Monday, November 30, 2015

"The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough (2015)

Your wife's parents gave you this one for your birthday. Sometime people give you books and you have to pretend to think they are good books. When you finish them, you have to bend the truth a little to tell the gift-giver how much you enjoyed their literary selection. This is not one of those times. This was absolutely brilliant.

McCullough has written some of the definitive histories of the American experience. He can boast titles like "1776" and "Truman" and "John Adams" (granted, he is not the most creative when it comes to book titles).  This book, his newest, does not disappoint. For as long as humans have existed we have watched with envy as birds effortlessly defied the laws of gravity before our very eyes. There has always been a romantic sense of freedom in the idea of being able to fly unencumbered through the air. We long for the liberty to soar above all the obstacles of the world, past the walls that life seems to throw in our way, to glide effortlessly over the broken ground we have scrabbled to overcome since we first made our way out of the trees. Humans have dreamed of this for eons, but it wasn't until December of 1903 in North Carolina that we finally achieved controlled flight. And it was no daredevil, no artistic genius, no acolyte of Icarus who pulled it off. It was a pair of conservative, careful, and meticulous brothers who finally slipped the bonds of gravity and discovered how to challenge the birds in their own elements.

McCullough begins his story by describing the Wright brothers. Wilbur, the older brother, was born in 1867 and was bald with a grave countenance. Energetic and serious, he was the brother who felt most at ease speaking in public and who wrote most of their published works and journal entries. Orville was the quiet one, the one with the mustache who was painfully shy. Born in 1871, Orville was the brother who was best with his hands and was always the most fashionably dressed of the two. Their mother had died in 1889 and their father was an influential pastor who was often away from their Dayton Ohio home on church business. Although they had other siblings, Wilbur and Orville behaved in a way usually unique to twins, sharing a joint bank account, finishing one another's projects, constantly arguing and fighting but without ever holding a grudge.

When he was in high school, Wilbur's future looked promising. There was talk of his going to Yale after graduation, until one day, that is, when he was smashed in the face with a hockey stick during a game on the frozen lake beside the Wright house. The assailant was no ordinary young hockey player. Oliver Crook Haugh would grow up to become a mass murderer, eventually executed for killing his entire family. Wilbur's teeth were knocked out by this psychopath and his full recuperation took years. His ambitions were squashed and he spent months secluded in his room. All talk of Yale ended. For years afterward he would suffer from depression, focusing his attention upon keeping his ailing mother healthy. This time alone allowed Wilbur to spend more time than ever reading books at a pace that he never had before. This time of scholarly solitude provided Wilbur with an education that would prove to rival any he could have gained from any Ivy League school of the time. You found it fascinating to wonder at how much of human history might have been changed but for the swing of a hockey stick.

After the brothers spent a few years running their own printing press business, they opened a bicycle repair shop. Bicycles were new inventions and the Wright brothers worked on the safest and most popular style, the kind with two equal sized wheels which we think of today as normal bikes. Eventually the brothers moved from simple repairs to building their own models. The Wright brothers were coming of age in an unprecedented era of invention and technical innovation. In just over a decade they had seen the creation of cheap portable cameras by Kodak, the first electric sewing machine, the first elevator, the first safety razor, the first mousetrap, and the first cars. It was a world primed for the introduction of a new flying machine.

As the turn of the century approached, the world became obsessed with manned flight, not floating in a balloon or parachuting from impressive heights, but real, powered, controlled flight. Prototypes and innovations were popping up all over Europe and the US. Most of them crashed immediately and men were regularly dying in spectacular fashion in their efforts to defy gravity. Rather than being swept up in the hysteria, Wilbur characteristically dove deeply into any literature he could find on the topic. In May of 1899 he addressed a sternly serious and pointedly academic letter to the Smithsonian requesting, "...such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject (flight), and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language." But even as serious a book worm as Wilbur Wright knew that studious reading alone would not be enough, experimentation and experience would be the key to achieving the dream of manned flight.

Before the year was out the brothers had realized that altering the shape of their model aircraft's wings might be the key to changing direction and altitude. Wilbur devised a completely new means of controlling a man-made wing in flight. Changing the shape of the wing with pullies and strings (called wing warping) would prove to be the most important innovation in the technological advancement of human flight. But their observations of birds in flight and their years of working with bicycles also convinced the Wright brothers that balance was as important in designing and aircraft as aerodynamics.

Wilbur and Orville decided to seek a testing grounds that would facilitate greater experimentation. They built a glider and took it to a remote place called Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks island of North Carolina. The conditions there provided exactly the steady winds, soft sandy landing places, and towering dunes for launch sites that the brothers needed for their experimentation. Soon they were riding their glider above the dunes, perfecting their technique. But they were no daredevils. Instead they were methodical about their testings. They were careful and scientific in their approach to every challenge.

After two years perfecting their designs and honing their skills as pilots at Kitty Hawk, the brothers realized that some of the established technological wisdom they had taken as gospel truth from some of their heroes in the field were deeply flawed. Undaunted, they went to work trying to figure out on their own the complicated laws governing the physics of fluid dynamics required for any true understanding of flight. Using a wind tunnel they made by hand, Wilbur and Orville tested the effects that differently curved wing structures had on the air flowing across them. They weren't afraid to throw well established theories of flight out the window if they proved suspect under scrutiny, and they weren't afraid to accept the seemingly absurd if repeated experimentation proved it true.

Six months before their first flight, Wilbur gave a now famous speech in Chicago asserting that the biggest problem with manned flight, "is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators." This was a revolutionary idea in the field. For hundreds (if not thousands) of years humans had dreamed of building wings which allow them to soar like birds. The Wright brothers were the first ones to realize that the miracle of flight was in the birds' brains, not just in their wings. Wilbur argued that a successful operator must be experienced in the operation of his craft. In dangerous situations, he, "must know that in an emergency his mind and muscles will work without conscious effort. There is no time to think." Men not only needed to build artificial wings, but before they could operate with any confidence in the air they would need to learn the art of flying.

On December 17th 1903 only five men were present besides the Wright brothers at Kill Devils Hill at Kitty Hawk. It was a cold winter day with winds out of the north at 20-27 miles per hour. In retrospect, attempting a first flight in an untrained vehicle under such conditions was crazy. Three days before, on their first attempt, Wilbur had won the coin toss to be at the controls of their new flyer, one with a gas fed motor turning two large propellers. Wilbur had overcorrected on takeoff and had slammed back into the sand only a few feet from the launch point. Now it was only fair that Orville get to make the next attempt.

At 10:35 AM Orville lifted off. The headwind was so strong that Wilbur had no problem keeping up with the flyer, running beside it on foot. A friend snapped a photo with the camera the brothers had brought along to document their progress. It was on of the most historic photos of the 20th century. There is something magical about it. The flyer itself is extraordinary, huge and frail with the hazy shadow underneath proving that men had finally broken the bonds of gravity. But it is Wilbur to the right of the plane who always gets your attention. There is an excitement about his body language, an eagerness, a palpable kinetic drive. He wants to be on that plane! As excited as he must have been to have witnessed the singular moment from just a few feet away, you can sense that every fiber of his being is straining to be on board, to be the one flying. His silhouette, stark against the white sands, stands out as an emblem for all of us, stretching back to our ancient history. He bore witness to something we have all longed for and in that moment had the most relatable of human reactions, he wanted to be a part of it. In that moment, in that iconic photo, Wilbur Wright is all of us.

That first flight didn't last long. With such strong headwinds the flyer couldn't move forward very fast, but in 12 seconds of erratic, bouncing flight, Orville covered 120 feet before landing gently back in the sand. The brothers took turns flying three more time that day with Wilbur making the longest flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds. That is half a mile in one minute, quite literally as the crow flies. This was not gliding. This was not floating in a balloon. This was not falling with style. This was powered flight. Before any more flights could be made that December day, an errant gust picked up the flyer and sent it tumbling over the sandy hills, smashing it to pieces.

The brothers decided to keep their next experiments closer to home and continued in a new flyer at Huffman Field just outside of Dayton, Ohio. Here is where the Wrights truly learned to fly. they devised a catapult to launch their new flyer into the air, canceling out the need for Kitty Hawk's reliable gusts. For years they used this field to make longer and more complicated flights, they learned how to bank and turn, how to control altitude and how to land gently. They learned how to fly in curves and then circles and then figure eights. Here, in the Ohio skies, they gained the experience that Wilbur had asserted was so crucial to any successful flyer. Oddly, the local populace as well as the press corps were not interested in the historic, inspiring work being done a mere stone's throw from their front porches.

The United States War Department, for some odd reason, showed no interest in buying the Wrights' flyer so Wilbur made a trip to Europe to see if he could interest any buyers in France or Germany. His patriotic heart recoiled at not being allowed to sell to the US first, but, as the proverb says, you can only lead the horse to water. Wilbur elicited quite a bit of excitement on his visit to Europe. The Europeans had caught the flying bug and they were interested in this man who claimed to have mastered flight. Wilbur fell in love with the architecture in Paris and spent most of his time in the Louvre delighting in the endless halls of unmatched works of art. He even shocked some of the locals with his intimate knowledge of the history of some of the areas he passed through... Not bad for a man with no college education.

Soon both France and the United States (at last!) were now interested in the Wright's flyer and were offering substantial money. But none of these potential buyers had actually seen the brothers fly their crafts. Demonstrations would be necessary, and Wilbur and Orville were rusty. They returned to Kitty Hawk to test out their latest ideas and, most importantly, to become experts in the art of flying. They developed a plane with two seats rather than the initial design which had only the solo pilot lying on his stomach. The brothers vowed to never ride together so that if one were killed in a crash the other could carry on the work.

On August 8th, 1908, almost five full years after that initial historic flight (the one with only five witnesses present) Wilbur gave his first truly public demonstration at Le Mans, France in front of a decent crowd of several skeptics, a handful of reporters, and more than a few rivals. He flew for just two minutes and covered a distance of barely two miles, but his absolute control of the air was so evident that once he landed the crowd exploded into cheers and screams. They could hardly believe what they had witnessed. The spectators raced en masse onto the field to kiss Wilbur and his "aeroplane" with one rival pilot even exclaiming that "we (meaning all other pilots) are as children compared to the Wrights." It wasn't that the flight had lasted any significant length of time that impressed them all, it was the obvious control that Wilbur had over his flyer that sent them all into apoplexy. Day after day as Wilbur gave more demonstrations, the crowds grew and word spread.

The press went mad with excitement that summer. This was not a fad or some flimsy, childish trick that would ultimately disappoint the quixotic dreams of a few enthusiasts. This was real! Every skeptic who had claimed that man simply was not meant to fly, every fanatic who had insisted that God himself had intentionally limited humans to scramble on the surface of the planet for eternity, every scientist who had expressed academic certainty that it could not be done... they had all been silenced in a day.

It was clear to all who witnessed these flights that Wilbur Wright could stay in the air as long as his fuel lasted, that he could overcome any obstacle. Those throngs of witnesses at Le Mans realized that they had seen what almost no other human being had ever seen before, they had seen a human fly like a bird. And they knew that this had changed the world.

Less than a month later, at Fort Mayer, only a few miles from Washington DC, Orville repeated his brother's performance. He broke every record in manned flight that anyone had ever set, including his older brother. He was the quintessential test pilot, a man who knew what his airplane could do and who knew, better than anyone, how to get the most out of his aircraft. Even when he suffered a crash that killed a passenger, he was sure the theory was flawless.

Soon Orville and their sister Katharine (instrumental in running the Wright household and encouraging the brothers to achieve their best) joined Wilbur in Europe. The French pilots Wilbur had trained were proving their skills in solo flights. Kings and queens, debutants and playboys, millionaires and farmboys, all flocked to witness the dawn of a new era. The knowledge was spreading. There was no stopping it now. One year after Wilbur's sensational flight at Le Mans, France hosted an aerial race with over a dozen pilots competing. Humans were now animals who could fly.

Within five years the Great War would push the science of airplane technology faster than Wilbur or Orville ever could have. A few decades later, another world war would begin with propeller driven planes and end with jet fighter, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and four engine, high altitude, pressurized bombers that rained nuclear destruction on civilians and soldiers alike. Dismayed at the violence wrought by their inventions, the Wrights took no personal blame. They likened it to the discovery of fire. Men could use either for good or for evil, but neither was inherently bad.

Your house right now sits underneath a virtual high way in the skies. An hour does not pass that a massive metal jet airliner does not pass over the heads of you and your family. You and your children continue to draw inspiration at the miracle that humans have figured out how to accomplish this feat, and you are still inspired at the unprecedented global connection human flight provides the world. That first, short, dangerous flight at Kitty Hawk set events in motion that changed the course of human history in ways that were both as profound and inspiring as they could be horrific and unforgivable. The last paragraph of the book was a reminder where Wilbur and Orville took us all.
"On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 flyer."
It makes you wonder just how much farther we will go, riding with the Wrights all the way.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Nothing Like it in the World" by Stephen E. Ambrose (2000)

You are a sucker for Stephen Ambrose books. Reading his "D-Day" and "Pegasus Bridge" back in high school helped make you the wannabe historian you are today. Over the door frame of his guest bedroom Major Dick Winters (of "Band of Brothers" fame, a man who should be considered a hero to every American) placed a plaque that read Stephen Ambrose Slept Here. You have read every book the man ever wrote on World War II, but he's written books on other subjects and you haven't yet read all of those. So, when you saw this one on clearance for $1 you couldn't say no.

In 1869 the United States completed a railroad that linked one coast of the continent with the other, the Atlantic with the Pacific. It was the greatest engineering achievement of the 19th Century an it was hand-built by free men who employed both cutting-edge technology as well as ancient techniques developed by Leonardo da Vinci. It was the first time anyone on Earth had spanned an entire continent with a railroad. Just a few decades before, steam power didn't even exist. Until the invention of steam engines no human being had ever moved faster than a horse, running water, or a sail could carry them. During his administration in the 1830's, President Jackson had to travel at the same speed across great distances as Alexander the Great had two millennia before. As the 19th Century unfolded however, humans began to change that. Now they could even race upstream at a fairly fast clip, they could cross oceans without fear of being becalmed, and they could move large numbers of people and material across vast distances at speeds never before imaginable, but for that last one there had to be a railroad there first.

In 1848, at the end of the Mexican American War, the United States had claimed California from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That same year, just a few miles east of Sacramento, someone discovered gold. Young men from all over the US felt the call of the gold rush, the desire to get filthy rich in the blink of an eye, but California might as well have been on the other side of the world for them. Even in the best of conditions the ocean voyage around the tip of South America might take two to six months (and it was a horrible trip). Try to cut the trip in half by sailing to Panama and hiking the 24 miles over the spine of mountains to hitch a ride on another boat up to the California coast and you exposed yourself to the most interesting of diseases, not to mention that you ran the risk of not being able to even find a ship headed north which would leave you sweltering, stranded in a tropical jungle. Crossing the North American continent from Iowa to California along the Oregon Trail was fraught with dangers as well. As anyone who grew up playing the video game can tell you, you were very likely to die from starvation, dehydration, exposure, or dysentery. A railroad would make travel to California infinitely easier, safer, and more profitable.

In the 1850's more miles of new railroad track was laid in the United States every year (mostly in the northern states) than in the rest of the world combined. More than half the railroad track on Earth was in the US by 1859. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before trains were crossing the continent, it was merely a matter of when and where. Southern politicians (lead by Secretary of War and future president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis) wanted the east-west tracks to come out of the south. Northerners (lead by the great railroad lawyer and future president of the United States Abraham Lincoln) couldn't bear the idea of using this new technology to further spread the sin of slavery and insisted the transcontinental railroad must come from the northern states.

On July 1st, 1862, one year into the Civil War, President Lincoln, the transcontinental railroad's greatest ally, signed the Pacific Railroad Bill into law. The southern states having abandoned their seats in Congress, there was no longer any question about whether the railroad should have its eastern end anchored in the north. The river Platte in Nebraska seemed a logical place to start. With the rebellion as an impetus, the government of the Union had become accustomed to passing extraordinary spending bills. There was a war on, a war that cost ungodly amounts of money as well as blood. In addition to that, many Congressmen now considered passing this bill a matter of pride. They could brag that even while fighting a rebellion, the United States was still able to look to her future and provide for her posterity.

This was a uniquely American prospect. The men who were tasked with building this railroad were not challenged with bringing different people groups together or uniting separate tribes and clans under one banner (indeed, the tribes in the middle of the country were going to prove a problem). Their challenge was instead to forge a new nation, to carve out an expansive geographic area and claim it with the intention to populate it with immigrants, both from the existing states and from nations of all the world. The idea was a new one in the human experience. The railroad sought to bring settlements to its line of advance. Always before, trails and trade routes had been blazed from settlement to settlement. Not now. This time the path would be laid and the towns and villages would spring up in its wake.

Two massive companies were inaugurated to accomplish this task. The Central Pacific would come eastward out of Sacramento and the Union Pacific would move westward out of Omaha. The government would pay them by the mile in both cash and land grants which they could sell to generate even more revenue. Each company was moving into unforgiving and extreme countrysides filled with mountains, deserts, landslides, blizzards, and hostile natives. No one knew where the two iron roads would meet, but the race was on. The material and manpower they would need dwarfed anything anyone had ever attempted before. This was the first great industrial enterprise. Fortunes were made and the government helped make them. Monopolies were created, strikes were broken, corporate profits were put ahead of the individual worker's well being. This was the great corporate leap forward into an aggressively capitalist society, beyond anything even the most pro-manufacturing of the Founding Fathers could have envisioned. And, with Lincoln driving the whole project, this whole ethos was inexorably tied to the Republican party... as it still is today.

As impressive as the effort was, these companies that were born to pull it off, the Central Pacific (CP) and the Union Pacific (UP), instituted awful business practices, the kind that would give capitalism a bad name. They gobbled up smaller railroad companies in order to use the monopoly to control prices, they employed shameless lobbyists and encouraged corruption in the US government, they refused to compromise with striking workers with legitimate requests, they actively searched overseas labor markets in order to keep labor costs artificially low, and they intentionally played on their workers' racist tendencies and most base fears to keep them placated and quiet. This was the inauguration of the Gilded Age.

As urgent as the desire for the railroad was, the first spike was not driven until 1865. Consequently, the transcontinental railroad was a product of the American Civil War. Not only had the war supplied the effort with men perfectly suited for the job, men who knew how to give and follow orders, who could organize large numbers of men and material on tight time tables, and who were accustomed to a rough lifestyle, but the war had also created a nation that now knew it could achieve great things. With this knowledge came a population that expected such greatness as payment for the sacrifice of its children, a population that had suffered the ravages of a terrible war and were eager to find inspiration in something that could bring them together again. The war also created a professional press corps that was now hungry for the next big story that would capture the attention of the nation.

First came the surveyors. Small groups of young educated adventurous engineers staking out the lines the great iron roads would take across plains and valleys and mountain peaks, into land few white men besides Lewis and Clark had seen. The weather, the land itself, and the natives made their jobs more than difficult, they made it deadly. Next came the graders. They dug and piled up the grade for the future tracks to rest on top of. The grade was a berm two feet high and twelve feet across at the flat top and it ran unbroken for miles and miles, from horizon to horizon. The graders dug up the earth and vegetation along the line the surveyors had laid and built a dirt mound strong enough to hold the weight of a fully loaded train. They were not educated men, as the surveyors were. These men were almost all immigrants, or the sons of immigrants. Most were veterans of the war, lured to the railroad by the promise of steady pay and a regimented lifestyle.

Both companies primarily used immigrant labor. The UP was built by the Irish, men who had come to a new land and fought in the war between North and South. Now they were turning their efforts to the frontier to unite that same nation East and West. They advanced across the High Plains, graders, rail layers, blacksmiths, team leaders, cooks, bakers, doctors engineers, and 500 head of cattle to feed this army creeping inexorably towards the setting sun.

The CP had a unique problem with immigrant workers. Most of the white men they brought to California, Irish or not, to build their railroad through the granite Sierra Nevada mountains would barely stay on the job for a day before the call of the gold mines was too much for them to bear. These men had not come to California to earn $3 a day, they came to strike it rich. But California was flooded with Chinese immigrants who had lived in San Francisco as long as that city had existed. They were treated terribly by the government, laws were interpreted against them, extraordinary taxes were levied against their every effort, American society was geared around oppressing them, forcing them into second class citizenship. Discrimination is too soft a word for how the Chinese immigrants were treated, and there were around 60,000 of them in California which meant they were a perfect and untapped labor pool for the CP. Soon, the CP was being built almost exclusively by Chinese workers who proved to be outstanding workers. They were inventive, faithful, dedicated, skilled, indefatigable, and blessed with a latent sense of teamwork. Their experience with black powder gave them the skills to blast tunnels through the mountainous barriers that stood in their way.

Eventually, as they reached Utah, both companies hired Mormons. Salt Lake City was the only white settlement between Sacramento and Omaha. They had been led to this land by Brigham Young twenty years before and had built an independent community as isolated as any on Earth, but even Young saw the potential benefits from having a railroad linking his island of believers to the outside world. The Mormons were a new source of labor for both the CP and the UP right in the middle of the proposed railroad line. They worked hard, complained little, stayed sober, and didn't kill one another, and followed orders from Brigham Young like fanatics.

It is acceptable, even today, to think of certain people groups as dangerous newcomers to the United States, as usurpers, as people who will change our culture for the worse. You have always found this curious as any open minded reading of history teaches us that it is precisely the people who have been the most oppressed and the most reviled who have made this country great. Fresh, regular waves of new immigrants were the fuel that made this country what it is. The sweat of their brows and the iron in their spines literally made the nation we call the United States. The men who built the transcontinental railroad are a perfect example of that.

The construction of this railroad (especially the UP) constituted a glimpse into the future of manufacturing, the assembly line. Each man had a specific job and a tight schedule in which to accomplish it. Every man was part of a larger machine, each depending on the others to allow them to do their jobs with the greatest speed and accuracy. It all came down to math. So many men per foot of line, so many ties per yard, so many sledgehammer strikes per spike, so many locomotives with so many tons of supplies riding right to the edge of the line at just the right time. Eventually they got to where they could average laying one mile of track in a day and some days they did more. The record was set by the CP who laid the final ten miles of the transcontinental railroad track in one day! All by hand. Today, such exhausting tedium is done by robots in clean rooms, in the 1860's it was done by young men in the middle of the untamed wilderness.

Native Americans made the job even harder for the UP than the dangers posed by weather the land and the black powder used to tame it. Indian territory in the continent's interior was larger than the settled areas of the US. As the railroad progressed across their lands, the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes saw their doom. Trainloads of white settlers followed the advance of the line and claimed plots of land once reserved for the original Americans to use for hunting and foraging. In response, the Indians raided supply lines to deny the workers of their livestock and equipment, they killed advanced parties of surveyors, they attacked work teams both to claim scalps and to slow the advance of the iron roads. They even derailed multiple locomotives and then ambushed the trains sent to help the wounded. The vicious and unpredictable actions of the Indians against the UP convinced generals Sherman and Grant (heroes of the Union) that all out war would soon need to be declared to rid the Plains of this insurgent enemy. The massacre at Wounded Knee would occur just 30 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

While the UP advanced, the army of men it brought with it settled each night into temporary towns which moved westward with the sun. These villages were named "Hell on Wheels" by an astute observer whose name is now lost to history. Hell on Wheels provided all the entertainment young war veterans with money in their pockets could ask for... hot food, whores, music, gambling, and lots of whiskey. The name was well earned. The men were all well armed and familiar with violence. The murder rate in Hell on Wheels averaged about one every day (not among the Chinese or Mormons though). The firearms the workers wielded to protect themselves from the native tribes proved deadlier than any fearsome painted savages.

As the snows thawed in the Spring of 1869 it became clear that, despite all the difficulties, the two roads would meet that year. The US Congress chose the meeting spot to be Promontory Summit, just north of the Great Salt Lake. Even before the two railroads were linked though, immigrants were already taking the Union Pacific trains westward, stopping wherever the tracks ended and hiring stagecoaches to take them to the head of the Central Pacific tracks and riding the second train all the way to California. The great railroad hadn't even been completed yet and already people were crossing the continent in less than a week and for much less money than ever before (not to mention more safely). The US Army's Twelfth Infantry Regiment followed the path of these immigrants in March of 1869, making it the largest military unit in the history of the world to move so far so fast with such ease.

On May 10th, 1869, the last spike was driven (it was a golden at that) and the transcontinental railroad was connected. As the railroad had been built, workers had raised a telegraph line alongside the tracks, now making cross continental communication instantaneous. This revolutionized and modernized America as a world power. No other people in the world could communicate with one another or traverse their own countryside so quickly or effortlessly. America had showed the world what the future looked like.

Scandals ensued when it became clear just how rampant the corruption was in both of the companies that built the road. But the fact that anyone even cared that the men who had achieved such a gargantuan undertaking had done so in a dishonest fashion was a testament to the freedom of the press. It just served as one more example of American greatness. In other countries, even today, such corruption would have been ignored as a regrettable part of the process.

"Nothing Like it in the World" was not your favorite Ambrose book. The first one hundred pages got lost in the weeds of financial jargon and stultifying corporate intrigues. Ambrose uses the word "Chinaman" far too liberally, and his view of the events has such an overly patriotic framing that it becomes distracting. But the book did remind you of several memorable lessons. We are a nation of immigrants and the people groups who we tend to fear and oppress throughout our history are often the very people who build the framework that makes our nation stand out as exceptional in the world. The book also reminded you that lofty idealism is the only way we can hope to advance to become a greater nation, but gritty pragmatism is how we actually get there. When Americans set their goals unreasonably high and work harder than anyone else thinks is possible, they tend to achieve mighty things. Almost exactly one hundred years after the transcontinental railroad was completed Americans achieved something else no one thought possible, something that inspired generations and firmly established American greatness. In 1969, Americans put men on the moon.

In a very real way, Neil Armstrong's "first step" began with America's giant leap across their own continent.

On to the next book!

P.S. There is a Louie CK joke where he asserts, as only he can, that as awful as slavery is it might be the only way humans have ever gotten anything amazing accomplished. The pyramids at Giza. The Great Wall of China. Space flight (Werner Von Braun used slave labor in his rocket tests under the Nazi regime before he became head of the US space program). Louie observes that throwing as much human suffering at a problem is the only way we have ever really achieved anything great.

Sadly he's not that wrong. The transcontinental railroad however, is a glaring exception to that premise. Yes, the working conditions were abysmal and the body count was obscenely high. Yes it sparked a genocidal war against the Native Americans. And yes the Chinese and Irish laborers were largely available because of how oppressed new immigrants were in this country. But the men who built the transcontinental railroad were there by their own choice and they were paid for the sweat of their brows. Sorry Louie, but it was an army of free men who built this wonder of the modern world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree" by Stan and Jan Berenstain (1978)

It makes sense for you to review those epic scholarly books about influential wars or extraordinary individuals for this blog. You don't want to forget some of the salient details of those works, but these days that's not what you are reading the most often. With a toddler in the house, other titles are showing up in your reading list. And, as with most things in toddler circles, those books keep coming back to you over and over and over again. But just because these books are written for the smallest among us, for those just learning how to sit and listen to stories, it doesn't mean that they don't have great value. Indeed, only after having read this particular title for decades now, the lessons hidden in it are finally becoming more and more obvious.

Your daughter Eleanor is just a bit over 1 year old (moms say fourteen months old, but that is annoying to you). She is walking and starting to talk and eating everything in sight... you know, the cutest and most endearing phase any of your kids go through. What makes this phase even more adorable is that Eleanor is constantly bringing you books to read to her. Most of them are board books, the ones with titles like "Baby's First Colors" or "ABC's." They mostly have simple, bright pictures with one word per page and require you to make a lot of animal sounds. The only book that she has latched on to that is not made of those thick, indestructible card board pages is this gem from Stan and Jan Berenstain. What's surprising is that it's a real book, with regular pages and an actual plot line.

The three Bear siblings (no names in this book) set out from their home armed with the necessary tools of exploration. One with a light. One with a stick. One with a rope. They find the titular spooky old tree and climb inside through a knothole, discovering a stairway over a gator filled river, a secret passage through a darkened hall lined with cobwebs and rusted suits of armor, and the lair of a great sleeping bear (no explanation why the little bears and their family sleep in a cozy lighted home with curtains and bedspreads while this beast prefers to rough it in a cave). The three little bears run in fear from the bear they have awakened all the way back home to the waiting arms of their loving mother bear. And the story is over.

There is an enduring draw to this book. It stands alone among the Berenstain Bears books. No other in the endless series embraces the creepy, scary qualities that make for great kids' stories.

Simple. Easy. Only 200 words.

And yet there are so many questions left unanswered. Why is there a haunted tree so close by the home of the Bear family? That seems like it would depress the retail value of their property, and I don't think Papa Bear would let that slide. And how are there alligators under that tree, and where does that river they swim in lead? Did the Bear family move into a mangrove swamp in the Everglades just for this one book? And where did that spooky old hall come from? Who built it? Why did they abandon it? Where did they go? What is up with those tapestries and melted candles and suits of armor with battle axes and shields? And how did that huge bear come to hibernate in that hall when the only two entrances or exits are clearly built for tiny people/bears?

These unanswered questions only add to the mystery of the book, hinting at a greater world beyond. But Stan and Jan Berenstain aren't content to leave us with just intriguing mystery. They have woven so many great lessons into this silly story written for children.

The first page of the story shows the bears setting out from their front door. It's a reminder to you and your kids that you have to leave the comforts of home to find adventure. As great as home is and as inviting as you try to make it, we all have to leave our comfort zones in order to accomplish most of the things we want to do in life. It is only in seeking adventure that we can answer life's big questions and even find newer, greater questions. If you stay safe at home and try to keep anything from happening to you or your kids, then nothing ever happens to them.

Each of the bear siblings sets out on their adventure with a different item. One with a light. One with a stick. And one with a rope. In the adventure that is our lives, everyone brings different tools and skill sets. The key is to recognize what each person has to offer and to be ready to take advantage of those tools and skills when the time is right. Politicians are always saying that our differences make us all stronger as a nation, not weaker. What is true for nations is also true of families. Dismissing what others have to offer is an easy trap that we can fall into, one that can rob us of richer, fuller experiences.

Throughout the book, the bears come across situations that appear to be precarious or worrisome, a twisty old stair and a spooky hall lined with suits of armor. As a team, they decide to face these challenges despite their misgivings, but each time something is lost, one bear loses their rope to the hungry jaws of a leaping alligator and another bear loses their trusty stick to a falling battleaxe. This is a reminder that often what looks scary is actually dangerous. Children need to be encouraged to trust their instincts. Adults have a tendency to downplay children's fears, but often those fears are well placed and kids have those instincts in place to protect them. Ours is not always the sanitized and perfectly safe world we like to believe it is. In fact, many adults could stand to remember this lesson today.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes what looks scary and dangerous to us needs to be tackled anyway. Our instincts are valuable, but our fears are not always the greatest guide to our actions. Bravery is not the absence of fear, bravery is the fortitude to do things even when we are terrified of them. Neil Gaiman begins his fabulous children's' book "Coraline" with a quote from G.K. Chesterton. "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." But we have to be willing to face our dragons in order to defeat them.

Being brave is scary, by definition, but one of the biggest lesson in this little book is that being scared can be fun! As each bear loses their tools, they are overtaken by their fears and get "the shivers." When you first started reading this book to her, Eleanor would scramble to a safe distance at these pages because she was avoiding you grabbing her and playfully shaking her belly to give her the shivers. But now she leans in and squeals with delight every time you grab her and say the phrase "the shivers!" We all like to be scared. It's why we watch scary movies and read suspenseful books. It's why we ride roller coasters and jump out of airplanes. Being scared gives us that adrenaline rush that makes us feel more alive. We crave that excitement of facing our fears, even as we avoid actual dangers in our lives. This book has helped you to remember that it's okay to let your kids watch intense moments in movies, it's okay to tell them ghost stories, or sing lullabies that end in the main character being eaten by a bear. Being scared is fun, even when you're one year old.

But when real challenges arrive in our lives, when we are truly scared, it is always best to have loved ones nearby to back you up, to encourage you. The three little bears did not set out to explore the spooky old tree individually, they did it together as a team. When we have someone we trust backing us up they can support us where we fail, they can encourage us to overcome our fears and our hesitations. They can bring new perspectives to our problems and help us overcome our greatest obstacles. It's a reminder to keep your friends and family close, you may need them some day, and they may need you.

We need to face our fears and seek challenges and adventure in life, but we must remember that there is often a cost for pushing our boundaries. As each challenge is met in the book, a tool is lost. Before they make it home again, the three little bears lose their light, their stick, and their rope. It is important for us to remember that sometimes our greatest challenges demand a cost and we don't always know what that will be. It could be as simple as losing sleep, or it could be as important as losing relationships. We must take an honest look at the outcomes of our actions, and ask ourselves if the cost is worth the benefit. The scary times are those when we aren't sure what the cost will be.

Those tools the bears bring with them aren't just tools. We can think of them as talents too. This book reminds us that our talents are pointless unless we use them. If you wield a stick, use it to clear away cobwebs. If you wield a light, shine it into the darkness where it is most needed. We have been given talents and tools for a purpose and no one is served by our refusing to use them when they can do real good in the world. Children need to learn what their talents are, and they need to be praised for their natural strengths, but they also need to be reminded that without using them thier talents are wasted.

Faced with a particularly terrifying challenge (a great sleeping bear), the reader of "The Spooky Old Tree" is asked if the three little bears will dare to go over the bear. The next page then gives a brief overview of the previous pages of the book. In a simple, matter-of-fact way, the reader is reminded of all the challenges the bears have already faced and how they overcame each one. The conclusion then becomes obvious. "So of course they went over Great Sleeping Bear!" This is a reminder that we can look to our own past to draw inspiration to face the future. When we aren't sure if we are brave enough to accomplish something scary, we need to look back and remind ourselves of how much we are truly capable of. The voices of doubt and hesitation can be silenced by our own history. This is a great lesson for kids, but it is also a great lesson for nations, and even humanity as a whole. Can we move forward into the future and set tremendous goals for ourselves with confidence that we can achieve them? Can we eradicate extreme poverty or stave off planetary disaster due to Global Climate Change? Well, we defeated slavery, saved the world from the Nazis, faced off in a half century long Cold War without annihilating the planet, put people on the moon, and made many devastating diseases a thing of the past. So of course we can do these other things!

There is one lesson here that might be the most important, if the least likely to be used by your kids in the future. The three little bears did indeed climb over Great Sleeping Bear, but they were not so stealthy as they had hoped and their actions angered him. The three little bears suddenly found themselves running for their lives. Traditional wisdom tells us to not run from bears, but this is bullshit. You have met actual bears in the wild and it is important for your children to know what to do if they should ever find themselves in similar situations. You want them to learn this lesson... Run! Run fast and run far. There is no metaphor here, no hidden meaning. Bears are scary as hell and you should run away form them. Those monsters eat people!

Eventually the three little bears escape the jaws of Great Sleeping Bear but they don't stop. Terrified, they keep running fast for their ultimate destination, home. At their front door they are greeted by the loving arms of their mother bear and find themselves, "Home again. Safe at last." It is a great reminder that children need a place that feels safe to come home to. Home should be comforting and inviting, a respite from the challenges of the world. Children need that assurance. If all they think about home is "that's where I'm going to get in trouble for my test scores," or, "When I get home, Dad is going to grill me on my sight words," then there is no 'safe at last.' Kids need that. As much as they need discipline and boundaries, they need a welcoming home to offer them rest and safety. It is your job as a parent to provide that.

The last lesson you have learned from this book is a little less concrete than the others, but no less important. It is entirely possible that the whole story was just a figment of the three little bears' imaginations. Children go on adventures all the time inside their own heads. Maybe the mysteries and unanswered questions in this book can all be easily explained by saying that the whole adventure was make believe. The important thing to remember is that that makes no difference. Human brains are story-telling machines and we are hard wired to learn from the stories we are told. Some of our greatest lessons can be learned through fiction and mythology. In fact, that is how humans have taught one another lessons for eons now. To quote the great Albus Dumbledore, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"

Once again you are reminded that books written for children can serve adults just as well. Also, they can provide us all with a sense of continuity. You vividly remember reading this very book to your younger brother Nick when he was barely older than Eleanor is now. Holding your own kids on you lap and reading them a story that takes you back to your childhood, teaching your kids the same lessons from the same book you helped your brother learn, helps forge a sense of continuity to your life. It brings you back to your Granny's lap, and to your older brother's lap. It creates a connection with your past even as it extends a bridge to your future. As the years race by and your children grow at an astonishing rate, familiar books allow you the opportunity not just to teach and learn lessons, but to slow down and enjoy the small moments, to drink in the joys of this life you and Liz have created. When you open a beloved book you are flooded with that familiar sense of "Home Again. Safe at last."

On to the next book!

P.S. One of the greatest conspiracy theories around today actually involves the Berenstain Bears. It's possible that we might all be living in our own alternate universe, like Worf in that one episode of 'Star Trek.'

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Panzer Commander" by Hans Von Luck (1989)

This one was absolutely fabulous.

To begin with, this image was not the cover of the book you read. There was no swastika at all on your copy (which is an original printing). You weren't able to find an image of your copy (and uploading an actual photo you took of it would be SO tedious) but the swastika is pretty inappropriate. Yes, Hans Von Luck fought for the Wehrmacht under Hitler in almost every theater of war during WW II, but he was no Nazi. This is the story of a soldiers' soldier. A man who fought for Germany because it was his duty, not because he agreed with the insanity of Nazi propaganda. Even while fighting, he longed to marry a woman of Jewish descent, he loved Paris and London, he befriended men he damn well knew were part of The Resistance. I mean, the forward is written by Stephen freaking Ambrose! Colonel Von Luck was not a Nazi.

He was, however, one hell of a soldier. Hans Von Luck was in the vanguard of almost every offensive the German army (the Wehrmacht) launched from Poland in 1939 to France in 1940 to Russia in 1941. He held Erwin Rommel's exposed right flank in the battle of El Alamein and fought against the famed British paratroopers who held the crucial Orne River and canal crossings on the morning of June 6th 1944 in Normandy (D-Day) and he lead one of the last units to be captured in the defense of Berlin. He earned the highest decorations for bravery and valor his nation awards her soldiers and he was widely respected by his enemies. Among the warriors of the 20th Century, he deserves to held in the highest regard.

As humble as a memoir can be, it is clear in reading Von Luck's book that he was one of those people who was simply born for combat. He speaks of it with little passion and an almost disappointing lack of flare. But it is exactly that clinical analysis that hints at his excellence. Von Luck needs not embellish... his story is enthralling enough without any exaggeration. Von Luck is obviously a cultured man, one whose family history of devotion to national service stretches back to Frederick the Great. He is an open-minded, tolerant, almost apolitical man who loves art, music, and bustling cities filled with diverse peoples who can engage in interesting conversation over plates of excellent food and glasses of even better booze (during the war he held off on shelling a particular monastery because he enjoyed the liqueur they made there). His memoir is ultimately a twisted tragedy, a story of how such a cosmopolitan and extraordinary man could become the tip of the spear in the useless and cataclysmic war waged by Adolf Hitler's extremist totalitarianism.

As with other memoirs of former German commanders you have read ("Panzer Battles" by F.W. Von Mellenthin was the best) this book was written with the Cold War in mind. Von Luck starts talking about his relationship with the Russians on page 12! He learned the Russian language in college and went to dance at parties with live performances by Rachmaninoff himself. He studied Tolstoy Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. These were experiences that would serve him well during his five years of captivity in Russia after the war. I mean really, are their any other German commanders who can claim to have danced to live performances by Rachmaninoff? Maybe it is a proven marketing strategy for former German officers to emphasize the lesson the learned in fighting they Russians during the war rather than playing up how many Americans they killed, or maybe it reflects a genuine concern to pass on to the the next generation of soldiers who were likely to face the Red Army the lessons of how to win the looming Third World War. In either case it sets the book in that confusing and terrifying era between the Fall of Berlin and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Before the Second World War broke out, Von Luck traveled Europe. As Hitler was moving to create a secret armored military to dominate the continent, Von Luck was making friends across all nationalities. He fell in love with Prague and London, but he lost his heart to beautiful Paris and to the French people as well. His network of connections would serve him well as Germany was soon to expand to consume almost all of Europe. Von Luck even mentions hanging out in Berlin in and around the Tiergarten with Martha Dodd (from your first "Reviews For Sam" ever!). You know you love it when a book you're reading references a person or event form another book you loved.

Von Luck was one of the few men serving in the shrunken armed forces of Germany allowed by the Treaty of Versailles after the Great War. He witnessed the secretive expansion of German military might after Hitler had come to power and was one of the first soldiers in the Wehrmacht to get to develop armored, high speed warfare, in violation of international treaties. Von Luck observed the meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler into power. The people of Germany liked the new Chancellor. He found jobs for millions of people, built a national highway network ( the autobahn), expanded German infrastructure, and peacefully recaptured the Rhineland (lost in the Great War). Most of the population saw nothing ominous in the rounding up of communist activists, they wanted the violent troublemakers off the streets too. But, in this memoir, Von Luck remembers all these things through the lens of what was to come. The highway system was crafted with strategic corridors leading to probable jumping-off points for the wars Hitler was planning. The fabulous jobs program would soon evolve to become the brainwashing 'Hitler Youth' movement, and those militant communists who had been rounded up would soon be joined by peaceful Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and any other people deemed politically undesirable. The words "concentration camp" and "ghetto" had not yet been heard by the German people, but it was only a matter of time.

By September of 1939, Von Luck's days of leisurely touring Europe were over. He would soon return to many of his favorite locations throughout the continent but this time on the back of a tank. He was one of the first men to cross the border into Poland. Von Luck, and many other soldiers like him, introduced the world to the concept of blitzkrieg that summer. It would take many more lessons in many more countries before the world caught on and became better at making war than the Germans who raged across the Polish countryside in September of '39. But as it was, this war in Poland was over before October set in and Von Luck was back in his homeland waiting to teach another country what it means to fight a war of movement and envelopment.

The next year, Von Luck invaded France. Again, he was at the vanguard of the first units to cross the border. This time he was under the leadership of the famous Erwin Rommel. Right away, the men under Rommel's command could tell he would be a leader with something special to offer. He was a man who understood from personal experience the need to avoid the stalemates of the last war. It occurred to you as you were reading this part that the Germans' greatest fear during the invasion of France in 1940 was not that they would lose, but that their invasion would bog down. More than achieving victory, the Germans on the ground were fighting to prevent a repeat of the terrible trench warfare of the Great War. As they invaded Belgium in May of 1940 Rommel exhorted his men, especially the men of the recon battalions, "Keep going, don't look to the left or right, only forward. I'll cover your flanks if necessary. The enemy is confused; we must take advantage of it." Rommel knew what the world was soon going to learn, speed kills.

By the beginning of June 1940, barely a month from the start of the invasion of France and the lowlands, the British Army had been evacuated from continental Europe. In two days, supported by the fighters and dive bombers of the Luftwaffe, Von Luck and his division raced through Normandy, the coastal region of France that would, just four years later, take the combined efforts of all the Western Allied forces more than two months to move through. Von Luck lead his men along the Atlantic coast, bypassing areas of major resistance and gobbling up French land like the men of the Great War could never have dreamed. Half way through June, German tanks were in Paris, by the end of the month France had called it quits. When the shooting had finally stopped, Von Luck's recon battalion had pulled up on the outskirts of the famous city of Bordeaux, just 120 miles form the border with Spain! Von Luck himself arranged the escort for the removal of Marshall Petain's provisional government from Bordeaux to Vichy.

These staggering successes left the world shocked and terrified at the prospect of which country might be next. Von Luck describes how he and his men all knew in their hearts that the promised invasion of Great Britain would never really happen. They were right. The Luftwaffe could never gain control of the skies long enough to protect any invasion flotilla crossing the English channel.

For a year, Von Luck did not fire a shot in anger. He and his men were now preparing for the invasion of Russia. They were increasingly disillusioned with any prospects for victory. Their enemy's country was just too vast, the people too numerous for the Wehrmacht to defeat before winter set in. Even with the anti-communist rhetoric and anti-Jewish propaganda ramping up to new heights, no one could understand why Hitler wanted to open up a second front.

Nevertheless, despite the fears and doubts, in June of 1941 Von Luck found himself crossing the Russian border, leading another spearhead into yet another country. Again all enemy resistance crumbled before the shock and power of the German blitzkrieg. Again huge pockets of soldiers were surrounded and eliminated en masse. Again hundreds of thousands of soldiers were captured. Again speed was the key, but this time Hitler had miscalculated. He had delayed his invasion of Russia in order to deal with problems in Greece and the Balkans. The delay proved critical. Even as the Germans advanced at a pace that had been unthinkable in warfare for the history of mankind, time was ticking by and the area they were invading swallowed armies whole. By late October, Von Luck was securing the approaches to Moscow itself. He established a bridgehead across the final water obstacle before the Russian capital. The Germans had almost been fast enough, but not quite.

Overnight Von Luck describes the temperature dropping to levels no one anticipated. Hitler had believed the war would be over before winter set in and as such, in a betrayal of the German soldier as well as the German innate sense of efficiency and perfectionism, had not provided his armies with the appropriate equipment or clothing to fight in -40 degree weather. And even if he had, the German supply lines were stretched over 1,000 miles of Russian steppe with no modern road system and railways with tracks the were the wrong sized gauge for German locomotives, it would have taken too long for the needed winter gear to reach the men who could have taken Moscow. Instead those men, along with their vehicles and weapons, froze in place. Siberian soldiers appeared like ghosts from the snows, clad in white camouflage and gliding silently on skis to rip though the German defenses and wreak havoc on their ridiculously exposed supply lines. New Russian tanks showed up and were more than a match for the German armored units. Von Luck was forced to abandon his bridgehead and retreat. Russia was not Poland or France. It suddenly became clear to everyone that this war was now guaranteed to be a long one. To make the prospects bleaker, before 1941 was over, America had entered the war.

But for Von Luck, the war in Russia was over. Rommel, in command of a headline grabbing army in North Africa had requested the presence of his favorite recon battalion commander. Von Luck describes his drive from the gates of Moscow back to Germany as one would a man fleeing hell itself. He and his trusted aide, Beck, push their beloved Mercedes to the limit, popping stimulants so they could take turns driving westward 24/7, always on the lookout for ski patrol raids or aerial attacks. Escape from the frigid certain doom of the Russian war could not come fast enough.

Von Luck writes about his time in Africa as if it were his favorite part of the entire conflict, more adventure than combat. And it wasn't just that the sands of the Sahara were preferable to the snows of Ukraine. The war there became what would later be referred to as a "gentleman's war." Eventually, despite the intense fighting, the British and the Germans reached what they called an agreement. Combat every day ended at 5:00 PM. Both sides made tea and ceased aggressive patrols for the day. The two sides even established radio contact with one another and would ask their opponents if they had captured friends who had been lost on patrols during the day. A German doctor was traded back to his countrymen for medicine to treat the British soldiers suffering from some native disease. A British soldier, son of a cigarette magnate, refused to be traded back to his side for anything less than 1 million cigarettes; he was sent back to a POW camp in Germany instead. For this brief time, Von Luck, one of the men to introduce the concepts of modern warfare to the world, was given a glimpse of what war had looked like for millennia before. When it was time to fight, both sides would be ferocious, but a certain civility was maintained and fair play ruled all but the most intense situations.

With the absolute trust that made him such a great leader, Rommel placed Von Luck in charge of the entire German flank as they attempted to drive eastward to expel the British from Egypt. If the British were to outmaneuver Rommel it could only be around the right flank, to the south through the endless trackless desert. Von Luck and his men made sure that never happened. Despite valiant efforts and brilliant leadership however, Rommel was forced to call off his advances. He simply did not have the supplies he needed to effectively wage the war Hitler was demanding. Unbeknownst to Von Luck at the time, the British had broken the German radio codes. Every convoy full of supplies and equipment was soon at the bottom of the Mediterranean. They could not hope to match the British in fuel availability, artillery shells, medical supplies, or aircraft. In contrast to the heady days in France when Von Luck helped kick the British out of Dunkirk, the RAF now ruled the skies of North Africa. No matter how extraordinary Rommel and his Afrika Corps were, they could not fight a war with no supplies.

Early in the summer of '42, the Americans landed on the west coast of Africa, outflanking Rommel from the sea rather than the desert. Immediately Rommel became interested in bloodying the Americans who were late comers to this most modern of wars. The Germans raced westward (the opposite direction of their initial advances) and smashed into the Americans in the battle soon to become known as "Kasserine Pass." Von Luck lead the charge through the pass and is therefore responsible for the deaths of more Americans than even the most extreme Nazi could ever dream. This was war. This was his duty. Even to this day, American soldiers hold Erwin Rommel in the highest regard. Despite the casualties at Kasserine Pass, Rommel's name is almost sacred to members of US armored divisions and especially the cavalry regiments, but it was Von Luck who personally lead the attacks that resulted in the most American losses. Reading this section reminded you, once again that this man was a soldiers' soldier.

Eventually the German army withdrew from Africa (three weeks after Von Luck had been sent to plead with Hitler to begin extracting Rommel's forces; the idea being that the Fuhrer might honor the opinion of a true combat commander fresh from the front over his generals who he believed infected with defeatism) and Von Luck was placed in charge of a recon training school outside Paris. By June 1944, he was back in command of a battalion defending the Normandy countryside just behind what were about to become the landing beaches for the Allied D-Day invasion. On the morning of June 6th the invasion came and Von Luck was in perfect position to roll his tanks from the east across all of the British and Canadian beaches, kicking his enemy back into the sea. Instead, he was forced to stay in position. Hitler and the German high command were convinced this was a diversionary attack and refused to commit their armored units to the fight in any decisive way.

But even after they realized this was, in fact, the real thing and Von Luck was allowed to attack, it was in no way an easy task. Not only did he face the same veteran British and Scottish troops he had fought in North Africa, but this time his enemy had both air superiority and naval offshore bombardments to support them. Every advance Von Luck tried to make in the open during the daylight hours was crushed from the air, and every advance that promised to make headway despite this disadvantage was met with a naval barrage that could have stopped the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Allies were in France to stay.

It is obvious that Von Luck learned a lot from serving under Rommel. During the fighting in Normandy he mimicked Rommel's style of leadership, always moving from hot spot to hot spot, personally leading attacks that were critical to the overall situation. He held back the Allied push inland from the beaches for weeks. During a massive offensive by the British, Von Luck almost single-handedly stalled the entire Allied advance by finding an idle anti aircraft unit, moving them to the perfect position, and insisting they lower the barrels of their weapons to fire into the exposed flanks of the advancing armored units. Without his actions on that day, it is conceivable that the British might have broken out of eastern Normandy a full week before the Americans did farther west.

Instead, it was general Patton and his Third Army, west of Avranches, who broke through the German lines and into the open flat country perfectly made for tank warfare. And suddenly, it seemed as if every German, from Hitler all the way down to the most fresh-faced cadet, absolutely shit his pants. Patton had learned the lessons Von Luck had taught the world about how to fight a blitzkrieg war. He was racing through France as fast as he could go. Even Allied cargo planes had difficulty finding Patton's forward units in order to drop supplies; they had to follow the columns of smoke. Patton's unpredictability made him effectively unstoppable. If this man was in charge of an army that was on the loose, free from hedgerow country, then no German in France felt truly safe. Regardless of the situation in their own sectors, everyone went running for the safety of the fatherland.

But when the Allies came to the border with Germany, the rout ended and Von Luck fought near the border with Switzerland, in the Vosges mountains. Although he avoided the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge farther north, he describes the fighting in his sector as intensely savage. Von Luck talks about hideous hand-to-hand, house-by-house, street-by-street fighting, the kind of warfare where epic battles are waged to gain one floor of a building that will only prove to be demolished the next day by either side's artillery.

On page 209 he says of one such battle, "After eight days we still didn't know whether we were continuing to fight there for reasons of prestige, or whether there was a tactical significance to our holding the position." You thought this quote was a pretty apt metaphor for the entire last half of the entire war. Tragically, every day that Von Luck and his men so skillfully delayed the fall of the Third Reich, more and more civilians died in bombing raids or in that kind of savage street fighting being witnessed on both the western and eastern fronts, more soldiers died in a war that was clearly unwinnable, and thousands, maybe even millions of men women and children were dying in Nazi concentration camps. As monstrous as the actions of the guards and officers at places like Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz are alone, seeing them in the light of the ultimate sacrifice men like Von Luck were making at the fronts made these sins even more unforgivable to you. Genocide was not what the average German soldier was fighting to defend. Most of them had no idea it was happening.

Von Luck and his men were pulled off the front line to recuperate and receive replacements, but were immediately rushed to the Eastern Front instead, a front which was not so far east any longer. By spring of 1945, the Russians were ominously close to Berlin and Hitler was ordering every available unit into the defense of the capital, however futile that defense clearly was. Von Luck describes witnessing waves of Russians that seem unstoppable, cowering under firepower that seems withering, and facing a tide of vengeance that seems straight out of Dante's "Inferno." It was here, defending his countrymen against impossible odds at the gates of Berlin itself that Hans Von Luck, surrounded, out of ammunition, and at the end of a very long war, finally surrendered to his enemies.

Von Luck's captivity in Russian gulags lasted almost as long as his service in the whole war. Five years spent scrounging for the merest scrap of both food and dignity, being tortured both physically and mentally. His knowledge of Russian culture served him well, as did his deep seated compassion for the least among us. Recognizing that the population near his prison was being just as crushed under Stalin's boot heel as he was provided him the patience he would need to survive the ordeal.

When he was finally released and returned home, Von Luck realized that those five years he had lost in a Russian POW camp had been momentous years for the rest of the world. He and the love of his life no longer had anything keeping them together. They had planned to marry after the war, but she had become a television personality in Germany and he was still stuck in a 1945 wartime mentality. The two were worlds apart and it became clear to both that a relationship would not be possible. Von Luck found odd jobs here and there until settling into a sales position at an export firm, establishing a new branch in Africa. He loved his new career enough that when the West German military offered him a commission, he declined.

In the decades to come, Von Luck lectured and spoke in college classes and at various events commemorating the war he had such a hand in shaping. It was in this capacity that he was brought back into contact with many of the men he had faced across the killing fields of Africa and France. Bound by their mutual service and with no animosity, Von Luck and several Allied commanders struck up deep and lasting friendships. These men, like Colonel Hans Von Luck, had answered the call of their nations and served in the greatest war the world has ever known. As this book was published the clouds of another world war were gathering and Von Luck ends his memoirs with the wish that the young people of the world never be used again for such destruction.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs (2011)

Sometimes you find great books hidden in the recesses of some used book store and sometimes you are given classic books as gifts. Sometimes though, you just steal fun ones from your kids.

Ransom Riggs has a passion other than writing books. He is also an avid collector of odd vintage photographs. A few years ago, he had collected enough on his own to think about putting them all together to form a picture book, but his editor convinced him to think bigger. Riggs found others with his particular zeal for old pictures and was able to draw on even more fantastical ammunition for the story that eventually became "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children." The book weaves together more than forty photos, some silly, some haunting, with one fictional narrative thread.

Riggs starts his story in the present day, in his home state of Florida. Jacob Portman tells us about his relationship with his grandfather, a Polish immigrant who loves to tell stories about fighting in World War II. Being Jewish, the aging Abraham revels in regaling his grandson with the tales of how, in his youth, he had made war on the monsters who had come to destroy his people, his friends and family. Abe also loves to show off the odd photos from his youth, photos that Jacob has always believed to be doctored in obvious ways, photos of a girl floating above the ground, a scrawny boy holding a boulder aloft with only one hand, a man with no head. The stories Abe tells along with these pictures are as ridiculous as the photos themselves.

When tragedy strikes and grandpa Abe is brutally killed by what the authorities believe to be a pack of wild dogs, only Jacob knows the truth. He alone saw the monster standing in the swamp behind Abe's house, tentacles wriggling out of its mouth like something out of a nightmare. Jacob knows for a fact that it wasn't dogs that killed his grandfather. This knowledge and Abe's lasts words send Jacob on an adventure that takes him to a remote island off the coast of Wales where he discovers a mysterious enclave of gifted young people. This group of children makes Jacob realize that those stories his grandfather had told him all his life hadn't actually been tall tales. These kids have special powers and the school they live in is locked in a temporal loop. Everyone within its confines lives the same day over and over again, September 3rd, 1940. But its like "Groundhog Day," the people locked in the loop are able to alter the events of the day every time the day starts over again if they wish.

Jacob learns that this school is not the only one of its kind on Earth. There are others in different locations locked into loops reliving different days. Each loop is maintained by women who are called ymbrynes and who can also shape-shift in to bird form. This all seems pretty great to Jacob until he realizes that some of the stories his grandfather had always told him could have been interpreted differently in other ways as well. The monsters he talked about fighting might not have been men wearing sharp uniforms emblazoned with swastikas, they might have been actual monsters. There are forces in the world that hunt people with special abilities and it turns out they also desire the power the ymbrynes possess. Unfortunately for Jacob and his new friends, he has lead some of these monsters straight to Miss Peregrines' Home For Peculiar Children.

"Miss Peregrine" was a fun read, and Riggs integrates the fantastic photos with the story in just the right way to make you smile even while you are getting goose bumps. It takes tremendous talent to craft a story like "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" out of a random collection of pictures. Riggs' talent at it reminded you though that it's not really that rare. Isn't that what movies and even illustrated books are after all, just a collection of random images woven together by a compelling narrative, often even a fantastically fictional one? The human brain is a great big story telling machine. Give it a series of seemingly moving pictures and a sound track and it will craft an entertaining narrative, give it a tantalizing clue and it will devise an answer to the mystery, give it an adversary it believes legitimate and it will justify acts aggression and self protection.

This what we have done for millennia. We sit around, staring at the flames of a campfire and tell each other stories. We crowd into huts and amphitheaters to hear old favorites or exciting new stories. We create mythologies to explain the inaccessible and to remind ourselves that we have greatness within us. We dedicate our lives to the service of some stories, and we will go to war for others.

We tell ourselves stories every day, about everything we encounter. Some of them are fiction and some of them are lies. Some of them can tear us and even the people we love apart, and some of them can lift us up to greater heights. This book helped you remember that we must be careful with the stories we tell ourselves, that we need to remember we are built to be shaped by our stories. The stories we craft can help us make sense of the sometimes nightmarish realities of the world, they can help us process the most sublime moments of happiness and victory, and ultimately, our stories are the things that outlive us, at least here in this world.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"The First World War" by John Keegan (1998)

Well, somebody took the summer off from writing book reviews. You've read plenty of books since June, but with three kids and a big family vacation and moving into a new house and practicing telling people that you were way too busy to write a book review, you were just too busy to write a review for any of those summer reads. Or something like that.

Hey look, a book about World War One! It's been a few months since you've read one of those. Let's get to writing reviews again.

The 101st anniversary of the start of The Great War has now come and gone. You're not sure what about anniversaries taps into human nostalgia, but there is something that feels significant about a century passing since the beginning of this war. Maybe it's the idea that lots of us who grew up during the Cold War weren't sure there would be anyone left on the planet to celebrate this anniversary, maybe it's the sense of the immediacy of recent history juxtaposed against the great remove we feel from ancient events and the uncomfortable process of witnessing one become the other, or maybe it's just our human fascination with round numbers and the comfort we get from marking off time as it tirelessly unfolds the centuries right before our eyes. What ever the reason, you keep picking up books about WW I, and it is a source of endless interest. The more you study this event, the more you realize how completely and utterly it changed the face of the history and the geopolitical landscape of the world.

Most of the books you have read on the First World War, indeed most of the books available on the subject, focus on one aspect or time-frame of the war. They tend to illuminate individual battles or certain months, specific tactical developments or sweeping social changes that arose during the war rather than the whole event. The scope of the conflict is just too immense for most authors to tackle in one volume. So, John Keegan's attempt at encompassing the entirety of The Great War in less than 450 pages intrigued you, despite the fact that you have heard Keegan's name used with disdain by many people who are fans of history. It is ambitious goal and Keegan delivered admirably.

In order to accomplish his task, Keegan had to be ruthless in cutting away the extraneous information. Deciding what exactly counted as extraneous must have been the most difficult process involved with writing this book. Not being an expert in this war yourself, you felt Keegan nailed it. His perspective seeks to incorporate all of the various fronts and battlefields of the war. While he gives very little
attention to the home fronts, he spends a great deal of time explaining both how so many, ostensibly friendly, nations could find themselves at war and describing the eventual splintering of those governments and monarchies that proved to be the war's most lasting casualties.

The opening chapter of "The First World War" is an outstanding and concise contextualization of the pre-war situation in Europe. The web of treaties and international agreements that wore away at the diplomatic equilibrium of the continent, the growing nationalisms, and the tantalizing advances in military technologies seem, in retrospect, to make war inevitable. Keegan proves untrue the old adage (and Metallica lyric) that "to secure peace is to prepare for war." In the summer of 1914, the various European nations' and empires' preparations for a potential war ensured that that war would become a reality. As each government set into motion their plans for dealing with their opponents' mobilizations the others responded with even greater mobilizations. Their prophylactic preparations became self-fulfilling prophesies. A particularly well traveled fly on the walls in the halls of power might have heard arguments akin to, "If the Russians can be ready for war in 60 days, we Germans must be ready in 30." And, "If the Germans are going to be able to be ready in 30 days, we French must be ready in 15... and we need to invite the English." And finally, "If the French can be ready in 15 days, we Germans should invade Belgium tomorrow... especially if they are thinking of inviting the English!"

This triumph of military preparation, the speed, complexity, and immensity of which had never been possible before, outpaced the capabilities of the diplomacy of the day. It is common knowledge (often a dubious bastion of information) that the network of alliances and agreements between European powers served to drag the whole continent into war. The implication is that many of those powers went to war against their greater desires for peace. Keegan argues however, that everyone actually knew damned well what they were doing. Austria-Hungary did not need to go to Germany to ask for an alliance before invading Serbia in retribution for the assassination of their heir-apparent. They sought a German alliance, according to Keegan, precisely because Germany's entrance would bring more powers into the conflict which would secure Autsria-Hungary's flanks, and Serbia was guilty of the same crime.

To make his point, Keegan reminds you that even on the day of the fateful Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, July 25th, 1914, Serbian officials were inclined to acquiesce, however humiliating the demands. It was only once they had received word that the Russians, who threatened Austrian's northeastern borders, were preparing to mobilize their armies to rush to Serbia's aide that the Serbian leadership decided to refuse the Austrian list of demands. They had a great power as an ally now, so they felt even more bellicose, not less. On the morning of July 25th, the month-old assassination of the royal heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained a purely local issue, one that could have been solved through diplomatic means. By that afternoon, the world had gone to war. The war didn't spiral out of hand, it was started specifically because it would be a huge affair. The smaller powers sought the protection of the greater powers in order to ensure a greater degree of violence, never imagining that they themselves would be destroyed by the witches' brew they had stirred up.

When Russia announced the mobilization of their military, German military leaders believed that they had not simply to counter-mobilize, but to declare outright war. Otherwise the Russians would have been able to bring their forces within the German eastern border before the Schlieffen Plan could be carried out. The Schlieffen Plan, conceived decades before, called for the rapid and overwhelming destruction of France as a combatant so that Germany could then shift focus to her eastern border in order to deal with Russia, which proved a greater threat. Keegan controversially contends here that the sacrosanct, and much since debated, Schlieffen Plan, the plan on whose outcome the fates of nations and empires hung, was fundamentally flawed. Geography as well as geometry were set against the whole concept, argues Keegan. There was simply no room for the hundreds of thousands of troops to swing through Belgium and northern France in time to make the southern facing "right hook" to capture Paris from behind. The miles upon miles of troops, horses, wagon trains, gun caissons, and headquarters networks could not fit in the space Schlieffen had planned for them to advance through within the time-frame he had given them. No amount of planning or war gaming could have changed the geography of the land itself. Keegan claims the Schlieffen Plan was doomed to fail from the beginning but the German High Command of 1914 were burdened by no such notions.

Keegan then follows the almost comical, if it weren't so tragic, back-and-forth sending of warnings from one country to the other. "If you invade here, it will mean war." "Well if you ford this river it will mean war." "Oh yeah? If you cross this line in the sand it will mean war." This schoolyard prattle and saber-rattling came from leaders and statesmen, kings and czars and emperors, men who should have remembered that of the men who first drew that famous line in the sand at the Alamo, every one had died at the hands of the enemy they had so dramatically warned.

In early August the massive German army finally crossed the Belgian border and began dealing with the formidable array of forts that protected the Flemish heartland. The invaders brought with them guns that were so massive that the builders of the forts could never have imagined the destructive power they could deliver. It was like something out of science fiction. Once in place, the German guns took mere hours to demolish the vaunted Belgian fortresses and, in doing so, changing the rules of war that had existed in Europe for over 300 years. Concrete, stone, and steel walls could no longer protect combatants, they had proven they could crumble to rubble too easily under the thunder of 20th Century weaponry. From now on it would be walls made of men that would need to be shattered. Machine guns, massed artillery, barbed wire, and eventually chemical weapons would be brought to the fields of Europe to shatter those walls of men, men who would bury themselves deep in the earth to avoid the newest instruments of death.

After September 1914, the battle lines of the Western Front would barely move at all for years, despite the obscene amount of blood spilled in No Mans' Land. But Keegan reminded you that the Western Front wasn't the only one. He does a masterful job of telling the story of the war in easily consumable chunks, linking them through the four years of war in an intelligible timeline that helped you to think of The Great War in one narrative arc. Keegan walks you through the head-spinning job the Germans had of bouncing from one front to the other, always keeping disaster at bay. He reminds you that the Eastern Front was not just a side show that has been forgotten by history. Instead, the war in Russia and throughout the Balkans was the driving force that steered the course of rest of the war. Each side gained allies or diverted their own troops or launched rushed offensives in response to what was occurring far from the more famous Western Front.

Keegan spends his time on the events that mattered, not the hero's stories the press of the day (and most of the literature ever since) so readily pounced upon. The Red Baron and TE Lawrence barely get mentioned at all. But they shouldn't feel too bad, the entire Battle of the Somme, whose first day marks the bloodiest day in British military history, consumes only 12 pages. But somehow, despite his succinctness and brevity, Keegan never looses the humanity of the story he is telling. His extraordinary economy of language never forgets the intimate heartbreaks intrinsic to the greatest conflict in history up to that point.

Keegan also spares a little time to stir up some controversy, as he is evidently known to do (to the chagrin of his critics). He takes on the century old criticism of the generals who lead the armies of the First World War as being incompetents who were too far removed from the battlefronts to understand the hell of the war they were leading. He calls this criticism misplaced, contending that these generals were placed in charge of fronts that were more vast and armies that were more massive than the technology of the day allowed them to lead simply from horseback, as Wellington and Napoleon, or Grant and Lee had done. Communications with the assault troops simply wasn't possible. When one wave went "over the top" and into the teeth of the enemy, there was no way to know if they had taken their objective or had been cut down one and all, so the only thing to do was order the next wave of boys into the field of certain death and hope for the best. The machinery had been created to provide for butchery on a scale more monstrous than had ever been possible in human history, but the technology to mitigate the slaughter or take advantage when those waves of boys actually achieved a tactical breakthrough (mostly in the field of rapid and reliable communications) would not even exist until the next world war. The generals of WW I weren't lazy, Keegan contends, they had their hands tied behind their backs by the uneven progress of the technology of making war. He might be right about that, but even if he's not, it's fascinating to hear an opinion that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, that considers an issue from a point of view that has not already settled on an answer everyone already agrees with. Keegan did what good authors are supposed to do, he made you think.

The armies of the nations fighting this terrible war suffered so many casualties that by 1917 the French armies refused to go on the offensive for more than a year and the soldiers of Russia were integral in the revolution that deposed their nation's 300 year old dynasty. It wasn't so much that these armies had been defeated on the battlefield as it was that they couldn't accept orders demanding any more senseless slaughter. The massacre on the fronts could be spun as patriotic self-sacrifice for a few years, but when nothing came of it all, armies broke and empires crumbled. The so called "army strikes" were just the beginning. Revolution spread like no time since 1848, the "Year of Revolutions." During World War One kings and emperors were being dethroned so regularly that eventually Britain thought of ousting the king of Greece as simply a short term tactical consideration, they encouraged his removal simply because they wanted a few more troops along Greece's western border. That's how crazy this war was.

After one last great attempt in the spring of 1918, Germany finally gave in. Like so many other countries involved in this war, their society just couldn't take it any longer. In all honesty, both sides were spent. Like George Foreman fighting Ali, they had punched themselves out. The problem for Germany was that her sinking of so many American transport ships had brought a new angry player to the field of battle. Whereas Germany had lost so many men and had no fresh bodies to offer up to the conflagration, the United States had only just begun to commit troops to the fight. Every day brought more and more American soldiers to the war while Germany was literally waiting for the newborns of the year 1900 to graduate into manhood so that they could be fed into the meat grinder. By November, Germany no longer had any allies left. They had all either given up or, as with the Austro-Hungarian empire, simply ceased to exist. The German navy refused direct orders to sail out to meet the British and whole infantry divisions refused to move to the front lines to replace their dead comrades. The war was over.

Adolf Hitler, who fought valiantly in the Great War, would later call this moment a 'stab in the back' and blame the end of the war on some vague yet overwhelming Jewish conspiracy, but he was wrong. The German military in 1918 simply could not be asked to sacrifice any more. German society hadn't been overthrown by Jewish communists it was crumbling from exhaustion, from starvation, from unimaginable grief that rocked every home in the Fatherland. The fact that Hitler could not recognize the true reason for Germany's capitulation in November of 1918 is the root of his delusional and suicidal response to the fall of the Third Reich in April of 1945. From his bunker, The Fuhrer would order that all citizens sacrifice themselves to drive the Russians out, but he would also order the destruction of all industry, the immolation of mountains of priceless works of art he had amassed through years of plunder and pillage, he would order the destruction of the infrastructure that could ensure the the German people could even hope to rise from the ashes of the Second World War. It is an undeniable fact that The First World War led inevitably to The Second, but this truism may describe more than the geopolitical context of the century, it may describe the psyche of one man. Hitler may have been insane all along, but if he was, his madness began in the trenches of the Somme river valley and was catalyzed by the complexities of the ending of what we would all call come to call The Great War.

You usually try to end these reviews with a positive twist, a bright comment on the overall hopefulness of the world we live in. With this book you don't even have to. John Keegan has done it for you, despite the horrors of the subject matter. He writes about how mysterious the whole war was, why it began, why it was so far reaching, why it was so savage, and above all why so many men willingly sacrificed themselves for hopeless causes. To quote the final paragraph of "The First World War,"
"How did the anonymous millions... find the resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in its purpose? That they did is one of the undeniabilities of the Great War. Comradeship flourished in the earthworks of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood... Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves as well as its hates, we would be nearer to understanding the mystery of human life."
The only way to find the answer to those mysteries is to continue searching. So, as always...

On to the next book!