Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley (2009)

Bradley is the guy who wrote "Flags of our Fathers" which was such a phenomenal book that you will now read anything he ever writes again forever.

Theodore Roosevelt is a major character in the American story. He has his face on Mt. Rushmore, for God's sake. But you don't really know that much about him. You've always wanted to dive into the TR waters to learn more bout the nation's 26th president, but the mountain of books about him has made it a bit daunting to choose a starting point. When you picked up "Imperial Cruise" you had no idea it would be just that. You thought it was just a primer on the pre-history of the World War II in the Pacific, and it was... but it was also a major indictment of Teddy Roosevelt's tenure as the chief executive of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century.

In July of 1905, the oldest daughter of the president of the United States was 21 years old, and she was the hottest celebrity in the country, maybe in the world. She was irreverent and brash. She was independent and outspoken. The first beautiful and shockingly behaved young woman who was famous simply for being famous, Alice Roosevelt set the mold for what would become a very familiar staple of our modern world. When the president wanted to send his Secretary of War (and future president), William Taft, to engage in secret, not to mention unconstitutional, negotiations with foreign governments, it made perfect sense to use Alice as a smokescreen for what was really going on. And so the Imperial Cruise was born. The Secretary and the First Daughter were accompanied by seven senators and twenty three congressmen (one of whom would later marry Alice) on a luxury passenger liner called Manchuria. Forming the largest diplomatic delegation ever sent by the United States to Asia, they set out to tour the Pacific Empire that the United States had spent the last few decades of the nineteenth century building.

The title of this book is a little misleading. "The Imperial Cruise" is not strictly about the cruise that President Roosevelt sent his Secretary of War and his daughter on in 1905. It is mostly about the path the United States took to justify in starting an American Empire in the first place. As the book follows the progress of the actual cruise, from Hawaii to the Philippines, from Japan to China and Korea, Bradley leads you through the history of America's efforts to build an empire in each location. On second thought, maybe the title isn't so misleading after all.

"The Imperial Cruise" covers the Mexican-American War of aggression the US fought for a small piece of what we now call Texas, The Spanish-American War of convenience to claim territories stretching from Puerto Rico to Cuba and from Guam to The Philippines, and the American lead hostile corporate (and eventually US Marine) conquest of Hawaii. The book also sheds painful light on the atrocities committed by the United States in the Philippines.

Before we go any further with the history of America's Empire, one thing needs to be made clear: American foreign and domestic policy was based on extreme racism even long after slavery was ended. This was not just the familiar racism of dehumanizing epithets and Jim Crow laws, this was the kind of racism that would, a few decades later, sound more familiar ringing from the stadiums of Nuremberg and Berlin. It was a racism that demanded Aryan dominance, indeed men who would come to be idolized by generations of Americans spewed white supremacy with an ease that is shocking to read in print. Teddy Roosevelt, whose face is carved on a mountain in South Dakota, regularly made the case for Aryan supremacy both before and while he was president. Even worse, he used these racist ideas to justify decisions which would later require the blood of millions to rectify.

In the early part of the 20th century it seems that everyone was pretty terrifyingly racist. Harvard University's most respected professors were white supremacists. The Western World was completely convinced that Anglo-Saxon's were destined to rule the world's "less worthy" races. If they had to kill most of them to do so, that was not a particular problem. The important thing was to keep white people in power and keep the white race pure by not allowing it to mix with other undesirable races. Today we call that ideology 'eugenics.' In fact, after the Mexican American War, the US could have claimed all of Mexico as our newest territory, but too many Americans wanted no part in governing non-Aryans. We wouldn't even claim territory we had conquered because the were just too many brown people there. Now that is pretty racist.

Somehow, Japan received the dubious honor of becoming "Honorary Aryans" in the eyes of the Roosevelt Administration. The Japanese ambitions in seeking domination on the Asian mainland were given the quiet blessings of the United States government. It was thought that Japan would force China to keep her doors open to western commerce. Japan could also serve as a convenient military check against Russian expansion into the lucrative opium trade so many Americans were getting rich off of inside China. In fact, the US ignored her treaty of friendship with Korea when Japan started a war with Russia over control of the peninsula.

Japan shocked the world with a surprise attack that devastated the Russian Navy before Japan had even declared war. Sound familiar? The President of the United States spoke of the Japanese victory in glowing terms. "I was thoroughly pleased with the Japanese victory," President Roosevelt said. "For Japan is playing our game." Forty years later, another President Roosevelt would paint those same tactics as dastardly and cowardly.

Teddy Roosevelt even went so far as to unofficially threaten war with France and Germany if they came to Russia's defense in her new war with Japan, and Japan had already secured a military support treaty with England. Even worse, after the war with Russia ended, the Roosevelt administration betrayed an ally to Japanese domination. Korea had signed treaties with the US and considered America their protector. One of the secret meetings Secretary Taft had while on the Imperial Cruise was to betray this relationship. Teddy gave Korea to Japan just (if not even more) appeasingly than Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Germany. It was this open invitation to strive for control of mainland Asia that started Japan on the road leading to Pearl Harbor. It was this example, Japan's American-approved invasion of a racially inferior nation and the subsequent brutality that inspired Japan's policy of domination for the next forty years. It is also the direct cause of the deaths of upwards of thirty million human beings. You call it World War II.

In one fell swoop, Roosevelt and Taft had handed Korea to Japan only to then immediately turn public opinion in Japan against the United States by convincing the Japanese government to not seek a huge cash indemnity from their defeated Russian adversary. By insisting China keep her doors open to foreign commercial meddling, Roosevelt and Taft had also ignited the flames of Chinese nationalism and then fanned them using Japanese aggression on the mainland as a foil.

It becomes easy to empathize with the Japanese' mounting sense of frustration in the coming decades when the very nation that planted the seed of "An Asian Monroe Doctrine," as Teddy Roosevelt called it, suddenly balked when Japan, you know... began implementing an Asian Monroe Doctrine. As Japan stretched her ambitions over the horizons, she was met at every turn by the nation that had inspired her ambitions in the first place. It smacks as more than merely hypocritical for a nation to, with one hand, order the death of everyone in the Philippines over the age of ten years old while, with the other hand, wagging a finger at their Japanese former ally who culls 200,000 sex slaves from a conquered Korea. Maybe the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't such a cowardly or infamous stab in the back. Maybe it was America's failed foriegn policy biting her on the ass.

We had certainly changed our minds about the Japanese being "Honorary Aryans" when we swore to wipe them from the face of the Earth a few years later, when we fire bombed their capital, and when we vaporized two of their ancient cities with nuclear weapons.

Of course there are far more events than can be listed here that occurred between Japan's annexation of Korea in 1905 and her attack on the US Navy on December 7th, 1941. There are the usual complexities and nuances of diplomacy between modern nations, there are economic factors and political variables to consider as well. The Japanese government certainly holds the lion's share of the blame. But the ball connecting those two dots was set rolling by an American president who was motivated by racist ideals, who proved terrible at predicting the ramifications of his actions, who did not want any light shed on his actions, who dealt with foreign governments in unconstitutional secrecy, who came to prefer the company of 'yes' men, and who was clearly out of his league.

Theodore Roosevelt's face is carved on a mountain alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, three undeniably great men. You should read more books on Teddy Roosevelt, because "The Imperial Cruise" makes him look like he simply has no place on that mountain. But then again, the truth resists simplicity.

On to the next book!

Okay, here is some John Green on this topic. Who can get enough of this guy? This is Crash Course on American Imperialism with special emphasis on the Spanish American War.


P.S. You were fascinated by the knowledge (which didn't really fit into the scheme of this review) that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's family money did not come from his Roosevelt side. It came from his Delano side. His grandfather had been one of those who had taken advantage of the Western Powers forcing open China's door. He had made a fortune in the most lucrative of all businesses, dealing drugs. The money that made FDR so wealthy was made selling opium to the people of China. Now that's something they don't teach you in school!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Star Wars: Darth Bane Trilogy by Drew Karpyshyn (2006 - 2009)

Sometimes re-watching the movies for the umpteenth time just isn't enough for you and you feel the need to dive into the Star Wars world a little deeper with some of the books. Thank God there are hundreds of them available.

You can tell from the red lightsabers on the cover that this series focuses on the Dark Side. The series includes the titles "Path of Destruction," "The Rule of Two," and "Dynasty of Evil." The trilogy takes place 1,000 years before Han Solo and Luke Skywalker save the day by blowing up the Death Star. You have played some of the Star Wars video games that are set 4,000 years before, and these books reference some of the events and some of the planets from those games (which is kind of cool, in a very nerdy way). The plot follows the lifespan of Des, a young man with a job mining ore on a remote asteroid with a father who beat Des relentlessly before dying of a heart attack.  Des soon realizes he possesses instincts and powers that others lack. He uses those qualities to quickly rise from obscurity to distinguish himself as a soldier in the Sith Army in its war against the Jedi.

Soon, others take notice of Des' abilities, and he becomes more than a mere blaster slinging soldier. He becomes Darth Bane and is sent to the Sith Academy to learn the ways of the Force. Along with his fellow students, he is educated in the ways of the Dark Side and the philosophy of the Sith. Disgusted by the brotherly ways of this Brotherhood of Darkness, Bane researches the ancient history of his order. He soon realizes that his teachers have corrupted the true path of the Sith, the Sith were never supposed to cooperate with one another, or be mutually supportive. Too often, Bane sees coalitions of less powerful acolytes band together to bring down the strongest individuals in the Order. He sees the strength of his newfound religion being eroded, its purity being tainted. Sith were supposed to seize power individually. If your fellow Sith wasn't strong enough to defeat your own attacks on him, he wasn't strong enough to deserve the title anyway. Bane vows to restore the Sith to their former glory.

He is the one who writes the command that would rule the Sith for the next millenium, "Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody the power, the other to crave it." No more schools of cooperative Sith, no more academies or brotherhoods. Master and apprentice only. Darth Bane purges the Sith, killing them all but choosing an apprentice to shape and mold in the ancient ways, one who would one day challenge Bane for the title of Lord of the Sith. Bane prepares his new Order of the Sith for the long slow vengeance against the Jedi and the destruction of the Republic they vowed to protect. He embraces secrecy and subterfuge, deception and manipulation. Bane is fully aware this revenge against the Jedi might take centuries before it is realized. It is, in fact, a thousand years from the rise of Darth Bane to the day Darth Sidious takes his place as Emperor Palpatine. In the closing shots of the movie "Episode III, Revenge of the Sith," the citizens of the crushed Republic are forced to bow to their new Sith master and the Jedi are merely a shattered remnant of a forgotten religion. All events set in motion by Darth Bane.

The books are well written and serve to wrap you up in a familiar universe, one you've enjoyed since childhood. The plots are engaging and enjoyable to read, and the storyline ends with a satisfyingly ambiguous mystery. Each book reveals new and interesting facets of the Star Wars universe, adding depth to the mythology. The seven person duel in book two is particularly awesome fun to read. It never ceases to amaze you how good authors can make battle scenes not sound boring. Every time you have ever tried writing one, it's always ended up something like, "He swung his sword, but the other guy blocked it. And then the other guy swung his sword but the first guy blocked it too. Then they both swung their swords again..." Pretty awful stuff there. Thankfully these battle scenes are nothing like that. They are exciting enough that you can almost hear the 'Duel of the Fates' playing in your head when you're reading them. 

You noticed that Bane only ever chooses women to be his apprentices. This is never expressed as a specific preference on his part, he simply recognizes that power does not come solely from physical strength but from many source; ruthlessness, guile, deceit, manipulation, ambition, natural talent. These qualities are not monopolized by either gender, and Bane sees talent and potential wherever it is hidden. This idiosyncrasy endeared this evil character to you somehow. Like, if he respects women enough to realize that they can rule the galaxy too, he can't be all that evil, right?

 Except, no. He is all that evil. This isn't "Wicked." There is no examination of whether or not we can ever really call someone evil. Bane and his acolytes are evil. They crave power over all else. They feel no remorse or pity. Only the strongest are worthy of living, and only the strongest are worthy of ruling.  They draw strength from the suffering of others. Joy has no place in their lives.

Ultimately all of their evil stems from one sin; not greed or lust for vengeance, not violence or lies. They are all of them simply selfish. Darth Bane, and all of the Sith in the Star Wars pantheon, are like all other bullies. They are pitiable. They are so insecure and patheic that they are willing to bring destruction and horror on countless innocents just to feast themselves on the fantasy that selfishness can bring anyone security. You know different. Your faith teaches you that strength comes from allowing yourself to be weak, that true power comes from service, and honor is found in humility. Evil takes effort. Evil is a choice, a choice to trust the lie that promises security through narcissism. 

These books reminded you that you don't have to be a Sith or a Jedi to embrace the Dark Side. Both the Sith and the Jedi reject personal attachments. You believe that both are wrong. As vengeance and anger never lead to anything positive, neither does detachment. Our attachments are what bind us all together, not some invisible all-powerful Force. The friends we make, the love we all choose to share with one another, the enemies we forgive, these are the roots of real power. Love is the real Force.

May the Force be with you, always.

On to the next book!

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Monuments Men" by Robert M. Edsel (2009)

It's a book about a hunt for stolen Nazi treasure. Sadly, Indiana Jones is nowhere to be found.

When they conquered most of Europe, the Nazis made it a point to steal or destroy some of the greatest cultural and artistic pieces from the countries that they occupied. When Adolf Hitler was a young man, his application to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria had been rejected. In 1939 and 1940, he suddenly found himself in the perfect position to plunder the finest works of art the Western World had ever created. It was one rejected art student's perfect moment of supreme vengeance.

The world watched in the late '30s as German tanks rolled through the streets of Vienna, then Prague, then Warsaw, and then Paris. They cringed as the skies over London filled with German planes. No one knew for sure when the tide of Nazi domination would be stopped, but some in the arts community in the unconquered world were forming plans to protect their masterpieces from the bombs and artillery shells that had torn through museums the length and breadth of Europe.

Once it became clear that protecting their own works of art would no longer be necessary since they would be bringing the fight to the Nazis and not the other way around, the Allied Armed Forces created a small group of experts in the field of art conservation, architecture, and art history. They were officially called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA), but they came to be known as Monuments Men. At first there were only a handful of them, and none of them were the stereotypical young men from most WWII books, but by the end of the war their numbers had swelled to 350. These Monuments Men were tasked with the novel mission of protecting the priceless and irreplaceable pieces of cultural history during the Allied invasion of Western Europe (Edsel has another book about their efforts in Italy). Many of these irreplaceable monuments formed the actual battlefields of the greatest war in history. The charming church the Germans might place a sniper in often proved to be hundreds of years old, the newest Allied supply dump might contain a priceless sculpture. The Monuments Men's first priority was to protect these from needless damage. They would re-route truck convoys to go around, rather than through, some sensitive areas. They would remind commanders of the importance of certain buildings when planning artillery strikes. They had orders from General Eisenhower himself to allow them to declare certain areas "Off Limits" to any military personnel.

In most WWII books, you've become accustomed to that moment where the characters, real or fictional, realize that they are part of a much bigger story. They have a sort of epiphany where they realize that they are walking in the footsteps of history, but few of them are very well acquainted with that history. The Monuments Men were. They were experts in their fields and influential in the world of art and culture back in the States.

These men moved around the European Theater with a freedom that must have been the envy of every other soldier on the continent. One man, the quintessential Monuments Man, George Stout, had put 50,000 miles on his captured VW by the end of the war by zig-zagging back and forth along the front as it moved across Europe. Stout's enthusiasm was not unique. It was vital to their jobs that these men possess the energy and enthusiasm needed to keep up with the pace of the Allied advance in order to protect the things that could never be replaced. They saw more of the war than most who fought in it, but instead of being in it to kill and destroy, they were the few who were tasked with preserving and protecting.

You found it interesting to get to see the invasion of the Normandy beaches not through the eyes of terrified soldiers trying to take out machine gun nests or pillboxes, but instead through the eyes of worried men who were concerned about the safety of the 500 year old church at the top of the bluffs. Instead of seeing the war through the eyes of warriors looking to take advantage of the local terrain, this book gave you the opportunity to see the war through the eyes of conservationists taking advantage of local pride and personal perspicacity to protect unique works of historical importance.

"Monuments Men" changes in tone dramatically once Paris is liberated. The mission shifts from just frantically protecting historical sites to something more extraordinary. The books becomes a story of the greatest treasure hunt in the history of the world. When the Nazis had the chance, they took whatever they wanted. Hitler himself stole priceless pieces of art from some of his favorite artists to adorn his walls, and Goring was even worse. The order had gone out and made it official: the Third Reich was building a new museum and cultural Mecca in Hitler's hometown of Linz, Austria. The Fuhrer dreamed of creating a new center for art and culture, one that could rival Florence and Vienna. His soldiers were ordered to make sure his new museum would be stocked with the finest art the world had to offer.

In Paris, the Monuments Men found two people who had risked their lives to keep the theft to a minimum, and what they couldn't prevent, they were determined to record. Jean Jaujard was the head of the Louvre and ensured that every bureaucratic roadblock and every inch of red tape was used to keep the art under his protection where it belonged. But he knew he couldn't save it all, so he enlisted some help from the most unlikely of sources. Her name was Rose Valland, and she became Jaujard's spy in the Nazi machinery, the fly on the wall. Her stentorian personality and her forgettably bland looks made her the perfect spy. Who would suspect the middle aged librarian in the corner was writing down the destination of every pilfered piece that made it into the back of a swastika-emblazoned truck?

When Rose Valland met Monuments Man James Rorimer, his dedication to his duty, his passion for the art, and his love of everything French convinced her that she could trust him with her information. Madame Valland gave him what would prove to be the most extraordinary treasure map in the world. While others in the MFAA relied on battlefield interrogations and the evil-devouring-evil backstabbing that the Nazis eventually devolved into to find their own incredible stashes of stolen goods, Rorimer knew just where he was going. He was going here:

That's not a painting, it's a photo of Neuschwanstein castle in Germany. Some of the greatest artistic pieces France had ever known were stacked into piles in the rooms and halls of this enormous castle on a rocky outcropping high in the Bavarian Alps.

As the war was winding down, the men saw their ranks increase as more experts were brought into the field to assist them. They found caves filled with unimaginable treasures, castles stuffed with gold and jewels, and salt mines packed with unbelievable works of art. The men had to disarm explosives that were intended to destroy anything the Nazis couldn't defend. They had to preserve some of the world's most sensitive cultural works from the corrosive elements the Germans had left it in to rot. Some of the miners who were forced to dig the holes these treasures were buried in managed to protected them too, ensuring that the explosives would merely seal the entrances to the troves, rather than destroy their contents. The men of the MFAA worked to retrieve and catalogue every piece of art and every cultural treasure. They sometimes measured it by the ton.

The remarkable thing was that the Monuments Men were searching for all this treasure and saving all of this art for one reason. Not wealth, or greed, or personal gain. For once, there was a conquering army that wasn't interested in keeping the loot they found. They were doing it all to give it back to the people it had been taken from in the first place.

It is easy to roll your eyes and be jaded at phrases like the "Greatest Generation" or the notion that there is any kind of "Good War," to cringe at the concept of American Exceptionalism. Stories like this remind you that sometimes those phrases are true, sometimes those title are earned. The efforts of the Monuments Men not only reflected and revealed American morality, it displayed it for the world to see.

You were struck by one passage in the book. As one of the Monuments Men entered Germany and saw the devastation Allied bombers had wrought there, his enthusiasm for his task was redoubled, "To save the culture of your allies is a small thing," he remarks. "To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle is won... it was unheard of." The Monuments Men eventually saved the bodies of Frederick the Great and his wife and father from destruction at the hands of Nazi fanatics.

Sadly, this lesson has been lost, and the old adage is false. In this case, those who don't know their history were doomed to not repeat it. Shortly after the American military occupied Baghdad in April of 2003, in the vacuum of any authority, the Baghdad Museum was looted by thugs and criminals and some of humanity's oldest archeological and cultural artifacts were stolen, many never to be found again. This was not only a cultural tragedy for the world, civilization began in Iraq after all, but it was a public relations nightmare for the US. Our lack of response to quickly secure the area and prevent the loss of some of the great art and artifacts there made the American military appear to be indifferent to the culture of the nation they had invaded, even though we were claiming to be there to liberate them. Reading "Monuments Men," you could imagine how different recent history might have been if the first looters had been met by armed Humvees sporting American flags, if the US forces had enlisted some of the local population to help them protect the museum. Might the ensuing insurgency in the years to come have been a little less violent, might the warring factions have had fewer disillusioned young men to use for their awful purposes? 

Ultimately, however, "Monuments Men" is a rare thing. It is a war story told through the perspective of optimists. No matter the devastation, no matter the destruction, these men found hope in saving what they could. In the rubble of war, they were able to remember human nobility and to save the evidence of that nobility. As millions suffered and died, these men were able to preserve the works of art that bring joy and wonder to millions even today. Where cultures clashed and struggled for domination, these men were able to preserve the proof that the human spirit yearns to express itself through beauty and art and creation. Hope is not a naive idea. There is always reason to hope. Sometimes you just have to know where to look.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an NPR story on the Ghent Altarpiece, which was tracked down, rescued, and returned to Belgium (for which Mouments Man, Robert Posey was awarded the Order of Leopold, one of Belgium's highest honors). Click the link for a very clear closeup photo of the piece. It really is exquisite. It has been called "the single most influential painting ever made."


P.P.S. Here is a trailer for the upcoming George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray movie, because they really are going to make every damn book you have ever read into a movie, aren't they? (And you will go see every one, won't you, you sucker!)


P.P.P.S About a month after you posted this review, news reports started coming out about a treasure trove of art stolen by the Nazis being discovered in an apartment in Munich. It is estimated at being worth over $1 billion. The culprit is the son of a German art dealer who was authorized by Goebbels himself to sell some of the works of art the Nazis had stolen to try to finance the war. Yet another reminder that history didn't happen so very long ago.