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Archive for the ‘fortus in arduis’ Category

Rarely do I sit down to review a book feeling so conflicted about the thing.

Dillard Johnson’s page-turner puts me in that place. On the one hand, I appreciate the insight into battle as American soldiers have experienced it in Iraq. Carnivore shines light on the extensive planning, the battle tactics, and oscillating adrenaline rush and sheer terror of battle. Because one of my own sons commanded the men in a Bradley Fighting Machine and both have commanded scout platoons, I found that the author’s depiction of armored tactics with the Bradley and the Abrams tank in close coordination made for a fascinating read. This, for me, is where Johnson’s work holds value.61e2tlp4dl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

But there are negatives …

The first one is the nature of Johnson’s claims for his own performance, which has generated bitter resentment on the part of fellow soldiers who believe Johnson has penned an egotistical and inaccurate version of one man’s role in a decidedly team effort. The first-person singular is very frequent in Johnson’s account, not to the point that he does not credit his buddies, but to the extreme that one wonders if the credit is enough. One senses that the author’s better and lesser angels are fighting it out, with the latter winning more often than it should. Despite Dillard’s obvious appreciation of his fellow soldiers, they are pushed to the margins of his record. Arguably, the picture of the fight in Iraq that results is rendered inaccurate by this singular focus.

The second negative is that Dillard’s rhetoric about killing astonishing numbers of Iraqis runs deeply casual. Any prettiness on this front is a first casualty of war—always a flawed and terrible thing—as it should be. On the other hand, ‘Carnivore’ from time to time seems less the moniker given to Johnson’s Bradley than a chosen nickname for the man commanding it.

I find it hard to criticize an American soldier who has left home and family to fight, even more so because I write as the father of two Army officers and the step-father of two long-serving enlisted men. I’m grateful for Dillard Johnson’s service. I’m glad I’ve read the book he’s written about it. I just wish he’d shaped his story into a different one.

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To read Peter FitzSimon’s Gallipoli is to realize how great an evening it would be to have the man in front of a crackling fire in your living room, telling a good tale.

For it is the telling of a tale that FitzSimon promises us, a tale of how Australia ‘became a nation’ in the wrenching experiencing of bleeding for the British Empire on the hills of the Turkish coast.

519n8gv6zalFitzSimons puts a lot of himself in this story, not always a promising approach for a history writer. Yet this manages to illuminate rather than obscure the Gallipoli narrative. The author’s full-disclosure explanation of how his own understanding of the battle has changed gives the non-Australian reader a glimpse into the various ways in which that antiopodean nation itself has moved through various stages of engagement with one of its defining moments.

There is little to nothing good to say about a battle of this ferocity, one that concluded with surviving Anzac forces withdrawing to the sea under cover of darkness. But one can at least tell the awful story well. FitzSimons manages to write in—to speak in, for the reader can almost hear his voice—Australian, not a generic academic English.

The result is winsome, savage, feisty (for what is an Australian without a little feist?), and accessible. One emerges from reading this book made wiser not only about the flawed execution of what might otherwise have represented a victorious thrust by the Allied forces into the belly of the Turkish ‘sick man of Europe’, but also more intelligent about how Australian soldiers fought for the mother country’s Empire but died for Australia.

FitzSimons recognizes that many have told the Gallipoli story before him. His contribution is to write, one hundred years on, for Australians and friends of Australians like this reader, several generations hence, when a bit of cool reflection can both enrich and temper our understanding of the passions, ambitions, stupidities, and grit that produced Gallipoli.

A century is long enough for a certain empathy with the enemy of one’s forebears to develop in a way that does not trivialize the complex developments that led a country to war on a land whose name they barely knew. FitzSimons ably captures the privilege of this retrospective distance, not least by recording a recent re-encounter of Turkish and Anzac veterans on this very savage and sacred soil, and by resurrecting Mustafa Kemal’s generous words, penned in 1934:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours … you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Has it really been a century?

Peter FitzSimon’s fine and well-researched retelling makes it seem just yesterday.

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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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515u1nfwt0l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Alexander Watson’s 2014 tome massively documents the rope’s tightening around the neck of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empires during the 1914-1918 war. It makes the abstraction we call ‘encirclement’ personal, horribly so for the peoples dragged into a conflicted they alternately longed for and loathed.

Watson is explicit about his purpose:

This book’s central argument is that popular consent was indispensable in fighting the twentieth century’s first ‘total war’. It recounts how the German and Austro-Hungarian peoples supported, tolerated, or submitted to the conflict, and how participation changed them and their societies. Three themes run through the pages of this book. First, it explores how consent for war was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany … Second, the book explains how extreme and escalating violence during 1914-18 radicalized German and Austro-Hungarian war aims and actions, and it explores the consequences of this radicalization for those societies and their war efforts … The book’s third theme is the tragic societal fragmentation caused by the first World War, a break-up with not only preceded and precipitated political collapse, but persisted even after state order had been resurrected in central Europe … A dark future awaited central Europe.

If these words suggest a dispassionate analysis, the word ‘collapse’ give the lie to such an impression. In fact, Watson’s narrative is relentlessly tragic (another word that occurs above), pressing home the heart-rending personal cost of the war and its pursuit past the point when the Central Powers had any home of salvaging a face-saving peace.

The second subtitle of Watson’s book (The People’s War) pointed to what it would become, not how it began. The Great War’s genesis took place in a tightly held euphoria among small ruling elites. The interlocking alliances that held Europe together assured that if Austria-Hungary lurched into war, driven by ‘weakness, fear, and even despair’ rather than naked aggression, the rest of Europe was bound to be dragged along. It was of course the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian nationalist that touched off this bonfire waiting to happen.

A strength of Watson’s narrative lies in his tenacious attention to the complex situation of the Empire’s ethnic groups. They were loyal to Empire and Emperor to a point. But the war’s depravations and duration were to stretch those affinities to the breaking point and well beyond. Encirclement was the outcome to be avoided from the start. The sudden retaliation of the Hapsburg Empire and their ‘good ally’ the Germans against the Serbs just as the Triple Entente (the understanding that linked the fates of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) was hardening provoked the calamity with which none of the parties could have reckoned.

Ring of Steel narrates the horror of the ensuing years as it was experienced by Germany and Austria-Hungary inside the eventually narrowing ring. The war of the elites became the people’s war until those people could bear no more and either abdicated the burden that was pressed upon them by their rulers, collapsed under its weight, or were enslaved by the eventual manacles of Versailles. The entire political landscape of central Europe would be altered in revolutionary degrees.

This reviewer—manifestly not a professional historian—found Watson particularly helpful in his description of:

  • The Russian Revolution’s impact on the peoples of the Central Powers, not only by removing Russia from the battlefield but also by way of the receptive ears that Bolshevik ideas found among the war-weary peoples of two dying empires.
  • The inability of the leaders Hapsburg and German leadership to face the impending reality of defeat and take the appropriate measures.
  • The degree to which the political elites of the Central Powers dragged their people into an existential, ‘people’s war, and the astonishing persistence of ‘the people’ in supporting the war until their will was turned by the profound suffering it brought them.

A case could be made that this book is best approached via one of the more conventional treatments of The Great War. But, by all means, make that approach if it matters how ‘war is hell’ pertains also to one’s vanquished enemy.

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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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