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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

I have read every book by Michael Dirda.  While living in Washington, DC between 1996 and 2000, the Washington Post's "Book World" reviews were my Sunday morning treat.  "Bound to Please" was a Christmas gift from my students, and it was a book like no other; I felt my belief in literature renewed, as Dirda delved deep into the meaning of literature and how it nourishes (or should nourish) humanity.  The problem, of course, is the pace of humanity today, and our willingness to ignore the great themes of living for less time consuming tasks geared at total escapism.  I would admit that all literature can be escapism, but classics (as Dirda presents them) highlight the deeper emotions of the human condition.  That in itself should be enough for campaigns to encourage people to read the classics.  Instead, schools and even colleges have--over the course of the last thirty years--escalated an attack to all that which the "enlightened" ones deem archaic or out-dated or (heaven forbid) politically incorrect.

Classics for Pleasure is divided into eleven sections that cover varied themes dealing with imagination, heroes and their lives, magic, lives of consequence and the darkness of gothic regions.  Dirda is open about these not being "your father's or mother's" list of classics, although many of the titles are widely know, most are obscure enough to elicit a world-wide search if you choose to pursue them and read them--that is to say, a great deal of them are out of print.  However, the titles are not chosen for their mere eccentricity.  There are titles as well-known as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," while authors such as Prosper Merimee and Anna Akhmatova seem drawn from a very selective group known to specialized academics.

The books and authors are covered in short little essays, including anecdotal and biographical details that are, well, a pleasure to read.  Dirda shows command with authors rich in bibliographical content, while at the same time being able to write with worth on authors where myth overshadows fact.  Perhaps that is where the book strengths really are... Dirda is such an excellent writer!  His writing flows with such ease that it works marvels for inviting the reader to continue on the journey.  Let that sink for a moment... writing about literary analysis/criticism (and about not the typical/popular titles we commonly know) and doing so in a way that is readable and enjoyable at the same time.

Of particular interest to me was the entry on Ernst Junger and his memoir from World War I.  I've been reading a great deal about the "Great War" this year due to the 100th anniversary of the conflict, and I was unaware of this book and how revered it is among World War I scholars.  I've tried finding a copy without success at local used bookstores.  I am yet to look online.

I not only recommend "Classics for Pleasure," but I recommend everything Michael Dirda has written without reserve.  He is without a doubt one of America's literary treasures.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

"An Illustrated History of World War One" by A.J.P. Taylor

This year marks the 100th anniversary of World War One.  A few years ago, when the last of the American "dough boys" (Frank Buckles) died, the event went fairly unnoticed.  This year, the publicity surrounding the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy (June 6th) stole the limelight from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia (June 28th) in Sarajevo and how that would send the world into its first wholesale slaughter of humanity.  Perhaps those 30 years make a difference, or perhaps the fact that only a handful of people from that era are still around (and even then back in 1914 they were newborns or toddlers at best) but the world really seems to look at World War I with a dry detachment that seems to border on the idea that the event must have happened somewhere else, in a parallel universe where Europe and American involvement was carried out by "other people," people not like us.

A.J.P. Taylor's "An Illustrated History of World War One" is not the best volume on the subject, but it is an instructive book nonetheless.  Lacking vastly in what academic circles call "historiography," the book reads like a history for the layman book along the same lines as Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" and "The Story of Philosophy."  I can only provide the link for the "illustrated" version of Taylor's book, but I actually read the Berkley Medallion paperback edition which originally sold for 75 cents.  I bought it for a dollar.

The narrative is rich in detail when it comes to the interpersonal relationships of the leaders sending the young men to die, most of the time senselessly and over matters of personal pride, prestige and arrogance.  I am not quite sure how well researched these details are, but it does make for an interesting read.  If we look at the contemporary political scene with its vast numbers of personalities and drama queens, it is easy to accept Taylor's expansive revelations about the inner workings of the war leadership.  Some of the most devastating loss of life, the greatest blunders of the war that went over the four years of field action came as a result of personal animosities and child-like bickering among personages such as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Sir John French, Britain's Secretary of War Herbert Kitchener, among many others (and that's just on the British side).  These people stabbed each other in the back, reduced the necessities of the men on the field to chess moves on a play table and enrich themselves not only monetarily (and their many industrial friends) but also in terms of their political careers.  It was more of the same on the French and German side.  The struggle between Foch and Joffre (on the French side) and that of Schlieffen and Kluck (on the German side) shows how the generalship of both sides preferred a war of words, alliances and betrayals among themselves in lush boardrooms to the necessity of victory in the fields.  Much has been written about the consensus that, at the time, most people believed the conflict would be over in a matter of months.  When those short months became years, no one really knew (insert sarcasm here) why it had taken the turn it did.  This child-like bickering by political and military leaders cost humanity millions of lives.  Most of these people were the same idiots who did it all over again some 20 years later.  We never learn.

Taylor's writing delves into that "personal level" technique, especially when it comes to those inner relationships among the leadership.  Passage after passage show the lack of common sense and the idiocy of some of the decisions: "In Great Britain the doubts started higher up.  From the first, some members of the Cabinet questioned the ability of the generals to win the war.  The deadlock in France strengthened these doubts.  It was no unreasoning prophecy to say that the war on the Western Front would not be won by bodies of infantry, however large, battering against each other.  The events of the following years proved that this prophecy was correct.  The critics went further, particularly the two pre-war Radicals, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  They questioned not only the method of fighting in France, in which they were right.  They questioned the wisdom of fighting in France at all.  This was more speculative.  They wanted to turn the German flank, to find a way around, a back-door into Germany.  The hard fact, not made in plain on the maps, was that there was no such back-door except Russia; and Russia could not be reached easily.  North-eastern Italy, Salonika, the Dardanelles led nowhere, or were, at best, doors firmly bolted by nature in Germany's favour.  The debate between Westerners and Easterners wan on, one way and another, throughout the war.  The critics said to the generals with truth: 'You will not win the war in France with these methods.'  The generals answered with equal truth: 'You will not win the war anywhere else.'....  All the projected 'side shows' of the First World War had this character.  They were 'dodges' in a double sense.  They were ingenious; and they were designed to evade the basic problem--that the German army could be beaten only by an antagonist of its own size.  Of course the side shows operated under unfavorable circumstances.  They were amateur in execution as well as in conception.  Since the heretical politicians could not directly overrule the generals, their projects had to be additional to the main offensive in France, not instead of it--at a time when there were adequate supplies for neither.  Nor could the politicians call on professional advice.  Everything was settled hugger-mugger.  There was no calculation, for instance, of the shipping needed to move men to the Mediterranean; no estimation of the equipment needed for an expedition to, say, Salonika or the Dardanelles.  None of the politicians looked at a detailed map before advocating their 'side shows.'  They were clearly ignorant that Gallipoli has steep cliffs, and Salonika a background of mountains.  All the side shows were 'cigar butt' strategy.  Someone, Churchill or another, looked at a map of Europe; pointed to a spot with the end of his cigar; and said, 'Let us go there.'"  And on and on... this is simply how wars are fought, historians say.  In contrast, Taylor offers an alternative: condemn the leadership even if it cost (and rightfully so it should) their place in history.

These so-called "side shows" were aimed at buying time, particularly in the Western front.  They also served another general purpose.  Great Britain was still in the midst of its imperial grandeur, and, by George, if they could use the war as an excuse or an advantage to expand that imperial sense of self, they were going to do so.  Hence, the tragic mistakes of Gallipoli and the Turkish front, Romania and other parts south, where so much devastation and pain was simply unnecessary and senselessly costly.

Another factor to add to the childish behavior of politicians and generals were the aristocracy's habit of giving themselves military titles and conducting war affairs instead of leaving it to the generals to do.  One particular idiotic case was the Czar Nicholas insistence in becoming Supreme Commander at a time when Russia needed experienced military leadership.  The results were far too obvious for even Taylor to bring up.  He sums it up to inflated perspectives of self and down-right idiocy.

As the war churns and turns, both sides continue their senseless planning both on and off the field of action.  Taylor describes the machinations one of the Allies offensive.  The main protagonists on the British side, George, Haig and Kitchener are positioning for career advancement or the retention of power--sadly enough, it simply comes down to that.  After the massive blow up at Ypres, "Haig could claim that he had improved his position decisively.  Now the Germans could not watch is preparations so clearly.  He was inclined to hint also that every offensive would be on the Messines pattern, short and sharp.  In mid-June 1917 the War Cabinet held prolonged sessions.  Haig came from France and was repeatedly cross-examined by Lloyd George.  Why should the offensive succeed when all others have failed?  Would the French support it?  What evidence was there that the Germans were, as Haig claimed, 'demoralized?'  Would it not be better to wait for the Americans or to switch Allied resources to Italy?  This last proposal, Lloyd George's old favorite, was in itself enough to drive Haig on.  He preferred an unsuccessful offensive under his own command to a successful one elsewhere under someone else's.  At each question, Haig grew more confident.  There was, he thought, 'a reasonable chance' of reaching Ostend; a little later, 'a very good chance' of complete victory before the end of the year.  The War Cabinet were arguing in the dark.  The vital facts were concealed from them.  They were never told that the Ypres offensive was opposed by the French and that all the British generals except Haig had doubts.  They were not told that Haig's own Intelligence Staff had advised against it, and Intelligence in London still more so.  They were not told about German strength, nor about the inevitable rain and mud.  Moreover, the War Cabinet had many other things to do.  Economic activity to plan; factory workers to conciliate; convoys to organize; politicians and newspapers had to be satisfied."  

This is true of every conflict, but what adds to the tragedy is the fact that once Woodrow Wilson got involved, the sheen of ideology doubled or even tripled.  American idealism in this war ran high; that is not to say that Americans bought into it blindly.  No one really cared about "unrestricted U-boat warfare" out in North Dakota.  The war in America had to be sold on grander ideological terms.  Wilson's statement that this was was "a war to end all wars" might have done the trick, but it did little to cover up the main reasons why this war (or today's wars for that matter) was fought.  To be realistic one has to create a balance between the ideological aspects of conflict and the objective truth behind the not-so-clearly-seen economic variables.  To fight strictly on ideological terms ("To make the world safe for democracy," another Woodrow Wilson doozie that even George W. Bush evoked after September 11th) is to set yourself up for disappointment.  Wars are not fought for ideological reasons, at least not since the establishment of dynasties and political organizations.  Even going back to the "modern" European annals of history (roughly after 1500 and the "expansion" of the known world, conquest and the economic benefits of said conquests) wars were fought to settle economic/political accounts.  King Henry V invaded and conquered the crown of France under the advice of a wickedly shrewd Bishop of Canterbury which held nothing more than a flawed theory of why Henry should make that claim.  George H.W. Bush "liberated" Kuwait in 1991 and "returned a country to its rightful owners" only to claim a year later while running for reelection that if Saddam Hussein hadn't been stopped and evicted from Kuwait, Americans would be paying $5 a gallon for gas.  But I digress.

Taylor misses the mark when it comes to American involvement in the field of battle.  Practically nothing is written about the tactics at places like Saint Michel or even the Argonne, or Belleau Woods, where the U.S. Marine Corps distinguished itself beyond anything else achieved by the U.S. military on the world stage.  Rather, Taylor takes the reader through a sketchy last few battles and rushes into the peace negotiations and ultimately the Versailles debacle.  The book seems very rushed after the summer of 1918, and I can only assess that perhaps it suffers from an issue of abridgment (although that is not specified on the cover or anywhere else in the book).  All in all, this is a "comfortable" read, not the best but insightful and intelligently written.

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