How America Learned to Liberate

By Atkinson, Rick | Newsweek, October 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

How America Learned to Liberate


Atkinson, Rick, Newsweek


The campaign to free Italy foreshadowed battles to come, from Berlin to Fallujah.

Few successful wars of liberation have been more roundly condemned or more quickly forgotten than the American-led campaign to free Italy, which began 64 years ago last month. GREAT STUPIDITY? a magazine headline asked at the time. The scholar David M. Kennedy later noted the 312,000 Allied casualties suffered in two years of slogging up the Italian boot and condemned "a grinding war of attrition whose costs were justified by no defensible military or political purpose." Other historians have been far harsher.

Yet the Italian campaign has enduring resonance, both as a milestone on the road to victory in World War II and as a steppingstone toward a free, stable Europe. Sometimes liberation works as planned: the fight for Italy unshackled that nation from both the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and his blood pact with Nazi Germany. It prompted the transformation of a stunted, totalitarian misfit into a prosperous Western democracy.

Certainly, the lessons learned in Italy paid dividends later in the war, especially through the expertise gained in complex amphibious operations at places like Salerno and Anzio, and in fighting as a large, multinational coalition. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the senior commander overseeing the Italian campaign until the end of 1943, used the multinational headquarters he had built in the Mediterranean as a template both for SHAEF -- the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, which orchestrated the final victory in Western Europe -- and eventually for NATO. The boot also blooded American GIs and their commanders for later campaigns: much of the force that invaded southern France in August 1944 had fought at the Volturno River, the Rapido River, Monte Cassino and Anzio.

The Italian campaign offered valuable experience in occupying a large, fractious, defeated country. Soldiers learned to organize civil society, from rebuilding an electrical grid to stamping out a typhus epidemic. Several generals who later became postwar proconsuls first cut their teeth on civil-military matters in Italy, notably Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr., a future military governor of Bavaria, and Gen. Mark W. Clark and Lt. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, both of whom would serve as Allied high commissioners in Austria.

Italy foretold the war to come. …

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