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Archive for the ‘fortus in arduis’ Category

51cgEgMuAnL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It is a fortunate and powerful thing moment when a thinker trained for policy analysis finds his voice as a story-teller. That Ian Toll has lent that voice to narrating events in ‘the other war’ is a profound boon.

The persistent thread around which Toll weaves his story of the early war in the Pacific is the Alfred Thayer Bahan doctrine of concentration and battle wagons. The weaving is a subtle art in Toll’s hands, because the astonishingly brief moment between Pearl Harbor and Midway both debunked Bahan’s confidence in the battleship and proved that even Japan’s naval might was fallible when deployed without due concentration.

The author has delved deep into the minds of both Japanese and American warriors, from deck-swabbers and lowly engineers to admirals and their quirks. The result is a profoundly respectful telling, one that never allows the reader to forget that both strategy and humanity were as fully in play as it is possible to imagine.

Toll writes calmly, in fact the potency of his narrative may lie chiefly in the clear serenity of his pen. He wears his scholarship lightly, and so the reader’s attention is not distracted from the Real Thing, which in this case is the awful, unstoppable vengeance of an emerging global power whose butt had been shamefully kicked as Christmas, 1941, bore down on its complacent citizens. The world was at war, not us. Until suddenly, the war came knocking and the United States Pacific Fleet was a smoking ruins. Then we were all in, and fear flooded in where men had so recently slept.

The author tells us what is almost impossible now to conceive, except in the hands of a master teller: the deeply depressed American confusion after Pearl; the non-automatic nature of Roosevelt’s leadership; the barely drawn claws of the American isolationists; the stunningly improbable over-confidence of the post-Pearl Japanese; the can’t-shoot-straight incompetence of the American Navy in early 1942; the utter sacrifice of Wake, the Philippines, and other distant Pacific outposts as the U.S. marshaled its strength for what was possible; the unforeseeable success of a diverse pantheon of personalities and leadership styles among the American admiralty; and, above all, the stunning surprise that was the American victory at Midway.

So much of this should never have happened, could not have happened. Yet Toll’s patient prose, ever at the service of his story, shows us with nearly seventy-year-old surprise, how exactly it did happen.

An added bonus is the real insight that Toll provides into the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship and, more generally, into the prickly collaboration between a Britain wearied by war and expert in its dark arts and an America just now diving naively into its waters.

The news gets better: this is merely the first of three intended installments in Toll’s Pacific, violent story.

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517a4WwQTZL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_When a book like Lynn Vincent’s and Sara Vladic’s Indianapolis lies open on lap or desk, a reader sometimes forces himself from page to page. This one does, at any rate.

This slow march signals no deficiency in the book itself. In fact, this latest entry on the U.S. Navy’s single worst disaster is fluid, witty, somber, and smart. The book ought to be a page-turner.

It’s the story that hurts, the awful, aching tale of seawater, sharks, men driven to lunacy, a breathtakingly inept response to the disappearance of one of the era’s most storied (heavy) cruisers, and then the arguable scapegoating of the ship’s captain for failing to avoid the Japanese submarine he could never have known was there.

This new work on Indy is a terrible tale, finely told. Particularly after the recent discovery of the Indianapolis deep on the floor of the Pacific where it came to rest days before the end of hostilities with Japan, it is a story that must be read.

Others have told Indy’s story. Vincent’s and Vladic’s new edition adds to that legacy in two ways. First, the authors have found their way into the embrace of the fast-diminishing Indy survivor family and so have heard many versions of Indy’s loss that had not been told heretofore. Secondly, they have meticulously pieced together the unlikely events that led to the posthumous rehabilitation of Captain Charles B. McVay, III, the man at Indy’s helm in the summer of ’45. This part of the ongoing drama of Indy has never, to my knowledge, been told in such detail.

My mother lost an adoptive cousin when the Indy went down. By appearances, he perished in the initial submarine assault and Indy’s subsequent plunge to the bottom. Perhaps some measure of blessing accrues to not having had to face the sharks and the oil-drenched seas during the terrible days that followed. He would have been a kind of uncle to this reader, had he not too young become known only to God and the sea.

There appear, in Vincent’s and Vladic’s difficult pages, both heroism and shame, and then everything that falls between those somewhat artificial extremes. The writers have worked hard not to reduce the story to one or the other, a task that is always difficult when the passage of decades has blurred memory of the large middle place.

Indy will soon be forgotten, except by those who force themselves from one page to another of works like these, a latter-day tragedy that is perhaps unavoidable but no less sad for the inevitability of it. For a while, though, this new telling of the U.S.S. Indianapolis’ deeply moving story will keep memory alive, honoring men like Dougald Bruce McLean, EM3, known only to God.

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51cRtWtxFpL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The most astonishing thing about this very good Vietnam novel is that a man who has been a Marine Corps officer, a United States senator (Virginia), and Secretary of the Navy could write it. Seldom in my reading has someone who has both heard the snap of bullets and served in the political apparatus that decides and executes war written a version of events that is so searingly realistic about everything it touches.

Webb’s characters find, in the course of his narrative, full form. They live and die in the An Hoa Basin as a senseless war—one that with deepest irony some of Webb’s grunts come to discover is their only home—whirls around them and devours those whom fate or choice have thrown into into its teeth. 

No whiff of martial romance finds its way into Webb’s pages. Yet one comes to respect the terms on which each of his Marines negotiates his fiercely counted days in country. Vietnam in 1969 offered up to the likes of Webb’s Marines several ways to die, some facedown in the mud, some while returning upright to a country that had no idea. 

Through his fictionalized characters, Webb recounts most of them. That some lived is its own kind of miracle.

Required reading for the planners and deciders of war? That would be the day.

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51Fqa6xp4SLBecause of the highly politicized swirl around ‘what happened in Benghazi’, I expected that a good portion of Mitchell Zuckoff’s narrative would be rooted in Washington.

It is not. Instead, the author works with the surviving members of the Annex Security Team to provide a blow-by-blow account of how the events went down, along with significant and what appears to this reader to be highly responsible interpretation of their meaning in the moment.

Although one can discern a certain casual lethargy ‘back home’, the only person who comes in for consistent derision is ‘Bob’, the on-location CIA base chief who for reasons highly related to his ongoing cellphone conversations would not allow the Annex Security Team to do its belligerent job as soon as the lightly secured U.S. Diplomatic Base in Benghazi—within earshot just a short distance away—was breached with lethal intent.

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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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