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Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

I never blog about stuff like this.

But the reports and video coming out regarding a passenger’s forceful removal from an aircraft at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport yesterday have me incensed.

Let me clarify my modest credentials for expressing my opinion: I am a Million Miler on United Airlines. My butt has been in a United Airlines seat more often than I care to remember. Sadly the incident that’s hitting the news today is the logical conclusion of the contempt for its passengers that United displays far too often. Many of us fly this airline only because we must.

I was safe at home in Indianapolis yesterday. But I feel like I’ve been on that plane in Chicago, minus the dragging of a passenger down the aisle, the bloody face, and most of the screaming.

With some regularity, United flight attendants, gate agents, and pilots show extraordinary human kindness and patience, often in the face of stunningly belligerent passengers. The ones who do know who they are and they are likely almost as embarrassed and upset about this incident as the passengers on that plane at O’Hare who were forced to live through what happened.

According to news reports, United needed to get four employees from Chicago to Louisville and could persuade no paid customers to defer their travel for a day in exchange for $800 in highly conditioned and caveated United travel vouchers (I’ve got enough of them to know) and a hotel voucher. I’m not surprised.

In regular life, this is a company problem, not a customer problem. United, true to form, chose not to find a way to solve its problem by itself (offer the passengers $2000 if that’s what it takes; get their employees to Louisville by another way, just as the four passengers who were forced to abandon the aircraft would need to find another way; good grief you can drive to Louisville).

Take some responsibility, United. And, please, turn off the ‘friendly skies’ music until you do. Is that too much to ask?

A lot went wrong here. An awful lot. Clearly, United could not have anticipated the behavior of the security officers charged with removing (forcibly if necessary) four ordinary passengers whose day went badly south in an instant.

I hope Mr. Muñoz, by all accounts a decisive and highly relational CEO, is on this. I hope he’s doing nothing else for the next week but fixing this problem and then getting in front of a camera to explain that this will never happen again at United Airlines.

Meanwhile, United Airlines, be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

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One wonders how the course of an epic war takes shape in the remembering mind. It is so easy to move to Normandy and the push across Europe towards Berlin. Yet Normandy and the reconquest of Europe came late in the war and were impossible without the unsung precursors. Like the invasion of Sicily and the hard slog up the Italian boot at a time when it was still possible to underestimate the enemy and, later, convenient to forget places like Anzio and Montecassino.

51kz5col-nl-_sx313_bo1204203200_In The Day of Battle, as elsewhere, Atkinson’s writing is not only fueled by the very best research. It also goes down smoothly as such a tale can.

The struggle that had begun in September 1939 was more than half over; yet if both commanders and commanded intuited that they were nearer the end than the beginning, they also sensed that less than half the butcher’s bill had been paid in a bloodletting that ultimately would claim sixty million lives: one life every three seconds for six years. They also knew that if the Allied powers—led by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union—now possessed the strategic initiative, the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan still held the real estate, including six thousand miles of European coastline and the entire western littoral of Asia.

Atkinson exegetes the butcher’s bill as few other military historians can.

In the little Pennsylvania town where this reviewer grew up, twenty-two names adorn the WWII memorial in the main cemetery. Two of these fell in Italy. Curiously, both were women: Carrie Sheetz, a nurse whose station was bombed by a rogue German fighter trying to escape pursuing allied planes at Anzio; and and a certain Josephine Strohecker, who perished in Naples.

Atkinson provides a context for understanding such unsought sacrifice on the part of so many citizen soldiers.

This second entry to the Liberation Trilogy is a gift to those who remember the unsung fallen.

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I had often heard of ‘Ernie Pyle’ from people who had been around to read his newspaper columns during ‘The War’ and—more often—from those whose parents had done so. But it was not until a solemn stroll through Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific brought me unexpectedly upon Pyle’s gravesite that he became a real human being to me. Ironically, for me he was humanized in his death. It is a sentiment that Pyle might have been expected to appreciate, for he humanized the American fighting man and woman precisely in their deepest extremis.51stormosil-_sx312_bo1204203200_

I immediately ordered this remarkable collection of Pyle’s columns, filed from a very mobile front as it made its way across Europe and towards Berlin.

It took a bit of time for Pyle’s writing to grow on me. His vocabulary, his pacing come—after all—from a different generation’s English. But grow on me it did.

By all accounts a complex man and by some accounts a troubled one, Pyle shines no light in these dispatches on himself. His singular focus is on the American GI and sailor. The title of this compilation might suggest a romantic touch. Yet romance is not what Pyle brought to war, and certainly not to his supremely empathetic picture of the American warrior in an epic conflict that not one of them had invited to interrupt his life.

I am tempted to say that every American school child should be required to read this book.

But that will never happen, and is hardly worth the words.

The good news is that some of us, more often than not those who have slowly grown to appreciate the citizen soldier with all his warts, will pick up and read this extraordinary collection of journalistic snapshots. Some of us will pause quietly at the end of one or more of the book’s 35 chapters. To wonder, perhaps, how we would have performed under similar duress. To honor those who endured. To grieve those who did not.

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From this reviewer’s, anything with the late David Halberstam’s name on it is ipso facto a worthy read. This aching recounting of a war no one saw coming and nearly everybody forgot is no exception.

51zmq1uhxsl-_ac_us436_ql65_In his introduction to The Coldest Winter, the author alludes to the ‘colossal gaffe’ of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s omission of South Korea when drawing America’s Asian defense perimeter. Sadly, the Korean Conflict was to offer a strong roster of competitors for ‘greatest colossal gaffe’ status. Per Halberstam’s statistics, the chaotic war without the title would claim 33,000 American lives alongside of 415,000 South Koreans and perhaps a million and a half Chinese and North Koreans.

Of the titans who come off badly, flailingly, blindly, Douglas MacArthur holds pride of place in Halberstam’s telling. The Coldest Winter complements other histories of the conflict by shining a light on an enduring tragedy: the intelligence to understand what the Chinese were willing to sacrifice for control of the peninsula was there to see. Military leaders on what would become a frigid field of battle saw it, often, but could not convince their leadership—particularly egotistic, far-away MacArthur—that it was there, right in front of them.

Halberstam is also merciless with the China hands who in his telling held on far too long to vain hopes that Chiang Kai-Shek was something other than a spent force and that an enduring Communist rule over the mainland China was a fact on the ground that would not be bombed or wished out of existence.

This decidedly non-specialist reviewer found Halberstam’s narrative of ‘the early Kim’ fascinating in light of contemporary developments in North Korea’s ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

A cold winter unfailingly causes an ache in the bones. Perhaps none so deep and enduring as the ache David Halberstam recovers for our consideration and our memory in his masterful The Coldest Winter.

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As the son of a Northwoods mother, I was drawn to this book as one part of my family’s reengagement with this marvelous corner of America.61vdhu3rnnl

James Brakken serves up a delightful tale of the villains and the honest men and women who logged the region in the 1880s, sadly virtually leveling it in the process. It was (and is) a cold place where big hearts and stout arms were necessary to survival. Loggers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, churchmen, hunters and fishermen of both Scandinavian descent and Ojibwe ethnicity collaborated (or failed to) in circumstances where the careless felling of a pine or a particularly bad snow could turn matters to life-and-death-in the blink of an eye.

The Treasure of Namakagon has the feel, in this reader’s hand, of a labor of love. Simply and appreciatively told. Spare and honest, like a reliable Northwoodsman.

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If from our increasingly remote distance, anything about the Allied victory in World War II looks inevitable, read Rick Atkinson’s compelling history of the 1942-43 North Africa Campaign and be disabused of that fiction.518XZOezryL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In prose that easily absorbs the non-specialist reader (as this reviewer is), Atkinson shows what a paltry and untested force America was able to field alongside of a decidedly unsung British deployment in what became what must have seemed like it would never be: a defeat of a strong German force within convenient range of the German homeland.

Before this could happen, the green American forces needed to lose their triumphalism and their British allies needed to learn how to fight to a win on an inhospitable battlefield that was complicated by both weather and colonial legacies. Many American readers (again, I am one) will be surprised by the complex French role at this early stage of the war, a story I will not spoil for potential readers in this short review.

Among military historians, it seems, two temptations are to be avoided. The first is to chronicle a conflict as though the evolving technology of weaponry were the main thing. The second is to paint the war in terms exclusively of the ideas and decisions of generals. Atkinson has become a great writer of military history in our time because he brings mastery of both of these elements to the more interesting story of the soldier whose prospects for life and death were shaped by those less personal forces.

Although Atkinson is serially quotable, the first paragraph of the book’s prologue captures his touch for the human drama of war and its cost:

Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with thirteen of the saddest words in our language: ‘Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.’ A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord.’

The toll was emblematic of a principle point of Atkinson’s book: America only really began to act like a world power on North Africa’s regrettable battleground. This stepping into a space that history had prepared for her marks, in retrospect, the turning point of this vast, global conflict. Churchill’s eulogy for the campaign proved right: The victory that awaited at the end of it was in fact ‘the end of the beginning’.

The genius of Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn lies, in part, in the author’s ability to help the reader understand why this was so while never losing sight of the boy from Iowa crouched in terror as the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht threw its best at him and his buddies, then eventually collapsed in ignominy as claims of invincibility came in for severest re-negotiation so very far from home.

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Rarely do I come away from reading a book with the sense that form has perfectly matched function and that the book has changed my mind.

Both of these things are true of Donald Kraybill’s, Karen Johnson-Weiner’s and Steven Nolt’s bravely titled The Amish.

51gbdbjwyhlTrue to its subject, the book is a gentle read. It invites the reader into to increasing levels of understanding of this odd people, The Amish. Though it brings to bear upon its topic social-scientific, historical, and religious-studies rigor, it does so with a profound respect for the Old Order Amish themselves. As a result, the Amish come into clearer focus as fellow human beings who have chosen a certain lifestyle in a world that offers them alternatives. Caricatures fade amid the careful instruction of the authors.

The authors divide 21 rich chapters among five sections: I. Roots, II. Cultural Context, III. Social Organization, IV. External Ties, and V. The Future.

In the view of this reader, the authors’ Big Idea is remarkably simple: the Amish are not anti-technology, anti-modernity, or for that matter anti-anything.

Rather, with a view to preserving certain non-negotiable values, the Old Order Amish self-consciously negotiate the degree to which they will engage the offerings that a modern and post-modern world would thrust upon them.

When I was growing up on the boundaries of the Amish in Central Pennsylvania, it was common to snicker at the hypocrisy of this strange tribe. They would not have phones in their home, but would sneak down to the phone shack at the end of the driveway to make their calls. They would not own cars, but would contract ‘English’ drivers to haul them about.

Kraybill and his co-authors explain that ‘hypocrisy’ is an unpromising explanation for such admittedly negotiated solutions. Is it not closer to reality on the ground to understand that the Amish may treasure uninterrupted and intentional family life in a way that makes using the phone a choice (though it may involved walking 100 yards through the snow) rather than a mindless response whenever the thing decides to ring in the bosom of the family’s space? Gently (there’s that word again), the authors lead one to see the sense of such a complex network of negotiated settlements with a wider world that has made other choices.

Though the authors clearly admire the Old Order Amish, they are realistic about the challenges any community (in this case, a broad network of distinct and interlocking communities) faces in a world where the mainstream declares itself both obvious and inviolable.

The Amish is a work of gentle history, a moniker I choose not chiefly because the object of the authors’ research is a people attempting to remain gentle, but rather because the authors have demonstrated that history and sociological analysis need not reduce the human objects of their research to less than they are. In real life. Quietly. Along the margins of our frenzy.

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