Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 20, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
U.S. Army in Europe, Time-Lapse Painting
Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy is a history of the U.S. Army in the
European theater during World War II. This fall marks the 75th year since
Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 started World War II -- though the U.S.
did not become part of that war until 11 December 1941, when Germany
declared war on us days after Pearl Harbor brought us into the Pacific war with
The U.S. was only slightly more prepared to enter World War II than we had
been to enter World War I. Franklin Roosevelt had done all that was politically
possible to prepare us for war -- but that wasn't very much.
By the time joint U.S. and British operations began with the landings in North
Africa in 1942, Britain had been at war for three years. The British Army had
fought and lost in Europe and Belgium, extricating itself almost miraculously
at Dunkirk. Since then, they had lost in Greece and Norway, and barely
hung on in Egypt until General Montgomery defeated the German wunderkind
Rommel at El Alamein.
The result was that when the American Army entered the war, the British
viewed our soldiers -- and our generals -- as naive junior partners, unworthy
of being taken seriously.
And they weren't far wrong. Peacetime armies tend to promote bureaucrats
rather than commanders -- because when you aren't at war, how do you
know who the effective commanders are going to be?
Because the U.S. Army was going to be much larger and the U.S. was pretty
much supplying both armies (as well as providing massive support to Russia),
it was politically essential that the commander of the combined forces be an
American, and Roosevelt's choice was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The problem was that Eisenhower, a likable fellow, had never commanded
troops in the field. Instead, he had served for a long time as deputy of the
egomaniacal Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. To survive in that
position took almost superhuman patience and tact -- precisely the skills that
would be essential in keeping the alliance together, what with all the generals'
egos constantly bumping into each other. But to the Brits, it made Eisenhower
seem a complete lightweight -- a clerk rather than a general.
This was not helped by the fact that Eisenhower had perfected the art of
modesty. He was almost always the smartest officer in the room, but
never showed off, so that intellectual featherweights could completely overlook
the fact that Eisenhower had a lot more going on in his head than anyone else.
Eisenhower was forced to keep the big picture in mind. Not just: What strategy
will stand the best chance of beating the Germans in the shortest possible
time, but also: What disposition of forces and commanders will help maintain
American enthusiasm for the war without dampening British spirits ... and vice
Thus when Montgomery maneuvered to be placed in command of all the forces,
leaving Eisenhower as mere titular head of the operation, he proved his own
unfitness for the position by his utter inability to understand the politics of
the war. If Americans began to resent British dominance of the alliance in
Europe, Congress would force the U.S. to concentrate its efforts in the Pacific,
where it was almost completely an American show.
Besides, Montgomery -- and his British supporters -- were blind to the fact
that the more his reputation grew, the less willing Montgomery was to put it in
jeopardy by actually committing troops to battle. Thus his bold actions at El
Alamein were replaced by McClellanesque dithering, hesitation, and
procrastination by the time he got to Sicily, and he was almost inert in
France and Belgium.
Eisenhower's biggest problem eventually became the fact that he had to keep
fending off Montgomery's attempts to grab control of everything -- while at the
same time trying to get Montgomery to actually use the British Army in
aggressive action against the enemy.
Rick Atkinson's powerful trilogy -- An Army at Dawn: The War in North
Africa; The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy; and The Guns at
Last Light: The War in Western Europe -- does a fair job of tracking military
operations. But it is far better at documenting the constant jockeying of
generals in competing with each other for fame and power.
I have never seen a better portrayal of Patton's almost insane ups and downs
-- a weird combination of arrogance and pathetic insecurity. But nobody
emerges unscathed. Atkinson frequently feels obliged to agree with
Eisenhower's critics -- he was inexperienced, and his unwillingness to give
unequivocal orders rather than general directions was often the cause of
mixups and inaction.
Yet this was also Eisenhower's strength, because his hand was light enough on
the reins that prickly, resentful egos like Montgomery and Patton were able to
stay with the army and cooperate more or less effectively, despite the fact that
they seemed always on the verge of open revolt against any kind of authority.
A more forceful leader probably would have fired both men early on -- they
were both unreliable and insubordinate to a shocking degree. Yet to dump
Montgomery would have caused deep resentment throughout the British
Army, not to mention the British people. And to dump Patton would have
been to lose a valuable tool in the American arsenal, because, crazy though he
was, Patton also got his army moving and used it effectively.
Still, it was shameful how many soldiers died needlessly in order to feed
Patton's eagerness to be the general who arrived first at this or that place --
just to boost his own fame and his own ego. Yet that very hunger for fame may
well be part of what made him an effective commander. Never mind that he
often seemed more interested in beating Montgomery and the Brits than in
defeating the Germans who were actually shooting at him.
But it wasn't just the Germans shooting at the American and British armies.
The number of friendly-fire incidents was shocking. The air forces were not
well coordinated with ground forces. On one operation in Sicily, the U.S. air
forces suffered most of their losses from anti-aircraft fire from the allied
fleet. And far too often, American bombs were dropped on American and
British positions, vehicles, and armies on the move.
Yet in most cases, these were honest mistakes, because nobody was able to
talk to the people they most needed to talk to. Atkinson makes it clear that
such incidents, though horrible and deeply regretted, happen in every war
since the invention of long-range weapons. The South's best general in our
Civil War, Stonewall Jackson, was killed by fire from Confederate troops, and
he was not the only one to die that way.
Atkinson also does a fine job of depicting the behind-the-lines forces that had
such a strong effect on the outcome of the war. American logistics were a
nightmare -- every speck of food and munitions and clothing and shelter
and transportation for a multi-million-man army had to be transported across
an ocean thick with U-Boats and then overland to wherever the troops
happened to be.
When you have to deliver fuel to the tanks that are leading an attack, it takes
almost as much fuel to power the trucks as they can carry to the tanks. And
the trucks themselves get blown up by mines or simply wear out and break
Atkinson delivers a delightfully nasty yet fair portrait of the man who governed
our logistics in Europe -- an irritatingly eccentric martinet who, despite his
oddities, was able to overcome the obstacles well enough to keep the army
This is one of the many cases where, despite the endless corruption, theft,
incompetence, and errors in the loading, transporting, and unloading of
supplies, enough got through for us to overwhelm our enemies with superior
Then there were the French, who at first actually fired on American troops in
North Africa, since we were invading French colonies there, and then insisted
on maintaining armies in the field, though every bit of their armament and
supplies had to come from the United States.
Once they were on French territory, they became hopelessly unmanageable,
because they were constantly distracted by the desire to liberate French cities
and lands rather than destroy the German Army and invade Germany itself.
And if Montgomery's ego was nearly unmanageable, he was a wallflower
compared to the arrogant, vain, and blustering DeGaulle, whose primary
agenda was to pose himself as the Liberator of France -- at the expense of
the British and Americans who did most of the fighting and dying.
All these behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating, especially if, like me, you've
already read very good accounts of the actual fighting. Let's face it, a hill-by-hill account of the Italian campaign would have been tedious and repetitive,
while the story of the attempts to negotiate the surrender of Italy while
there were still German troops all over the country is far more interesting
I listened to the books as read by three different narrators, and while all of
them were clear and energetic in their reading, the array of mispronunciations
was, to put it kindly, amusing. Each narrator seemed to have specialized in
pronouncing one language -- usually German -- correctly.
However, there were words that were laughably mispronounced, and not just
the usual culprits like "buoy," which narrators invariably pronounce as "boo-ee" instead of sounding exactly like "boy," which is the original and most
To me, the most annoying was Passchendaele, the name of a Belgian town that
was the site of a bloody battle in World War I (400,000 British and 400,000
German casualties). It was referred to frequently in the third volume, but
always with a weird pronunciation, roughly: PASS-ken-DAH-lay.
But during World War I and for generations thereafter, English speakers have
pronounced it "Passiondale."
Of course, British soldiers pronounced another battle site, Ypres, as
"wipers," but that was more of a bitter joke than a serious attempt at
pronunciation. Still, Brits are notorious for pronouncing foreign names as
they're spelled rather than as the locals pronounce them. That's why we speak
of Paris rather than Pah-ree.
But names are always hard, and despite the lack of maps to help guide us
through events, these books worked very well on audio, allowing me to hear all
three volumes in a little over a week, what with commuting three hours
each way, to and from Lexington, Virginia.
Books about particular battles or campaigns can obviously go into much more
detail about strategy and tactics, but Atkinson's history was refreshing
precisely because he went into so much detail about screw-ups and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
By the end of the trilogy, you realize that the allies were lucky to have been
led by a man as brilliant and self-effacing as Dwight Eisenhower. Later, he
brought the same traits to the presidency, and, like George W. Bush after him,
he was commonly viewed by the press as a mental lightweight. It was only
later that people began to realize that he was way smarter than the people who
called him dumb -- he just didn't have to indulge his ego in pointless niggling
and vain display of his knowledge and analytical powers.
Most of his critics didn't know enough even to understand his decisions,
let alone criticize them. Most of the time, Eisenhower was aware of
pressures that they never knew about -- and they never knew about them
precisely because Eisenhower took care of them himself.
I highly recommend Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy for those who want to
look back at how America fought and won "the Good War." People who criticize
mistakes in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be wise to put things in
perspective, because it makes no sense to call attention to American mistakes
in recent wars, without comparing them to far worse incompetence in
previous wars that we now regard as glorious victories.
Those of us who love hyper-realistic paintings of the human figure are often
in awe of the way beauty and insight can be captured by strokes of a brush
pulled through oils, acrylics, or watercolors.
Just because the painter has a model or a photograph to copy from does not
really explain anything -- I can stare at objects all day and still can't draw
anything closely resembling the object. And as to human figures and faces --
I'm just lucky if I can get the number of fingers right.
I watch TV shows in which witnesses describe a criminal to a sketch artist and
it's laughable how close they get to the look of the actor playing the bad guy. I
can't believe witnesses can actually remember somebody's face well
enough, and in enough detail, to tell an artist, "That's right, except the nose
should be a little longer." Who notices those things?
I guess I'm the guy that hospitals use wristbands for; otherwise I'd have come
out of the hospital with the wrong baby every time. When people ask me,
"What does your new grandson look like?" I say, "A baby." I mean, once you
know it's an infant, what more can you say?
"Whose nose does he have?"
"His own. It's really tiny. I don't know any adults with a nose that size. It
would be a tragic deformity."
But portrait artists can sketch a few lines and it looks like the person they're
painting. I find that miraculous. Never mind the ability to color and shade so
it looks like a real human being.
Every color of human skin is hard to match on canvas, paper, or wood. Yet the
finest artists -- of the kind I like -- are able to paint so realistically that I
often can't tell if I'm looking at an artful photograph or a photographically
Recently I ran across the work of an artist named Zhang Jingna, and because
of her exquisite use of makeup and light, I thought she was a painter until I
actually went to her website and realized that her work was all photography.
Now, if you're troubled by nudes in art and photography, you probably don't
want to visit her site: http://www.zhangjingna.com. But I think there's
nothing more beautiful than artful depictions of the human body -- either
for beauty, emotion, meaning, or power. There's plenty of pornography in the
world -- but this is not it. (Unless you're fourteen and male, in which case
practically everything is potential pornography.)
Look at everything under the Series heading, and you'll see Zhang Jingna's
fabulous range -- and get an idea of why photography is every bit as much
an art as painting or sculpture. Her portraits are so rich with subtle
expression that she gives you the illusion that you're seeing into the model's
Zhang Jingna has made her living as a fashion and advertising photographer
-- and her work in that mode is striking and memorable. But now she is
broadening her scope and the results are breathtaking.
I'm looking forward to her forthcoming book called Motherland Chronicles,
because her work in that series is memorable and powerful. It makes me want
to write stories using her characters.
Zhang Jingna also offers a blog for photographers looking to improve their
But the fact that brilliant photography exists does not eliminate or even
weaken my desire for equally brilliant paintings of the human figure. Even
when the untrained eye (like mine) can be fooled, there is a difference. Movies
didn't make novels or plays unnecessary or undesirable, and photography
didn't eliminate the power of visual art.
One of my favorites in recent months is the Portuguese painter Carlos
Barahona Possollo. I really don't recommend his work to the casual viewer,
because his sense of humor, irony, and satire lead him to create many
paintings that are, in a word, indecent. They are meaningfully indecent
and often disturbing -- even as they are also funny or ironic.
None of this takes away from the excellence of his technique and composition,
however, and when I ran across a time-lapse video of him creating his painting
"Venus Disputed by Lust and Decorum," I was fascinated to watch how the
colors were laid on, and the way he worked with the cartoon, or line drawing
based on a photograph.
The whole painting is not reproduced in the video, which is a good thing, for
while the male personification of Decorum wears a strategically-placed fig
leaf, the male personification of Lust most definitely does not. The affected
portion of the painting is omitted from the video.
It's an odd thing about our culture that even today, male nudity is generally
regarded as far more disturbing than female nudity. I remember being shown
pictures of the statue of the Venus de Milo (which just means "Venus from
Milan") when I was in third grade.
Such a degree of nudity would never have been tolerated in a Sears catalog,
but nobody thought twice about showing it, as Art, to children. Then
again, maybe it was OK because she was in stone and monochromatic. And
because she had no arms, which was more troubling to kids like me than the
display of her naked torso.
But they never, never showed us Michelangelo's "David" at any grade until I
was in college. And even then, people who would never have batted an eye at a
nude female image tittered or pretended not to notice the very male nudity of
Personally, I think all human bodies are beautiful -- even bodies of a size
and shape not fashionable (or even healthy). And all are appropriate subjects
for art, in my opinion. But I know that is not a universal view -- and so I don't
provide you a link to Possollo's generous website, where a large number of his
works are displayed. If you want to find it, Google will help.
However, here is a link to the time-lapse video of his creation of that painting,
and it is in line with our cultural bias -- female nudity (a Venus, of course) but
not male: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPBc4k60yAg
Most of the time in the video is spent painting the face of young Cupid, who
is hanging around near his mother. (That's right, folks -- remember that
however beautiful Venus is, that is post-partum beauty, because Cupid is her
kid. The Greeks and Romans didn't want a boyish, immature woman as their
symbol of feminine beauty; they worshiped a woman of proven fecundity.)
Of course, if you dislike realistic art, or art that offers beauty and meaning,
there are no shortage of opportunities for you to be pleased by most of the
public art offered in our culture today. We who admit that we value realistic
paintings of the human figure are in the minority now, and rarely have
control of public money to spend on art that pleases us.
Yet I also believe that most people far prefer realistic art to the kind of art that
you have to be told is art so you don't think it's leftover parts and pieces from a
If you're willing to come out of the closet as a lover of beautiful realism in art, I
suggest you look at the Art Renewal Center ( http://www.artrenewal.org ), a
foundation that sponsors contests for artists working in realistic forms, along
with a vast library of online art, much of which can be purchased as high-quality canvases or prints on paper, suitable for framing and display.
Each year, their contest winners are gathered into a gorgeous book -- you can
purchase back editions if you want copies you can hold in your hands. But all
the work is also online in their "Museum," and believe me, you can spend days
exploring all the images they offer.
The museum is divided between the work of long-dead artists and their
"Approved Artist & Living Master Gallery." These are works by contest
winners and other artists that have won the approval of the Art Renewal
Center. Since their standards are high, this is a real honor, and the work on
display is worthy of being included in the same tradition as Bouguereau,
Ingres, Burne-Jones, and Rembrandt.
That doesn't mean they're always -- or ever -- as good as the best work of such
past masters. But they are worthy heirs, continuing to use similar techniques
to explore the modern world -- or imaginary worlds -- and to provide visions
that are accessible to the untrained viewer and not just to art critics.
The Art Renewal Center also sponsors education projects and affiliates with
various art schools, doing what they can to promote the education and training
of artists who wish to continue this tradition. You can donate to the Art
Renewal Center; or you can help support them by buying their publications
or prints of the art they offer.