If we based our understanding of history purely on popular culture—specifically that provided by Hollywood—we might think of World War II along the following lines: The war started when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (interrupting a number of love lives and little league games); then, after some time getting organized, Tom Hanks invaded Normandy and saved Private Ryan. We dropped the Big One on Japan, and that was that.

The full story of the American victory, of course, is a good deal more complicated. Rick Atkinson, a journalist and former contributor to the Washington Post, set out to tell an important part of that story in a three-volume series, the Liberation Trilogy. The series covers the role of the United States (largely the U.S. Army) in defeating Germany and its allies in the European theater of operations. The first installment of the trilogy, An Army at Dawn: The War In North Africa, 1942-1943 (2002), describes the U.S. and British campaign in North Africa that began on November 8, 1942, with the launching of Operation TORCH, an amphibious invasion of French Morocco and Algeria. This invasion took place just after the victory of the British Eighth Army at El Alamein. The two allied forces gradually converged on the Axis armies, first compressing the Germans and Italians into a beachhead in Tunisia and finally forcing their surrender on May 13, 1943. The Allies, having cleared North Africa of hostile forces and capturing or killing roughly 250,000 of the enemy, were then in a position to strike at Sicily and the Italian mainland.

Atkinson spends over 500 pages telling this story. He covers the campaign in painstaking detail, from the great political dialogue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943 to the ordinary details of the American home front. But he spends most of his time with the troops in the field. Atkinson refers to the American force as “An Army at Dawn” because it was then just beginning to make the extraordinary transition from a small, poorly funded, peacetime cadre into a world-class fighting force. To survive this uncertain dawn, the United States paid a considerable price: 2,715 killed in action, nearly 9,000 wounded and more than 6,500 missing.

* * *

Atkinson argues that the North African campaign was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power—militarily, diplomatically, strategically, and tactically.

This may be going a bit too far, but Operation TORCH and the subsequent operations were a turning point in what may have been the greatest war in human history. Grand strategy, Churchill tells us, is the summit where true politics and strategy meet. Atkinson makes clear that North Africa was a political conflict as much as a military campaign. FDR needed to have Americans fighting somewhere in the European theater to sustain support on the home front, and particularly to relieve the domestic pressure to emphasize the fight in the Pacific. The United States had been attacked by Japan, after all, not by Hitler. But Roosevelt decided, correctly, that the greatest threat was posed by Germany and that the greatest strategic opportunities came in the European theater, broadly defined. North Africa offered the quickest means to engage in that war. The British were already fighting in Africa and such a complementary British-American operation was strongly favored by Churchill. One had to begin fighting somewhere.

Many high-ranking American officers, including the highly-respected Army chief of staff, George Marshall, disagreed with the specific location, however. They argued that by fighting in North Africa, we were actually fighting for British imperial interests rather than against the Third Reich. They favored a more direct approach to Berlin, by preparing for an immediate invasion of France in late 1942 or at least 1943. The North African campaign, they said, was a distraction that would delay the cross-channel invasion until 1944 or later. An early American attack on the continent arguably would have led to a quicker defeat of Germany and, as it turned out, to less territory being conceded to Stalin and the Red Army.

* * *

Atkinson comes down firmly on the side of the British in this particular argument (as do most historians and strategic analysts today). The means of invasion, Allied shipping and airpower, were still limited. A Normandy—like D-Day invasion could not have been mounted successfully much earlier than June 1944; certainly not in 1942 or 1943. As the saying goes, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics—and the Americans still had a long way to go in developing the infrastructure for war, despite the incredible productivity of American industry. It proved to be a major challenge to mount a limited operation against largely undefended North Africa. But beyond these material limitations, the American military, especially the Army, simply were not yet ready for the big leagues. Operation TORCH saved Washington and London from a calamitously premature landing in northern Europe. “Given the dozens of Wehrmacht divisions waiting behind the Atlantic Wall,” Atkinson writes, “France would have been a poor place to be lousy in.”

And the Americans proved lousy, in many respects, in North Africa. Atkinson is particularly hard on the American commanders, the legendary George Patton included. Patton displayed the conspicuous command attributes for which he became famous: “energy, will, a capacity to see the enemy’s perspective, and bloodlust.” But, Atkinson argues, Patton also had “a wonton disregard of logistics; a childish propensity to feud with other services; a willingness to disregard the spirit if not the letter of orders from his superiors; and an archaic tendency to assess his own generalship on the basis of personal courage under fire.” (Atkinson notes quite critically elsewhere the fact that some American commanders had a disconcerting tendency to avoid the front lines.) Then there was Dwight Eisenhower—implausibly elevated from an obscure lieutenant colonel to allied commander in a space of 30 months. Atkinson at first finds him shallow, indecisive, and out of his element. As the campaign continued, however, Eisenhower began to find his stride as the leader of a coalition, if not as a battlefield commander.

* * *

Eventually, men of real leadership stepped forward and those incapable mostly fell by the wayside. Four U.S. divisions developed essential combat experience in five variants of Euro-Mediterranean warfare: expeditionary, amphibious, mountain, desert, and urban. The troops learned the importance of terrain, combined arms, aggressive patrolling, stealth, and massed armor. They were toughened by the difficult Tunisian terrain and harsh winter climate: “a cold country with a hot sun.” They knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned, yet to fight on. More importantly, Atkinson writes, the Yanks had arrived in North Africa with the sense that they were still fighting somebody else’s war. By the end of the campaign they were fully vested in the war effort, because they had seen their friends killed and maimed by the SOBs on the other side. War had become personal. North Africa was where American soldiers became killing mad, where the hard truth about war was first revealed to many.

At the same time, however, North Africa was where irony and skepticism began refracting the experiences of ordinary soldiers. Atkinson agrees with those military experts who argue that combat effectiveness depends largely on small unit cohesion—the desire to gain the esteem of one’s buddies, to be thought a cool head in a fire-fight—rather than a sense of high moral purpose. Atkinson’s Army at Dawn marches to a ribald tune about Tunisian whores and not to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

That assessment is undoubtedly true, but not comprehensive (again to paraphrase Churchill). Here we come once more to Eisenhower, who entitled his war memoirs, Crusade in Europe. As Atkinson makes clear, Eisenhower meant it: he was a true believer in the righteousness of the Allied cause. “If [the Axis] should win,” he wrote, “we would really learn something about slavery, forced labor, and the loss of individual freedom.” The great Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, said it well: “There is a soul to any army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.” This reflective quality—of commanding the souls of men—is true not only for military excellence, but for the higher purpose and honor that transcends the battlefield.

Atkinson highlights the other key aspect of Eisenhower’s leadership—his genius in commanding a coalition and especially in managing the subtle shift in the balance of power within the Anglo-American alliance, as the United States became the stronger partner. British commanders initially had nothing but contempt for American martial skills—”our Italians,” they called the Yanks, not meaning this to be a compliment. American commanders naturally resented British condescension: “The British cope, we fix.” These frictions were never totally worked out, but Eisenhower made sure that the military side of the alliance worked.

* * *

Then there were the French. Much of North Africa prior to the invasion was under the nominal control of Vichy France, the German satellite state in unoccupied mainland France. Eisenhower had to deal with the Vichyites and bring them to the Allied side, forcibly if necessary, in order to secure the landings and to protect his rear area. Many of them were brave and happy to be free of the Germans, but some were unsavory, pathetic, and clownish, such as General Henri Giraud and Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan. Eisenhower also had to deal with the prickly Free French, above all Charles de Gaulle. This part of the Allied coalition never worked well, and Eisenhower made some basic mistakes in putting it together, although it served its immediate purpose.

None of the story of the North African campaign was inevitable, Atkinson writes: “not the individual deaths; nor the ultimate Allied victory, nor eventual American hegemony.” History, like particular fates, hung in the balance, waiting to be tipped. History hung heavy over North Africa. The jaded locals and their ancestors had seen countless battles before; they treated this latest war something like a spectator sport. They could point to the battlefield at Zama, where Hannibal had been smashed by Scipio Africanus to end the Second Punic War in 202 B.C. They probably thought that this would not be the last battle the greater Arab world would see. And they were right.