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Archive for the ‘War/Military’ Category

Justinians FleaFive centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.

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eagleReaders’ Digest Condensed Books takes it on the chin from many quarters – dumbed down books stripped down for readers who place more value on popular titles than quality reads. Looking back at them now, it seems that Readers’ Digest was the only transition from kids’ books to “adult” literature I had access to. My brother and sisters and I would check the mail every day, and when that box turned up it was Katy, bar the door. And while we were waiting there was always the shelf full of previous collections we could grab. Now, most of the books weren’t memorable, but others set me on the path of my pleasure reading, and where’s the harm in that?

Once an Eagle was a transition from my childish understanding of war to a more sober take on its dark and dirty side. The story of one man’s Army career from private in the futile search for Pancho Villa to retired general seeing the early signs of the coming war in Vietnam, it is also the story of the American military through the 20th century.

Sam Damon grows up in a small Midwestern town, hearing tales of glorious and deadly battles from veterans of the Civil War and the Philippine American War. He joins as a private soldier at a time when the Army was considered a refuge for drunks, brutes, and incompetents, but those men become the cadre around which newly-minted civilian soldiers became an Army in 1917. Damon is a powerful leader, inspiring loyalty and pulling reluctant men into his fearless wake. He frightens them, though – in battle he is savage and coldly brilliant, with the mythical luck of the born warrior. His successes earns him medals and brevet promotion, but his first loyalty is with his men. He also comes up against Courtney Massengale, a bloodless, politically-connected West Pointer who sees war as a series of staff exercises, and whose time-in-grade will keep him a half-step ahead of Sam throughout their parallel careers.

After 1918, Sam and his new family begin the grinding tour of moving from one camp to another to study his craft. With the world determinedly turning its back on the horror of the recent war, the Army once again becomes a backwater. But such backwaters creates a sense of community and continuity in their denizens, forming deep friendships and uneasy truces between enemies. It isn’t just the men, either – their wives are their allies, spies, and bulwarks against the maneuvering that might destroy a man’s career. There are also the common soldiers, rootless, bored, underpaid, and kept in line by relentless, sometimes cruel discipline.

Then war comes again, and the officers who have languished in rank are suddenly given armies to train and command. Damon’s war is in the Pacific, where repeated amphibious assaults give way to jungle fighting against an enemy that does not surrender.  As an infantry commander on the beach, Damon has to rely on a Navy with its own agenda, a fledgling Army Air Corps, and a superior officer – Massengale – who still doesn’t see the blood and death his orders cause. Damon must call on his innate skills as a warrior, as a leader, and as a commander who must place professional duty above personal sacrifice. In the wake of the war, with no political patronage, those qualities get him put on the shelf. Until he’s needed to investigate a local brushfire war threatening American interests.

Myrer’s control over both his characters and their situations makes it easy to keep up with, even care about, the myriad of people who must populate a book about armies and war. Even after so long, I’m pretty sure I could even tell you what characters appear in what parts of the story and what their relationship to Damon is. Myrer’s descriptions of battle are detailed and horrible enough to strip the shine off the techo-thrillers and are reminders that war is, after all, friend only to the undertaker. I’m pretty sure Sam Damon would agree with Edwin Starr.

Revisiting the book as an adult, I made an interesting discovery about the condensation process Readers’ Digest used on this particular story. A significant section that has Damon travelling to China to observe the Communist guerrilla war against the Japanese. A heroic Chinese commander teaches him about both ideology and tactics, striking a sympathetic chord in both character and reader. That section was completely missing from the digested version, possibly because, up until recently, Reader’s Digest was a leading anti-Communist voice in American society. On the other hand, that same conservative approach took a lot of sex out of other books they condensed, which probably made it more palatable for the parents of pre-teens and adolescents like me and my siblings. Middlebrow? Maybe. But re-reading The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice wouldn’t have led me to travel through the lives and stories of so many different people and kept me reading until it became an indispensable part of my life.

Check the WRL catalog for Once an Eagle

Sam Elliott also starred as Sam Damon in an NBC miniseries that follows the novel pretty closely.

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WestmarkThis trilogy of children’s adventures is a longtime favorite of mine, but I find it difficult to categorize. Libraries shelve it in juvenile fiction, which is misleading, as it has more tragic deaths than Game of Thrones, plus an ironic style that would likely whoosh over the heads of most children. It certainly did mine. On the other hand, it made me cry like a kid when I was in my thirties…

Three volumes with a Dickensian ensemble cast, from monarchs to street urchins, cover several years of political upheaval in the imagined countries of Westmark and neighboring Regia. Theo is the viewpoint character, a printer’s assistant who is driven from his livelihood by an increasingly despotic government bent on censoring the press. He takes up first with a traveling ensemble headed by showman and charlatan “Count” Las Bombas, where he meets Mickle, a streetwise apprentice thief, ventriloquist, and (unknown to anyone, including herself) missing princess. The escapades grow more serious when Theo falls in with a cell of student revolutionaries headed by the charismatic pragmatist Florian, a dashing figure in a soldier’s greatcoat. Now Theo is loyal both to the next monarch of Westmark and to the soldier-philosophers who want to abolish the monarchy.

Theo’s adventures present him with several moments of split-second decision making followed by self-doubt—is his hesitation to take a life a moment of conscience or of cowardice? Ideals are tested to the breaking point in the second book of the trilogy, The Kestrel. As Regia invades, the young are betrayed by the old, and fighting in the countryside intensifies, conscience seems ever more a luxury. Readers who thought this would be a light and fast-paced adventure will instead be traumatized by the sharp turn the series takes into harrowing warfare. The third book, The Beggar Queen, sees the survivors dealing with the legacy of their decisions, their lives further complicated as former enemies and worshipers of fallen heroes try to shape their country to different ideals.

The Westmark books are crowded, packed full of characters and events, and yet they aren’t long books. Alexander’s style is so streamlined, not a word is wasted; like a caricaturist, every line counts either to sketch a character or further the action. The books are fast-moving and dramatic, with characters and situations reminiscent of the French revolution, the Three Musketeers, or other Ruritanian adventures like The Prisoner of Zenda.  There’s a lot of overlap between devotees of this series and fans of the gallant, doomed student revolutionaries of Les Mis. With well-drawn characters and moral complexity, it’s also a natural choice for readers of Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series, starting with The Thief

Check the WRL catalog for Westmark.

The series continues with The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen

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Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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remarqueIt’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”

Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.

Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.

When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor.  Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.

The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.”  Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.

Find All Quiet on the Western Front in the WRL catalog.

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IllusionSeparateness

As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.

Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language.  It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined  throughout the decades.

The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of  literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.

Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.

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spyHave you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.

Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB.  He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.

Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.

Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche.  While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.

Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends

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