Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Retribution" by Max Hastings (2007)

Sometimes you have to go back and read one of those big ass books you have on your shelf because you keep looking at it and thinking, "I remember that one being good, but I don't remember exactly why." Especially when they're one of your WW II books, and especially when they're by Max Hastings. This guy is outstanding.

"Retribution" chronicles the last year of the war in the Pacific. It is the sister book to Hastings' "Armageddon" which details the same time period just in the European theater. Hastings is one of the best historians of the Second World War writing today. As with most good historians, his strength lies not in an impressive statistical recitation of facts or numbers, but rather in his extraordinary ability to contextualize the narrative he is entertaining. Hastings lets you know why the events he writes about matter, even when most people at the time didn't even think they did. He gives personal accounts from both the Allied side and the Japanese side. Not many historians do that. Even rarer still in the world of WW II books is Hastings' frequent and pointed quotes from the Chinese soldiers engaged in a war against Japan on the Asian mainland.

Hastings opens the book by reminding you of how high a cost the war took in the lives of those who participated in it on all sides. For example, the Japanese kept one million soldiers in garrison in the remote and seemingly inconsequential Kwangtung region of northern China. One million men, in an area where nothing happened for almost ten years. All this does is make you imagine how many more men must have been involved in the more crucial areas of the war, and put the staggering numbers of casualties in perspective. In point of fact, Hastings maintains throughout the book that many of the histories of the Pacific War are built on the ridiculous notion that its nuclear climax represents the bloodiest possible outcome. Hastings boldly asserts that even a few additional weeks of conflict, much less a full scale invasion of the Japanese home islands, would have resulted in even more fatalities than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined (even if you were only counting Japanese deaths).

In order to illustrate how vast, how expansive the whole war was, Hastings says it might be easier for us to understand the scope of the war if we added an S to the end of the name we give it... The Second World WARS. Considering the two major Axis powers hardly coordinated in any meaningful way, this seems obvious at the same time it seems almost sacrilegious. And, intriguingly, Hastings asserts that the label 'The Greatest Generation' is inapt. He argues that it is more appropriate to call them the generation to which the greatest things happened. Obviously this is an author who is unafraid to state his opinions even when they threaten to offend you, the reader.

Hastings reminded you that Imperial Japan wasn't just an aggressive martial tyranny seeking regional domination. Well, they were that, but they weren't just that. Japan saw itself in the 1930's as a latecomer to the great global game of building empires. The rise of Japan can be viewed honestly in the West in the same way an older brother who bullied his younger siblings might see his little brother become something less than an Eagle Scout. With dispassion afforded by hindsight and decades of distance, Americans today can consider Japan's entry into WW II as a example of the horrific consequences of setting a deplorable example to those who were always watching and learning. It's not that the fault lies solely at the feet of the US and European imperial powers, but we weren't exactly blameless. Japan's policy of "Asia for Asians" made perfect sense in a world dominated by white empires and it seems heartbreakingly similar to our own 'Monroe Doctrine.' Of course the brutality with which the Japanese treated their Asian subjects made it clear that their occupation would be far more heinous to bear than either that of Britain or France or America.

Oddly, considering all this,  Japan had hitched their star to a European savior. Japan's only hope for victory in establishing their Pacific/Asian empire (which was geographically the largest in the history of the world) lay in Germany's Hitler defeating the Western powers in Europe. Even the surprise raid on Pearl Harbor was not so destructive or decisive as it has been made to seem. The US Navy's 4 aircraft carriers were nowhere near Pearl that fateful Sunday morning in December '41. The oil stocks on shore were also untouched by the raiders' bombs, and the dry docks, crucial to any long-term war effort, were left untouched by a canceled third wave of Japanese bombers. Even the greatest blow Imperial Japan ever dealt the United States still relied on a greater German victory thousands of miles away in order for it to be a lasting victory of any kind.

In fact, far from being the menacing monolithic terror American propaganda made it out to be, the Japanese government during the war years was chaotic, uncoordinated, and shockingly decentralized. Prime Minister Churchill in his democratic Britain had far more influence over the course of his military's destiny than Tojo ever did over his. Nevertheless, Tojo was labeled a dictator and Churchill a lion for freedom. In fact, Hastings reminded you that it is useful to remember that Japan in '45 mirrors England in '40. Both were island nations cut off from their allies and facing military behemoths unlike anything the world had seen before. Yet the same tenacity we praise in Churchill seems an insanity we lament in Hirohito. What we credit as one nation's "finest hour" we decry in the other as a valid excuse for using the world's first two nuclear weapons against civilians. Context, man. It's a bitch.

To illustrate how hopeless Japan's struggle was, Hastings cited a mathematical statistic that stood out to you as few stats do. Page 53, "For every four tons of supplies the United States shipped to its ground forces in the Pacific, Japan was able to ship just two pounds." 4 tons versus two pounds? 8,000... to 2? That's worse odds than the Alamo, worse than Thermopylae. And those battles didn't turn out so victorious for the outnumbered. How could the Japanese have ever thought they could win without a commensurate Nazi victory?

Early on in the book, Hastings asks the grand question of the question Pacific War. Pg. 27, "The enemy was an island nation. If the US Navy could secure sufficient Pacific footholds to provide air and naval basing facilities (for forces dedicated to heavy bombing and enforcing an absolute quarantine) on the route to Japan, was it also necessary to fight a major ground campaign?" The course of the Pacific War suggests that no one was confident of the answer to this question until the moment the formal surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay.

When you think about these huge naval battles that characterized the Pacific War, especially towards the end of the war, it is easy for you to imagine them as grand conflicts fought between machines; silver gleaming aircraft zooming down to blast great hulking behemoths churning the surface of the ocean itself with the titanic power of their mechanized might; like some high budget Sci-Fi movie. Machine versus machine with no actual people involved, unless they survived to talk about how epic the whole thing was. Hastings, however, never lets you forget that there were human beings on the receiving end of all that firepower. Every spectacular explosion meant that some frightened young man had just died a terrifying death, either strapped into a cramped cockpit or sweltering in the bowels of a mighty naval vessel. Hastings refuses to allow the extraordinary industrialization of the greatest war in history to rob the individual soldier of their humanity. He forces you to remember what a sacrifice each of these battles demanded of their host nations. It wasn't just that huge and expensive machines were being wasted against an intractable enemy, it was that human beings were being wasted as well, and wasted at a shocking pace.

Thousands upon thousands of people lost their lives on battlefields few even remember today. Hastings makes it clear, in fact, that entire fronts of the war, encompassing the struggles of millions of men on both sides and the deaths of comparable numbers of civilians, are now completely ignored by history. The invasion to liberate the Philippines was not only the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific War, including the largest naval battle in the history of the world, but it was also probably totally unnecessary to the overall war effort. Iwo Jima was so bad, American commanders chaffed at not being allowed to use chemical weapons to root out their enemies.. It was a volcanic ashen nightmare and it was the first time in the whole war that American casualties equaled those of the Japanese, and it was all done to save just a slightly greater number of American flyers who had to use the island as an emergency landing strip as the number of Marines who died to provide that safe landing place for them. Civilians on Saipan, persuaded by Japanese propaganda that the Americans were evil, merciless, rapacious  monsters, threw themselves and their own children off towering cliffs into the rocky ocean far below, and they did so by the thousands. Single nights on the home islands of Japan saw hundreds of thousands of civilians burned alive, suffocated, or crushed under falling rubble under the most ruthless area bombings of the war.

Ostensibly, the urban centers of Japan were incinerated by massive fire bombings in order to destroy the empire's war industry. Precision bombing was as much a fantasy over Japan as it was over Germany, even with the new futuristic B-29 bombers. General Curtis LeMay figured out how to give his commanders the greatest possible chance to take out factories, warehouses, rail heads, and repair facilities... just burn everything. If you can't guarantee you can hit a bulls eye, then just burn the whole target to a cinder. The buildings were made mostly of wood and paper so high explosive bombs weren't as sure of a weapon as napalm. Sadly this, like many of the island invasions farther out in the Pacific, proved unnecessary. The US submarine forces had eviscerated Japanese war production more effectively than fleets of bombers blanketing the skies over Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama ever could. The blockade of the home islands was the most effective since Lincoln cut off Confederate ports during the American Civil War. By 1945, there was effectively no war material being brought into the country for LeMay's bombers to destroy. There were only people, mostly women, children, and elderly.

The descriptions of the first hand witnesses to this firebombing campaign beggar the imagination. Dante's "Inferno" doesn't even come close to the realities of what we did to those people. The eventual use of nuclear weapons did not represent an increase in the destruction of Japanese cities, it only represented an increase in efficiency.

These atrocities seem to fade in significance in our daily lives, but they shouldn't. These are the deaths upon which the entire modern era is built. No morally sound society can embrace such a decadent and comfortable lifestyle as we have come to know without recognizing the horrors which brought it about; at least not without the expectation of some sort of karmic justice. We forget these sacrifices at the threat of our own civilization. The Second World War was great, without question.. but whether or not it was good is only to be determined by how we, we the recipients of all the benefits of those sacrifices, how we live our lives today.

"Retribution" seems an odd name for this book, especially when you consider the companion book about the fall of Germany was entitled "Armageddon." Objectively, it feels like the titles should be reversed. The Germans with their concentration camps, mass executions, and unimaginable atrocities should arguably have received some great retribution. While the fate of Japan, who suffered blockade and starvation, inconceivable firebombings that dwarfed those in Dresden and Hamburg, and a final nuclear annihilation the world has feared ever since... should have received the title of Armageddon. But Hastings makes the case that the violence of the Pacific War was not due to any latent racism on the part of the Americans (which other historians have argued) but rather to the American passion for justice. The unspeakable atrocities committed by the armies of Japan, whether in Nanking or Manchuria, in Manila or Burma, in Korea or in the POW camps on the home islands, these crimes had to be answered. And the world knew about the Japanese crimes long before the war was over, while the Nazi's greatest sins were only discovered as the German government was already collapsing.

Hastings makes this case on Pg. 368 saying, "The Japanese, having started the war, waged it with such savagery towards the innocent and impotent that it is easy to understand the rage which filled Allied hearts in 1945, when all was revealed... War is inherently inhumane, but the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy."

He doubles down 100 pages later when ruminating on the political context of dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan saying, "Japan would certainly have used atomic weapons if it possessed them. The nation had gambled upon launching a ruthless war of conquest. The gamble had failed and it was time to pay." Damn.

Hastings reminds you that the leaders of Japan had famously refused to warn America that war was upon them before they destroyed the fleet at Pearl Harbor. If they had done so, the surprise, and therefore the sock, would have been ruined. The same logic applied to withholding explicit warning of a nuclear attack. The Americans were hoping to shock Japan into sitting down at the negotiating table. Warning the Japanese that the worst was on the way would have ruined the effect. (It is important to make the distinction here that when Nagasaki was bombed, America and Japan had been at war for almost four years. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the attack WAS the declaration of war. In addition, the Potsdam declaration, signed by the Allies to much fanfare only weeks before Nagasaki was vaporized, promised "prompt and utter destruction" of the home islands of Japan if they did not surrender. This is not exactly an explicit warning, but is was considerably more than the 2,500 casualties of the attack on Pearl Harbor received.)

The same day that saw a second Japanese city destroyed by a single atomic bomb saw the Russians invade Japanese-held China. Manchuria had long been considered by the Japanese to be a safe haven from the worst of the war. It was a supposed to be a permanent Japanese colony in mainland Asia. hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had moved there from the home islands to protect themselves from the American bombings and from the looming American invasion. The Empire of Japan had a million soldiers guarding Manchuria and they never suspected a thing.

Stalin had secretly moved a million and a half battle-hardened veterans across 6,000 miles of the Russian steppe to crush Manchuria, breaking a treaty he had signed with Japan to guarantee that neither side would attack the other. This agreement was what freed Stalin to move so many troops to his Western front to destroy Germany. Those same Red Army soldiers were now spilling into the great Japanese mainland Asian colony. This new front, Manchuria, was larger than all of Eastern Europe and the Russians conquered it in less than a month. Some Japanese citizens considered the Russian invasion even more shocking than the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In August of 1945, emperor Hirohito informed his government that they must accept the Americans' terms and end the war. Japan must surrender. Oddly, some of the junior officers and staff of the Japanese military plotted to stage a coup to prevent any surrender, against the orders of their supreme leader. By contrast, a year and a month earlier, in July of '44, when it became clear that Germany could no longer hope to win the war, the junior officers and staff of Hitler's military attempted to assassinate him and overthrow the Nazi regime specifically in order to force a surrender. Conversely, even under the most inhumane and horrific retribution imaginable, the Japanese had a hard time accepting defeat. They were more fanatical than the Nazis were about keeping the war going.

Now that is fanaticism.

With such devotion to destruction on all sides, it is a wonder anyone won that war at all.

On to the next book!

P. S.  Screw Douglas MacArthur. He was a particularly awful general. He was more interested in fighting a war to achieve his own fame then to accomplish the interests of his nation. Many thousands of young Americans,  even more Japanese, and an obscene number of Philippinos died because of MacArthur's desire for publicity. Some of your friends have tried to convince you he wasn't all that bad, but the more you learn about him, the worse your opinion becomes.

P.P.S. Seriously....            MacArthur sucked.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"Eisenhower" by Jim Newton (2011)

Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of those presidents who gets a little bit lost in the shuffle. You know him much more intimately as the Supreme Allied Commander of the European Expeditionary Force during the Second World War (coolest title ever, by the way). His stint as Commander in Chief however, you have always been fuzzy about. You know he was the lone Republican sandwiched between FDR and Truman, and JFK and Johnson. You know that the decade he presided over is looked back upon as "the good old days" by nostalgic conservatives throughout the country, but other than that, you know very little. When you get bothered by your own ignorance for long enough, you can be sure you will eventually educate yourself with a good book.

President Eisenhower has been seen for decades as a distant, indecisive, almost lazy executive. It's how many saw him at the time. This is why the Kennedy presidency felt so refreshing, it was such a dramatic change from the Ike years when the White House was presided over by a stodgy and disappointing old soldier. Newton's book, subtitled "The White House Years," sheds light on the truth, which couldn't be further from the the myth of the detached and almost feckless Eisenhower the public saw (or thought they saw) in the 1950's.

Both of Ike's parents were born during the American Civil War (it's always good to be reminded how recently ago history happened). He was born in Texas. This was something Nico told you during a 4th grade school project recently and you corrected him saying that Ike was pretty famously from Iowa. It turns out you were wrong. Dwight D. Eisenhower was born right here in the good old Lone Star State (does that mean we can claim 3 presidents?). His family moved here just long enough to give birth to him and then got right back to the corn fields of Iowa. Drawn by the lure of a free education, Ike went against his mother's pacifist ideals and attended West Point. He graduated in 1915, the year they say the stars fell on because so many of the graduates went on to become generals.

Newton spends a significant chunk of his book on Ike's "White House Years" talking about the generals who influenced his development far before he entered the White House. At Fort Meade, his good friend George Patton taught him the importance and adaptability of the newest war-winning battlefield technology, the tank. The irreverent Patton also showed Ike that a soldier could be of the Army while never becoming subservient to it, a lesson Ike would need to remember as he fought back against his more bellicose presidential advisers years later. In Panama, General Connor enlightened him to the reality that allies could be even trickier to handle than enemies, and Connor insisted that Ike learn the realities of Clausewitz's assertion that war IS politics. Connor taught Ike to be a thoughtful and considerate warrior, one who valued wisdom over passion. Eisenhower served under General MacArthur both in the Philippines and in Washington DC when MacArthur served as Army Chief of Staff. From him Ike learned the dangers of megalomania and arrogance, and he saw how damaging vindictiveness and shameless self promotion can be to your character in the long run. MacArthur taught Ike what kind of general to not become. And from General George Marshall, Ike's war time teacher, he learned that it was the boring stuff that won wars on the strategic and diplomatic level. Marshall also taught him to be the opposite of MacArthur's example, to be moderate, humble, and cool headed in the face of potential fame.

After Eisenhower and a few million other folks won the greatest war ever fought, Ike was one of the most respected men in the world and seemed destined for greatness. He was beloved in Paris, Rome, London, and even Berlin (at least West Berlin). He succeeded his mentor George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff and then became head of NATO, wrote a popular memoir and gained reputation as a moderate leader. People back in the states had ideas that he might win the White House. Ike threw his hat into the Republican primary process late and went into the contested convention with far fewer delegates than the front runner, Senator Taft (the son of the former president and Chief Justice, the same Senator Taft from "When Books Went to War" who wanted to shut down program sending books to GI's in WWII). Ike reminded everyone that only a crossover candidate could hope to win in the general election, and Taft had no chance. Dwight Eisenhower emerged as the Republican candidate for president and handily defeated the academic and elitist Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. Interestingly, the man famous for making war ran against the record of President Truman, who Ike claimed had recklessly caused the Korean War. Ike won every state outside of the south and even won Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. He received 33.9 million more votes than any Republican ever had before.

Ike assembled a cabinet of extremely capable people. His gift for discerning the character of individuals served him well. Ike appointed the first presidential Chief of Staff, drawing from his war time experience that such a position could ease the burden of power and increase efficiency at the highest level of power. Elected as a centrist politician, he governed as one and often could be heard advocating for the "middle way" between his countrymen's more extreme political opinions. He surrounded himself with friends, but not "yes men." He found people he could trust and endowed them with great responsibility. He backed them up even when they made mistakes because he knew they were still capable of great things, and he needed them to do those things alongside him.

Compared with the momentous decades before and after his time in office, Ike's 1950's appear rather calm and almost boring, but this is an unfair assessment. Eisenhower made good on his campaign promise and ended the Korean War within six months of taking office. He quietly set political traps for his fellow Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist witch hunts were gaining negative press coverage and worldwide scorn. Ike watched proudly as McCarthy soon destroyed his own reputation and faded from the public eye. Much to the chagrin of his military advisers, the president refused to get bogged down in Vietnam as that French colony fought for independence. Ike fought back against the hawks in his administration and refused to launch a preemptive nuclear war against China when that communist nation rattled their saber. He brokered a peaceful resolution to a Middle Eastern war and settled a disputed control of the Suez Canal. Ike quietly kept the Cold War from becoming hot and managed revolutions and uprisings across the globe with a firm, if clandestine, hand.

Newton describes Ike on page 160 as "A profoundly conservative man, dedicated to the conviction that government served society best by safeguarding the individualism of the governed and allowing maximum liberty within those limits." Nevertheless, he became famous for supporting Civil Rights in the American South. It was a matter of principle for him. it was less an opposition to the idea of segregation that lead him to order the 101st Airborne Division to forcibly integrate a school in Little Rock Arkansas, it was more his understanding that a governor who actively defied the federal government was tacitly approving the idea of nullification. And this absolutely could not be allowed. (Besides which, Ike was not one to lose a fight, even when he didn't seek it in the first place.) Eisenhower appointed some legendary Justices to the Supreme Court, including Earl Warren. In 1956, inspired by the extraordinary highway system he had seen in Germany, Eisenhower decided to build the same kind of thing in his own country. It would become the largest public works project in U.S. history and would create the modern America. The international highway system, paid for with a new gas and oil tax, allowed the burgeoning middle classes to commute from the heart of the cities where they worked to a new and idyllic suburban lifestyle. (Ike signed the bill into law while in Walter Reed hospital having a checkup and recovering from a heart attack.)

Again and again, the man who crushed Hitler's Nazi Germany maneuvered his nation to live at peace with another intractable totalitarian regime, the Soviet Union. As a true soldier, peace was always his goal. Aiming to ease the tension between the world's first two super powers, Ike proposed that the two nations open their airspace to one another. In his plan, opposing reconnaissance planes could confirm and observe all nuclear testing and significant military capabilities. Khrushchev rejected the idea out of hand. However quixotic it might have been, it proved that Ike was a statesman, not a politician. He recognized that peace with the USSR was paramount to the continuation of Western civilization but he refused to be strong-armed into outlying military skirmishes that did not warrant the full might of American military response. The consummate poker player, Ike upped the ante. He moved to keep smaller, tactical nuclear weapons from becoming viable battlefield options, keeping nukes in the arsenal of the president alone. This ensured that any larger hot war would lead to total annihilation which, Ike realized, ensured that such a war would never happen. The Russians weren't crazy, after all.

Ike was a subtle strategist, who never lost sight of the larger picture. He was unafraid to order profoundly significant clandestine operations when he saw his nation's security or values threatened, but he knew that America's public face should not always reflect what it was doing in the background. As one of the most experienced and successful military commanders of his auspicious generation, he understood that if your enemy sees you coming, they can mount an effective defense. Great generals know that you should never fight fair, not if you want to win the larger war.

Despite the international and domestic upheavals coloring his time in office, Ike insisted on being an example for a peaceful lifestyle. He felt that the media's addiction to spectacle and crisis, their fear mongering love of scandal and catastrophe, infringed on every American's God-given right to domestic tranquility. He was deliberately seen golfing and taking his family on vacation. Ike was a man who relaxed by cooking good meals, playing card games, and painting, a trick he learned from none other than Winston Churchill. President Eisenhower wanted other Americans to live a safe and happy lifestyle secure in the comfort promised in the preamble of the US Constitution and provided by the blood of soldiers he had commanded in battle. If the 1950's seemed boring, that is because Ike wanted them to seem so.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to have access to nuclear weapons and not use them. This was not because the opportunity never arose. Indeed, Ike had to push back against his advisers who urged him to use these weapons at every turn. Ike refused to use nuclear weapons because he refused to set the precedent that they were usable at all. It is quite possible that Ike's restraint with nukes is why all other succeeding presidents didn't use them either. He was the quintessential warrior and the most famous general of the 20th century but when he became Commander in Chief he strove for peace and fought back against those who pushed for war.

Maybe the boring old man who was president during the 1950's is responsible for ensuring that the rest of the 20th century was allowed to happen at all. If so, then one of America's greatest warriors' greatest legacy is a lasting peace and the preservation of civilization as we know it.

As you finished this book, you found yourself smiling and repeating the president's most famous campaign slogan. "Yeah," you found yourself saying. "Me too... I like Ike."

On to the next book!

P.S. It is instructive to remember that one of the things that set Ike apart from his Vice President, Richard Nixon, was that Ike surrounded himself with friends. He cultivated a group of people with whom he found he could enjoy life, people who could bring him back down to Earth. After returning from a momentous trip to Europe, President Eisenhower walked in unannounced on a game of bridge being played by some of his closest friends and they didn't bat an eyelash. Failing to stand up in the presence of the most powerful man in the world, one of Ike's lifelong pals asked him, "Where have you been?" Laughing and basking in the familiar camaraderie of friendship, Ike simply pulled up a chair to observe the card game and said, "Well, let's see how the professionals do it." Nixon, on the other hand, had very few close friends, if any. He was an inherently untrustworthy person and therefore he trusted no one. Nixon was driven by ambition alone, and that, of course would be his great downfall. It is clear that Nixon learned a great deal of the craft of statesmanship at the knee of President Eisenhower. It is a damn shame that he did not learn more of how to be a better man. It should have been easy for Nixon, he served just a hair's breadth from one of the greatest.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Contact" by Carl Sagan (1985)

This is one of those rare cases when you actually saw the movie WAAAAYYYY before you read the book. But you are certain Sagan would have forgiven you. He actually first wrote "Contact" as a treatment for a movie, so it's a totally forgivable sin. Plus the movie was fantastic. But you should still feel a little bit ashamed. Read the book first from now on, okay?

Carl Sagan is a modern day nerd hero. He was an astronomer who dealt in mathematics and physics but who was also endowed with the soul of a poet. There were better astronomers than Sagan, there are smarter physicists. But what made him so wonderful was his knack for communicating the awe that studying the cosmos instills in us all. He wrote "Cosmos" and was responsible for swinging the camera on the Voyager 1 probe back towards home to snap the photo of earth that is now famous as the 'pale blue dot.' He was a genius at contextualizing how profound our discoveries in astronomy were, how small it made all of our differences seem, and how great it made our efforts to learn more.

Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the movie. Sagan's prose is much more intimate, more nuanced. The movie combined some of his characters for the sake of simplicity, but some of the richness and subtlety is lost in the translation. Besides, Carl Sagan was famous for painting pictures with words, for allowing you the luxury of contemplating vast and impossibly beautiful cosmic events within your own mind. Seeing it all as dated special effects on a silver screen almost cheapens what the author can do with words on a page.

Sagan peppers every chapter with extraordinary quotes.

"Contact" is not a sci-fi adventure story in the classical sense. The main character, Eleanor Arroway, is an astronomer who deals in boring numbers and graphs all day. There is no war among the stars in this book. Ellie does not save the world from destruction. But it is a phenomenal read, nonetheless. Sagan seasons every chapter with a random and extraordinary quote or two. Some are drawn from the likes of Walt Whitman and John Keats, some from Aristotle and Cicero, and others as disparate as Bertrand Russel and the Bible. These quotes alone are reason enough to have read the book. You were tempted to copy them into a file on your phone as a sort of meditative philosophical missive, a reminder for those times when you are feeling anything less than reverent for the miracle of human consciousness that there is no greater gift in all the worlds.

Sagan begins the book at the moment of his heroine's birth and chronicles her development into adulthood in succinct yet pithy snapshots. Her natural curiosity is insatiable and her intelligence provides her with the ability to go further in discovering the answers to her questions than the average child. Ellie's father dies when she is still small and her relationship with her step father remains aloof throughout the story. She wrestles with the religion that is forced on her by society and her step father and she becomes a devout atheist, or maybe an agnostic. Eleanor soon discovers the complexity and the clarity of mathematics, the secrets that calculus can unlock. A bit of a loner, Ellie finds herself often gazing at the night sky and pondering the mysteries above us all and the promises of profound answers hiding in plain sight for all of humanity to see.

Eleanor enters into the world of academia, acing her entrance exams got her a scholarship to Harvard. She sought a broad education but focused on math, science and engineering. Sagan was familiar with this world, being a creature of academia himself, and describes how difficult it is for a woman to do well there. The glass ceiling is there not because of any lack of feminine aptitude, but because of the latent sexism of the predominantly male colleagues. He describes how Ellie learned to literally speak louder in order to get the attention of men who reflexively ignored her, expecting her to remain silent and demure, as if she were not their equal. Sagan does not spend a lot of time on this point, nor does he make it a huge cross for his protagonist to bear. He simply states that it was one more thing she had to overcome, one more puzzle for her to solve in order to find the answers she sought.

In forty pages, Sagan takes his main character from birth to adulthood, succinctly summarizing her pragmatic views on politics, religion, and romantic relationships. And suddenly Eleanor Arroway is in charge of giant radio telescopes that scan the sky in their Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It seems to make sense that if there is intelligent life out there and they are interested in communicating with other intelligent life (assuming the quixotic notion that they would even recognize humans as fellow intelligent creatures, which is pretty unlikely) they would attempt to communicate by using radio signals. Information broadcast via radio is easily manipulated and easily received. The message travels at the speed of light and requires no spacecraft or propulsion to arrive at its intended target. So both Eleanor and Carl Sagan operated huge telescopes and scanned the skies looking for the likeliest spots that might be transmitting the first interstellar "Hello" anyone has ever picked up.

Sagan never received any message, but he had Eleanor discover one emanating from a star just 26 light years away, from a star called Vega, one of the brightest in our sky. The Message, as it soon becomes known, speaks in the only universal language we can conceive of, mathematics. Initially it appears it is a repetition of prime numbers, which could not be a purely naturally occurring sequence of radio pulses. Quasars are rarely so well educated. Soon it becomes clear that the Message is much more than a simple string of numbers. It is a complex instruction manual for building a machine. The world debates the merits of doing so, but of course, humans being naturally insatiably curious, we eventually do it anyway. Of course we would!

The machine takes a group of five individuals on an extraordinary journey through the stars. The aliens have a far more advanced understanding of the manipulations of time and space than we do and are able to pull the team of humans through worm holes that land them on a picturesque beach somewhere near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Each of the five encounter someone whom they love more than all others, or facsimiles of them. Eleanor meets her long dead father who tells her that he is merely an image the aliens created to allow Ellie the comfort level to listen to what they have to say. Humans are not alone. The universe is populated with ancient culture who are actively engineering the fabric of reality and who are cultivating whole star systems. But even more than that, the alien/father figure reveals that the universe has even deeper signs of grander designers. The worm hole system that brought the humans to meet this new species has existed as long as any culture has ever known. No one knows who built it. But even more profound than that are the messages hidden in the fabric of reality itself, within certain transcendental numbers like pi.

When the team returns home their colleagues tell them that they were not gone for the day and a half they experienced, they were merely out of radio contact with the outside world for 20 minutes. No one believes their fantastic stories of worm holes and aliens who appear on pristine beaches in the guise of long lost loved ones to teach humanity that they are part of a larger, more beautiful reality than they ever imagined. The powers that be, including influential religious leaders, demand that the five forever keep their mouths shut about what they claim to have experienced.

And so Eleanor Arroway, the woman who has always been skeptical of those who profess a religious faith, is now claiming to have had an experience she cannot deny and those whom she has always doubted now doubt her. This whole book, written by a famous skeptic (though Sagan was not a self-described atheist) is about faith. Sagan is arguing that while healthy skepticism is the only way humanity will advance its knowledge, pure skepticism is useless. At some point we must all make a leap of faith. Ellie did not believe in a god because there was never any evidence presented to her to suggest one existed, but she never claimed to know that there was no god at all for the very same reason. Anyone who believed her incredible tale had to set aside their own skepticism and believe without empirical evidence, just as all who believe in God must do. This is what faith is, belief without overwhelming evidence.

Carl Sagan never found the evidence for a greater designer of the universe he spent his life looking for, but he created a hero who did. He was teaching us all that some day even the greatest of skeptics might be satisfied, even as those who have faith today may be disappointed. "Contact" was a nuanced and respectful work, one with intellectual challenges, narrative surprises, and even a twist ending. When you finished the book you were not filled with that usual ecstatic post-literary glow. It didn't feel as if the story had ended. Sagan managed to include you in his story, and the story goes on and on. Your kids will carry it on after you and so will theirs after them and so on.

"Contact" is a celebration of the awe and wonder that the cosmos conveys upon the human mind. It is reminder that one of the greatest things the universe has ever accomplished was to create minds that can contemplate itself. By that regard, there have been few minds greater than that of Carl Sagan.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an article on how and why Sagan refused to label himself as an atheist. Fascinating.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Storm of Steel" by Ernst Junger (1920)

This was one of those books that when you found it on the shelf you actually cheered out loud for joy in the middle of the store. Your local used books store has a pretty anemic World War One section and you have been looking for "Storm of Steel" for years, always dutifully glancing at the few titles on the lone WWI shelf and only occasionally picking up anything and taking it home. This is what you have been looking for. Sure, you could have just ordered it on Amazon, but this one has always seemed too personal for that. You wanted to find this one yourself. Sometimes the hunt is sweetest when it requires the most endurance.

The first edition of "Storm of Steel" was written in 1920, but Junger spent several decades refining it and re-releasing different versions. Also, there have been a few different translations from the native German into English. This translation was done in 2003 and the translator, Michael Hoffman, spends quite a bit of time describing the fascinating shortcomings of the previous attempts. Hoffman is clearly offended at the short shrift given Junger's masterwork by previous translators. His introduction was a reminder that translation is always a matter of interpretation. Translating word-for-word or even phrase-for-phrase often does not convey the original meaning from one language to another with any fidelity whatsoever. It takes a mind fluent in both languages to tease out the nuances and the beauty of a work and present it for someone who would otherwise have no hope of experiencing the original work. God bless good translators.

Or maybe you should just learn German and read the original as it was written. Lazy American.

The word baddass is too weak a title to describe Ernst Junger. A native born German with an affluent upbringing, he longed to prove himself in combat and joined the French Foreign Legion at the age of fourteen. When the summer of 1914 threatened to plunge his homeland into war, he raced home eager to do his part in service of his beloved Germany. Of the millions of German infantry commanders who served in the Great War, only 11 were awarded the Pour Le Merite, Imperial Germany's highest honor. Junger was one of those eleven. He led men into impossible battles and held untenable positions at all costs. After the war he questioned the rise of the Nazis and the wisdom of another war, publicly rejecting all requests to serve in Hitler's new government. Hitler recognized a fellow soldier, one who had served with such extraordinary distinction, and ordered him left untouched by his goose-stepping thugs, placing him in an administrative role in Paris. Implicated in Von Stauffenberg's plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi government, Junger somehow survived the murderous purge of the German military and made it through his second World War unscathed. Junger lived to be 102 years old and was considered by many to be one of the greatest men Germany produced in the 20th Century.

Junger's writing style is simple and direct, almost stripped down. It's like listening to an acoustic set by the most talented musicians; direct raw and honest. Junger is not self serving in his story telling. He is matter-of-fact and to the point. He never extols the virtues of war but he never condemns war either, except to lament the horrors he had had to see when he did what he thought needed to be done. "Storm of Steel" is an outstanding example of what a combat memoir can be at its best.

Junger's descriptions of the static nature of trench warfare should be required reading for anyone who seeks to understand what the Western Front must have felt like. You found it interesting that he only occasionally encountered rifle or machine gun fire, and then only when he had left his trench to probe his enemy's positions or take a prisoner. Mostly what he and the other troops in the trenches experienced was constant, unrelenting shelling. It came in all sorts of varieties. There were differing caliber of shells, different types of fuses, and wildly different effects upon detonation. He became, as most soldiers of the Great War almost surely did, a connoisseur of explosions. Some detonations had a thumping feel while others rattled, some came without warning and filled the air with zooming needles of white hot steel while others tumbled from the sky like sausages dumped from baskets. Some of the shells were so massive that even the duds which did not explode shook the very ground and jarred the teeth of everyone anywhere near the impact.

Reading these descriptions of trench warfare made it clear to you that what we call "trench warfare" was really a phrase intended to describe the construction of two opposing impenetrable and primarily subterranean fortresses, built mere yards apart, manned by millions, that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. These two fortresses stretched and twisted through the French and Belgian countryside and were sometimes several hundred yards deep. If one small part of the enemy's fortress happened to be captured, typically at the cost of thousands of lives, that section was simply integrated into the victorious army's existing fortress and the enemy would bolster their own defenses at the spot they had retreated to, often a spot that had been prepared for just such an eventuality. Breakthrough was not possible. There was no exploiting of flanks. This type of fortress versus fortress warfare required constant vigilance and constant combat.

At all times, whether napping in a deep bunker or standing sentry at an exposed observation post, Junger and his fellow soldiers (on either side of no man's land) had to be prepared to either fling themselves into the best possible cover from incoming shells or rush, at a moment's notice, to defensive positions to fend off incoming waves of attacking infantry. And the gas was absolutely evil. Junger's descriptions of the poisonous gas attacks make this war seem like the place you would least want to be out of any place in history. Even Hitler recognized the madness of using gas on the battlefield and refused to allow it in the next war (it helps that he was gassed in the trenches too). Junger describes a level of attrition in his units that seems almost unbearable. Every day or two Junger looses another close friend even when they are not engaged in anything like a recognized named battle. These dozens and hundreds of deaths multiplied thousands upon thousands of times throughout the war represent the futility of the whole conflict. So many lives were thrown away for absolutely no gain. Even when one side launched a major offensive, no significant swaths of territory changed hands for any amount of time. And still the boys died. Over and over and over for years.

The paradox of this kind of warfare was that it became difficult for either side to determine how effective their military actions truly were against their enemies. Hundreds of yards might exchange hands and dozens of enemy prisoners might be taken in an offensive of maximum effort, but to no larger strategic advantage. With such enormous forces involved it was simply too difficult to tell what they had accomplished. In a perfect example of this paradox, Junger took part in a famous withdrawal of German forces across the Somme river in the spring of 1917. In order to establish a more effective defense, to shorten the linkages with other segments of the fortresses, therefore requiring fewer soldiers to man the line as a whole, Junger and thousands of his fellow German soldiers were abandoning positions they had held onto desperately for years. As they withdrew the Germans suffered very few casualties but as their enemies moved into the now abandoned positions, the Germans inflicted heavy losses upon the British and French. The Germans had strengthened their position and weakened the armies of their adversaries by a count of thousands of men, and yet the Allies considered this battle to be a victory on their part. As great as it may have been, this was a strange war.

In war, of course, death is always a constant companion but in most wars this usually means the death of friends or the threat of your own death. On the Western Front death was literally everywhere, omnipresent like a malevolent god. So dangerous were some areas where waves of soldiers had died that no one could ever retrieve their bodies, every attempt only adding fresh corpses to the piles. Men lived mere feet from where their dead friends lay rotting on exposed ground. Heavy shelling often shook corpses out of the walls of the trenches and into the laps of the living. During one memorable bombardment Junger describes trying to dig a foxhole in the ground only to find the bodies of his countrymen layered in stacks beneath him. One company of men had died here in a previous season of fighting and they had been buried by the tons of dirt and mud flung upon them by the same artillery that had cut them down. And then the same had happened to the next company. And then the next. Junger and his men were literally surrounded by the dead.

During the summer of 1916, Junger and his unit were moved to Guillemont to defend against what the British would come to call, in somber and tragic tones, the Battle of the Somme. A German runner met Junger and his men behind the lines to guide them to their positions. Junger's description of this nameless veteran bears repeating. "He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world. Sitting next to him in the roadside ditch, I questioned him avidly about the state of the position, and got from him a grey tale of days hunkered in craters, with no outside contact or communications lines, of incessant attacks, fields of corpses and crazy thirst, of the wounded left to die, and more of the same. The impassive features under the rim of the steel helmet and the monotonous voice accompanied by the noise of battle made a ghostly impression upon us. A few days had put their stamp on the runner, who was to escort us into the realm of flame, setting him inexpressibly apart from us."

Junger recounts his emotional reactions to intense combat in such honest and simple terms that it makes this war, fought a century ago, feel immediate and real to you. He unabashedly describes how he was unable to control his chattering teeth after one fearsome raid gone wrong, how a man's normal reaction to the terrifying depths of mortal dread can sometimes be uncontrollable giddy laughter. Enduring some of the heaviest shelling he had yet experienced, Junger describes the experience saying, "Throughout, we sat in our basement, with our heads in our hands, counting the seconds between explosions. The witticisms dried up, and finally the boldest of us had nothing to say... The shelling acquired a demented fury. Because of the racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed."

But however excruciating the newer, modern art of war had become, however industrialized and overwhelming the weapons of war had become, combat was still combat. In a later battle, this one fought against Indian troops (the British had used the peoples of their entire globe-spanning empire to fight the war) he speaks of the universality of armed conflict. "The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war, this was ancient history." Junger was a soldier's soldier, the kind of guy who itched to leave the boring confines of his trench find action. he lead raids on enemy lines and his descrptons are nothing if not harrowing.

Like any good hero, Junger often managed to inadvertently avoid certain death by sustaining grievous wounds that kept him from more than one suicidal battle. "Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes," he writes, "I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even twenty scars. In the course of this war, where so much of the firing was done blindly into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times." His narrow escapes throughout "Storm of Steel" are just one more reminder that luck really is as important in combat as skill or training.

In the summer of 1918, desperate to end the war before the Americans could make it to the Western Front in anything like decisive numbers, the Germans launched several massive offensives against the Allied lines. Junger led his company against veteran Scotsmen. Charging the enemy's lines, unleashed from their subterranean dugouts and tunnels, Junger and his men finally felt like true warriors. They met other true warriors in close quarters and even hand to hand fighting. It was in this last massive effort that Junger lost most of his friends. It was in this battle that he suffered the wounds that nearly killed him and forced him to convalesce for two months. From his hospital, Junger was able to see that the last great push was doomed. All the veterans and elite soldiers were gone. Those that were left could not accomplish what their leaders asked of them. "There crept over me a mood I hadn't known before. A profound reorientation, a reaction to so much time spent so intensely, on the edge... I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from this familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light. Things were less dazzlingly distinct. And I felt that the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up, and no longer held. The war posed new, deeper puzzles." The war was over because it was unwinnable. At long last it was over.

Reading this account of the events that are now a century in the past, yet that still shape our world today, reminded you that this war, as titanic a struggle as it was, was fought by individuals, not by nations. Seeing it from the perspective of one of the war's greatest soldiers reminded you that millions of more young men did what was asked of them even though it was impossible. You pray that no other generation has to live through the hell they did.

On to the next book!

P.S. in the Spring of 1917, Junger moved into a new position along the front and was ecstatic to take a moment to record that his trenches were being defended from the air by Von Richthofen himself. Even Ernst Junger was awed by the fame and greatness of the Red Baron. It's good to remember that even heroes have heroes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Strength to Love" by Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)

In your effort to learn more about the intricacies and the chronology of the Civil Rights movement, you recently read a biography of Dr. King. When you finished it, you decided it made logical sense to then move to a book written, not about the man, but by him.

Dr. King wrote several books but this is not actually a book as much as it is a collection of several sermons he preached during or shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott. Some of these sermons were written from inside jail cells. "Strength to Love" was published the same year that he wrote "Letters from a Birmingham Jail." In his preface, Dr. King reminds his readers that he only published these sermons in this format under protest and at the avid request of many of his most trusted and beloved friends. He was worried the emotional impact of what he wrote would be watered down in book form. Sermons, he clarifies, are meant to be heard, not read.

But as you read these sermons, written by one of the most famous preachers in modern history at the apex of his game and height of his passions, you could hear him. His voice would ring clear in your head, his phrasing, his cadence, his almost musical intonations. You are already a fairly slow reader, but this was a book you savored almost indulgently. Dr. King's written prose transformed into his famous orations in your mind, sweeping you off your couch and into the pews of a sweltering Alabama church in the heat of southern summers that were to be filled with days that would be marked in history books. You even found yourself nodding along with the young preacher who was desperate to change the mind of a nation which had been conceived in liberty but shackled from the moments of its birth by a sin it had yet to atone for. King preaches from these pages as he said he wanted to before he even became a preacher, as a man who crafts sermons that are based on and intelligent faith, as a scholar whose messages are laid out logically and based upon sound philosophical principles. King was a voracious reader and it shows in his sermons. Surprisingly, this man who is famous for being a Southern pastor reminds his congregation from the very beginning that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and religion, exhorting them to be both tough-minded and intelligent. "Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge that is power; religion gives man wisdom that is control... The two are not rivals. They are complementary."

He preached on the importance of intellectual curiosity and the necessity for Christians to be enlightened, not just redeemed. "One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong." King talks about how the cross is a representation of both, "The beauty of sacrificial love and the majesty of unswerving devotion to the truth... The radiance of the divine, but also the tang of the human. I am reminded not only of Christ at his best, but of Man at his worst."

Addressing the moral defense of challenging segregation and discrimination, Dr. King asserts that to passively accept an unjust system "is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil." And he warns that charitable giving and passive philanthropy won't be enough. "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary." King reminds us of the universal truth that "The ultimate measure of a man (and you would add of a society) is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy."

King lays down the creed of a people who are followers of a god who forgave his own tormentors and murderers because he loved them, and they new not what they were doing. Dr. King professes that this is a lesson that loving our enemies is the only way to solve the problems of the world (not just American segregation). Refuting Nietzsche, King observes that, "Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist." Vengeance, God demands, belongs to him alone, yet he delivers mercy and forgiveness and love instead. Dr. King was trying to lead a movement that was motivated by the same principles.

He knew that secret that is so hard for all of us to remember even today, that ignorance does not make our enemies evil, it makes them pitiable. Those who are blind to their actions, who 'know not what they do,' deserve our patience and our love rather than our scorn and our hate. King's was the first revolutionary social movement that fought against the boots at their throats while still remembering to stop to consider how the people wearing those boots were doing. Of course freedom for his oppressed people was the primary motivator for Dr. King, but, somehow, he was also motivated by his passion to save the souls of his oppressors too. In one of his most profound moments, King preaches that, "Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship... The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies."

Dr. King uses colonialism as well as segregation as a symbol for modern day evil. As colonies across the globe throughout the 1960's asserted their independence from war weary empires, King reminded his congregation that oppression, either from a foreign occupying power or from a powerful and ensconced racial majority, can be overcome. Indeed, he says that the Bible promises that it will be overcome and God will come to the aide of those who help defeat injustice. King preaches passionately that good will overcome evil in the end, that the struggle is not in vain. The Bible uses the symbol of a serpent to remind us that humanity has never been free from evil, and the Egyptians who enslaved the Israelites serve as a reminder that God will overcome evil no matter how long is might take. "In the long run," King preaches, "Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."

This philosophy reflects Dr. King's confident optimism, rooted in the knowledge that evil is always self-defeating. This is not the naive belief of a man who ignores the teachings of history or the experience of generations of oppressed and abused souls. It is the wisdom of a man who knows that every step towards freedom and every victory on the road to righting the world will be met with renewed obstacles and fresh battlegrounds. But the moral arc of history bends towards justice and hope is never ultimately in vain. King warns his congregation to not fall into the traps of cynicism, bitterness, or fatalism, not to give in to the claim that everything is preordained. He answers those ideas with the assertion that freedom is an essential part of humanity claiming that, "Freedom is always within the framework of destiny."

Recognizing that humans must have freedom of action as a part of their identity, King reminds us that God is still in control of the end of the story. "Man is free to go north from Atlanta to Washington or south from Atlanta to go to Miami, but not north to Miami or south to Washington." He repeats again and again that we believers should accept even the most bitter of tragedies secure in the knowledge that these are merely "Finite disappointments even as we adhere to infinite hope." We may not live to see the world made right in our time, but we Christians are believers that good will emerge victorious in the end.

Dr. King quotes from great philosophers and ancient poets, confident enough to assert the simple truth found in some timeworn adage yet bold enough to argue the folly of some revered philosophical assertions, taking on Hegel and Kant and Nietzsche. Expounding on his ideas that humanity must work towards a better world while also recognizing that the fight would require sacrifices and great suffering he notes that, "The Renaissance was too optimistic, and the Reformation too pessimistic. The former so concentrated on the goodness of man that it overlooked his capacity for evil; the latter so concentrated on the wickedness of man that it overlooked his capacity for goodness." But humanity cannot wait, passive and comfortable, for a just God to fix the world without any effort on our part. "We must learn," King implores, "That to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition."

In his most surprisingly ambitious sermon, Dr. King wrote as the apostle Paul, imagining what the zealous leader of the First Century church would have had to say to American Christians in the middle part of the 20th Century. King, as Paul, reminds the citizens of a nation that calls itself Christian to be, "Sure that the means you employ are as pure as the end you seek. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter... Let no man pull you so low that you hate him. Always avoid violence. If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration."

In a dark and hyper violent time, Dr. King preached a message of hope and faith in a better future, a belief that we can become better today than we were yesterday. He believed that people must work hard to achieve a world that God desired here on Earth. His deep faith in a just and loving god married with his philosophical faith in the innate goodness of humanity and inspired a generation to rise above the collective sins of their ancestors, to sever the long chains of injustice to become better people. He inspired a people to find the strength to love.

On to the next book!

P.S. You were surprised to find included in this collection a sermon on the evils of Communism calling it the only serious rival to Christianity. King honestly recognizes the weakness inherent in unrestricted Capitalism. He claims that the selfishness and materialism intrinsic in our own system, "Inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life." Dr. King was targeted and surveiled by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI because of the suspicions he leaned a little too far to the left. For a pinko commie, the good Dr. King sure delivers a rousing condemnation of Soviet style Communism, deftly dismantling the pillars of the political belief system even as he admits the failures of the Christian church in fighting for social, economic, and racial justice. Those failures may have laid the groundwork for the rise of an atheistic solution to some of the greater injustices in the world. In a moment of tortured self-incrimination, he asks, "Is Communism alive in the world today because we have not been Christian enough?" But, unsurprisingly, King insists that war is not the answer to defeating the threat of godless Communism, especially since that war might very well mean the end of the world he was trying so hard to make a better place. Christians must assert the power and the rightness of their own philosophy as a viable and hopeful alternative to the Soviets. And then, King says, we must seek, "To remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, injustice, and racial discrimination that are the fertile soil in which the seeds of Communism grows and develops. Communism thrives only when the doors of opportunity are closed and human aspirations are stifled." No offense, Hoover, but that man sounds like a lousy Communist.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Martin Luther King Jr. A Life" by Marshall Frady (2002)

Dr. King is one of your heroes. He is one of everyone's heroes. You tell your kids stories about him to inspire them to care for others and stand up for the oppressed. But, truth be told, you don't know as much about him as you want. Plus, you have realized when people who remember the Civil Rights era talk about it, or when you read about it in passing, you aren't sure exactly how all the pieces fit together, what the chronology of events is. And God, that is annoying. So you got a book about the man who championed the movement.

"Martin Luther King Jr. A Life" is written by a reporter who covered the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded. Like many journalists, he thinks he is a better writer than he really is. If your multitudinous readers are necessitated to use google to decipher your syntax, they are under threat to lose the train of the sentence, which is tortured enough in the first place, and then, for the sake of example, they are lost in a sweltering sea; adrift in the vain hopes of surety as to where the subject, let alone the author, intended to go...  Translation: Sometimes his writing was a bit pretentious.

Still, it was a perfectly succinct chronicling of Dr. King's life and a great way for you to jump deeper into the history of the movement which has inspired you and millions of others. Frady clearly worships Dr. King s a hero but he knows the man is human and he is honest about his faults. Frady does not shy away from King's many sexual affairs, although he does tend to excuse them due to some of the qualities he find most enviable within his hero.

Frady sets the stage quickly, moving the young Martin through his childhood and into college in a dozen pages. Martin's adolescence in Atlanta was characterized by his hyper emotionality, his prodigious vocabulary, his deep capacity to feel guilt, and his aversion to following his in father's footsteps as a commanding and charismatic preacher. After one year at college Martin surprisingly changed his trajectory and entered Crozer Theological Seminary determined to both serve humanity in a great cause and to become a pastor who was known for his logical and well reasoned messages.

After graduation Martin did not take a co-pastor position in his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. Instead he married Coretta Scott and in August of 1954, the same year the Supreme Court declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional, Dr. King took over the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama (and the original capital of the Confederacy).

A little over one year later, Rosa Parks, while riding home after work on a Montgomery city bus, refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was promptly arrested and the black community of Montgomery responded with a bus boycott. At first, Dr. King had no interest in becoming involved with the bus boycott. He begrudgingly joined the movement. His charisma and his intelligence, and his insistence that the boycott be characterized by a tactic of nonviolence, inspired the people coordinating the boycott to thrust him into a leadership role, and therefore into the national spotlight. As it turned out, Martin liked the role. It made him not only famous, but powerful and important, it made him a greater man than his father had ever dreamed of being.

After his second arrest for participating in a organized car pool to get black folks to work without using the city buses, a crowd gathered outside the jail and their fervent protests inspired the chief jailer to free Dr. King on his own recognizance. He wasn't allowed to sleep that night because his phone kept ringing with death threats and racial epithets. In a night filled with his own self doubt and cowardice, despondent and terrified, he prayed to God. "Lord," he said out loud, "I am down here trying to do what is right... but Lord, I'm faltering, I'm losing my courage." And in that moment, the empirical and logical preacher who had eschewed his father's brand of overly emotional preaching, the man who had never heard any clear calling from his God, heard a voice answering him in his moment of doubt and fear. "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world." King would never be the same again. It would be his Road to Damascus moment, the event that would sustain him through all of the Herculean challenges he would face in the next decade of his life.

The Montgomery bus boycott went on for over a year and it was here that Dr. King developed his ethos of nonviolence. Even so, the bus boycott, which was aimed at changing the attitudes of the white ruling class of Montgomery, was only successful because of the US Supreme Court. Even as Dr. King was in a court room awaiting a verdict in his car pooling case, an aide entered the room and announced the Supreme Court's ruling. All the public buses throughout Alabama would be integrated and Dr. King walked free.

Exhilarated by his success in Montgomery and his sudden fame, Dr. King formed several committees, gathered a team of committed personal allies, and began a nationwide movement. Eventually, he and his wife moved back to his home in Atlanta where he finally gave in and became co-pastor of his father's church. For years King searched for the same kind of dramatic moment like back in Montgomery, but to no avail. Student protesters, inspired by King's actions and rhetoric, had begun desegregated "freedom rides" on buses running throughout the South, but there was no stage to draw the eye of the American people, no defining offensive.

In the winter of '61, he thought he had found just such a decisive battlefield in the city of Albany, Georgia. But the police chief of Albany, Chief Pritchett, discovered the perfect foil for Dr. King's favorite tactic of nonviolence. Rather than meeting the protesters with extraordinary violence as had happened in Montgomery, Chief Pritchett calmly arrested all protesters with little fanfare and almost no violence. As his jails filled with King's acolytes, the chief simply made room by transferring his prisoners to neighboring counties, counties where the authorities had no compunctions about violence and torture. Dr. King soon realized that Pritchett had discovered a way to defeat him. Without an uproar in the press, without a spectacle, there would be no progress made in Albany, no action. And King knew that without action even the most inspiring rhetoric falls dead. Just six years after being thrust into the national spotlight, he was now at risk of becoming just a footnote in the history books, a charming throwback to the hazy promise of the 1950's. Nonviolence was failing.

Dr. King had come to his passion for nonviolence through the Gospel of Jesus, but soon after the bus boycott in Montgomery, he began studying the history of Mahatma Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence from Britain earlier in the century. People have compared the two movements ever since. Our culture tends to think of Dr. King as the American Mahatma Gandhi, and so did you before reading this book. But you were intigued by Frady's assertion that Dr. King had the greater challenge by far of these two great men. The Indian people outnumbered their British oppressors by a factor of  many thousands to one, whereas black people in the Jim Crow South were the minority. Gandhi was combating an alien colonial presence, but King was facing a power structure that had been in place long enough to bring his own ancestors to the continent in chains and enslave them. And Gandhi's struggle for independence had taken several decades. It is no wonder that there were moments when Dr. King's movement faltered and flirted with failure. But he was convinced that he could win if only he could find the right tactically advantageous moment.

What the Civil Rights movement wanted was an end to injustice. But what they needed in order to achieve that goal was glaring, unforgivable, and undeniable injustice that would draw huge amounts of publicity. Only then could the world see the stark contrast between the dignity and the sacrifice of King's nonviolent movement and the inhuman violence inherent in the system of segregation.

But the genius of King's movement ( and Mahatma Gandhi's) was more than a matter of simple tactics, the genius was in its genuine regard for human dignity. The violence inherent in the segregated Jim Crow South was predicated (as violence so often is) on the oppressors seeing their victims as something less than human. Dr. King's tactics, which he borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi in order to fulfill the goals he believed were set by Jesus Christ, challenged that dehumanization. He and his followers were able to take the beatings they were given, able to literally turn the other cheek, because they were motivated not solely by a sense of their own injustice, but by a love for their oppressors. Only a human being can do that. The activists who followed Dr. King were not only concerned that they were living under an unjust system themselves, they were concerned for what enforcing that system was doing to the souls of their oppressors! In being able to do that, to refuse to dehumanize their enemies, they were able to short-circuit the endless cycle of violence and revenge that only led to greater oppression. They were able to show the world the way to help bend the moral arc of history towards justice. We can only do that by seeing our adversaries not as enemies but as our brothers and sisters.

Moving on from Albany, King found one of those perfect battlefields he was looking for. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was a bustling industry town with an almost 40% black population. Rather than targeting the politicians of the Birmingham, as he had in Albany and Montgomery, King targeted the people who had even more influence. He targeted the businesses. King and his allies organized boycotts of all segregated businesses in downtown Birmingham. The boycotts nemesis in Birmingham (a city so steeped in cross burnings, lynchings, and the dynamiting of black churches it was referred to as "Bombingham") was not the calculating and calm Chief Pritchett as in Albany. Here the adversary was long time public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. He was exactly what the movement needed in order to draw the eyes of the nation. He was hateful, bombastic, arrogant, and unapologetically racist. He was the perfect reactionary villain to bring about the overreaction needed for King's movement to draw the attention of the American people.

King was arrested during these protests too, but here he was subjected to particularly harsh treatment. After a few days of stewing, he began writing an open letter which has come to be known as "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." As so many before him King's writings from jail proved more inspirational than any he had penned before. The letter became his manifesto of sorts. In it he insisted that the, "Question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be." he clarified by saying, "I would agree with Saint Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all," claiming that, "Anyone who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly," accepting violence and imprisonment in order, "To rouse the conscience of the community over it's injustices." An act, "In reality expressing the very highest respect for the law." Assertions like that were sure to draw the public's eye toward Birmingham. As the spring turned in to summer, King's letter began to spread in a way that we today would call viral.

As the stockpiles of adult protesters began dwindling and fewer people were showing up for the marches and the sit-ins, just as the attention of the world was being drawn to Birmingham, King took a desperate and morally questionable step. He enlisted the city's young citizens, draining the community's high schools and evangelizing to the black teenagers, inspiring them to take to the streets. Bull Connor turned his sadistically high-powered fire hoses and his ravenous dogs on the children of his own city... and the press finally noticed. TV was just coming of age and the images coming from Birmingham every night on the news broadcasts constituted a public crisis with shocking imagery. Now the city's adults were galvanized to reenlist in the movement and march alongside their sons and daughters. The marches soon outnumbered the police lines and barricades and broke through into the downtown district. After that, even white folks stayed away from the shops, making the boycott a total one.

The city council buckled under the economic and social pressure and acquiesced to Dr. King's demands, and seven weeks after the boycott had begun (only one week after the children were thrown in) the city of Birmingham announced the end of segregated public facilities. The city's dressing rooms, water fountains, lunch counters, and restrooms would be open to everyone now, and black clerks would be hired at downtown businesses. No Supreme Court ruling had brought it about, and no major outbreak of violence had been necessary. Dr. King's vision was coming true. Within weeks President Kennedy gave a televised address urging Congress to pass a Public Accommodations Bill abolishing separate facilities throughout the country. Three months later thousands took part in the March on Washington and King's most famous speech was aired live on all three TV networks.

As the nonviolent movement gained critical victories, it was beset by terrible acts of violence and calls for revenge. Assassinations of nonviolent activists, black and white, were followed by church bombings that killed children. Lynchings and Klan rallies increased. And shadowing Dr. King's ascension was the rise of another black leader who preached not nonviolence, but revenge. Malcolm X spoke of white Americans not as brothers and sisters who could be redeemed through love, but as monsters and dogs, pale parodies of human beings who could never be trusted and who had not earned the right to be redeemed. Malcolm had grown up as a poor inner city hustler and he reflects the same blind rage and bloodlust that could be heard at those Klan rallies. The rise of Malcolm X was not so much an indictment of the man himself as it was an indictment of a society that could produce such a man, as with Nat Turner or John Brown a century before. It was not revolutionary to preach meeting violence with violence. And when Malcolm X was assassinated after beginning to soften on his hard line, it came as little surprise his killers were not white segregationists but black extremists who were outraged that he had begun to turn his back on their violent and vengeful ideals.

The next big fight for the Civil Rights movement was in Selma. A peaceful march was planned from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to protest for the right to vote. The marchers, in their Sunday best, were met one Sunday afternoon in March of 1965 on Edmund Petiss bridge, by riot police. For a brief moment the two sides paused and regarded one another in silence. Then the police, in their gas masks and riot shields, charged. They mowed down the peaceful protesters, beating them with nightsticks and gassing them with grenades. A few seconds later the mounted police surged into the fray in what looks very much like a cavalry charge... against unarmed people marching for their right to vote... in America... in the 20th century... and the footage was on the news that very night.

It was more than the public could bear. Within two weeks, President Johnson gave a televised address announcing a Voting Rights Act. In his Texas drawl, he even quoted the movement and stated that it was not only black Americans who must combat our legacy of bigotry and racism, but that it was up to all of us and "We shall overcome." Dr. King's aides say that this moment was the only time they ever saw him cry.

King realized that the nonviolent movement had to move into northern cities too and it had to address the roots of injustice. He launched a campaign in Chicago and began preaching that poverty was the root of much of the racism he fought against. His campaign in Chicago failed. He had trusted the politicians who promised him sweeping change and they let him down.

Dr. King was motivated by his convictions more than any strategy, often to the point of folly. Seeing dead Vietnamese children in the paper, children who had been killed by American bombs, he came out against the war there. At the time public opinion still backed Johnson's war and King speaking out against it effectively ended his communication and influence with the White House. Eventually he began to question the morality of capitalism itself, coming close to advocating (but never expressly calling) for a true revolution. Nevertheless, even when it made him unpopular and inspired hatred in so many of his fellow citizens, King stayed true to his own preachings and his convictions.

But the 1960's were SO violent that King's message of nonviolence seems almost inevitable. Extremes often create their own counterparts in the universe. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Martin Luther King Jr was Newton's 3rd Law in the form of a person. And he didn't live to see the end of that violent decade. An assassin's bullet found him in Memphis in the spring of 1968. Most of us say the phrase "it's my cross to bear," as if it means to take on a great burden. But Dr. King knew that when Jesus told us to "take up your cross and follow me," he meant that he was asking us to sacrifice ourselves, he was warning us that it might kill us.

Maybe it all wasn't worth it. Maybe the world we live in today, the America we made for ourselves, is not good enough to have required the sacrifice of someone as extraordinary as Martin Luther King Jr. But this book reminded you that, however great the cost, the world you live in now is a damn sight better than the one your parents grew up in.

On to the next book!

P.S. It is remarkable how great a part Christianity played in the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King was a minister and so were many of his closest allies. Before mass actions, when he knew it was going get really ugly, he would remind his followers that they were to act in love for those who would be attacking them because God loves those folk too and anyone who could do the things these white folks were about to do needed God's love more than most. The protesters who were sent out by King were inspired to live out the creed that when someone strikes you, you should turn the other cheek. Dr. King once preached that, "We will make the God of love in the white man triumphant over the Satan of segregation that is in him. The struggle is not between black and white... But between good and evil."

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Mythology" by Edith Hamilton (1942)

This is one of those books you have seen on the shelves of every bookstore you have ever been in. It's popularity is so widespread that it is regularly on the 'clearance' section of your favorite used bookstores. You have been meaning to buy a copy for years now and when you finally did it ended up, sadly, on the bottom of that stack of books that you always intend to read. It stayed there for months. It wasn't until you read the fantasy novel "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman that you finally bumped "Mythology" to the top of the stack.

Dude, you are an idiot for waiting this long to read this book. This is one that you are going to need to read multiple times throughout your life in order to truly wring all of the wisdom out of it. It feels like it's going to be like "The Lord of the Rings" and you are going to feel compelled to read it over and over again for years to come. Which means that this review of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" is probably the first of many to come....

This book is poorly named. It is about mythology, however it is not a compendium of the mythologies throughout human cultures like you always hoped it was. "Mythology" dwells almost exclusively on the myths of the ancient Greeks. Since one begat the other, Hamilton also spends a few pages on some particularly singular Roman myths and she even has a phenomenal section on Norse mythology, but the lion's share of the work focuses on the Greek world. The overly broad title is probably a function of the ethnocentrism of the era in which she wrote "Mythology." In 1942, when a scholarly American professor referred to mythology he or she did not mean the stories that any darker hued aborigines had grunted to one another over dwindling fires, the blood-soaked religious anthems obscenely carved onto crumbling tropical ziggurats, or the antiseptic tales from the alien Asian world; when that scholarly professor said the word mythology, he or she obviously was referring exclusively to the body of ancient myths that guided the people from whom Western Europeans and the early Americans had intellectually descended. Despite the inaccurate and dismissive title, "Mythology" is fantastic.

Hamilton is able to take stories from across generations, poems, plays, and prose, often told by authors removed by centuries, and blend them all together to form coherent and absorbing tales. Before each section, she not only lists the original authors she is paraphrasing, but she also says why she prefers certain versions over others. Ovid is far too verbose, Aeschylus is grave and direct, Homer delights in the beauty of the world, while Virgil tends to exaggerate in a typically Roman style. Most ancient Greeks probably never had as clear an understanding of each of their gods' and heroes' story arcs as she lays out in this inimitable book.

Hamilton reminds her readers from the start that myths and gods are as ancient as any human constructs that we know of, but the Greeks were the first people to speak of their gods as people. Zeus was not a jackal-headed deity like in Egypt. Hera was a woman not a some hybrid monster as we can find in Mesopotamia. The Greeks made their gods in their own image, unlike the Hebrews who contend that their god made them in his. The rare satyr or gorgon appears here and there, but for the most part those older, more terrifying creatures are absent in the pantheon of the Greek gods. The Greeks saw beauty and power in themselves and in their fellow humans so they made their gods reflect that. At last in human history, the inhuman no longer reigned over the human. And these were no imperious, aloof rulers pronouncing judgement from on high. These gods were personal. They were involved in the everyday lives of their people.

The first we hear of the Greek gods is through their poetry, and even the oldest examples we can find have a quality that is extraordinary. Reading even the earliest examples of the mythology of the Greeks we find a body of work that is already matured and nuanced. The world was more rational now, a millennium before the birth of Jesus. There were still things to fear in the world, to be sure, but at least the gods were no longer monsters, they could be understood. They had powers of course, but irrational magic and superstitions had no place in Greek mythology. The Greeks were even free to laugh at their gods, something some religious folk still have a hard time allowing even today, almost 3,000 years later.

Another detail that sets the Greeks gods and mythical heroes apart is how realistic they were. They lived in actual, physical, easily visited places that exist right here on Earth. Hercules hailed from the city of Thebes. The exact spot where Aphrodite had been birthed was a popular tourist destination. In addition, Hamilton notes that each god possessed a convincing and intriguing duality about them, two opposing characteristics contained within each deity. Zeus was considered the most honorable of the gods whilst also being an unconscionable philanderer. He was identified as the god of the strongest among the Greeks but also the protector of the weakest. Dionysus might be the ultimate example of the duality of the gods of Olympus. He was the god of rapture and euphoria but also the god of sorrow and suffering, a deity for the immediate and gratifying joys of life but who died horribly every year only to be resurrected in order to bring life to his worshipers. These dualities the great poets and playwrights endowed their gods with, coupled with their grounding in actual geographic locations, make the rulers of the ancient world extremely relateable as characters.

As the culture of the Greek city states evolved and matured, growing in depth and experience, so did their gods. The pantheon was not a static and unchanging lot, they were a manifestation of human understanding of the world. And these were some very curious and brilliant humans. These myths, Hamilton contends, are humanity's early attempts at science, our first forays into explaining the natural world. As this understanding of the world expanded, so did the Greek concepts of their gods.

Reading these ancient stories proved oddly comforting to you. These were not simply crude efforts to explain the increasingly dangerous and complex world the early Greeks saw expanding all around them, these were stories explaining a deeper truth, illuminating the human condition, recognizing and reflecting astonishing wisdom and self awareness. Phaethon's tale was not just a story explaining that there was a god who carries the sun across the sky on a great chariot, it was a story about how a son's ambitions to match his father's accomplishments can end up ruining him. The epic of Hercules was not merely a myth to explain how the massive stones that form the gates to the Mediterranean were created (we call them Gibraltar and Ceuta but the Greeks called them the Pillars of Hercules), it was a story to warn us that we cannot simply be ruled by our basest emotions or justify our actions through overwhelming strength. Reason, intellect, and compassion, qualities Hercules sorely lacked, are essential for creating a world in which justice and freedom are possible, a world worth living in.

This is why we still reference these stories today, eons after the religion has died off. Because their lessons are still true. They still speak to us. Yes, these myths were the blueprint for a religion, but they were also morality tales shaped by poets and playwrights to suit their particular audiences, to help guide their societies through moral dilemmas and through difficult times. These writers illuminated different aspects of the gods while also using their unique media as social commentary just as modern creators do in their own media today. In essence, Greeks mythologies were part sermon, part Star Trek.

Almost every hero of Greek mythology offers one lesson above all others: if we require our heroes to be perfect, we will have no heroes. Hercules was prone to murderous tantrums, Achilles is famous for being a great warrior with a tendency to sulk and pout at slightest perceived offense, Bellerophon was so arrogant that he thought himself the rival of the gods themselves. Teddy Roosevelt was a petulant and manic brat of a man-child. Martin Luther King Jr cheated on his wife almost habitually. Thomas Jefferson made a fortune off the buying and selling of human beings into slavery. Sins and weaknesses should not keep people from becoming our heroes. Today, we foolishly tend to require perfection from our heroes. One big scandal, one embarrassingly viral video, one off-color remark and we are quick to condemn, and we do not forgive. The Greeks knew better than we. No one is perfect, even our heroes.

You noticed some intriguing similarities these stories share with Biblical imagery and tradition. Here a god is raised from the dead and remembered by his worshipers through the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, there a great leader is told to sacrifice his first born son only to see the boy saved by a ram, and everyone who is anyone is the Son of God. The New Testament in particular echos with themes from Greek mythology. It makes sense that the Bible would borrow from Greek mythology, the source material was too good not to! Or maybe it was the Greeks who borrowed from the Hebrews. Or maybe, just maybe, God saw how deeply humans could be moved by these brilliant stories and decided to shape the life of Jesus to echo the stories humans had already been telling each other for eons. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

Whatever universal truths can be found in mythology, whatever wisdom, whatever inspiration, certain truths are undeniable. Humans are the only hope that life on this planet could ever survive the death of Mother Earth, we solve the greatest mysteries, we defy the story of Icarus and stretch out into the cosmos. We seek out wisdom and knowledge, we change the face of the planet with the sweat of our brows. But we do one thing that makes all the others possible.... we tell stories.

On to the next book!

P.S. Theseus is one of the Greek heroes who deserves more credit than he gets. You had never really heard of him until this book, but he is the mythical inventor of democracy, the ruler of Athens who rejected his crown and gave the power to the people instead. He was the great hero who used wisdom with more potency than any physical weapon. He was present to forgive and thereby save his friend Hercules when Herc was stricken mad by Hera and murdered his own wife and children, This makes Theseus the one who established the idea that a person cannot be condemned for crimes they committed while they were insane. In fact, of all of Hercules' many famous feats, (and that's kind of what he was known for) the Greeks all agreed that his greatest accomplishment was traveling to the Underworld and freeing Theseus.

P.P.S. The final 20 pages of the book are dedicated to illuminating Norse mythology, for which most of the records were almost completely destroyed by the immigrating Christians a thousand years ago. Every Norse tale is a tragedy, even their heaven is prophesied to fall into ruin in some epic battle in the future (called Ragnarok). Therefore, these people valued heroism above all else. Looming over every story is the realization that death is inevitable and the only way to face it with honor, whether you are human or a god, is to die laughing. It is fascinating, but you'll have to elaborate more on that topic on you next review of this extraordinary book.