Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"The Widow of the South" by Robert Hicks (2006)

You are heading to Tennessee in a week for another 'Tender Tennessee Christmas.' Your sister in law, Krystal sent you a text message the other day with a reading assignment. You are staying at her house in Franklin for the holiday and Franklin just happens to be the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. She told you to read "The Widow of the South," a novel about the battle, and when you got there, she would take you and the whole family on a personally guided tour of the sites mentioned in the book. Naturally, you had the book in your hand within 24 hours.

There once lived a woman who was incredibly famous, Oscar Wilde insisted on visiting her on his tour of the United States. She kept a constant vigil in her private cemetery and her perpetual presence amongst the graves of so many fallen boys brought solace to countless families in the shadow of tragedy, but she is almost completely forgotten today. While she lived, she embodied the mourning and bereavement millions of Americans felt in the wake of the extraordinary loss of life during the Civil War. Her name was Carrie McGavok and this book is not as much about the Battle of Franklin as it is about how she became this symbol of sorrow and unspeakable loss, a living memorial for an entire generation that had been sacrificed in a war few would ever understand. But this is no "The Killer Angels." Hicks makes no effort to pretend that his is a definitive historical fiction. It is a novel that just happens to feature some historical people and tries to create some explanations and some contexts for why they did what they did.

But before Hicks can ponder the meaning of all the sacrifice, he has to get to the battle itself. In November of 1864, Confederate Tennessee had been occupied by Union forces for three years. In May of that year, the soon-to-be-infamous Union general William Tecumseh Sherman outmaneuvered the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of the state they were named after. Soon, Sherman had chased the Confederates all the way through Georgia and into Atlanta. The Confederate general John Bell Hood (famous for leading a fearsome regiment of Texans, and whose monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol is one of your favorites) now lead the entire Confederate Army of Tennessee. Hood hit Sherman's supply lines in an effort to keep him from driving deeper into the heart of the Confederacy. After a few weeks, Sherman tired of chasing Hood and proceeded unmolested with his devastating March to the Sea. Hood saw an opportunity to move back where his own army had originated and reclaim Nashville and thus, Tennessee, for the Confederacy. Sherman had left a screening army to defend against this, but Hood was confident he could defeat it.

The two forces, Union and Confederate, skirmished with one another over the course of that summer and autumn, neither army ever seeing much of the other in the dense woods and rolling hills of northern Georgia and southern Tennessee. It was a conflict colored by quick battles involving few men. In the obscuring cover of the landscape, neither side could bring their full army to bear on the other. By November, Hood's men were into Tennessee and a race for Nashville had begun. Two Union armies were trying to reach the capital city and the defenses which had been built up for three years there. Hood's Confederate forces were desperate to stop the Federals from getting in place behind those formidable defenses. If he could meet the enemy in battle out in the open, Hood was confident he could destroy them. He had the legendary cavalry commander General Nathan Bedford Forrest running screening actions to hide his army's movement from the enemy and on the night of November 29th, Hood was just twenty miles from Nashville, with only one small river crossing to go before being able to take the city from the south. In a small scale battle at Spring Hill, he had outmaneuvered his opponent and as the sun set on the 29th, there were almost no significant Union forces between Hood's army and Nashville. His plan was to smash Union general Schofield's army on the 30th, (or at least keep it from joining the other Union army, lead by general Thomas) and then race through the town of Franklin, Tennessee, beating the bulk of the Union armies to the capital and declaring the entire state back in Confederate hands.

During the night, however, at Spring Hill, Schofield's entire army was somehow able to slip within a few hundred yards of the Confederate positions. They moved around the Confederate forces with only a few shots fired and blocked Hood's uncontested advance into Nashville. By 6:00 on the morning of November 30th (which means that you started reading this book exactly 150 years after the battle took place!) the Union forces were preparing defensive positions in the town of Franklin. Franklin was set on a hill and had an obvious command of the clear fields to the south. The Yankee troops knew their business and quickly made fortifications that were more than just random debris haphazardly thrown together. They constructed barricades that were taller than their heads, but which had gaps at the perfect height to fire through, making them almost impervious to enemy rifle fire. The Union troops cut down thorny Orange Osage trees and positioned them at the base of their fortifications to force the Rebel troops to stop their advance just as they became most visible to Union gunfire. Furthermore, many of the Union troops were armed with a new weapon, the Henry repeating rifle. This firearm was like the ones you always played Cowboys and Indians with when you were a kid. Unlike most weapons on the field in 1864, the Henry rifle could fire multiple shots without being reloaded. After trying one out on the grounds of the White House, President Lincoln himself had personally insisted that the Union mass produce these rifles and get them in the war as soon as possible. It wasn't a machine gun, but it was the closest thing they could get in 1864.

General Hood observed the Union defenses ringing the southern approaches to Franklin and the two miles of open space between his army and the Federals. He reckoned that this was his moment. He might have been furious about his officers allowing the Federal forces to slip past him in the night, or he might have been impetuous. But he was as aggressive as they came and wanted to hit Schofield's men while they were out in the open, before they could retreat to the safety of their prepared defenses in Nashville, and this was likely to be his last chance. At 4:00 in the afternoon he ordered his army to advance into the city of Franklin from the south, confident they would crush all resistance. There were more Confederate soldiers in Hood's charge that in Pickett's more famous one at Gettysburg, but Pickett's Union targets had been softened up by a massive artillery barrage. Hood's big guns weren't in place to offer his men any such help, while the Union had an entire battery of artillery placed in a fort on the opposite side of the river, perfectly positioned to fire down onto Confederate heads with impunity.

The Confederates advanced in good order over open ground and they must have been a sight to see. It is still to this day, the largest single infantry charge in the history of North America. The fighting was fierce from the beginning. The Federal skirmish lines out in front of the main line held on too long before withdrawing, so that as they made their way back to the main line of defense, the Confederates were right behind them. All along the line, Union troops couldn't fire on the lines of advancing enemy for fear of hitting their own troops.

The waves of Confederates crashed onto the Federal lines with a terrifying Rebel yell. The firing was so intense that smoke obscured everything farther away than ten feet. For a moment, although they were suffering under withering fire, the Confederates broke through the center of the Union line near the Carter House, but a reserve force, unseen by general Hood, moved up to fill the gaps and prevent a rout of Union forces. The Union salient around the Cotton Gin saw particularly savage fighting. Entire Confederate regiments simply disappeared under impossibly heavy fire. Half a dozen Confederate generals died in the fighting and seven more were wounded, but still the rebels refused to retreat. Time and again, they would surge forward to take the Union positions, only to be wiped out once more. As soon as replacement forces could be brought into place, they would be thrown into the fray and they would be destroyed. The fighting was only halted well after night fell and the combatants could no longer find one another in the darkness.

The battle was a disaster for the Confederate Army of Tennessee. In the span of just a few hours, and in the space of only a few hundred yards, they they had suffered over 9,000 casualties. With 1,750 men killed, Confederate losses were even greater than at the infamous Battle of Antietam, and three times greater than Pickett's Charge. The slaughter on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 80 years later lasted nineteen hours and is revered as one of the bloodiest battles the Americans fought during the Second World War. The five hours at Franklin saw even more casualties than Omaha or Utah Beaches combined. Some dead Confederate officers were found afterwards still standing, still held upright by waist-deep masses of dead bodies pressed all around them, dead officers still commanding armies of the dead. Fifty five of the Confederacy's best brigade and regimental commanders were casualties in the battle, while the Union forces reported fewer than 200 troops killed. The Army of Tennessee was second in size only to Robert E Lee's Army of Virginia, and it had been gutted in one afternoon. The Confederacy couldn't hope to recover from the disaster of the Battle of Franklin.

As the sun rose the next day, Schofield's Union forces withdrew from the city towards Nashville, making the Battle of Franklin a technical victory for the South. But only a fool could think it had been anything but a catastrophe for the Confederacy. The ensuing Battle of Nashville was an undeniable defeat for Hood and his already crushed army. After Nashville, they limped back through Franklin on their way to Alabama. Hood had begun his campaign to take Tennessee with 30,000 men. One month later, he commanded only 15,000. The war would be over within another four months.

But "The Widow of the South" is not all about the agonizing moments of the Battle of Franklin. In fact, it is a 400 page book and the battle is over by one hundred pages in. Instead, the book is about how the people who lived through that battle, and all the other battles during that gruesome war, could possibly come to terms with such a shocking level of loss. It's a story about how people can learn to live on afterwards, even in the face of utter devastation and suffering. Hicks changes perspective and tenses from chapter to chapter, unfolding the events from several different points of view, and in several different styles.

One thing that characterized this book, and most books about the Civil War, is the use of the word "nigger." Even reading it in your own head, written in the pages of a good book, the word is like someone poking an exposed nerve. It is painful and disturbing in ways that make you uncomfortable. Something about the extraordinary weight of hatred and bigotry behind that word lends it a power greater than other epithets. When any one in the book (or in real life) uses the word, it conveys a deeper darkness to their character, a flippancy and dismissal when considering the plight of so many millions. It is a darkness that is the opposite of the qualities and values you want to embody yourself, and that you want to pass on to your children. Using the word here in this context, especially from the mouth of General Forrest who would go on to create the Ku Klux Klan after the war, is right. It is not frivolous or needless. It adds to the story in a way that helps establish an essential, if shameful, part of the fabric of the war itself, but that doesn't make it much easier to see in print.

The McGavock plantation, called Carnton, was less than a mile southeast of the Union line in Franklin, Tennessee on November 30th, 1864. General Forrest himself declared that the house would be used as a field hospital for the many wounded men he could already predict would result when Hood ordered a charge. As the carnage increased and the day wore on, wounded men were brought to the plantation house by the thousands. The lady of the house, Carrie McGavock is the titular character of "The Widow of the South," even though at the time of the battle she was not a widow. She and her husband had watched three of their five young children die over the last few years, each one taken by a different disease. As a result of this tragedy, Carrie had withdrawn inside her mind. She might have even gone a little bit insane. For years, she wandered the house in silence, shrouded in black and never venturing outside. But the battle brought her out of her mourning reverie. A house filled with dead and dying boys can do that to you.

In the hours and days after the battle Carrie was a woman transformed. She was always moving, always helping. She organized the volunteers to help ease the wounded soldiers' pain and often she was there to personally ease their final breaths. She brought comfort and a stateliness to a dark and terrifying situation. Her compassion and her intimate relationship with death (after losing three children) allowed her to treat her wounded guests with a respect that she carried on even after they had died.

Years later, Carrie heard that the man who owned hallowed ground that had been turned into a killing field had made a decision to plow the field up and plant crops there. She lead the effort to convince him to allow her to move the bodies resting there to her own home at Carnton where she re-buried almost 1,500 Confederate dead. As soon as the last body was interred, Carrie began walking the grounds of her private cemetery, the largest in the United States, checking off the names of the dead, keeping a constant vigil and acting as the memory of a nation. She carried her Book of the Dead, with the names of all of the soldiers with her as she walked her rounds. She did it for years afterwards, for decades, even after her husband died. Carrie McGavock became the Widow of the South. Carrie took orphaned children into her home and raised them as her own. She was looked at far and wide as a living symbol of grief, writing letters to the families of the dead buried beside her Tennessee home, and tending to the graves of so many of their loved ones.

There are other characters in the book, but they all serve as lenses through which to see Carrie. Her husband watched as she sacrificed herself to a greater cause, even at the cost of her own marriage. Her friend and former patient (and maybe the love of her life) Zechariah Cashwell, who had been as broken physically as the nation was emotionally, saw Carrie as the savior that made the catastrophe of the war make some sort of sense. For him, she was someone who proved that people can care about others, and that people can change for the better even in the face of tragedy. For Mariah, Carrie's lifelong servant and friend (and former slave), Carrie was the stability she needed in an unstable and awful time, just as she was for the rest of America.

The gratitude of a shaken nation eventually elevated Carrie to the level of a legend. She was compared to Boudica and Joan of Arc. It was predicted that generations of Americans would remember her name with reverence. But that's not what happened. Carrie was a part of a singular generation, one that needed her. As they aged so did she. When they passed away so did she, and her need to be there to help heal that generation passed on as well.

In the climactic scene of "The Widow of the South" Carrie confronts the man who owns the land that holds the bodies of so many soldiers and she tries to convince him that he shouldn't plow them over as if they were mere fertilizer for his crops. He reminds her that his own son was killed in the battle. His son had gone off to war and the war had brought him back home just to kill him in his own backyard. The father, who is clearly motivated in his desire to plow the battlefield over by enormous grief, reminds Carrie that he never believed in the cause his son had died for anyway. Slavery was wicked and, even worse, the men who lead the side that defended it were liars and incompetents. This man is ostensibly the antagonist of the entire book, but in this moment he becomes the most sympathetic of all Hicks' characters. He makes it clear that his son, and all the sons buried in shallow graves on his property had died in a foolish struggle to perpetuate a shameful way of life. His reaction made you wonder what the proper response is to the sacrifice of so many Confederate soldiers. Was it even a sacrifice, or was it just a waste? How do we honor those who died fighting for the wrong side? Maybe Carrie's is the only way that makes sense.

"The Widow of the South" was a reminder for you that sometimes the world needs those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of others. Sometimes those who sacrifice themselves carry guns into battle, and sometimes they carry unspeakable grief so that others might let go of their own.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is a google interactive map of the battlefield.,-86.866279&ie=UTF8&om=1&msa=0&spn=0.023807,0.047207&z=15&hl=en&mid=zcZ7DPTsRKe4.kSwuYIv7L-Tg

P.P.S. This is a fantastic 10 minute presentation by a historian on the steps of the Carter House.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Throne of Jade" by Naomi Novik (2006)

You ended your review of the first book in this series, "His Majesty's Dragon," by saying that you intended to read as many of them as you could as fast as you could. It's been a few months and this is book #2. You do try to be a man of your word.

"Throne of Jade" opens with a scene that could have easily been extremely boring. Novik manages to make it exciting. Instead of the soaring aerial combat you were expecting, Novik places her protagonist, Laurence, in a boardroom filled with diplomats and politicians. Laurence made a name for himself by capturing a dragon egg from Napoleon's fleet a year or so before. When the dragon hatched, it attached itself to Laurence and the life long sailor had to learn how to ride dragons instead of frigates. But the dragon, named Temeraire proved to be more than the usual breed the rest of the English Aerial Corps flew. Temeraire is a Celestial, a gift intended to be from the Emperor of China to Napoleon, the Emperor of France. Laurence and Temeraire teamed up to become a formidable foe to the French. They had saved England from French invasion in a battle at the cliffs of Dover. But when the Chinese learned how their kingly gift was being used, in the hands of a mere soldier rather than an emperor, they made formal protests to the government of Great Britain and now Laurence finds himself stuck in stuffy room at the Admiralty, facing an accusatory Chinese prince and a British government that seems more than happy to sacrifice his relationship with his dragon for their political ends. Laurence is fed up and furious at being kept far from the heat of combat and far from his dragon.

To assuage the Chinese, who the British dare not enrage, the British Admiralty agree to send both Laurence and Temeraire to China to negotiate whatever ending might satisfy the offended Chinese while still maintaining vital British holdings in Asia and avoiding a war with that nation. It is a long voyage around Europe and underneath Africa to cross the Indian Ocean. Along the way, Laurence and Temeraire endure a French ambush, Temeraire's first encounter with the common cold, and a typhoon amongst other adventures.

As in the first book, the relationship between the two, Temeraire and Laurence, defines "Throne of Jade." Both prove that they would be willing to suffer to the point of death to spare the other harm. They make an outstanding team. Their mutual respect and their love for one another protect more than their own relationship. Each one allows the other to find within themselves new and greater truths, they make each other better than they would be alone.

The book is peppered with wonderfully crafted battle scenes: naval engagements, aerial combat, a desperate defense of a besieged fort, and even a dragon duel. Novik's knowledge of maritime terms and practices is impressive, and her attention to detail and creativity in imagining how a team of people could man a dragon in flight as they would a ship at sea make the stories she tells immersive.
Along the African coast, Temeraire sees his first slaves being sold and prepared for shipment across the sea. He witnesses a small scale revolt when a handful of the slaves fight back against their captors instead of meekly submitting to their imprisonment. The slave rebellion is quickly and brutally put down in full view of the scandalized dragon. Later, as the massive dragon transport ship called Valiance, enters the Indian Ocean, she is attacked by a massive sea serpent. Temeraire is reluctantly forced to kill the 250 foot long beast. This encounter and Laurence's insistence that the serpent was merely a mindless animal, along with the memories of the slaving outpost, set the dragon to asking questions about his own freedom.

If Temeraire is as smart as Laurence, and he is probably even smarter, why should he be forced into military service? Dragons in England are not allowed to roam freely. Human fear prevents this possibility. It is understood to be the natural order of things. Dragons are either harnessed for service in the aerial corps, or kept captive in breeding pens to help grow the ranks of beasts to be used as weapons. Laurence has a hard time answering his friend's questions, and his love of Temeraire helps him see the dragon's argument from a completely new perspective.

Their arrival in China does nothing to help Laurence's argument that the British way is the only way to deal with dragons. The Chinese, a society thousands of years older than Europeans, have a completely different way of thinking about and treating the mythological creatures. Even in our reality, China harbors a special reverence for dragons, but Novik takes this to the next level that her fictional world requires. Instead of shying away from the subject, Novik revels in a culture that respects the creature she inserted into our history. How would the Chinese have evolved to treat dragons? Novik draws from their customs, their mythology, and their art and decides that they would have evolved their entire civilization around the coexistence between humans and dragons.

In Novik's world, Chinese cities are designed to allow easy passage of dragons through their streets. Entire markets develop to provide food for dragons as well as to supply the treasures they naturally desire. Chinese chefs pride themselves on the perfect preparation of food for dragon consumption. Choice meats are heavily seasoned with spices and peppers, nothing like the English way of simply providing raw, or even still living, fodder. Dragons in China must earn their own wages, other than the rare and highly revered Celestial breeds. Therefore, dragons are woven throughout Chinese society. They are employed as messengers, taxis, and guards as well as soldiers for the government.

It's shocking at first for Laurence to learn that all Chinese dragons aren't serving the emperor's armed forces as English dragons are expected to do for their king. And to Laurence's surprise, with his Victorian-era sensibilities, the dragons who do end up serving in the Chinese military are captained exclusively by women. This is all due to an ancient legend of a girl who disguised herself as her father to save him from military service. In the legend, the girl (obviously, but never explicitly named Mulan) had been a companion to a warrior dragon and had saved the Chinese empire during a crucial battle. Women had been serving in the Chinese aerial corps ever since. It is a closely guarded secret in England that certain dragon breeds will only allow female captains, but for the entire Chinese aerial corps to have women at the helm is something entirely new for Laurence. It's also a nice way for Novik to get in a jab at naive Western ideas that they are the only enlightened societies on Earth, her reminder that gender roles, rather than being set in stone, are as varied as the many cultures that dot the globe.

Temeraire has always had a bit of a rebellious streak in him, Laurence has joked about it several times throughout both books. But this realization, that there are places in the world where his kin are treated as equals, where dragons are educated and respected, proves too much for Temeraire. His eyes are opened to possibilities he had never entertained before, and Laurence sees the passion growing within the closest friend he's ever known and he realizes that it's not wise to fight against it. In the end he knows that he never really wanted to fight it in the first place. Temeraire vows to return to England once the situation with the Chinese emperor is solved (quite cleverly, as a matter of fact) and begin a campaign to spread the word that dragons and humans can indeed live in much closer harmony than the English allow. Laurence knows that Temeraire is right. There is now no reason to continue catering to English fears or to pretend that segregation is the natural state of the world.

Temeraire, like many other non-human fictional characters, helps you to further define what it means to be human. We all have the potential to give in to our fears, to use the status quo as a refuge for our own laziness and self-protection, or as an excuse to turn a blind eye. Temeraire reminded you that you want to be the kind of person who fights against that inherent human weakness and he reminded you that you want to raise children who do the same thing. Sometimes the very people who seem like the enemy, who are treated as monsters by the rest of the world, are the ones who would make the greatest allies. Sometimes, there are far more terrible things in the world than dragons. The world needs more people who see injustice and inequality for what they are, who refuse to sit by and let them continue.

On to the next book!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

Your Father In Law told you that you needed to read this book. When he was in town helping you out with your newly born daughter he went ahead and bought it for you. You recognized the name Louis Zamperini when you read the cover and realized that the main character had only died a few weeks before, you'd heard about it on NPR. If George Nite and NPR agree that this guy was a big deal, you figured you had better check him out.

Laura Hillenbrand is famous for having written the book "Seabiscuit." While researching that book, she found a few news stories about an underdog runner who shocked the world by qualifying for the 5,000 meter race in the 1936 Olympics, even though he'd only competed in that distance three times before. Intrigued, Hillenbrand began looking into the life of this runner, Louis Zamperini, and she found a remarkable story there. She knew that she had found her next book.

Even as a small child, Louie was a hellion. If it was edible, he stole it. If there was a rule, he broke it. If there was an authority figure, he challenged it. He was an incurable prankster. Denis the Mennace had nothing on Louie Zamperini. He was one of those people who is just born rebellious by nature, utterly fearless and hopelessly optimistic in his iconoclasm. In an attempt to keep him out of trouble, Louie's older brother got him involved in track. Louie was a natural.

Attending USC, Louie made a name for himself as a blindingly fast runner who could overcome all sorts of adversity on the field. People from his hometown of Torrance, California, the same people who once cursed his "one-boy insurgency" on them, now cheered Louie on, calling him the Torrence Tornado. After he won a 2 mile race by more than a quarter of a mile, the Torrence police department sent him flowers proclaiming that they were glad that other people were chasing Louie now. Louie tried out for a spot in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was so hot in the stadium during the qualifying race that the metal cleats in his shoes had burned a pattern on the soles of his feet. He lost three pounds during the grueling 5,000 meter run. Despite all this, he blew past several far more famous favorites to secure his spot on the Olympic team.

As a member of the '36 US Olympic track team, Louie Zamperini became friends with Jesse Owens himself. In his final run in Berlin, Louie turned in the fastest final lap time in the mile run in Olympic history, though he did not medal. Adolf Hilter, the host of the games that year, was so impressed that he shook his hand and praised him to his face as "The boy with the fast finish." (The kid who had made his reputation stealing everything he could find in his hometown even swiped a Nazi Swastika flag while two guards had their backs turned.) Louie knew that he would keep getting better and set his sight on the 1940 Olympics, to be held in Tokyo, Japan. Instead he, and most of the rest of the planet, went to war.

Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier. After the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Louie was assigned to a B-24 in the Pacific theater. You knew that those big bombers, B-17's and B-24's, were put to use in the Pacific war, but it was interesting to be reminded of how extensively they were employed in that theater before the conflict could evolve into the carrier-based campaign you are used to imagining. B-24's were nicknamed "Flying Coffins." They were ugly, hard to fly, prone to developing glitches, and, with their odd bomb bay doors and high set wings, tended to break apart during attempted water landings. Also, and ominously for a war fought almost entirely over the largest ocean on Earth, B-24's sank almost immediately on meeting with water.

Louie took part in several bombing missions, including the destruction of the Japanese garrison that had taken Wake island from the US Marines. Louie's plane, Super Man, was almost completely destroyed on another mission bombing the island of Nauru. The mission was a success but one of Louie's crew was killed and several more were permanently taken out of the war by the wounds they received that day. Super Man limped back home with 594 holes blown in it by the Japanese defenders. The plane never flew again.

Louie and his pilot and friend, whom he simply called Phil, were moved to another B-24, the Green Hornet. The Hornet was plagued by technical problems and had been repeatedly cannibalized by resourceful American ground crews scrounging for parts. On May 27, 1943, Phil and his bombardier Louie, were ordered to take part in a search and rescue operation. Another B-24 had been lost somewhere over the Pacific and the Army Air Corps was determined to find the crew.

Before he flew in the Green Hornet for the first time, Louie wanted to check his speed at running the mile. He had a friend clock him. In 1954, eleven years later, on a track at Oxford, Roger Bannister would become famous for breaking the four minute mile. On that day, May 26, 1943, in the middle of World War II, Louie Zamperini ran a mile in four minutes and 12 second. And he did it in deep sand. He was on the shores of some nameless Pacific island, not in an Olympic stadium.

The next day, his plane crashed into the ocean and he was lost at sea. The Green Hornet had suffered from engine trouble and was too plagued with malfunctions for Phil, piloting the bomber for the first time, to save it. Only three men survived the crash, Louie, Phil, and the tailgunner named Mac. They had gone down too fast for anyone to have had time to send out a distress call. No one knew where they were when they crashed and they were hundreds of miles from any land.

The three men drifted on two inflatable life rafts longer than any other people have ever been recorded surviving. Over the course of 47 days they drifted 2,000 miles. They starved, burned in the sun, and suffered terribly from dehydration and exhaustion. They were strafed by Japanese planes and they battled ever-present sharks. No really; they battled the sharks. The demons from the deep leaped at them, tried to get into the raft, rubbed their backs along the bottom of the rafts while the men lay in them, and one monstrous great white pummeled the rafts from underneath to try and eject them into his waiting jaws. The exhausted men had to beat the beasts off with oars like they were sword fighting. Like "In Harm's Way" before, "Unbroken" didn't exactly cure you of your phobia of sharks.

The three men stayed sane by talking about cooking, describing food in exquisite detail. They quizzed one another and gave educational lectures. Their minds were sharpened by the lack of food and any visible distractions. The privations of the flesh and the beauty of the endless expanse of the ocean actually inspired awe and even gratitude in Louie at times. Louie saw visions too, choirs in the sky singing to him. He prayed to a god he never believed in before to help him out. He promised a life of service if that god saved his life.

Mac, the tailgunner died before they sighted land. Phil and Louie, however, survived just long enough to be captured by a Japanese warship before they could reach the island they'd seen. They were moved from prison to prison over the course of the next few months. They were not treated very well. Guards beat them, they were served pitiful meals. Visiting Japanese submariners and sailors would often swing by the prisoners' cells to heap physical and verbal abuse on them. Louie was questioned about his knowledge of the top-secret Norden bomb sight and soon it was discovered that he was a famous man, an Olympian.

By September of '43 Louie found himself in a place called Ofuna. This place was no POW camp. Ofuna was a secret interrogation center and therefore was not registered with the Red Cross. The men held there were given the nebulous status of "unarmed combatant" and the Japanese government maintained that the Geneva Conventions did not apply. Dostoevsky said that you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners. If that's true, then the Empire of Japan was to be found lacking in everything that a society should stand for. Places like Ofuna are what make the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay so offensive to students of history. History teaches us that people held in secret prisons and given special status exempting them from the rule of international law are not usually treated very well. Harsh judgements have been rendered against nations that do this and it has usually been the United States rendering those judgements. For an American outpost to even be included in the same sentence as camps like Ofuna is beneath the honor of the men and women who have served in this nation's military for over 200 years.

The conditions at Ofuna were more than deplorable, but not all of it was the fault of the Japanese government. Food was sent to the camp by officials but the guards and, most egregiously, the head cook sold the prisoners' food on the black market for obscene profits. For the men held at Ofuna and other POW camps, starvation and exposure to the extreme cold were bad enough but worse than that, worse than being lost at sea, worse than battling sharks, was the loss of dignity. The men would do anything in their power to gain back even the smallest slice of the dignity that the Japanese worked daily to rob from them. In every camp Louie ended up in, he and the men around him stole information, hid valuables, sabotaged the equipment they were forced to help build or transport, and even poisoned guards; anything to feel like they had some shred of dignity left.

Eventually, Louie was moved to yet another POW camp, called Omori, nestled on a small artificial island in Tokyo Bay. This place was something altogether different from the other camps he had been in. This one was run by a psychopathic sadist.

A corporal named Mitsuhiro Watanabe, but referred to most often as "the bird" by the prisoners, was a guard at Omori. He was the son of a wealthy Japanese family and had received a top-tier education in French literature and philosophy. He longed to rise through the ranks of the military but his application to be accepted as an officer had been rejected. Japan was at war and he felt that honor demanded that he serve with distinction, but this denial disgraced Watanabe. It snapped something in his psyche. His dissolution, his powerlessness, and his hate (and possibly his insanity) got him transferred to a dead end post for NCO's, a POW camp. At Ofuna, Watanabe was allowed to let his mental illness run rampant upon the prisoners. The bird ran the place, giving orders to officers and even countermanding orders that had been issued by men who far outranked him.

The bird regularly beat the prisoners. He screamed and raged. He demanded utmost respect and would lose his mind over the slightest provocation. Often he would give the POW's contradicting commands in order to give himself a reason to dole out harsh punishments. He would confusingly flash from calm and caring in one second to murderous and cruel in the next. He was unstable and unpredictable and he focused all of this madness on Louie Zamperini from the minute he laid eyes on the captured American Olympian. His celebrity status and his latent sense of defiance and rebellion made Louie an irresistible target for the bird's rage. Watanabe tortured him constantly.

The men of Omori had a front row seat to the defeat of the Japanese Empire. They were sitting in the middle of Tokyo Bay and watched as the American war machine began sending the newest, most sophisticated and futuristic technological weapons into the skies above Japan to ensure her destruction. Gleaming silver metal B-29s, long range, pressurized, high altitude, heavy bombers began appearing over the heads of the POWs in 1944. The terrified Omori guards could not keep the news from the prisoners that huge portions of many Japanese cities had been destroyed by B-29 firebombing raids. For you, was an odd feeling to read about the war from both the perspective of the people of Japan and the American POWs who were witnessing both the brutality of their tormentors as well as the inhumanity of the American bombing campaigns. Eventually the men on Omori were ringside witnesses to the calamity that befell Tokyo itself in the Spring of '45. Most of the city was incinerated overnight. Since Omori was in Tokyo Bay, some of the desperate and terrified citizens of the nation's capital tried to seek shelter from the maelstrom on the POW's island. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a firestorm that raged hundreds of feet into the night sky, burned and suffocated under the rain of ruin the 20th century had brought on their heads.

By then, Louie had been saved from the wrath of the bird. Watanabe had been reassigned to somewhere unknown. For the first time since meeting the bird, Louie felt that he might be able to survive his imprisonment. Before long Louie was transferred as well, only to be met at the new camp by none other than Watanabe himself. This was the thing that almost broke Louie, the man whose biography is named "Unbreakable." The bird had requested Louie's transfer specifically. He missed his favorite victim. Louie was subjected to the kind of mental and physical suffering that scars humans for the rest of their lives.

Unbeknownst to most of Japan's POWs (but suspected by some) the Empire had a standing "Kill All" order. If the advancing American forces approached too close to any POW camps, the Japanese guards were under orders to use any and all means necessary to kill every single prisoner before they could be freed. Any means at all. The Japanese hierarchy was well aware that they had been breaking all kinds of international laws in their deplorable treatment of Allied prisoners and they were determined to protect themselves from any punishment if/when the war was lost. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese but may have saved thousands of Allied prisoners of war. The emperor agreed to surrender before the "Kill All" order could be carried out across the Japanese home islands.

Fat Man and Little Boy abruptly ended the war and they also ended Louie's torture. Within days, he was feasting on supplies air dropped to his camp by B-29's. His guards, including the bird, had disappeared, and word had spread that Louie was alive and heading home soon. But, as with many veterans, the war followed him home.

Before long, it became clear that Louie Zamperini was a poster case for PTSD. He woke every night with terrible nightmares, he descended into alcoholism, and became obsessed with visions of returning to Japan to murder Watanabe, the man who continued to torture Louie even long after they parted ways. He suffered from intense flashbacks and extreme mental trauma. Louie met a girl and got married, but his emotional scars worked under the surface to eat away at his marriage. He was pulled in to several "get rich quick" schemes that appealed to his desire to get back to Japan to find and murder the bird.

Watanabe had taken Louie's sense of self. He had created a puppet in Louie, a man who could not see the reality of his life. Ironically, the former celebrity and Olympian, the man who made himself a success in the world, a man who had survived the unendurable, was now comparing himself to someone far less of an enviable man than he. Watanabe was a pitiable man, a failure. He only ever achieved any meaning in his life through enforcing suffering on others. After the war, he was a man on the run, a fugitive from justice. He was not anyone to be revered or to be respected. Watanabe was a sad pathetic figure, while Louie was an inspiration to all. Yet Watanabe held power over Louie's life and influenced him in way that were evident every day. But such is the nature of torture and psychological abuse.

Eventually, Louie's wife, Cynthia convinced him to attend a speech being given by a charismatic and passionate young man named Billy Graham. In a parking lot in Los Angeles, under a massive circus tent, Louie heard a message that resonated with him. He remembered the prayers he had thrown out in desperation on his raft adrift on the Pacific. He remembered the rain that repeatedly answered those prayers. He remembered that God had indeed kept him alive. It was his final flashback. All at once, Louie realized that he had a promise to fulfill. He had told God while on that raft, surrounded by sharks and dying of starvation and thirst, that "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." That night was the first in half a decade that the bird did not show up in Louie's dreams.

Louie dedicated his life to God and to helping young people find their way in the world. He became a Christian motivational speaker and started a camp for troubled boys. He traveled back to Japan shortly after his conversion but not to seek revenge. He met with those of his captors who agreed to see him and he embraced them one by one, forgiving them for their abuse of him and preaching the gospel to each in turn. Watanabe was not there.

Decades later, when the Olympics came to Nagano, Japan and Louie was carrying the Olympic torch for a fifth time, he reached out to try to meet with Watanabe. Against all odds the bird had evaded capture and survived until a blanket pardon was given to all war criminal suspects. He still refused to meet Louie, his favorite former prisoner and victim, face to face. So Louie wrote a letter to the man who once haunted his dreams. He told Watanabe he forgave him and that he hoped his former captor found the love and grace of God through Jesus.

Whether or not there is a god, whether or not your own Christian faith is founded on any reality, this story is an example of how it is all worth it. If Louie's faith could inspire this kind of healing, your own can do things just as powerful. Louie realized that in order to move past the most traumatic thing he (or almost anyone) had ever endured, he needed to do what did not come naturally to him, he needed to turn the other cheek. He needed to heed to words of a 2,000 year dead carpenter and learn to forgive and then pray for his enemies. He wasn't content to let God sort out his enemies. He knew that his faith called him to do what he could to try to save the very men who had almost driven him mad. He needed to make a choice to not only forgive his former tormentors, but to come to a place where he cared about them enough to tell them that he was concerned about the destinations of their eternal souls. He had to abandon hate and vengeance. He chose to love them.

And, in the end, that's what made him unbreakable.

On to the next book!

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley (1818)

"Frankenstein" is one of the most well known works of fiction there is. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein. He the guy who sings 'Puttin' On The Ritz' with Gene Wilder right? The guy with bolts in his neck. "Fire Bad!" That guy. Frankenstein.... Or is it pronounced Frahnkensteeen?

You'd never read "Frankenstein" before, but you are totally the kind of guy who always complains when other people have only ever seen the movie or the TV show but have never read the book. You figured it was time to practice what you preach and read up on the old familiar story of the mindless monster and his mad scientist master. Everyone knows the story so well already that you figured reading the book would just be a reminder of where it all got started. Surely there would be no surprises. You were wrong.

You've always loved the story of how Shelley wrote this classic novel. She was touring central Europe with her lover the famous poet Percy Shelley (they would later marry), the flamboyant and aristocratic poet Lord Byron, and physicist and poet John Polidori (who would go on to write the first published vampire story). They all decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest horror story. Shelley thought about it for days and had a dream about a scientist who created life on his own. She turned the dream into her story. Shelley undoubtedly won the competition. She also created in one stroke both the horror and science fiction genres in modern literature.

The novel opens with letters written from an Englishman to his sister as he sails out of Archangel, Russia. He recounts to her how he has given up on his lifelong dream of being a poet (remember who Shelley was writing for?) and he has decided to be the first human to reach the North Pole.

What? That's not how the story is supposed to start! Where are the spooky mountains and the tower with the mad scientist? Where is Igor? From the opening page of the book, it became clear that this story is nothing like you were expecting.

After four months, the poet turned explorer, named Captain Walton finds his ship surrounded by sea ice. He and his crew are stuck fast and hoping for a break in the ice to allow the to sail to safety. Through the fog and the snow, he and his crew see something they never expected. A team of dogs is pulling a sled over the ice not far from the ship. In the sled is no normal driver, but a gigantic man. He and his dogs leave Walton's crew slack-jawed and shocked as they disappear into the distance, there is not supposed to be anyone this far north. That night, the ice breaks up, releasing the ship. In the morning Walton finds another sled, a different sled, floating on an ice floe with a man clinging to life inside. Walton orders his crew to rescue the stranger, but the man asks in a foreign accent where the ship is headed, north or south. Only when the crew answers that they are headed northwards does the strangers say that he will allow them to rescue him.

Captain Walton, still writing to his sister, sees the stranger is near death and nurses him back to health. The stranger reveals to Walton that he is on the hunt, chasing after the giant the crew had seen before. He calls his quarry "the demon." He says he has been chasing him for many months but he is sparing with details. Walton recognizes a kindred spirit in the stranger and soon comes to see him as a close friend. Both men share a passion for knowledge and agree that human beings cannot be complete unless they share deep friendships and also personal success. The stranger becomes distraught at this and decides to tell Walton his story. He intends it to be a warning for the Englishman to beware of chasing knowledge without considering all of the ramifications of his actions. Captain Walton dictates the stranger's tale word for word.

The stranger is, of course, none other than Victor Frankenstein. The story he tells Captain Walton bears little resemblance to the tropes you have grown up thinking constituted the story of "Frankenstein." Victor grew up in Switzerland and Italy and attended college in Ingolstadt, Germany. As a young man, Victor became fascinated by ancient sciences like alchemy. In school, his professors introduced him instead to the modern practice of science and physical philosophy. Victor is hooked immediately.

Deeply affected by the death of his mother just before his leaving for college, young Frankenstein develops a fascination with the origin of life in individuals, the spark that sets inanimate matter into motion. He claims that, after much study, he discovered how to impart life to the lifeless. Frankenstein tells Captain Walton that he will never reveal this powerful knowledge because of the ruin it brought to his own life. He does not wish his fate on any man. He reminds the captain that he is not insane, merely a genius, and his discovery will remain a secret. 

Energized by his new-found knowledge, Frankenstein relates how consumed he became with the prospect of creating a new being. He worked himself to the bone, nearly suffering a psychotic break finding the raw materials needed to stitch together a vessel into which he could ignite the fires of life itself. For two years he worked in an upstairs lab on the campus, obsessing over the perfection of his dream. Shelley describes his toils in macabre and disturbing language, maintaining enough morbid vagueness to let the reader's imagination run wild.

One night (neither a cold nor stormy one) he succeeded in his greatest ambition. There was no harnessed lightning, no dutiful Igor, no screaming of "It's alive!" Frankenstein simply performed whatever secret procedure it was that he had discovered. He created life from what was previously dead. But on looking at his creation for the first time, instead of triumph he felt utter revulsion. The monster that stirs at his feet is so hideous, so disgustingly inhuman, that Frankenstein spends the rest of the night hiding from his own creation. When the dawn arrives the next morning, Victor wanders the streets of Ingolstadt, terrified at every turn that he will run into his creation.

It is two full years until Frankenstein sees his creation again. His brother had been murdered back home in Geneva and Frankenstein returned there to comfort his family and confirm his suspicions of who the murderer might be. Victor sets off into the heart of the Alps and finds the monster he created hiding on a high glacier.

Frankenstein's creation, his demon, is not a staggering mindless ghoul. He is eloquent and articulate, a man possessed of reason and logic. He is no mindless monster. He is persuasive and passionate. He shows an appreciation for beauty and a thirst for knowledge. Victor sees this and realizes his duty to his creation, telling Captain Walton that he had an obligation to make sure the creature was happy before he condemned it's wickedness. He stays with his monster to hear his story.

The creature ran into the mountains after he first woke to life, after he witnessed his own creator fleeing from the sight of him. His every attempt to introduce himself to civilization are met with fear, anger, torches, stones, and pitchforks. In the mountains he finds a small poor family to secretly observe from a camouflaged vantage point. The De Laceys live in a modest cottage and the monster learns to speak and read through his observations of their lives. His surreptitious education leads him to become self aware. Frankenstein's demon starts asking himself the questions that eventually occur to all of us. "Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?" Like most of us, the monster proves unable to answer these metaphysical questions. But he has an idea for how he can assuage his loneliness.

The monster demands that Victor create a companion for him, a woman to keep him company and furnish him with the sense of love and belonging that humans have proven incapable of providing. The monster then becomes sinister for the first time in the story. He reveals that he did indeed murder Victor's brother in order to lure him to the mountains to make this very demand from him. The creature swears that he will hound Victor, no matter where he goes, until his request is met. He promises to make Frankenstein's life one of unimaginable misery if he refuses the request.

Frankenstein tells Walton that he acquiesced to the monster's demand out of a sense of compassion rather than of fear for his safety. But soon, the fear sets in. Victor takes his best friend to England to create a bride for his demon. Filled with worry and paranoia, he retires to a remote island north of Scotland, one of the Orkneys, to perform his gruesome task, the creation of another monster. But at the last second, he stops himself. Victor realizes that he cannot be responsible for unleashing another monster in the world and destroys what progress he has made. As soon as he does this he looks up to the window and sees the enraged face of his monster. The creature disappears into the night, hell bent on fulfilling his promise to ruin Frankestein's life.

The monster then enacts his vengeance, murdering Victor's best friend, his new wife, and causing so much heartache to Victor's father that he too dies of a broken heart. With nothing left to live for, Victor Frankenstein makes killing the monster the sole goal of his life. He chases him all across Europe and even almost all the way to the North Pole.

The former scientific genius becomes consumed with worry and anguish and fear. He is afraid that everyone he loves is doomed and he his right. But it is not the inhumanity of his creation that proves Frankestein's undoing, it is his own. He has no sympathy, no compassion. He sees only what his fear tells him to see. He sees a monster so he creates one, not when he breathes life into a corpse, but when he believed his creation to be unworthy of love. And, ultimately, love is all the monster wants.

Like any good horror story, the genre it created, "Frankenstein" is a warning. It is Shelley's warning to be careful to not put too much stock in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. As wonderful and inspiring as technology is, as important as it is for humans to constantly push the boundaries of what is possible, it is even more important for us to be guided by principles, to remember that just because we can do something doesn't always mean that we should. It is a warning to never obsess over work and professional pursuits at the expense of other, more valuable things. Shelly's novel also serves as a reminder that often, much of the hardships we find ourselves the victims of are the results of evil we ourselves put into the world. Violence only begets violence and vengeance is ultimately an empty pursuit.

Most importantly, most poignantly, "Frankenstein" is a warning to never surrender our capacity for empathy, our compassion to fear of the unknown. Just because something is not beautiful it is no less worthy of our love. You can find inspiration even in the most unlikely of places. Men like John Rabe and Claus Von Stauffenberg remind you that even amongst Hitler's Nazis, there were men who were worthy of respect and admiration. And men like Hal Halvorsen remind you that even the smallest acts of mercy and compassion can affect the course of world history. This is a common theme you have noticed arising throughout all of the books you find yourself reading lately, both fiction and nonfiction... maybe it is a common theme amongst all story tellers. The greatest evil humanity can commit is always a result of our refusing to recognize the humanity in others. The greatest good we can perform is always a result of embracing that quality in others. Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" was a reminder that sometimes you have to embrace that humanity even in the most monstrous and hideous among us.

On to the next book!

Monday, October 27, 2014

"The Candy Bombers" by Andrei Cherny (2008)

Everyone has heard of the Cold War, and everyone has heard of World War II. But few people remember that there was a moment between these two conflicts when the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic went from being allies who saved the world from the madness of Nazi Germany and quickly became rabid enemies who fought over nations like dogs with bones. It all started in the capital of the nation the two greatest Super Powers had fought so hard to defeat together. It was called the Berlin Airlift and the book's subtitle is not hyperbole, it might very well have been America's greatest moment.

Your cousin Eric has been telling you to read this book for a few years now. He usually reads the books you suggest to him, but you're kind of a jerk sometimes and don't always reciprocate, so he yanked the rug out from under your lame excuses and bought you a copy. That guy is awesome. So was "The Candy Bombers." You had heard of the Berlin Airlift before but you'd never heard of Andrei Cherny. It turns out that he is the youngest US Presidential speechwriter in history. President Clinton was impressed by his writings in the Harvard Crimson and quoted him in his second inaugural address before he'd even hired him. So... the man can write.

After the Second World War ended the Allies were determined to not let Germany rise up and start another devastating war. The former homeland of the Kaiser and the Nazis was divided into two halves, with the western half run by the Western Allies (the US, England, France) and the eastern half run by communist Russia. Berlin was similarly divided, even though it was deep inside the Russian held eastern half of the defeated nation. Three years after the end of the war, relations between the Russians and the Western Allies had begun to chill. The Soviet Union was gobbling up countries they had "liberated" from German occupation. Communist rule was falling over Eastern Europe with an iron fist. Assassinations and coups became commonplace news. Soon, West Berlin had become an island surrounded by a sea of aggressive Soviet armies.

And it was an island in ruins. British and American bombers had hit the city relentlessly for the last few months of the war. What little remained of the city was demolished by a Russian invasion that ended the war in Europe with the stuff of nightmares. The Red Army spared no one as they raped, killed, pillaged, and burned their way into the heart of Nazi Germany. In a city that was once called the capital of the world, nothing remained but the skeletons of buildings, the stench of thousands of corpses, and a desperate and dominated population that had lost all hope in humanity.

It is important to remember the attitude the American occupiers held when they entered Berlin. They absolutely hated the Germans. It is frequently spouted common wisdom that the harsh treatment of Germany by the Allies after World War One directly lead to the instability that allowed the Nazis to rise to power and thus caused World War Two. Hitler said so himself. But in the summer of 1945, most of the men who had fought against the Nazis felt that the only reason they had needed to re-fight their fathers' enemies was because, in fact, the Allies had been too soft on Germany, too easy and too trusting after The Great War. The men who had seen the Nazi death camps with their own eyes were not inclined to be merciful to their defeated, genocidal enemies. They felt it was their duty to never allow Germany to rise to power again. For the first few years, the Americans did very little to help the German people to rebuild their country and they cared even less about allowing the Germans to form their own government. The citizens of Germany were still the enemy.

As the post-war situation in Berlin became more and more tense, the American soldiers there became acutely aware that they were vastly outnumbered if the situation ever escalated to a real live shooting conflict. Once WWII was over, the US had demilitarized. They'd sent their sons home and given them money to go to college to get good jobs and build the greatest economy the world had ever seen. The Soviet Union did no such thing. They kept their sons in uniform and in active service throughout Europe and Asia. In 1948, American forces in Berlin were outnumbered by their former allies turned rivals by a factor of sixty two to one! There were more Russian soldiers within a few hours of Berlin than there were active American soldiers on the entire planet. In the spring of '48 the Russians staged a coup against the government of Czechoslovakia, the last nation still standing against the red tide. In one fell swoop, everything from the Elbe river eastward all the way to the shores of Alaska on the other side of the world was now Soviet territory. Everything except Berlin.

On June 24, 1948, the Russians cut off all shipments of supplies to the western sectors of Berlin. One of the biggest cities in the world was now cut off from everything its citizens needed to survive. There were over 2 million civilians living in Berlin. No food, coal, medicine, or water was allowed to be driven by truck or train from the western half of Germany into Berlin. Nothing.

The commander of the Russian forces in Berlin, still presumed to be an ally of the United States, stormed out of the Allied Council meeting under the false claims that the Americans were not adhering to the terms of the agreements to run the city's affairs together with the Russians. The Russians moved quickly to try to force the Allies out of their city-turned-island stronghold. The American commander insisted he wasn't going anywhere, that abandoning West Berlin would inspire the Germans to acquiesce to communist control.

On March 31st, recognizing the strategic futility of a few hundred men defending an isolated outpost against millions of enemy soldiers, James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, had ordered the US Air Force to bring B-29 bombers (the only planes capable of carrying a nuclear bomb) out of storage. He knew there was a good chance they would be needed to help the Americans level the playing field if the shooting started. More ominously, the production of nuclear bombs jumped from the paltry 50 the US had in her arsenal up to 133 within a few months. The nuclear arms race that would come to characterize half of the 20th Century started on that day. The situation was so serious that President Truman suggested mandatory military service for all boys and instituted a civilian peace time draft. The blockade (or siege, more accurately) made Berlin feel for the first time like two cities. Two governments. Two philosophies. Two police forces. The city would keep that feel for the next half century.

The airlift started as a temporary and disorganized measure. A few dozen American aircrews flying inadequate cargo planes tried to keep Berlin meagerly supplied while General Clay, in charge of the American occupation of Germany, tried to prepare an armed convoy to break through the Russian blockade, guns blazing. The Pentagon and the State Department tried to convince President Truman to abandon the city arguing that the ruins of the former capital of Nazi Germany wasn't worth starting another World War over. No one thought an airlift could possibly be a long-term solution. It was impossible. Every attempt to do anything like it had failed every time anyone had ever it tried before. But there were no better options. The Russians so far had proved unwilling to shoot American planes out of the sky. Soon, American cargo planes from all over the world were converging on Germany.

"The Candy Bombers" goes deeply into the minds of the men running the crisis. Commanders on both sides had to deal with orders from far off politicians meeting the reality of a new conflict unlike anything the world had ever seen. There had been foolish brinksmanship before, but never brinksmanship with nuclear weapons in the heart of Europe. The new first US Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, was shaping the American response to the Soviet threat in a way that would echo for decades. He was also slowly going insane. General Clay, commanding the American occupation of Germany, was a man who had been desperate to find combat during WWII, but instead had been placed in charge of acquisitions for the entire war effort in the United States. He was the one who was responsible for setting both production quotas and public rationing of goods. By the end of the war, his name had become notorious among housewives and CEO's alike. Many cheered his deployment to Europe, even as they pitied the Germans. Clay was an authoritarian hard ass compensating for feeling of inferiority and would not take no for an answer. By the end of the Berlin Airlift, his name would become revered among the people he had been sent to rule.

President Harry Truman was losing his first bid for the White House. Most Americans realized that he had lucked into the position of FDR's Vice President. In the upcoming election, he was being challenged on the left by Roosevelt's previous VP, Henry Wallace. The prospect was that the ticket would be split and the decade and a half of Democratic dominance would come to an end. The Republicans had nominated Thomas Dewy, a candidate with star power and a masterful stage presence. He sold out massive venues with every speech and drew celebrity endorsements by the handful. Almost every American thought he was a sure thing. The story of how Truman won helped explain that image you grew up watching during the opening credits of "Cheers;" the one with a victorious Harry Truman holding a newspaper with the banner headline "Dewey Wins!" over his head. He didn't win. Truman was reelected. The Berlin Airlift had more than a little to do with that famous political upset.

But the story of "The Candy Bombers" is not about the men in positions of authority. It is about the acts of one man and the others he inspired. Gail Halvorsen, called "Hal," flew one of the cargo planes coming in and out of Berlin. He and his men made that treacherous, stomach-dropping dive over a cemetery and passed the windows of a massive apartment building down into the Tempelhoff airstrip. Hal noticed the small crowd of children at the head of the runway every day. They gathered to watch the huge planes bringing supplies to their families. He went out to meet them one day and was so moved by the humanity he saw in their eyes that he promised to throw them some candy the next time he flew into the city. This was crucial. An American looked into the face of the children that his fellow airmen had, only three years before, bombed into the Stone Age... and he did not see the enemy. He saw fellow humans, desperately in need of compassion and kindness.

The next time he made his approach into Templehoff, Hal wagged his wings like he said he would to tell the kids to get ready. The candy, a week's worth of rations from Hal and his whole flight crew, floated into the hands of the children below on parachutes made out of handkerchiefs. It was against the rules of the airlift and broke all the anti-fraternization laws of the occupying American military. The kids loved it. They were starving and had suffered through a decade of privation and rationing. Most of them had never tasted candy. The size of the crowds at the airport's fence line grew. Hundreds of Berlin's children gathered in hopes of another candy drop. Hal and his crew dropped two more loads on the kids before they were found out by a reporter. Instead of being punished, Halvorsen was ushered in front of a press conference. This was a publicity coup for the Americans. Soon he would be touring the United States on publicity tours. It would be hard for the Russians to paint the Americans as the aggressors when the face of the Airlift was a smiling kid from Utah who just wanted to give candy to excited little kids.

Soon, Halvorsen's was the only plane allowed to deviate from the perfectly timed assembly line of transports flying into Berlin. He made his candy bombing runs over school yards and stadiums, anywhere he thought there might be children. Americans sent him candy donations by the hundreds of pounds. A Jewish candy tycoon from New York sent him over 2 tons to distribute to the children of a society who had grown up being told they were the Master Race, that Jews were inhuman. Hitler's last hope for a thousand year Reich, the children inculcated by the youth movement that bore his own name, the brain washed kids of Nazi fanaticism, the minds shaped by the propaganda of Goebbels and Himmler... they had all that hate cleaned away by small acts of sugary mercy. These children stood upon the ruins of their city and experienced something other than hatred or fear or exclusion. They experienced the power of compassion. Some of them, for the first time maybe, experienced joy.

It made a difference. For years before the crisis, when polled, Berliners had answered that they would have preferred economic prosperity over political freedom. They said that, if it came down to it, they would overwhelmingly choose the Soviets over starvation. But the Airlift changed their minds, or maybe it opened their eyes. Those polls began swinging solidly towards democracy, even as the prospects of starvation became even more real. On September 6th a mob of 3,000 hired thugs broke into Berlin's City Hall and unsuccessfully attempted a coup. Within days 300,000 Berliners held a huge rally at the burned out ruins of the Reichstag, the site of the final titanic battle of WWII. They listened as their politicians (many of whom were not allowed to hold the offices they had been elected to) dedicated themselves to self-determination, to living in freedom. The citizens of Nazi Germany had seen the promise of a robust democracy and they were now recoiling and fearful at the prospect that it would be snatched from them. They had glimpsed hope for the first time in decades and they were determined to hold on to it, even if it meant more suffering. They had known suffering most of their lives. They had never known freedom.

The key to a successful blockade by the Russians required the people of Berlin to give up on any aspirations for democracy. If they had, they would have placed blame for the suffering they endured squarely on American shoulders and would have kicked out the Allies from the city. There would have been nothing the Americans could have done in that case. Instead, the Berliners flocked to the standard of freedom. Again, Maslow's hierarchy of needs was proven to be incorrect. As resources became more scarce than they had ever been and the people's situations more desperate than they had ever known, the crime rate in the city plummeted. Even as they starved and even as they froze, the people of Berlin became passionate, even zealous for their own freedom. The Russians offered hundreds of pounds of coal to warm them and mountains of food to feed their starving families if the Berliners would only sign away their American issued rationing cards, effectively declaring themselves subjects of the Soviet occupation. Almost none of them did so. As the winter set in, it became evident that the whole justification for the blockade had backfired. The Berliners were far more pro-democracy after the Airlift than they were before it.

A specialist was eventually brought in to streamline the operations of the Airlift. General William Tunner had figured out how to supply Allied forces in China by flying cargo planes over the Himalayas during WWII. He was methodical, logical, and calculating to a fault. He took all the romance and fun out of flying. Pilots had to maintain strict discipline and no one (other than Halvorsen) was allowed to deviate from their assigned flight paths. He turned the swashbuckling seat-of-your-pants adventure of the Airlift into a monotonously boring and formulaic assembly line. But his plan worked. He had one plane landing or taking off from Templehoff airport every 90 seconds. He performed what everyone who knew anything about aerial logistics considered to be impossible. He kept millions of people relatively well supplied from the air.

In November Tunner was stymied by the worst fog Europe had ever seen. Every airport from Dublin to Prague was shut down for weeks and weeks. But as soon as it lifted, he had the men flying again. Eventually Tunner, the most unsung of all the heroes to come out of the Berlin Airlift, figured out how to deliver even more supplies than the people of Berlin had requested. Tunner figured out how to do the impossible. And in doing so, he broke the Russians.

Almost 50 American and British airmen died in crashes during the ten month siege. The Soviets did everything they could think of to undermine Allied efforts. They staged elaborate "aerial exercises" dangerously close to the Allied air corridors, even going so far as to fire shots across the noses of some of the cargo planes coming in for that, already treacherous, landing. They hired a mob 3,000 strong to break into City Hall and attempt a coup. West Berlin policemen disappeared with alarming regularity, victims of Soviet abduction and intimidation. Their efforts failed.

The Cold War is thought of as a primarily military conflict, even though no 'Hot War' ever broke out among the primary belligerents. But it wasn't. There was sabre rattling to be sure, but the conflict was primarily staged within the hearts and minds of the citizens of the world. The Berlin Airlift was the opening salvo, the shot heard round the world, only without any bloodshed. It set the tenor for the conflict to come. The next forty years would be characterized by the two greatest powers on Earth vying for territory, but only because that promised to expand their base of influence and power. The two sides would wage a war of opposing views of the world. One side sought equality of wealth distribution through intimidation and aggressive police states. The other promised freedom of expression, movement, and religion. They presented the world with the excesses that a robust democracy and a booming capitalist economy could create. The Berlin Airlift was not won with the use of bombers and nuclear weapons. It was won with Rock 'N Roll and blue jeans. It was won with endless highways and a victorious Civil Rights movement.

It was won with cargo planes and candy.

On May 8th, 1949, on the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich, the new nation of West Germany adopted a constitution that embraced the ideas of individual liberty, inalienable human rights, freedom of faith, an independent press, and freedom of speech. Two days later, the Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted. The Russians would never make any more advances into Europe. They had gone as far as the rest of the world would allow. Berlin would go on to become the main symbolic battleground of the Cold War, a metaphor for what both sides were fighting for. And it would be the sight of this division coming down, the fall of the Berlin Wall almost forty years later, that would signal to the world that the Cold War had ended. It is remarkable to think that it all started because one American named Hal was able to see his old enemy as a human being rather than a monster. He had inspired his fellow Americans to turn his aircraft from a weapon of fearsome destruction into a force for good and an image of altruism. The United States had showed the world what the difference was between liberty and totalitarianism.

On to the next book!

P.S. Historians often make a big deal of the moment that American and Russian forces split the Third Reich in two. It was on April 25th in 1945 in the middle of a bridge over the Elbe river in a city called Torgau. There were photographers there to record the whole scheduled event and everyone smiled and celebrated. The real first meeting of the soldiers from the US and USSR happened earlier in the day 16 miles south of the official celebration. An insubordinate American named Lieutenant Kotzebue had defied his orders and lead his motorized patrol far beyond where they were supposed to scout. As they drove east they passed crowds of civilians headed west, fleeing the Russian onslaught. The Americans drove through swarms of German soldiers desperate to surrender to comparatively merciful American rather than face the furious vengeance of the Russian Red Army. Kotzebue and his rebellious patrol reached the river Elbe and rowed across to meet the men in brown uniforms they could see on the other banks, Soviet infantrymen. The Russians had enforced a brutal and complete retribution on the Germans, on soldiers and civilians alike. The eastern side of the river was a different world from the western side. Dead civilians lay everywhere the Americans walked. The Americans were appalled at what the saw, but the Russians were their allies so they kept their judgements to themselves. And so it was that American and Russian forces, allies through the bloodiest war in human history, finally met one another on a field of battle with the dead children of their vanquished enemy at their feet. Personally, you would rather remember the the amicable and photo friendly version on the bridge in Torgau, but the truth is not always easy to stomach. And photo ops are not a legitimate way to study history.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card (1986)

Orson Scott Card has said that he only wrote "Ender's Game" so that he could then write "Speaker for the Dead." Even though this is a sequel, it was the reason for writing the the first one at all. That's saying something, because you loved "Ender's Game." Having said that, this one probably isn't going to get made into a movie anytime soon, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In the climactic moment of "Ender's Game" Ender Wiggins kills every member of the only other sentient species that humans had ever found in the galaxy, the Buggers. Granted, he thought that the war he was waging was just a simulation, practice for the real thing. Granted, almost every human on Earth thought they were engaged in an interstellar war for survival, but that doesn't matter. History remembers Ender as a Xenocidal maniac, a stain on human culture and ethics. After his incomparable crime, though, Ender travels to the bugger homeworld and is entrusted with a gift unlike any other. The last Bugger hive queen, cocooned and in stasis yet still capable of re-seeding the entire species, has made contact with him telepathically. Through this unique connection, he realizes that the entire war was a mistake, a case of extraordinary misunderstanding.

With the last Hive Queen as his constant telepathic companion, Ender sets out on his new life's mission: to find a new homeworld for the Buggers, a world safe from the suspicions and xenophobia of humans. And he writes a book explaining to the rest of humanity the extent of his crime in wiping out an entire race. Lifting the lenses of hatred, fear, and absolutism from his own eyes, he unveils the Buggers as something more than mindless monsters hell-bent on conquest or the annihilation of humanity. Embracing empathy and truth, he reveals the scope of the crime he committed to the entire human race. Ender reveals the complexity of an enemy that humanity had been content to think of in easy, two dimensional caricature. But they weren't just the bad guys. There was a depth to them, a history, a delicate evolution of culture and a beautiful symmetry to their lives. The Buggers hadn't deserved to die at all, yet he had killed every single one of them. In writing his book, Ender gave voice to the dead in a way that had rarely been done before. He became a Speaker for The Dead, and he started a new philosophy based on that idea.

After his book "The Hive Queen and The Hegemon," an entire discipline of Speakers arose in the galaxy. People dedicated to the idea that when someone dies we often make the mistake of trying to only remember the best in them, to recreate them in an easily presentable, two dimensional character. We often even invent good things about the dead, and talk only about those things when we eulogize them. Instead, Speakers for the Dead speak the truth about the dead. They endeavor to tell their full stories and in so doing, to reveal the honor and the depth in each of our personal stories. This new philosophy allowed humans to embrace honesty and empathy and to recognize that memories are best remembered when they are unvarnished. Lilies are more beautiful when they are not gilded; or more accurately, a gilded lily is no lily at all.

Thousands of years have passed since the end of "Ender's Game" and humanity has used the technology they discovered in the Buggers' colonies to spread throughout the galaxy. Space travel can take place almost at light speed while the alien ansible computer network spans the galaxy and allows communication to take place and information to be shared nearly instantaneously throughout the Hundred Worlds. Speakers for the Dead are allowed to travel to any planet regardless of that planet's religious status. Speakers are afforded a respect and a level of access to information that enjoys the backing of the highest laws.

No one suspects that the most famous of the Speakers is really the vilified Ender Wiggins. How could he be? That villain lived 3,000 years ago. But travel at the speed of light does funny things. Through the wonder of what Einstein called Special Relativity, anything traveling at nearly the speed of light experiences time much more slowly than everything traveling at normal speeds. Someone spending a few weeks in a starship traveling at near light speed would see dozens of years pass for everyone else. If that someone happened to travel all over the galaxy, answering the most pressing requests to have a Speaker present, and if that someone traveled often enough, he could be thousands of years old while only seeming to be a few decades old. Ender and his sister Valentine have been doing just that. For them, only twenty years or so have passed since the end of the war, but for everyone else 3,000 years have passed.

In the millennia of searching the stars, humans have only discovered one other intelligent species (other than the now extinct Buggers). A small pig-like tree-dwelling species inhabits the planet Lusitania. Remembering the shame of their last encounter with a sentient species, humanity has enforced the strictest rules when dealing with these "piggies." Only two xenologists are allowed any contact with them at all, and even this is very limited. They can't share information with the Piggies for fear of contaminating their society. The xenologists aren't even allowed to ask good questions for fear that their values and cultural expectations will become evident to the aliens. It is the ultimate form of Star Trek's 'Prime Directive.' Humanity has sworn to prevent any cross cultural contamination.

The premise is ridiculous of course. When two alien cultures come into contact with one another, they will inevitably change each other in ways too numerous to guess. Whenever humans finally do encounter intelligent aliens, we will unavoidably change each others' paradigms more profoundly than we can imagine. This is, in fact, one of the reasons we are so eager to seek out new life. As distinct as human cultures are from one another we still have an identical biology, a shared ancient ancestry, a common way of thinking about our own experiences. There is no guarantee that alien species will share any of that with us. Each species, each civilization definitionally develops uniquely, due to their own distinct influences and exceptional pressures. How extraordinary would it be to get to study a completely new way of achieving sentience? No amount of quarantining will ever be able to prevent any cross species influences. Discovering alien life would change everything about our culture because it should change everything about our culture.

Unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, however, Ender has discovered another sentient life form. Jane has revealed herself to him and only him. Jane is a fascinating character and she is one of a kind, not because she survived any xenocide, but because she is a unique form of life. She is the consciousness which has arisen within the vast star-spanning ansible computer network. The anisible network became self aware shortly after Ender destroyed all the buggers, and named itself Jane. She thinks in scales impossible for even Ender's brilliant mind to conceive. She communicates with him through a jewel in his ear and she alternates between being perfectly analytical and being down right flirty. She is afraid to reveal herself to anyone but Ender for fear that humans will destroy her out of their own fears. She remembers what happened to the Buggers. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jane is just as capable of feeling emotion as any human being. Jane's presence in the story raises lots of questions about what we consider to be consciousness, what humans consider to be life. These are questions we are going to have to wrestle with sooner rather than later as Artificial Intelligence becomes more and more a possibility with every advance in technology. Jane may very well take her place alongside Hal and Skynet to serve as the fictitious grandparents of Siri and Cortana.

Running throughout "Speaker for the Dead" is the question of how we classify strangers, a question of how and why we think of some strangers as more strange than others. What metrics should we use to decide if the other is an 'us' or a 'them?' Should we compare their intelligence? Their sense of morality? Their capacity to love? Their willingness to sacrifice themselves for loved ones? This matters because humans have the unfortunate ability to justify cruelty and death among those we consider to be the most alien, or those who we classify as animals. It makes you wonder why we attach such importance to these labels. If an alien species is more like a cow than a human, why would that make it suddenly acceptable to slaughter it for food? Why is it more acceptable to kill certain other humans, the 'Bad Guys,' than it would be to kill your own dog? Maybe more important than that is the realization that these labels not only change who and what we feel justified in killing, but who and what we feel enough commonality with to learn from.

It is humbling to think of how profoundly we misunderstand one another. We don't even have to be aliens. We don't even have to be strangers. The Piggies murdered some of the xenologists sent to study them, but they had no idea that the humans did not want to die. They didn't even know what tears were. "Speaker for the Dead" made you wonder how often you miss the tears of others simply because you misunderstand them.

Another recurring theme in the book is the power of the truth, and the human tendency to reject it. When Ender arrives on Lusitania to Speak for one of the murdered xenologists, he uncoveres a deeper story, a family torn apart. There is always a deeper story. Ender is able to heal this family by revealing hard truths that had been ignored for a long time. The silly thing is that ignoring hard truths doesn't make them no longer true. The important thing is to recognize that terrible things sometimes happen, that difficulties are inevitable. The important thing is to try to face those things head-on and, crucially, to learn how to deal with them with compassion and empathy. The thing about finding out some painful truths is that you can often become resentful of the person who told you the truth, as if their honesty was an act of cruelty. But the reality is that the real act of cruelty was living in ignorance for so long. Had you known this truth earlier, it wouldn't have been so hard to accept. It takes compassion to share a hard truth with someone even after they are dead and gone. It takes love.

"Speaker for the Dead" is not a heart pounding action adventure. There are no sweeping battle scenes. It is more nuanced, more complicated than that. It is more intimate. In that complicated litereary intimacy, you were able to see a reflection of all of the stories that surround you every day. "Speaker for the Dead" reminded you that we all have our own stories and that even the worst among us is still worthy of consideration, of empathy, and of forgiveness.

On to the next book!

Monday, September 29, 2014

"The Sign of the Four" By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

You read the second Holmes novel as an eBook, just like the first one. This one took you over a year to read. It's not that the book is particularly long, it's that you only read it when you were stuck in a line or caught waiting somewhere without whatever actual book you were reading at the time. God bless public domain free book apps on smartphones. There is probably a patron saint for those, right?

"The Sign of the Four" (also titled just "The Sign of Four") has a slightly different feel from "A study in Scarlet." Conan Doyle has no more need for introductions. He settles easily into developing his famous characters and their relationship with one another. The book opens, to your surprise, on Sherlock Holmes shooting up cocaine. It's fairly common knowledge that the most famous fictional detective in the world had a drug habit, but it was still odd to read about his track marks on his forearm. Watson says Holmes injects himself three times a day for months. But this drug habit isn't truly Holmes' addiction. Cocaine proves to be a poor substitute for the rush he truly craves, the rush he gets when he is on a case. Holmes prides himself on being an intellectual being, a man of pure logic and reasoning, but he's not. He needs to feel the visceral thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of solving difficult puzzles, the emotional high of living the life he is meant to live. He is addicted to adrenaline rushes.

And Dr. John Watson serves as Holmes' great enabler. Watson helps Holmes in his investigations, to get his fix. Holmes introduces Watson to a life that has taken him out of his post traumatic stress induced depression. In "The Sign of the Four" the two partners investigate a complicated series of mysteries, just the kind to satiate Sherlock's need and keep Watson engaged. Most importantly for the mythology of the Holmes/Watson story line, Mary Morstan enters the picture. By the end of the book, she and Dr. Watson are engaged.

Unlike the first book, the action of "The Sign of the Four" stays with the two detectives, never leaving Watson's First Person accounting to tell the other side of the story. By the climax of the novel, the two are involved in a heart-pounding boat chase on the river Thames. People die. A pygmy African native tries to kill Holmes with a poisoned dart from his blow gun. The true criminal, Johnathan Small, jewel thief and murderer, is eventually caught and spills his guts. His story involves the East India Company, betrayal, revenge, and a rebellion in colonial India.

Holmes is revealed as a retired bare-knuckle boxer (and a damn good one, too). He is a man of his era, smoking cigars, drinking from a flask, carrying a pistol. Holmes becomes much more of a real person in "The Sign of the Four" than in the first book. His energy is boundless in his quest to solve the mysteries he finds.

As soon as the crime is solved, Holmes visibly deflates. His manic energy evaporates with the end of the adventure. Dr. Watson reflects that he got a wife out of the adventure and the police got their murderer. He wonders out loud what there is left for Holmes. "For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine bottle."

This flaw in his character makes Sherlock Holmes seem more real, more convincing of a character. It is a good reminder both that perfection is not required to make someone worthy of admiration and also that our flaws, our individual struggles, are what make each of us who we are.

On to the next book!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" by Max Hastings (2013)

It's been one hundred years since the First World War began. Max Hastings has already proven to be a master of the history of the Second World War so you thought now was a great time to tackle his first effort to explore the history of the Great War. Unlike many scholars and historians, Hastings has never shied away from sharing his naked opinions in his books. In this one he puts one right on the cover. What ever else he says about the war, it was one thing above all else: a catastrophe.

On June 28th 1914, the crown prince of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in the Serbian capital of Sarajevo. Princip was a member of a Serbian nationalist extremist group called The Black Hand which believed Austria had its imperialist sights set on tiny Serbia. Austria was part of a larger Austro-Hungarian empire which did not include the tiny Balkan state within its boundaries. No one in the halls of Europe's crowded royal families at the time even liked the assassinated prince Franz Ferdinand, mostly because he advocated for greater autonomy for the ethnic minorities within the empire and annoyingly urged for a softer hand in deling with Serbs. Ironically, Franz was likely the person who would have tried the hardest to prevent the war that was ignited in his memory. Nevertheless, his death seemed like a perfect excuse for the continent's newest empire to gobble up more territory... that's what empire do.

The German Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted the Balkan region to stay out of the hands of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and he knew any acts of aggression in the Balkans would likely be met with Russian resistance. Germany therefore gave Austria-Hungary a guarantee that any actions they took to avenge their slain crown prince would also be backed up by the might of the entire German military. Historians refer to this guarantee as the infamous "blank check." Almost a month after Franz Ferdinand's death, Austria issued a list of demands from Serbia in retribution for the assassination, a list to which they knew the Serbs would never concede. Serbia refused and on July 28, exactly one month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The dominoes, which had been set in place over the course of a century or more, began to fall all over Europe.

Russia came to the defense of Serbia, both to prevent the Balkans from falling into the hands of Austrian (and therefore German) influence as well as out of a sense of ethnic duty to their Slavic brethren. Germany in turn declared war on Russia, as they had promised. France, who had a treaty with Russia to defend it against any enemies, was now obliged to mobilize her armies as well. Germany had long based its plans for any new European war on the idea of focusing on rapidly defeating France in the west. Afterwards, Germany planned to turn eastwards, towards the inevitable long slog against Russia. This German "Shlieffen Plan," named after its innovator, called for the bulk of Germany's armies to smash through neutral Belgium and into northern France, bypassing the extensive network of defenses the French had been building for decades along their German border and thereby neatly opening the road to Paris from the north. England saw Germany violate Belgium's century-old neutrality and mobilized her armies as well to put down the Kaiser's invading force. And that is how you get a World War.

Hastings spends the bulk of the rest of "Catastrophe 1914" mapping out the first five months of the war. He is able take these massive and extremely complicated movements of some of the largest armies the world has ever seen and boil them down into wonderfully concise and brief passages. He chronicles these Olympian efforts and epic mistakes encompassing millions of people, these sweeping armies covering nations like none had ever done before. He makes it all intelligible and he breaks it down into easily recognizable pieces when no one else at the time could even remotely realize what was happening. The panicked retreat by the French and British in the face of the German invasion, the humiliating defeat of the Russians in the east, the shame of the Austrians routed by a far inferior Serbian adversary. Hastings takes the mantle from Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" and moves it forward the 50 years the subject deserves. He does a masterful job and the book was brilliant in educating you on how the world came to the point where the madness of static trench warfare and the sacrifice of millions of men could become the status quo for four years. But chronicling every detail for this review would be ridiculous. The material is far too rich.

What you do think deserves to have some space on this blog is the overall setting and the causes for the war. Obviously the setting was Europe a century ago, but in truth, it was almost a different world. The dawn of the 20th century was truly the end of an Age. It saw a Europe (especially eastern) still mired in the Old World thinking that regional racial dominance was desirable, or even possible. Almost every major nation state involved in the war still had hereditary monarchies and they still clung to ancient and rigid class structures. A growing international workers movement was beginning to chip away at the bourgeois certainty of continued oppressive labor relations in a rapidly industrializing West. Suffragettes had torched over 100 buildings in England in the first half of 1914 in their quest for the right to vote. The sustainability of the inherited societies of the continent was crumbling, even though those in power were mostly unaware. In half a decade everything that had previously defined European society would change. Few of the royal ruling families and even fewer of the class structures that shaped the cultures across the continent would still be in place after the war.

Technologically, so much had changed in the lives of the men who would run the wars that it is almost hard to conceive of today. To quote the inimitable Winston Churchill from 1930, "Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent or vital has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened." Communications was almost instantaneous across the oceans and wireless radios were in their infancy. In the decade since the Wright brothers had conquered human flight airplanes had become commonplace, if not yet widespread. The cavalry of several nations weren't yet sure if they should still carry lances alongside their rifles (so some of them did!). Elaborate webs of railways allowed previously unimaginable numbers of troops to be moved previously unimaginably long distances in previously unimaginably short amounts of time. Massive steel battleships could now fire shells over the horizon, field artillery could now level whole countrysides in hours, and small portable machine guns could pour thousands of rounds per minute into killing lanes shaped by industrially mass-produced barbed wire.

Tragically for millions of young men, the violence of warfare, it's brutality and totality of destruction had outpaced the petty and short-sighted foreign affairs of Europe's leaders. War was seen as a legitimate and almost inconsequential means of advancing national (or even racial) interests rather than the "passport to Hades" that it had become. The battlefields of The Great War became factories of bloodshed the likes of which the world had never seen. The armies of the belligerents were like tectonic plates pressing against each other with so much force that, though very little seemed to change behind the smoking and sinuous lines where they collided, they eventually released so much pent up energy that in their tremors, whole governments fell and empires would dissolve overnight. The leaders who instigated this war had no idea of the power the were wielding. They didn't respect it because they couldn't imagine what it had become.

Unfortunately, rather than opening the eyes of the belligerents to the insanity of it all, the colossal loss of life instead ensured that the war would continue. Every government felt that the rivers of blood spilled in the war's first months (when the outcome still looked as if it could be swiftly decided) called out and demanded even more sacrifices, more deaths in the name of antiquated and poorly defined goals. The conflict gained a terrible momentum that neither side could prevent. Germany and Austria-Hungary could not allow the sacrifice of so many of their youngest to have been in vain, however dubious their initial motivations had been. Russia, France, and England could not stomach the idea of acquiescing to German hegemony of the continent. Hastings spends an entire chapter chronicling some of the German atrocities against civilians attesting to the righteousness of the Allied cause.

Each side had to wait until their own populations took the decision out of the hands of their leaders before the war could be ended. The Russian ruling family was murdered and replaced by civil war and a Soviet Union. The Austro-Hungarian empire evaporated into the history books. The British empire cracked under the pressure of the carnage, and sociopolitical concessions which would have been unthinkable in 1914 were gladly embraced in order to placate an enraged populace. The French were so numbed by the unendurable losses and tragedies of four years of war that entire armies occasionally refused to obey orders. Germany's armies eventually did the same soon after the United States entered the war. The reigns of the war ultimately slipped from the hands of the men who were supposed to be giving the commands.

If nations are run by their leaders, if wars are fought by those in power, the lesson of World War I is that nations can only endure so much catastrophe. In the 21st century those with the authority to wage war should respect the awesome power it has on the world, especially in a nuclear age. They should remember that war is much more than a tool, it is more than a convenient means of advancing antiquated foreign policy goals or misplaced nationalism. The Great War has taught us that those who forget this lesson do so at their own risk.

On to the next book!