“TIME JUST GETS AWAY FROM US” EDITION (Book Reports: 3/19 to 3/20)

Charles Manson, William Blake, Gettysburg, Little Rico, Catholic guilt, the Normandy Invasion, Harper Lee, Brett Kavanaugh, and spies, spies, spies….All in a year’s reading and what’s not to like?

Okay, I knew last year was a zoo and I had fallen behind but this is ridiculous….let me just review the past year’s reading in passing with brief commentary and try to do better in the future:

A Loss of Patients (1982); Getting A Way With Murder (1984); Thicker Than Water (1981); The Grass Widow (1983)
Ralph McInerny

Like most series procedural whodunits these kind of blend together. The detective is more interesting than the plots and I found the Catholic element (this is the Father Dowling series) involving, perhaps because I knew so little about it. A quick way to pass the time though I came out of this run thinking I had probably got what there was to get.

Six Armies in Normandy (1982)
John Keegan

This reads like a Cliff Notes version of Cornelius Ryan’s classics The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, covering the Normandy Invasion and subsequent actions in far less time but also with far less insight and passion (though to be fair, passion was not exactly Keegan’s forte). Still, well written and so a good book for anyone with a passing interest in an important subject. I cautiously recommend it in hopes those who find it interesting will want to dig deeper.

Passport to Peril (1951)
Robert Parker

In all honesty I picked this up cheap and used thinking it might be an early effort by Robert B. Parker of Spenser For Hire fame (whose work I keep meaning to acquaint myself with). Turns out it was by a modestly popular spy fiction writer of the early Post-war period. It was short, I’ll give it that, but despite the spy novel being an American invention (Fenimore Cooper in the 1820’s), the Brits have always done it better.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019)
Casey Cep

The title’s a bit sensationalist. The book concerns some interesting personalities, with Lee foremost among them. There’s a little bit of new info on her, which is valuable for those of us who love her great book, but Cep’s real achievement is in giving a snapshot of rural Southern life (Alabama), especially race relations, in the Post Civil Rights 60’s and 70’s. As someone who has lived in neighboring North Florida from 1974 onward I can attest to the quality of Cep’s research, even if her insights aren’t necessarily sounder than the average carpetbagger’s. Worthwhile as long as you don’t go in with any exaggerated expectations about plumbing Harper Lee’s mysterious depths.

Justice on Trial (2019)
Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino

This was the hot-off-the-presses account of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings told from the perspective of two conservative journalists. As far as perspectives go, it’s about what you would expect. No one with a strong opinion on the matter is likely to have their mind changed either way. But the book succeeds admirably in what I suspect was its real goal: As a snapshot of the purely political process everything in Washington D.C., and especially the selection and confirmation of Supreme Court justices. The sausage-making is about what you would expect in a “free” society where the important laws are made by executive order or judicial fiat. Be warned: however you felt/feel about Kavanaugh or his chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, this blow-by-blow account of the process will likely turn your stomach.

33 1/3 The Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (2019)
Ada Wolin

I plan to write about this elsewhere. Let’s say I was not entirely amused.

When Eight Bells Toll (1965)
Alistair MacLean

MacLean was already starting to wind down a bit, though he wouldn’t completely exhaust his formula for another decade. It’s no Guns of Navarone. It is, however, an efficient Cold War thriller by one of the masters of the form and I was happy to reacquaint myself with it. Recommned for completists of either MacLean or the action/espionage form he helped pioneer.

Call For the Dead (1961); A Murder of Quality (1962); The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963); The Looking Glass War (1965)
John le Carre

I’m coming at last to a project of reading all of le Carre’s George Smiley novels in order. These are the four short ones (I’m just coming to the end of the first long one, which is only Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  I’d read three of these previously though The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the only one that left an impression. It was the only one that left an impression this time either and the impression was again a deep one. It’s swiftly paced and has a claim on being the greatest spy novel ever written. Not my favorite perhaps, but it’s the one that feels the most like it could have really happened not least because it accepts the tragic view of life the author would adapt in some of the later novels, both in this series and generally. He’d never be better though. The rest here are skillful and entertaining. It’s to his credit that he was almost alone among pulp writers in improving on a good start so dramatically.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019)
Tom O’Neill

and

Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family (2018)
Jeffrey Melnick

And I swore I wasn’t going to read any more Manson books. To be fair, these aren’t really books about Manson or his family as much as attempts to make Vince Bugliosi–the prosecutor who put Manson away in a case where he had a lot less evidence to work with than, say, the prosecutors of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony–pay for his success. I didn’t find either book very convincing. If I were going to recommend one, it would be O’Neill’s. But there’s nothing here to add to Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Ed Sanders’ original version of The Family (avoid the updated versions), or Jeff Guinn’s Manson bio, which I reviewed here.

The Killer Angels (1974)
Michael Shaara

A re-read. One of the great historical novels and one of the great war novels. If you want to be inside the minds of the commanders on both sides who decided the fate of the Union by what they did or did not do during three days in July, 1863, this is as close as you can come without doing the research Shaara did yourself. That task wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining and I doubt you would learn all that much more. He was good on the facts and even better on the Truth that facts cannot contain. As may times as I’ve seen Gettysburg, Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film based on the book, in the years since, reading the novel again still brought fresh appreciation of everyone involved. One fo the few novels that’s a must read for anyone who cares about the American Experiment.

Little Caesar (1929)
W.R. Burnett

Burnett was a well known novelist and screenwriter of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. His prose style was so spare he made Dashiell Hammett read like Henry James. It’s as subtle–and effective–as the movie still at the top of this page, taken from the classic gangster film it became. You’ve been warned!

The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics Edition) (1977)
William Blake

Hey, it took me almost thirty years, but I got there. At the beginning of 2019, I set myself the task of reading the 600 or so pages left when I dropped it on the shelf back in the early 90’s. Finished Christmas day. Well worth it. Helps to read aloud. I promise.

Fr 2020, I’m taking on the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe…Have to average four pages a day to get there by New Year’s. We’ll see…

And now back to our regular programming!

FOOT SOLDIERS, PART TWO (And Then There Was Hollywood: Second Rumination)

Three films:

The Longest Day (Daryl Zanuck, Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wiki, Andrew Marton, 1962)

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Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)

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Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell, 1993)

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One theme:

“Tich ‘as ‘ed it! Fook me!” His face was purple, running sweat. “That shows ye w’at air strikes an’ tanks is woorth! Fookin’ ‘ell!”
“Will we go in again?”
“We’ll fookin’ have to!”

(George MacDonald Fraser, recounting a conversation with his Border Regiment’s old hand, Grandarse, during the Battle of Meiktila, fought between the British and the Japanese in Burma, 1945. From Quartered Safe Out Here, 1992)

I hope to be reviewing Fraser’s book soon. That will give me an excuse to look up his quote about the value of “special forces.” For now, suffice it to say Fraser and his mate were hardly alone in their disdain. Infantrymen who have served in combat tend to have a jaundiced view of the things which most impress their betters.

That’s because, from the dawn of warfare until yesterday, war only had a very limited set of real meanings.

Take the ground.

Hold the ground you’ve taken.

Don’t give up the ground somebody else is trying to take.

Until yesterday, war’s hard rules–and history’s–were well and universally understood.

Don’t lose.

If you lose, expect to bear the consequences.

When the men with the hardware meet the men with the belief, the men with the belief will end up owning the hardware.

These meanings, and yes, one might call them rules, were best and most clearly understood by those who were asked to do the hardest, dirtiest work–and the overwhelming majority of the killing and dying.

They were called various things in various languages at various times and places. All of which boiled down to a simple concept: Foot soldiers.

Important battles–or portions thereof–have been fought throughout history on horseback, at sea, in the air.

Every existential battle has come down to foot soldiers. You can win an important, history changing battle at sea (see the English defeat of the Spanish Armada for a prime example). But to take and hold ground–the final essence of war–you have to put boots on it. And those boots have to stay put.

The English could have lost to the Spanish Armada (or at Trafalgar, more than two hundred years later, or the Battle of Britain, fought in the air over a century after that) and still not lost.

You only really lose, existentially, when your foot soldiers lose.

Now, this foot-soldiers-holding-or-taking-ground seems like an inherently dramatic situation, the telling of which would lend itself most readily to film, the most visceral story-telling medium. And so it does. That being the case, there are surprisingly few movies devoted to straightforward depictions of foot soldiers doing their dirtiest work.

A lot of movies have battle scenes, and these battle scenes are often riveting. They frequently form some important role in a larger story. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), ostensibly about the same subject as The Longest Day, has a memorably harrowing opening sequence devoted to taking the Normandy beaches. After which, in typical fashion, it spends an additional two hours being about something else, namely saving Private Ryan. Such sequences are highlighted in almost any film that concerns itself with war.

But I only know a relative handful of such films where the clash of foot soldiers is the primary focus.

Of those, I only know three really good ones.

I don’t think any of them reach the last level of greatness–no one’s going to mistake them for Citizen Kane or The Searchers or even Paths of Glory (another film where foot soldiers figure prominently but the actual fighting is not quite the point). But they’re the best we have, in the English language anyway. And they have lessons within them that we have spent the last half-century forgetting.

We have convinced ourselves that no powerful army will ever again be in striking distance of our own national capital…or the capital of any valuable ally. We have convinced ourselves that we will never again have to throw the full weight of our own mighty army onto the outer edges of a foreign continent and fight for every inch of ground just to get a foothold. We’ve even convinced ourselves that the defense of an empire’s lonely outposts (and God knows we have more of those than any empire which has preceded us) will never come down to hard fighting against overwhelming odds.

We have convinced ourselves that any victory worth having can be won by special forces and air strikes and, at a stretch, tanks.

We have entered a safe zone where none of this….

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or this…

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or certainly this…

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will again be necessary.

These are now ancient anachronisms. Not useful to our enlightened age, never mind that our age and our “enlightenment” were built upon ten thousand years worth of such.

And it’s true that even the most improbable victories do not necessarily bear final fruit.

More or less faithfully depicted in Zulu, the stand a hundred and fifty British regulars made at Rorke’s Drift in present day South Africa, on January 22-23 of 1879, against four thousand Zulus whose fellow tribesman had wiped out a command ten times larger at Islandlwana literally hours before, kept the earlier battle from being counted a disaster on the order of Custer’s Last Stand, fought with similar odds to those faced at Rorke’s Drift, three years earlier, half way around the world. It greatly enhanced the British army’s ability to quickly and efficiently mount a re-invasion of the Zulu Kingdom (the attacks on Islandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were a response to the first invasion). And it gave the Brits a stirring mythology (the best “myths” are always the ones based in hard truth) that may well have served to stiffen more than a spine or two in the dark days awaiting in the century ahead.

Still, in the long run, the victory at Rorke’s Drift meant no more strategically than the defeat at Little Big Horn. We’re still in charge of the lands where the Sioux and Cheyenne once roamed. The Brits are long gone from South Africa.

Which ought to give us a clue about our tendency to continually poke hornets’ nests and be forever surprised when we are stung and stung and stung again.

In case that doesn’t happen–in case we insist on both fighting “wars” and not winning them–there are other lessons to be learned from the films that give us the most realistic glimpse of what the dirtiest work of not just empire, but civilization, looks and feels like.

One of the lessons is civilization’s fragility–the nearness of Chaos and its attendant darkness. Cast aside Rorke’s Drift, with its junior commanders (played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine), the senior of the two an engineer, who had seen no action previously and would never again distinguish themselves in battle or anywhere else, if you want to.

But we’ll do well to ponder Joshua Chamberlain  (Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg) holding the far flank at Little Round Top after having been told that retreat was not an option, or a crippled Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda in The Longest Day), landing on the wrong Normandy beach and deciding “We’ll start the war from here.”

They and their men, and thousands of others doing equally dangerous and difficult things around them, turned tides that might well have swept over western civilization had they given way. And none of those men sprang from a vacuum. Certainly none sprang from the kind of vacuum we have created for ourselves now, when military units are valued, if at all, more for their all-well-and-good-if-they-work social laboratory aspects than their ability to do the elementary things every single empire before us has forgotten at its peril when the weight of battle turned their laboratories back into yet another real war zone, where chariots or tanks or social experiments were never enough by themselves.

What elementary things?

Once more with feeling….

Take and hold ground. Whatever ground Fate and the moment have deemed vital to personal, national, civilizational, survival.

Believe that the effort was worth something.

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zulu4 longestday6It’s possible we won’t need to remember the basics, of course.

There’s always the chance that the hard and fast rules of human history and human nature really were made for others.

But if I could lay odds on the future I won’t live to see, I know which way I’d bet.