What I’m Reading Now…

Thursday, 23 October 2014, 20:26 | Category : Books, History, Life
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is a lot of Cold War spy stuff. Novels – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Non-fiction – Legacy Of Ashes (not just Cold War, but that was the driving force behind my picking it up), The Art Of Betrayal. It’s not coincidence. After reading several books about the period leading up to World War I, and the war itself, I was looking for a new genre. And despite all the books I’ve read through the years, spy fiction and non-fiction was something I rarely delved into, unless you count some Tom Clancy novels during the 80s and 90s. But while I liked Clancy’s stuff early on, there came a point, I think probably with Debt Of Honor, when it felt like Clancy would get two-thirds of the way through a book, get bored, and decide to just wrap it up. But I digress….

I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. As an elementary school student in the early-mid 1960s, I lived in a world of atomic-bomb tests (we, students and teachers alike, still called them atomic bombs then, although I’m pretty sure everything was thermo-nuclear by then) and Civil Defense signs, and fallout shelters. A family up the street from us had a fallout shelter in their back yard. I never saw the inside – I never knew the family – but you could see the entrance to the shelter through their carport. All of those things were constant reminders that the Godless Russians might very well one day decide to blow us all to Kingdom Come. It was a strange time, I guess. We were not far removed from World War II, although at the time that seemed like ancient history. But we were only 20 years beyond that catastrophic struggle. Now I look back on things 20 years past, and I wonder about all the men and women – our fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles – who served or just lived through it, and I think about things that are now only 20 years in my past, and I think how strange it must have been for them. Maybe strange isn’t the right word, but there they were, just two decades past an event that dwarfs anything I’ve experienced in my life, and yet the world they made for us was so normal, so seemingly free of problems. Except that atomic bomb thing. And then Vietnam, which was piped into our living rooms every evening at 5:30. My idyllic existence began to crumble a bit then, as I approached the teenage years, then the later teenage years, then draft eligibility. Vietnam was winding down by the time I was actually eligible, in 1972, but it was a cloud hanging in the distance during my high-school years. It was the Cold War turned hot, on the other side of the world.

So the Cold War has always held a certain fascination for me. What would have happened if it had ever really turned hot? What if Soviet armor had come pouring through Fulda Gap? I’ve read many books about what might have happened in a World War III. But the actual conflict was played out in the shadow world of espionage and counter-espionage. And so, when I went looking for a new subject area for reading, Cold War spies were waiting. And there’s something else at play here, I think. The conflict between the West and the Communist Bloc, frightening though it was, seems so much simpler and more understandable than the world we’re in today, with religious fanaticism and Third-World nationalism fueling an ever-changing set of enemies that don’t match up well with our traditional means of applying resolutive force. It’s almost a sense of nostalgia for a conflict that made more sense, even if the potential for national destruction was much, much higher. So, for now, I’m reading about Cold War spies. Duck, and cover.

Yom Kippur 1973

Friday, 13 September 2013, 12:56 | Category : History
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I was in the band at Hinds Junior College (now Hinds Community College) in the fall of 1973. On Oct. 6 we had an away football, I think at Northeast Junior College – anyway, it was a long bus ride away. Since we had a game, I had stayed on campus that weekend, and with no access to TV or radio, didn’t know anything about the onset of the Arab attacks on Israel. The news first began getting to us shortly before we got on the bus mid-afternoon, but I don’t recall hearing much in the way of details. In fact, I don’t think we realized there was much going on beyond some border attacks. By the time we got off the bus at Northeast, it was obvious from reports that there were serious battles going on, but we all remembered the Six Day’s War and assumed the Israelis would rout the Arab forces. But by the time the game was over, and we were preparing to board the buses for the trip home, things were looking very different. Someone had a portable radio, and the reports were sounding grim. One of the band members had a brother in the army – maybe in the 101st Airborne – and he had called him right after the game – his brother told him the Soviets were mobilizing some forces, that his unit was being told to get ready, and that President Nixon had told the Soviets we would not allow them to intervene. I don’t think any of that was really happening, but at the time we didn’t know, and all during that 3 hour bus ride back we expected to get off the bus and find out that World War III had just started. By the next day we all knew better, but in the middle of the night on October 6, things seemed really on the brink. In these days of 24-hour news cycles and social networking, where you can know anything in a matter of minutes, it can be hard to realize just how difficult it could be to find out what was happening before CNN and the internet came along. This is maybe my most vivid experience of that.

D-Day

Monday, 6 June 2011, 13:45 | Category : History
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D-Day, June 6, 1944, was 9 years and 361 days before I was born.  From the perspective of today, that seems like almost ancient history, a memory of another time.  But when I was learning to walk, I was surrounded by men who could still hear the sounds, smell the scents, see the images of that brutal war.  I forget that sometimes. I know I didn’t appreciate that when I was young, seeing my father and other men his age as just people going to work, coming home, living the good life. World War II was sanitized for my generation by movies showing honor and glory, and summarized in history books, to be endlessly recreated with the army sets we received as Christmas and birthday presents. But there was a reality that was never far from the thoughts of many, and ever-present to some. We should never forget that.

In November 1960, the Atlantic Monthly published an article that didn’t sanitize the events at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The full article is here. I highly recommend reading it. Here are some excerpts:

Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire…

Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick takes a bullet through the throat as he jumps from the ramp into the water. He staggers onto the sand and flops down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash sees the blood spurting and hears the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: “Advance with the wire cutters!” It’s futile; Nash has no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick has raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. Nash, burrowing into the sand, sees machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners are shooting into the survivors as from a roof top.

Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never make it. They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.

Along the beach, only one Able Company officer still lives — Lieutenant Elijah Nance, who is hit in the heel as he quits the boat and hit in the belly by a second bullet as he makes the sand. By the end of ten minutes, every sergeant is either dead or wounded. To the eyes of such men as Private Howard I. Grosser and Private First Class Gilbert G. Murdock, this clean sweep suggests that the Germans on the high ground have spotted all leaders and concentrated fire their way. Among the men who are still moving in with the tide, rifles, packs, and helmets have already been cast away in the interests of survival.

To the right of where Tidrick’s boat is drifting with the tide, its coxswain lying dead next to the shell-shattered wheel, the seventh craft, carrying a medical section with one officer and sixteen men, noses toward the beach. The ramp drops. In that instant, two machine guns concentrate their fire on the opening. Not a man is given time to jump. All aboard are cut down where they stand.

Russia’s War

Tuesday, 10 August 2010, 17:40 | Category : Books, History
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I recently finished reading “Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945“. I’ve read many books on World War II, from many perspectives, but I’d never read one on the part of the war that involved Germany and the Soviet Union. I realize now that part of the reason for that is the lack of information about the Soviet effort prior to the fall of that nation in 1991. With the archives more accessible, a book like this one could be written. I knew from earlier reading that the Soviets contributed massive numbers of men to the war, but reading this book made me appreciate what they did far more than before. As a good American son of a World War II veteran, I grew up firmly ensconsced in the belief that the United States saved the Old World by overwhelming the Germans, Italians, and Japanese when they had the Allies pinned back against the wall. Accounts like the one in this book, however, make you question some things. At the time of the Normandy invasion, the Soviets were facing four to five times as many German troops as the US, British, and other Allied armies. The strength of the German army was being, and had been for a year, sapped in the East. I’m not belittling the efforts of the United States and Britain, but an honest assessment has to give the Russians their due. The United States truly was the Arsenal of Democracy, but the Russians supplied the bulk of the manpower and suffered the most casualties by far. Their industries turned out amazing numbers of tanks, guns, and other military hardware, by devoting nearly all their industrial capacity to the tools of war. But they were able to do this because the United States provided much of the remaining goods needed by a nation. In all ways, it was a combined effort.

But I knew much of that already, for the basic facts of manpower and casualty numbers were known. There was something else that caught my attention. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cold War was churning, it was always acknowledged that in the event of the Cold War turning hot, the Soviets would have a huge edge in manpower and tanks. The “party line” I always heard, however, was that the US and NATO would be able to balance that with the greater innovation and resourcefulness that would be inherent in “our” side, because of the differences between our respective societies, free world versus regimented, totalitarian world. But what struck me in this book was how, in the early days of the German attack on the Soviet Union, how junior and mid-level officers were able to change strategy and tactics to adapt to changing battlefield conditions, often in the absence of communications with higher command. It made me think that, in yet another way, it was a very good thing that the balloon never went up.

Tiananmen Square

Wednesday, 3 June 2009, 9:49 | Category : History
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On May 28, 1989, my wife and I packed our two children into the car and headed for our first Disneyworld vacation. It took two days to drive to Orlando, and along the way I caught news reports of the events unfolding in China, especially in Tiananmen Square. By the time we got to the campground in Disneyworld, it looked like a new day was dawning in China, just as seemed to be happening in Europe. Hungary had recently opened its border with Austria, Solidarity was on the way to power in Poland, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union stood by peacefully. The last reports I heard before disappearing into the news-less world of Disney was that some Chinese army units were supposedly moving towards Beijing from the countryside in support of the students massed in Tiananmen Square. There were concerns about a possible civil war within China, but signs seemed to be pointing to a radical change in that nation’s government and society.

On June 5, we left Disneyworld. And on the drive home, I listened to the reports of a massive crackdown by the Chinese army, which bloodily routed the students. I had expected a new China, and I remember the shock I felt as the reality sunk in. One man and a line of tanks were all that was left of the vision I had constructed in my mind over the previous 5 days. I have no tie to China. I’m not even particularly a student of Chinese history and culture; it’s just one subject among many books and documentaries I read and watch. But at that particular time, the events in that far-away land had drawn my interest. If I hadn’t been away from any news sources during those five days, I’m sure the memory wouldn’t be as vivid. But of all the events of 1989, Tiananmen Square stands out most.