his own experiences as a journalist in Saudi Arabia during the war; copious military after-action reports; and more than 500 interviews with participants in the war to create this narrative account of the conflict. In Technology Review, Jonathan B. Tucker wrote, "Unlike other recent histories, Crusade resists the temptation to romanticize its subject and instead provides a clear-eyed, skeptical assessment of the war, the soldiers who fought it, and the weapons they used." Atkinson explores the Pentagon's assertions about the accuracy of its "precision-guided" weapons—proven in combat to be much less accurate than the military claimed, hitting only 25 percent of their targets—and notes that like all wars, the Persian Gulf War was "unpredictable, cruel, and violent, damning the innocent and the guilty alike." In National Interest, Paul Wolfowitz wrote that the book "provides a valuable perspective on the conflict," and in the Economist, a reviewer noted, "This is among the best books yet written about the Gulf War."
In 2002 Atkinson published An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, the first volume of a planned trilogy about the liberation of Europe during World War II. This volume examines the invasion of North Africa by the Allies, which influenced many of the subsequent events of the war. Atkinson relies on battlefield reports and archival material to tell the story of the North African campaign. A Kirkus Reviews writer called this "the most thorough and satisfying" history of the North African campaign.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bestsellers 90, Issue 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Booklist, August 16, 1993, p. 91; September 1, 1993, John Mort, review of Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, p. 2; November 1, 1996, Karen Harris, review of Crusade, p. 522; August, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, p. 1882.
Boston Sunday Globe, October 1, 1989.
Business Week, October 23, 1989; December 27, 1993, Russell Mitchell, review of Crusade, p. 20.
Choice, February, 1994, R. Higham, review of Crusade, p. 985.
Contemporary Review, May, 2003, review of An Army at Dawn, p. 317.
Economist, January 15, 1994, review of Crusade, p. 93.
Foreign Affairs, May-June, 1994, Eliot A. Cohen, review of Crusade, p. 141.
Journal of Military History, January, 1994, Steve E. Dietrich, review of Crusade, p. 174.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of An Army at Dawn, p.1001.
Library Journal, October 15, 1993, Nader Entessar, review of Crusade, p. 78; May 15, 1996, Michael T. Fein, review of Crusade, p. 101; August, 2002, Mark Ellis, review of An Army at Dawn, p. 114.
National Interest, spring, 1994, Paul Wolfowitz, review of Crusade, p. 87.
National Review, November 24, 1989.
New Republic, October 11, 1993, Edward Luttwak, review of Crusade, p. 47.
New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1989; November 28, 1993, Mark Laity, review of Crusade, p. 16.
People, October 30, 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 15, 1989.
Publishers Weekly, August 16, 1993, review of Crusade, p. 91; July 8, 2002, review of An Army at Dawn, p. 38.
Survival, summer, 1995, Jeffrey D. McCausland, review of Crusade, p. 163.
Technology Review, May-June, 1994, Jonathan B. Tucker, review of Crusade, p. 67.
Time, October 30, 1989.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 1, 1989.
USA Today, October 13, 1989.
U.S. News and World Report, October 9, 1989.
Wall Street Journal, October 12, 1993, John Lehman, review of Crusade, p. A18.
Washington Post Book World, October 8, 1989.
Washington Times, October 9, 1989.*