Sunday, June 25, 2017

American Heritage History of World War I

American Heritage History of World War I – S.L.A. Marshall

Not at all what I expected. This is one of the “American Heritage History” books. I had already read the one on the second World War, so I was basically expecting a carbon copy in terms of style. Not so. In the World War II book, it focused on the events at a much higher level. I recall it being a very quick read, outlining the major players, events and battles. That book also talked a lot about what was going on back at home as it related to the war, and shared a lot of significant insights about how those that weren’t directly involved had to make radical adjustments to their daily lives. This book is anything but high-level. It’s richly detailed and we dive deep into the conflicts and situations.

I would guess that most people aren’t nearly as familiar with the first World War as they are with World War II.  When reflecting on this war, most people envision the soldiers of the conflicting super powers being firmly confined to their respective disease infested trenches while lobbing occasional gunfire across no man’s land over and over. And that’s about it. True, this was a huge factor of this calamity, but most are unfamiliar which much else about the war.

This book makes a strong foundation for one to learn much more. We read about the respective countries before the outbreak. The alliances, the squabbling, the marrying off of children between royalty to preserve alliances, and so on. When the archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by a Bosnian Serb radical in 1914, the alliances quickly take up sides and begin the “War To End All Wars”.  Both sides predicted a quick victory. Both sides were sadly mistaken.

We meet many key players, mostly on the German and French sides.  These two were the predominant players.  There’s so much political juggling, however, that it was easy for me to get a bit lost at times. Especially when the actual battles were described in meticulous detail.  One must not try to read this book quickly. Instead, go much slower and ensure you can retain the names of the major political figures and generals. It will save you a lot of confusion when you’re knee deep in this thing.

As a citizen of the U.S., I enjoyed reading about how my country became involved. In case you’re not aware, the U.S. didn’t get involved until late in the game. Most citizens didn’t want us there at all. Why should we fight in a war on the other side of the world? Plus, as a melting pot, the country had many citizens that had relatives and/or ancestors on “both sides”. You could argue that the fresh blood of American soldiers helped racially turn the tide and end the stalemate. There were literally millions (think about that – MILLIONS) on both sides that had already been killed on the battlefield when the U.S. entered in late 1917.

I’ve referred to the conflict already as “The War To End All Wars” which it was commonly referred to at the time. What most people don’t know is that when the peace treaty was eventually signed, it was sardonically referred to as “The Peace to End All Peace”.  I can’t think of a more accurate description.  Essentially, Germany (the main loser) was punished so harshly and stripped of basically everything that it caused the country massive starvation, unbearable inflation and their pride so wounded, that it gave such an easy opportunity for a Bavarian water-colorist to rise to become the most blood thirsty lunatic of the twentieth century.  The author argues that had the victors been somewhat more magnanimous at the conclusion, such a calamity that occurred twenty years later just might have been avoided.

I’m sure there are a plethora of great books out there on World War I, but this book could possibly be the only one you ever need to read. It’s not a quick nor easy read, yet it probably shouldn’t be either.

The New Breed

The New Breed – by W.E.B. Griffin

This book was a pleasant surprise on many levels.  The seventh installment of the author’s “Brotherhood of War” series is a book that, I’m somewhat convinced, might not have ever had the intention of being written.  Volume Six, “The Generals” was probably supposed to have been the last.  That one was somewhat haphazard, took place during two different time periods (both stories seemed unrelated) and even had a “Where Are They Now” postscript at the end of the book.  It was a definitely a letdown.

I’m guessing that the author realized that he still had more story to tell around his characters and their escapades, and decided to resurrect the series. For this book, we go back several years to 1964.  The focus for this installment is the Communist uprising in the Congo. Most people nowadays are not really familiar with that event. We tend to remember this time, when speaking of military events, as the time when America was starting their escalation into Vietnam, so that event tends to be our focus when we think back.

I immensely enjoyed this book for two reasons. First, unlike the other books in this series, this book tends to focus more on the actual fighting and the incidents going on in the thick of the conflict. In the other installments, Griffin only talks about the major conflicts in a half-hearted way, choosing instead to focus on the main characters that are mostly far away from the battle. The earlier books take place during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, yet very little action takes place on the battlefield. Instead, Griffin focuses a lot on his principal characters, their love lives, their sex lives, their tendencies to imbibe a lot at cocktail parties, and so on.  He still managed to tell a good story, it just got a bit old after a while.  It’s somewhat refreshing to finally read a book about the military where the actual events that made history have a much more predominant role in the storytelling.

The second reason I enjoyed this book so much is somewhat related to the first reason. When we read about love lives, sex lives, and cocktail parties, Craig Lowell was always the lead character in the previous books and, after a while, the shtick got old. Lowell is one of those characters that fits in perfectly for an old 1940s style war movie.  Incredibly good looking, incredibly rich, insatiable with every woman he meets, and incredibly rebellious against the military and its rules. Lowell always weasels out the consequences of his actions because, well, just like one of those handsome actors in those old movies, is an outstanding soldier. In this book, he’s featured rarely. Instead, his friend Sandy Felter gets the spotlight through most of the book. It’s Felter who convinces new President Johnson that the Congo is just as equally as hot as Vietnam, and action must be taken there as well.

So we meet a few new characters, revisit a lot of older characters that were introduced to us somewhere along the older books, and are treated to a very good story.  I can’t say it’s the best of the lot. After reading so many of these, the timeline blurs for me when trying to remember what happened in every one of the books (especially when the author spends probably too much time revisiting events that happened in the earlier books. I guess he wants to make sure his reader remembers and/or doesn’t get lost). 

It's par for the course. Perhaps I enjoyed it so much is because the author smartly realized that there were too many loose ends after the last book, and that particular one wasn’t as satisfying. A wonderful addition to a very good series.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972

The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 – William Manchester

What a shockingly pleasant surprise.  I bought this on impulse. It showed up on one of my “Kindle Deals of the Day” lists.  I’ve learned that one must be wary of such books that appear on these lists.  Yes, there truly are some great books featured from time to time, but there’s quite a lot of garbage as well.  The selling point for me was the author. I read his Winston Churchill trilogy as well as his biography of Douglas MacArthur, so I knew he had substance. Not only did I enjoy this book, but I have to honestly say that this was one of the best “history” books I’ve ever read.   And I’ve read a lot. I think that if I was a teacher who taught 20th century American History, I would make this book required reading.

This book is incredibly in depth - 1300 pages covering 40 years of history. The author focuses on the news making headlines during the time, so the bigger the event/subject matter, the more detailed he gets.  Does everything get covered? Well, no, but one doesn’t feel cheated if there was a particular event that gets ignored or brushed over.  He begins the book around the time when the country in the midst of arguably one of the worst times in its history – the Great Depression.  The first event covered is when the angry World War I veterans stormed the nation’s capital to demand that they get their war benefits early. They need these benefits. They’re starving. Yes, we must remember that you could starve to death in this country back in 1932.  The Herbert Hoover administration, however, is obdurate and chooses to ignore the event that captures the worst of the period.

Why did William Manchester choose to start this book in 1932? I’m not sure.  As I mentioned, the book is over 1300 pages, so had he started any earlier, he would have had to add several hundred pages to an already massive volume.  He stops the narrative in 1972, which, I’m guessing, is when he wrote the book.  That’s the only minor gripe I had.  I wasn’t ready for the book to end.  I wanted more. History now shows us that 1972 is an odd place to stop when telling the story of America. Vietnam still wasn’t over, and Watergate was just beginning its belligerent brew.  So, yes, we do read about the initial stories that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation, but we’re stopped mid-story.  Manchester seems to have a premonition, though, that things were about to escalate in a very bad way.  One wishes that another author, somewhere, would pick up where Manchester left off and continue this wonderful narrative.

With 1300 pages, a lot of ground can be covered, and it times you forget that you’re reading about 40 years because the author focuses so narrowly on one event, and we become happily immersed. When we read about the Truman years, for example, there is so much wonderful material to read about (good and bad), that when the author shifts gears and talks about another event around the time, you tend to think “Oh yeah.  I’m not reading a book about Harry Truman, am I?” And one almost feels disappointed.

A lot of pop culture is discussed as well and many more events that may seem minor in retrospect. The infamous Orson Welles Martian radio broadcast, post war Levittown housing boom, the invention of the hula-hoop, and on and on and on.

Like all strong historical books, there are many parts of history than one wishes never happened. I’ve heard some critics bash this book because it leans towards the left, but I didn’t come away with that impression. All characters that he focuses on are portrayed quite honestly, and many of the events show us again and again that humans are imperfect sinners. As one, such as myself, who read this in 2017, it actually gives me hope. With all of the negative headlines that permeate the internet, one tends to reflect and be thankful that things might be bad, but don’t nearly seem as awful as they were in, say, Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

This book is thick. It’s dense.  I’ve already stated many times it’s over 1300 pages, but that bears repeating. You won’t finish this over a weekend, or probably even within a month, but it’s oh so worth it.