Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Generation Kill" by Evan Wright (2004)

In March of 2003, Allied forces, lead overwhelmingly by the United States of America, invaded Iraq. There were two main thrusts into the heart of the country. They were coordinated in a classic pincer maneuver with the intent to seize Baghdad and cut off Saddam Husein's hold on power. The US Army led the western thrust, and the eastern thrust was given to the United States Marine Corps. It was the the longest overland assault in Marine Corps history. The vanguard of that Marine assault was the elite special forces First Reconnaissance Battalion. In the backseat of the Humvee that proved to often be the northern most Marine unit in the entire country was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. He recorded his experience and wrote a book about it (and yes, HBO made a miniseries out of it and that might be what made you want to buy the book in the first place).

The Marine First Recon Battalion is more than just an elite unit. They are Special Forces on par with the Navy SEALS and Delta Force. There are fewer than 400 Marines in First Recon (and this book made it seem like more than half of them are from Texas), but in the spring of '03 and in the pages of "Generation Kill" the few and the proud lead the invasion of Iraq. Their forte is speed and infiltration. For this they sacrifice the protection of tanks and heavy weaponry. Since it is the invasion's first days and IEDs aren't yet a concern, the Humvees these men drive are not even armored. In fact many of them have no sides or tops at all. First Recon was used as human bait to trip the ambushes that everyone knew were coming along the Marine Corps' main invasion route.

It kept occurring to you as you were reading that First Recon is not designed for this job. They are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the Corps. The specialize in covert actions taking places far behind enemy lines or far below his sea lanes. They are a reconnaissance battalion steeped in a warrior spirit and trained to operate independently while cut off from command and surrounded by overwhelming enemy numbers. They are intended to be used like Robert E Lee's cavalry or Eisenhower's Rangers, but in the invasion of Iraq they are used more like Rommel's panzers. The biggest difference being that panzers had armor and devastating main guns. The men of First Recon were not asked to perform the jobs they had trained for. It could be argued that their talents and skills were squandered. No one asked them to parachute far behind enemy lines and melt into the countryside, or to perform deep sea dives beneath enemy naval emplacements. No one intended to utilize these Special Forces warriors in the way they had been trained to be used. Rather than wielded like a highly honed instrument, the men of First Recon were used as the battering ram of the United States military and they had a reporter riding shotgun with them.

"Generation Kill" alternates between hilarious moments from the Marines and poignant observations from the reporter himself. The driver of Wright's Humvee is a young Marine named Corporal Person. Throughout the story, he is sleep deprived and amped up on ephedrine and caffeine. Person's rambling brainstorms, random rantings, and sardonic commentary provide most of the story's punch lines. But there are moments when the dark realities of war are undeniable.

After the first few days of the invasion, the men are ordered to roll through a town in an obvious attempt to trip an ambush. Wright, unarmed and riding in an unarmored Humvee describes in great detail the extraordinary destruction a convoy of Marines can wreak on a town. You were reminded that it is not a good idea to set Marines loose in any setting unless you are absolutely certain that you want everything to be destroyed. It is what they do, and they do it very well. Presidents would do well to remember that before ordering them into combat.

Most of the Iraqi military had defected and surrendered by the thousands as soon as they could, but civilians from throughout the Middle East had flocked to Iraq and formed a guerrilla force, or Fedayeen, filled with the desire to fight the American invaders. Saddam had ordered them to hit the flanks of the invading American lines, wreak havoc on the American plans, and then fade into the civilian population. This made distinguishing fighters from civilians almost impossible. Of course many, if not most, of the enemy fighters were killed in their hopelessly one-sided battles against the finest fighting force the world has ever known. But it is a long-standing truth of war that when modern weapons are unleashed inside cities innocents are going to die. Tragically, in fighting off Fedayeen ambushes and in enforcing night time roadblocks, Marines of First Recon Battalion killed civilians. In the moment, in the fury of war, the realization that they had killed innocents was not as terrible a burden for the Marines to bear as was the constant fear that they would screw up and let their fellow Marines die. War is an awful thing and priorities are clarified in a way that you will hopefully never have to learn.

Throughout the story there emerges a major disconnect between the higher officers and the enlisted men and their direct commanders. At one point, the higher officers actually order an airstrike on an Iraqi hamlet thinking it will boost the morale of the fighting Marines. Those fighting Marines however, are furious that their bosses had just needlessly killed so many civilians. The efforts to boost morale had the opposite effect but likely succeeded in creating more enemies bent on revenge.

In fact, it impressed you that on more than one occasion, these Marines expressed empathy with the Iraqis. Over and over Wright quotes the men turning to one another and saying things like, "What would we do if an invading army did this kind of thing back home?" or, "What must these people think of us?" It would have been helpful in the atmosphere of international good will generated in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil, if the leaders of the United States had had anything like the same mind set as these warriors. If the leaders of the Free World had considered some of these simple soldiers' questions, a disastrous war might have been avoided.

The story of the invasion of Iraq is obviously the setting for "Generation Kill" but, as the title suggests, it is more of a story of the men in First Recon and how they handled the stresses and shocks of war. Wright makes it painfully obvious that even the toughest Marine can lose his shit when introduced to combat. When the bullets start flying, and lives are hanging in the balance, what makes all the chaos even remotely manageable is a clear-headed commander who can think logically in order to solve the problem at hand. Calm, professional Marines can handle almost any situation and work to mitigate their losses while still achieving clear objectives. Instead, men like 'Encino Man' and 'Captain America' (Wright withholds their names to protect them from embarrassment) would scream panicked orders into their radios when under fire. They would shoot blindly at perceived threats, mistreat prisoners, call down artillery barrages on targets that should have required one well positioned rifleman. Panic and overreactions are as much a Marine's adversary as any enemy soldier. This is a truism that is not reserved solely for the Marine Corps.

Maybe it's because he is a reporter for Rolling Stone, but Wright pays particular attention to the songs that the men sing throughout the invasion. Sergeant Colbert, arguably the story's main character, confides in Wright that he did not anticipate singing being one of the stress responses to intense combat. In the middle of firefights and ambushes, Wright can hear Colbert calmly singing Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown." It is a curiosity of war that one of the Marine Corps' most elite warriors kicked in Saddam Hussein's front door while singing "Sometimes, I think it's a sin, when I feel like I'm winning, but I'm losing again." Other Marines were heard singing Avril Lavigne or Tupac. When we humans find ourselves in the most intense situations of our lives, for some reason, we seem to be hard-wired to find sanity or solace in songs from our past, however incongruous they may be in the moment.

Few of the men in "Generation Kill" express any real interest in the politics of the war or in politics at all. Those who are overtly political or patriotic are inevitably the worst members of the unit when combat erupts. For most of them the war isn't about who is in the White House or maintaining some long standing Western power structure. Wright says,

"What unites them is an almost reckless drive to prove themselves in the most extreme circumstances. In many respects the life they have chosen is a complete rejection of the hyped, consumerist American dream as it is dished out on reality TV shows and pop song lyrics. They've chose asceticism over consumption. Instead of celebrating their individualism, they've subjugated theirs to the collective will of an institution. Their highest aspiration is self-sacrifice over self-preservation."

Many of these guys were inspired to enlist by one specific commercial that you remember very vividly. A young man scales a series of bone crushing obstacles and grabs a sword only to be faced by a giant lava monster. When he defeats the beast, he is transformed into a Marine wearing the Corps dress blues. The Marines of First Recon saw that commercial and enlisted, you saw it and thought, "Hey! You forgot the part where you have to kill people! No way I'm signing up for that." Whatever that difference is between your reaction and theirs, whatever it is that makes your mind process things so differently form theirs, you are glad there are those who are willing to lay down their lives in defense of your country. Your country might not be here if there weren't.

When asked why he climbed Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Mallory famously replied, "Because it is there." When asked why he walked a tightrope strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Phillipe Petit pointed to his chest and simply replied, "Because it is in here." For the men of Marine First Recon, whatever the outcome of the war, whatever the legacy of the invasion, the reason they joined the Marines in the first place, the reason why they felt inspired to "Subjugate their will... for self-sacrifice over self-preservation," is the same as Phillipe Peitit's. Many of them could point to their own medal covered chests and repeat his answer, "Because it's in there."

At one point the men of First Recon backtrack into a town they have previously liberated. Greeted by grateful crowds of villagers, the cool and wry humored Sergeant Colbert waves and smiles saying, "You're free now. Good luck. Time for us to go home." If only that had been true. In the days following the fall of Baghdad it becomes clear that the country which was so effective at winning the war had no plans for wining the peace. As Iraqi society is breaking down and the opening acts of a future sectarian tragedy are being played out, a desperate elder in a neighborhood-turned-battlefield knowingly laments to a Marine commander, "The Americans have let Ali Baba into Baghdad." A decade afterwards, it is clear that the Americans have left Baghdad, but Ali Baba and his band of thieves may still be wreaking havoc in the heart of Iraq.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an interview with Evan Wright and many of the men in the book about their reactions to the HBO miniseries. They pay particular attention to the humor warriors use to relieve the stress of combat. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZvWl67Icn8

P.P.S. This is a scene from the show boiling down the reasons many of the men joined the Marines. Not Safe For Work! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dg3Us9ld2g

Friday, November 8, 2013

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara (1974)

There are so many non-fiction books out there about the Civil War, it has been hard for you to justify reading a historical fiction novel about the war. But you have always heard of this one and you finally found it for just the right price (almost free). You are very glad you gave it a shot.

This book was the basis for the movie "Gettysburg." The movie was good but, not surprisingly, the book was much better. In the summer of 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac river and invaded the United States through Maryland and Pennsylvania. General Lee was emboldened by a string of victories over his Northern enemies and was looking to end the war once and for all by taking Washington DC. War on his enemy's home ground would also allow his army to live off Union lands, allowing the farmers of Virginia a respite from supplying the Confederate army. It was the second time in less than ten months that Lee had invaded the Union. The previous invasion had ended in the single bloodiest day in American history at the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, as the Confederacy called it). That rare Union victory had lead to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

General Lee felt that this second invasion was a strategic necessity. Time was running short for the Confederate States of America. The Union naval blockade was beginning to have an affect on their economy and inflation was rising. Tennessee was teetering and ready to fall to Union forces lead by General Rosecrans. Farther west, a Union general named Grant was about to take Vicksburg and close off the entire Mississippi River to Southern shipping. The Confederacy needed another miracle. They needed another big win, maybe one that could end the war. Thus was born the greatest battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg.

But you have read all of that before. It's in history books and you've read stacks of those. This book was different. "The Killer Angels" made it all feel more personal. Instead of the bird's eye view that you are used to experiencing in history books, where vast armies sweep through states with giant colored arrows indicating their movements on maps, this book brought the war down to ground level (although the maps in the book are superb). Shaara was able to put you there, standing on Seminary Ridge, looking out across the mile of No Man's Land between you and the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. You could see it all clearly, feel the July sun on your shoulders and smell the grass. Writing a novel about the battle, instead of a non-fiction book, allowed Shaara to be very sensual, inviting you into the minds of the men involved.  It made the whole affair feel more visceral and gave it all a personal touch that was surprising to you, and very impressive.

One of the most remarkable things about the Civil War is that so many willingly died for such a terrible purpose. The Rebels fought to maintain the institution of slavery, or at least the 'honor' of their home states. The men from the North, whether they knew it or not, were fighting for a freedom few in human history had ever been privileged to fight for. Shaara explores the minds of men on both sides of the war, even the Southern notion that the war was fought over some lofty ideals. He quotes the southerners lamenting state's rights, and he gives air to their milquetoast argument that government comes from the consent of the governed, and since they refused to consent they should therefore be free from said government. It's all bullshit that has somehow been passed down through the generations as gospel. The Confederate States of America may have seceded from the USA over an issue of state's rights, but it was over those states' right to allow their citizens to own slaves! Any other argument is beside the point, and Shaara makes that clear.

He takes you inside the mind of General Lee and illuminates his inner struggle with the issue.

"When Virginia left the Union she bore his home away as surely as if she were a ship setting out to sea... So it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of them were, they were his own, he belonged with his own. And so he took up arms willfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once swore to defend... without any choice at all; there had never been an alternative except to run away, and he could not do that."

The book is written quite beautifully, almost poetically. It's no wonder it won the '74 Pulitzer Prize. Each chapter is from a different historical character's point of view and hops from one side of the battle to the other. Shaara moves seamlessly from emotionless and detailed exposition to First Person train of thought. That sounds like it would be awkward to read, but it isn't at all. Shaara makes it feel very natural. He helped you to see the war on a personal level. He describes how everything feels. Not just the feel of the ground under their feet or the wind in their hair, but that nebulous feeling you get when you are in the middle of a large encampment of men in the dark and quiet night even when you cannot see them, the sense a soldier gets when an attack is eminent, or the instinct a commander feels when the moment is right to strike his enemy's weakness. Each character has his moment in the book's spotlight.

Colonel Buford, the Union cavalry commander, was as indispensable in the first hours of battle as General Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander, was absent. Accidentally bumping into Rebel soldiers on the outskirts of town, Buford knew he could not win the battle outright, but he could ensure that the Union didn't lose it before it had begun. Using his cavalrymen's mobility to his advantage, he stood up to the gathering Army of Northern Virginia and secured the high ground for the rest of his own army. His calm and measured awareness of the situation, and his faith in his fellow commanders to come to his aide and occupy the ground for which he had fought, likely saved the capital of the United States from falling into the hands of the Confederacy.

The Battle for Little Round Top is told in extraordinary detail. Colonel Chamberlain, a college professor just one year before the battle, was given command of the extreme left flank of the entire Union army. Arriving on the hill minutes before the Rebels attacked it he was forced to beat back wave after wave of some of the Confederacy's best and most battle-hardened troops. He knew he couldn't retreat. If he did, the enemy would place artillery on the heights and bombard the entire Union line. The Army of the Potomac would have had to retreat, and the road to Washington would have been wide open. His ammunition and his men were dwindling, so he did the only thing he could think of. He ordered what men he had remaining to fix bayonets and charge the oncoming rebel forces. Chamberlain did not graduate from West Point, he had no military experience, he was a bookish intellectual. But on that day, his audacity and aggression in the face of ruin made Virginians and Texans who had never known defeat, turn tail and run for the first time in the whole war.  Colonel Chamberlain earned the Medal of Honor that day, and few men have ever been more deserving.

The day after the battle for Little Round Top, Lee had decided to stop trying the Union flanks and go instead for a massed charge right into the middle of their line. He gave the honor to Major General Pickett. "The Killer Angels" gives Pickett's Charge the reverence it deserves. You could almost hear the orchestral music swelling in your mind as the Confederate soldiers marched through absolute Hell and, for one brief moment, breached the Union lines. It would have been fitting for the war to have ended right there, on the 4th of July, with the greatest artillery bombardment in history followed by the most famous charge in history. But it did not end there. The three divisions Lee had sent to break the Union lines were destroyed. Lee lost more battle flags in that one moment than he had lost in the entire war up to that point combined. Instead of ending on that beautiful summer's day, with a charge so noble it made the enemy swoon with admiration, the Civil War slogged on for another two years and ended in a swamp under the roof of a run down old court house in Virginia.

General Pickett had been itching to get into the fight. His men had been last in the line of march and had come up to the battle after the first two days of fighting were already over. He looked across the field and saw only honor and glory. He couldn't see, as General Longstreet could, the certainty of death waiting there. Pickett couldn't see that times had changed and war was different from the Napoleon era now. None of them could see it, even the infallible General Lee, none but Longstreet. He knew that modern war had changed, even before machine guns entered the picture. Massed artillery could now wipe out thousands of men in the time it took them to march over a mile of open ground. Longstreet looked across the same ground as Pickett and saw, not glory, but fields of enfilading fire coming from high ground. He saw exposed flanks and a death trap. He saw futility. But the others couldn't see it. They saw only Glory.

And so they all died. They died on that day and in the days and months to come. They died by the thousands there at Gettysburg, and they died at Cold Harbor and the Wilderness and countless other battlefields over the next two years. Yet no one learned the lesson. Five decades later, Generals would still see only glory and would still be ordering men into suicide charges against protected enemy lines, through aimed fire and artillery barrages. Even more men would die then. They would die at the Somme and Verdun, at Passchendaele and Belleau Woods, and they would call that war the Great War.

"The Killer Angels" made one thing clear to you that you were honestly not fully aware of. The revered and almost infallible General Lee made a huge mistake in fighting this battle. He allowed himself to be lured into a fight he should have avoided. He was used to an enemy who was incompetent and who ran away when faced with aggressive tactics. Lee had grown complacent and was relying on a general who was dead and gone. Stonewall Jackson would have taken Cemetery Hill on that first day, but Ewell, his replacement, did not. Lee failed to listen to Longstreet and maneuver his army south to cut off the Union forces from DC. He was expecting the same old Army of the Potomac, but he was wrong, and he lost the war because of it.

Through timidity and inaction, the Union's General Meade had won the exact victory that Longstreet was advocating for the South. An expert in the new theory of defensive warfare and realist in the new ways of modern warfare, Longstreet wanted Lee's army to maneuver to ground suitable for defense and force the enemy to expose themselves to destruction by making them come out in the open where massed artillery and aimed rifle fire could tear them apart. Instead, it was the Union's General Meade who had done that very thing, and the Confederacy would never recover.

You may never understand why men sacrifice themselves for unworthy causes, or why we continue to believe that mass violence solves any of our deepest problems,. But books like this one help you to see the world through different eyes. Stories of all kinds, whether they be told in books or movies or oral histories passed from generation to generation, help us all to see the world from different perspectives. You firmly believe that learning to see the world through the eyes of others has a hell of a lot more promise for solving problems than war ever will.

On to the next book!

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown (2009)

You make it a general rule to try and avoid novels if the author's name is printed in a larger font than the title of the book itself. But hey, rules are made to be broken right? Everyone has to have a guilty pleasure.

Dan Brown is, of course, the guy who brought the world "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons," and he has an even newer one out called "Inferno." All of these books, including "The Lost Symbol," follow their main character, Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology, on a series of the most improbable adventures set in the world's most famous cities. Brown's thrillers follow a familiar formula and writing style. He uses short chapters (some barely a paragraph long) to keep you turning the pages. You are always thinking, "Well, I have time to read one more chapter, right?" Each of his books is filled with supposedly "Earth Shattering Revelations" that draw you into the story lines. You are perpetually thinking you are just a page or two from learning some huge secret that has been hidden from the world for centuries. The body count in these books can get pretty high. Brown's characters are constantly placed in mortal peril several times throughout his stories and the action is reliably crammed into a few hours, which, again, makes you keep turning those pages. There is an urgency and an energy to his books that make even the most bibliophobic amongst us stay up late at night, desperate to see what is going to happen next.

In short, they are lots and lots of fun.

"The Lost Symbol" is set in Washington DC. Even though you've been to DC twice before, you needed a refresher on some of the more obscure details presented in the book. One of the things you love to do with Dan Brown novels is read them while surfing google maps, especially the street views. Brown's novels are filled with painstaking detail of cities and locations that you will likely never see. And even if you do someday get to wander the streets of Paris or Rome, you won't have the luxury of pouring over every nook and cranny of every piece of art like these books do. That's where good old google comes in awfully handy. Modern technology has allowed you to walk side by side with fictional characters through very much nonfictional ancient plazas and examine actual works of art with the knowledge of experts. Washington DC came alive to you again while reading this book because you could see it both in your mind and on your computer screen. Ain't technology great?

Everyone knows that the Freemasons held great influence over America's founding fathers, and if they don't know that they should spend, like five minutes on the internet. Washington, Franklin, and  possibly Jefferson were all masons and this nation's capitol is filled with masonic references. "The Lost Symbol" capitalizes on this fact and weaves a fairly believable conspiracy intertwining the foundations of the United States with the fundamental tenants of an ancient secret society. Brown also introduces the science of Noetics, the study of human consciousness and the power of thought in the physical world. These two ideas, ancient philosophy and new-age metaphysics, aren't as far apart as they seem. Quantum Physics tells us that the very observation of certain experiments alters their outcomes, meditation has quantifiable healing affects on its practitioners, more and more science is learning that human thoughts have power and actual influence in the real world. Adding Noetics to the storyline made it all seem even more important and powerful.

The pages of "The Lost Symbol" are filled with the kind of brain teasers and puzzles that have made Dan Brown a household name. He drops hints all along the way, and he foreshadows some of his surprises in such a way that the perceptive reader knows they are coming all along, which makes you feel even smarter! Symbols play a huge part in these books, Professor Langdon is an expert in symbology after all. But even some of the characters are symbols. It's no accident that the man who imparts the most wisdom in this book is named Peter Solomon. There is an active component to reading these books. You don't just sit and take them in. You are up and researching, thinking and pondering, even when the book isn't in your hand. It is an addictively fun way to read.

"The Lost Symbol" is a classic thriller but with one extra ingredient sorely lacking in most thrillers. It ends with a healthy dose of hope. The United States was founded by people who believed her citizens could shape their own destiny. They believed that religion was wonderful and essential to a thriving and passionate population, but that it had no place within the structure of a free government. Humans are capable of so much greatness, and we are so full of potential. For a silly mystery book to remind you of the infinite nobility of the human soul... well that was pretty powerful in itself.

On to the next book!