THEMES? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ THEMES! (Monthly Book Report: August through December, 2018)

The last five months of 2018 were a busy time overall but a slow reading period. I read as many books in January as I read from August to December. Still, such as they are–a pulp near-masterpiece set in the world of pro football; a couple from a pulp master (one of which was a re-read); a tantalizing book about the original October Surprise; and a WWII combat memoir by Great Britain’s last great man of letters. if there was a theme in there, I couldn’t find it.

North Dallas Forty (1973)
Peter Gent

Though it occasionally bogs down in Gent’s need to project his protagonist’s (a wide receiver on a Dallas Cowboys-style team named Phil Elliot) sensitivity, most of this goes by like a speeding bullet. Some of its more sensational aspects have long since lost their shock value but Elliot’s moral outrage and eye for both his circumstance’s patent absurdity and his own fatal attraction to it, give it enough relevance to count as a pulp classic. For all its keen insider awareness of the world it depicts, the novel a kind of detective story. Not whodunit or even “why done it,” but will the only man who has any sense of moral order even survive, let alone solve anything.?

Even if you’ve seen the excellent 1979 movie with Nick Nolte, you won’t know the answer until the very end.

And you won’t be comforted.

Dead Low Tide  (1953) and The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1975)
(John D. MacDonald)

Dead Low Tide is early MacDonald and it shows. Things that would later become hallmarks of his best writing–the eye for physical detail and physical space, the craft of his action scenes, the knack for trenchant social commentary–are all present but in nascent form. Without their full development, the story’s tragedies play more like bummers than events that might scar either the soul or the social fabric. It would rank in the lower third of the Travis McGee novels and is nowhere near as good as Cape Fear. Still a swift read, though. You can spot the talent, struggling to find a proper form.

There are no such problems with The Dreadful Lemon Sky, one of the most important pulp novels ever written.

I reviewed it a couple of years ago and mentioned its prescience in giving a full-blooded portrait of a Bill Clinton-style Southern pol on the make in the Deep South circa 1975.

But there’s much more. It’s really a layered look at the men who are always working behind the scenes to give us such lovely choices (and Clinton’s sociopathy isn’t unique among post-modern pols–it isn’t even unusual, something I don’t think would have surprised MacDonald if he had lived to see it) and the social order where such men breed.

You can take cold comfort from MacDonald dispatching his villain by having him stung to death by fire ants–the most Florida death you’ll ever find. But you can’t say we weren’t warned.

Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery (1993)
Robert Parry

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the “October Surprise” was a theory that held Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and other high ranking members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign conducted secret meetings with Iran to ensure that American hostages would not be released before that year’s presidential election and boost Jimmy Carter’s chance for reelection.

I have a personal stake in the subject for two reasons. One is that, in the early 80s, my father sat next to a retired general at a rubber chicken dinner on the Southern Baptist missionary circuit. Without divulging anything classified, the general nonetheless strongly intimated that, at very least, Carter’s hostage rescue mission was sabotaged by forces inside the American government as part of a plot to make him a one-term president. The Intelligence Community, as it has come to be called, didn’t care much for Ronald Reagan either. Their hopes lay in Bush himself (one of their own) or Ted Kennedy (who, after Chappaquiddick, they owned outright and who did indeed mount a strong primary challenge to Carter that year).

All of which leads to my second level of personal interest–my belief that 1980 was the year said Intelligence Community fulfilled the program that had begun with John Kennedy’s assassination (whether they had anything to do with the assassination is almost irrelevant–they certainly took advantage of it to begin whittling away the power of the elected government which they held in complete contempt, then and now) and reduced all subsequent choices to their own preferences.

Which left only one question for me, as I perused Parry’s rather dry book. Did it tend to prove or disprove my theories?

I’m disappointed to say it didn’t do much of either. But since it is not so much an account of any government or campaign’s shady dealings as proof of just how difficult it is to pin down even one fact such forces don’t want you to know, it still served a purpose. It showed me how unlikely either the October Surprise or any other possible misconduct in high places will ever see the light of day.

If that’s something you need to have proved beyond all doubt, this is the book for you.

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1992)
George MacDonald Fraser

Though Fraser was never shy about offering his own opinion, this is really a memoir of his unit. It took me a while to sort them out, in part because Fraser has them speak in their own voices. Here’s a sample:

“We’ll all get killed”

“Fook this!”

“Whee’s smeukin’ then?”

“Booger off Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”

“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”

. . . .

“Idle Scotch git. Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”

Having spent a few hundred pages with “Jock” MacDonald’s crew, I now long for the chance to call someone an “idle Scotch git” but I confess page after page of this took some getting used to. I wasn’t even aware of the comradery creeping up on me until near the very end, when, in one of the last British campaigns, in Burma, on a field far from Glory’s eye, Fraser made me feel the loss of men who, a moment before, were nothing more than an annoyance to either author or reader.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Knowing the creator of Flashman had a rare ability to journey through the British Empire’s mighty time and space, never losing sight of either its majesty or its absurdity, it was only to be expected that he would be a master observer of his own role in its dying breath.

…Til next time. I promise it won’t be so long.

NOTHING IS EVER SAFE (Segue of the Day: 12/26/18)

I should have known George MacDonald Fraser’s Second World War memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here would grab hold before I was through it. Some writers are just meant for some readers and he’s never let me down yet.

As I’m racing through the last third (after taking it in bits and pieces through the first half), I’m dog-earing nearly every page, knowing full well I won’t have the time or venue to do it justice with a re-read and a deep-dive review. I think I will look for the edition with this cover, though, some day when the finances are sound again. The edition I have is bland as dishwater and I can’t even make out what the image on the cover is supposed to be. I think it may have served to put up a barrier.

The title should have tipped me anyway, but Fraser was such a supple writer that I only today (at least three years after I picked up the book the first time) got the joke.

No group of men in the history of the world were quartered less “safe” than the British units who, like Fraser’s Nine Section, were at the sharp end of the stick in the Burmese theater as WWII wound down, with what Fraser and his mates called “Jap” putting up a desperate resistance on the final road to existential defeat.

His experiences gave him a great deal of insight into the nature of war (not combat, WAR)–and why Brits and Americans, in particular, have been dreadfully bad at it since VJ day.

Here is Fraser on the occasion of his unit (he was the youngest, but also the best educated and hence the lance corporal in charge) capturing four Indian soldiers who were obviously Japanese collaborators (and thus hated by his own men even worse than the Japanese themselves–and worse still by loyal Indian troops):

“How they’d lost their uniforms, when they’d deserted, what they were doing there, I still don’t know. They were watching me, ugly and sullen, but not scared. Of course, shooting them was out of the question…but listening to the silence, I had a feeling that if I did give the unthinkable order, the section would obey it–Forster for certain, Wattie and Morton probably, perhaps even Grandarse and Nick; they might not do it themselves, but they would not object to its happening. If you think that atrocious–well, it is, by civilized lights. but they don’t shine, much, in wartime. (They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.)”

(p. 173–emphasis mine)

A few pages later, Fraser, having detailed his and his unit’s blithe later reaction to a group of loyal Indian soldiers making twenty wounded Japanese disappear under a pile of rocks (buried alive, no questions asked…they’d have done worse to the four collaborators had he not cut his patrol short to march them safely back to camp under the protection of his own men)–they wouldn’t have done it themselves, but to even think of reporting it as an atrocity would have been “eccentric”–he hits the nail on the head again.

“I am not justifying, but explaining, when I say those were the days when, if a selection board chairman asked (and he did): “Wouldn’t you like to stick a bayonet in a German’s guts, eh?”, he was not expecting an answer drawn from the Sermon on the Mount.”

(p. 192)

I’ve spent no little time here suggesting that we will win no more wars. Trust Fraser to reduce all my arguments to five words.

They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.

Worth remembering as we drag home from yet another pointless defeat…or simply drag on towards the promise of some empty victory, in neither case being thanked (or deserving any) for the care we now take in punishing what atrocities we cannot avoid.

Even more worth remembering the next time we venture forth, having deluded ourselves, yet again, into thinking that somehow, this time, we’ll get it right…that avoidance of the terrible things which cannot be avoided in war will somehow finally result in victory and not despite our avoidance of terrible necessities but because of it.

They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.

PAST NOT PAST (Burma, 1945 Edition)

While watching the Swamp Creatures (Liberal and Conservative, as usual it makes no difference) twist themselves into knots trying to come to grips with Donald Trump’s latest attempt to curtail the Empire by withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan, I’ve taken up George MacDonald Fraser’s WWII memoir Quartered Safe Out Here again, this time with a mind to finish it.

Fraser served in the Burmese theater, which was mostly a British show from the Allied side and, though, the book doesn’t have the easy flow of his great novels (read the Flashman series, people, by all means do) or the sweep of his fine book of film criticism–there’s a reason I’ve attended it in fits and starts–there are still useful insights on nearly every page. There’s more than a little prescience in the following passage, composed as the familiar television faces of that day were celebrating our eminent “victory” in the First Gulf War, of which, more than a quarter-century later, the Syrian and Afghan campaigns constitute the latest phase–the latest opportunity for Victory, which Trump, a relentless “warmonger” as recently as last Spring, is now poised to “throw away.”

Perhaps you have to be an old soldier, watching the T.V. news telling you that the Iraqis are on the run and another couple of days will do it and hip-hip-hooray it’ll be a glorious victory and the boys will be home before you know it, to feel mounting anger as you watch pictures of the tanks rolling and staff officers looking confident at press conferences and studio pundits pontificating–because you know, even if the complacent commentators don’t, that some poor sod is still at the sharp end hoping to God that that bunker is empty and that the ground before it isn’t mined.

(George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here, 1992)

Tell ’em one more time Freda…

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)

longestday2

Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)

zulu2

Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell, 1993)

gettysburg6

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….

longestday5

or this…

gettysburg1

or certainly this…

zulu1

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.

gettysburg3

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.