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Archive for the ‘fortus in arduis’ Category

Sitting outside our home in Medellín, Colombia as I finish this long Robert Ludlum trilogy, two thoughts ‘just pop into my head’. This description of jocose randomness is the standard family dialect when I ask my wife after a particularly good recipe has made its mark on an evening around the table, ‘How did you come up with that?’

‘It just popped into my head.’

So, far from the kitchen, here goes:

First, the next Bourne book and/or movie needs to be set in Colombia. Our own northern 51O3lPCHlEL._SS300_Andean city—with its steep valley walls, its exotic potpourri of neighborhoods and its innovative deployment of cable cars and escalators as public transportation to and from the sprawling city sectors that cover both sides of the mile-high Valley of Aburrá—makes the perfect setting for, say, the first seven chapters of Bourne IV. Then the action could move on to seaside Cartagena, with its walled jewel of a city left to us by the Spaniards in unintended payment for the gold they stole. From these promising beginnings, we have an abundant portfolio of other eye-catching sites for the location manager to scout. Since Robert Ludlum left us in 2001, this will require that some studied disciple become struck with Ludlum’s conspiratorial madness and pick up the late imaginer’s pen.

Second, an odd and complex relationship between Ludlum’s Bourne Series and the One Hundred Years of Solitude left to us by Colombia’s Nobel-prizing-winning Gabriel García-Marquez suggests itself. Stick with me here, I can hear a reader grumbling to or about the sometimes incomprehensible Ludlum, ‘I know García-Marquez, and you ain’t no García-Marquez.’

‘Tis true. But I started with ‘odd and complex’, so don’t get your knickers in a twist just yet. Both writers’ set of characters is bafflingly complex, crying out for Cliff Notes at every third turn of the page. Both storiers can become lost in their own way with a pen, though García-Marquez more often resurfaces to stun and amaze when Ludlum has merely wandered into the woods with too few breadcrumbs left behind for clues.

If these are formal similarities common to the two long-winded authors, the formal contrast is stark: García-Marquez’ action takes place chiefly in the mind of his protagonists and in semi-private conversations among the certifiable oddballs who populate his pages. This is by definition a slow journey. His best-known story, after all, requires a hundred years.

Ludlum’s Bourne on the other hand is all action. ‘We’ve gotta’ move! Now!’

Yet both leave this reader frequently confused, generally amused, and—in the end—ready to start the whole dang thing all over again, knowing I’ll understand much more the second time, then more the third. And, so I fear, so on. From this reader’s end-of-the-book perspective, neither Ludlum nor García-Marquez are going away soon.

Candidly, it’ll take me another stroll or two through Bourne’s reluctantly dramatic and violent life before I get any kind of respectable grip on the hair-turn-rich plot lines that kept Jason Bourne away from the people he loved most and out chasing the world’s second-craftiest assassin for a handful of decades.

Oh, as other reviewers accurately and inevitably remark: those Jason Bourne movies? Great flicks, very little to do with the book.

If you want to meet the real-deal Chameleon, you gotta’ take up and read.

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There is more than one way to tell the story of the battle for Hue, an awful battle in an awful year of an awful war.

51jmtuMP+eL._SL175_Mark Bowden’s Hue, narrated huskily by Joe Barrett with a voice that was created for this story, tells of Hue with the unrelenting insistence of tragedy. The author has distinguished himself as the author of military histories that bulge with empathy for all players. Hue is no exception, in fact this work may fairly be considered Bowden’s calling card.

Though there are villains aplenty in Bowden’s tale, General William Westmoreland stands head and shoulders above them all for sheer self-delusion and defiance of evidence from the field. As a result of Westie’s pig-headed refusal to accept that Hue was a real battle waged by a determined enemy with truly threatening capabilities, Hue took the lives of more American Marines, more ARVN troops, more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars, and more civilians who had called the graceful provincial capital their home than any reasonable calculus demanded. This at least is Bowden’s story, told unforgivably and with due note of the pathos that clings to almost every anecdote of this three-and-a-half week conflagration.

Joe Barrett is a superb narrator of a tale that demands both the pathos and the incredulity that his voice brings to its task. Bowden has not majored on the loss of faith in the war that Hue nourished back home in America. His concern is for the grunt, for the Front volunteer, and for the civilian whose family has perished under American bombardment or the vicious Viet Cong/NVA purging. The author unfailingly tells his military tales from the ground up, piecing together the larger picture only when concrete human experience on the ground has been sufficiently honored. Barrett is his accomplice, riveting the listener’s attention on the sheer nonsensical agony of it all. Still, all that this tragedy would mean for American involvement in the war is but a stone’s throw away, as Bowden’s slightly a-kilter subtitle suggests.

There are, as I’ve noted, other ways to tell the story of Hue, 1968, some more sympathetic to Westmoreland and his ‘MACV’. But if you appreciate a well-told audio book where author and narrator work hand-in-glove, begin here.

 

 

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51IhkcLbNKLGary Bray does the men and women who served in Vietnam a sizable favor by telling calmly the complicated story of their service, their war, their ‘this is what we did’. The ingredients of this story could make a lesser man scream, throw dirt in the air, or weep quietly in the corner.

But then we who were too young or too far away from the riverine humidity of that war would flinch and not hear.

As Bray’s title indicates, he served the same platoon that shortly prior to his arrival had been caught up in what we abbreviate—again, from our distance—as the My Lai Massacre. That horror is not a centerpiece of Bray’s narrative, but the tales he tells about a new and different kind of war provide at least a context for consciences dulled and warriors run amok.

There were many Lieutenants and uncountable tours of duty during this country’s ‘Viet Nam years’. Few have the way with words that Gary Bray brings to his craft, and so his story must register not only his own experience but must stand in for theirs as well.

Bray’s tone does not ask for our pity. It tells of a great human drama without the kinds of ‘drama’ that appeal to emotions long past the moment when they would have done anyone any good. Yet, on behalf of fellow warriors caught up in a poorly conceived conflict, he anticipates our understanding and our respect. He more than earns both.

Bray cannot rightly say why America’s young men and women died in Vietnam. But the way he brings this elegantly written work to a close shines a light on at least how one American soldier died. Here, too, the story told becomes proxy for thousands untold.

As the father of two officers (Infantry and Combat Engineering, respectively), this reader reveled in Bray’s narrative of infantry tactics, a bonus not all readers will require.

In these pages, professionalism and humility manage to speak quietly and well.

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51j-zWJ4EUL._SS300_Evelyn Monahan’s and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee’s And if I Perish is an exceptional—I am tempted to say ‘must-read’—book for two reasons.

First, the story of U.S. Army nurses in World War II’s European theatre is largely an untold tale. Who knew that these women, for whose work almost no forethought paved the way, played such a critical role in the Allied forces’ campaigns in North Africa and Europe? Once told, the story seems both inevitable and obvious. Yet it is alarming how much one can read about and ponder World War II history without ever giving a thought to the nurses who saved so many lives and provided final comfort to those whose bodies could not be repaired.

Second, the story is told in exceptional style. The authors weave in military strategy in unexpected volume, which provides a welcome context for the self-sacrificing labor of this nearly all-volunteer cadre of frontline nurses. One of the book’s virtues is that it is not a ‘soft’ history over against the ‘hard’ history of soldiers and generals. The result is compelling history and a very fine read.

I purchased and read this book as a small means of honoring the legacy of a nurse from my Pennsylvania hometown who died on the Anzio Beachhead. The poignantly tragic way in which Carrie Sheetz and too many others perished is told movingly in these pages.

Others lived, who perhaps reluctantly and nearly always self-effacingly relieved themselves of the burden they carried in late-in-life interviews with the authors.

The Greatest Generation was comprised of both genders. We have grown to know and honor the stories of the generation’s soldiering men. We are only now learning the deep debt we owe to our mothers and grandmothers. Daughters and sisters belonging to that same generation, they are no less great for the shadow in which they labored, sacrificed, died, and healed.

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519kk0oCmBL._SL1000_With two sons in the 101st Airborne’s Screaming Eagles and a rusty unplugged tow hitch, it was only a matter of time before I snagged this aesthetically clean, black-and-gray, plastic hitch plug insert. It’s made of a lightweight but sturdy plastic and does not fit snugly in a way that will keep all water out of your hitch. It’s an ornament rather than a sealing plug. But that’s as advertised, so no complaint.

I love the optics and the price seems reasonable for a relatively low-volume product.

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In a political era when scandalously few of the United States’ political leaders have beenshaped by military service, this b51K4gjfgdKLook provides a fascinating look at a formative moment in the career of HR McMaster, who as this reviewer sets pen to paper serves as the country’s National Security Advisor.
The brief survey of an armored battle that takes pride of place in a world that sees few such large-scale engagements of tanks tells as well the satisfying story of the U.S. Military’s improbable feat of transformation from post-Vietnam malaise through to the disciplined, strategically minded force that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s forces in the First Gulf War (1990-91).

Guardia’s Fires of Babylon chronicles the U.S. Army’s pivot from an anti-Soviet blocking mission that had lost its relevance by the time the Berlin Wall crumbled to a highly fluid challenge from operating positions in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and eventually Iraq itself. It was commanders like McMaster (a Captain at the time of 73 Easting) who brought the discipline and savvy that produced overwhelming military success against an Iraqi force that was judged to be capable of kicking butt on the battlefield. In the end, only one butt got kicked in an epic slaughter that could have led to the removal of Saddam but for the political considerations that led the first President Bush to pull up short. (more…)

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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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