" /> I write: April 2010
I see I taste I write Links What?
April 25, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri - ISBN - 9780307278258

This is the first book I have read by Lahiri, but it will not be the last. She writes with such grace, emotional insight and feeling that, whatever her choice of subject, the prose lingers on the palate like fine wine. One can even reread passages or whole stories for the sheer delight of so doing.

This particular book is a creation which includes sometimes interrelated short stories, all based upon her Bengali background, but dealing with different people in varying environments, with differing dilemmas, from coast to coast--even Thailand--and pilgrimages to visit family in India on occasion. All deal with some facet of interpersonal relationships: family joy and difficulties, love, marriage, affairs, etc. All are crafted, individually and collectively, with great care and sophistication.

Accolades galore have been heaped upon this extremely talented woman; her books are widely read--with good cause, I discovered--and she has collected a number of awards, including this book, as (a) Best Book of the Year by a variety of commentators including The New York Times.

The less said the better. Read it in order to more fully delight in her intricate plots and appreciate the finest writing. And then, like me, get several of her other books and read them too.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:09 PM

April 20, 2010

A Devil of a Whipping

The Battle of Cowpens
Lawrence E. Babits - ISBN - 9780807849262

As the second most important battle in the Revolutionary War, Cowpens deserved another look and a better book. This is the definitive volume, unlikely to be improved upon; sometimes a little too detailed for my taste, but complete and well written. Babits spent considerable time reviewing other writings, but offers for the first time the study of reports from the many minor participants in the battle.

In the 1830's, federal pensions were granted for living survivors of the war, amongst them hundreds of men who had fought at Cowpens. They were caused to record specific details to corroborate their participation, and Babits reviewed their interviews, commenting that they were surprisingly consistent when compared with each other. This permitted him to recreate the battle in far more detail than anyone has before--or is likely to again (a 158 page narrative with 58 more pages of notes!)

You'll recall that the American commander was the brilliant and battle tested Daniel Morgan His adversary was the ruthless Banastre Tarleton who, at the (nearby) battle of Waxhaws, had annihilated the continentals even as they surrendered. This led to the expression: Tarleton's quarter. He offered none. Not a few of the participants at Cowpens were amongst the survivors at Waxhaws, and far more had friends or relatives slaughtered there. They were out for revenge . . . and got it. "Tarleton's Quarter!"

Morgan was a tactical genius who picked the battle site and laid out a plan which anticipated the arrogance of Tarleton and his troops. Babits reviews it all in detail. As well he describes and explains contemporary weaponry utilized in the battle; interesting, indeed. Amongst the myths he explodes is the popular belief that the musketman of the era could not deliver fire accurately, nor could he fire rapidly . . . not true. Properly trained men could "hit a man-sized target eighty yards away with five out of six shots in one minute." Most of the Americans were expert hunters with experience; many of them were using their own, often customized weapons with which they were intimately familiar.

The withering fire of the irregular militia, compounded by the accuracy of the skirmishers took a heavy toll. Early in the battle up to "two-thirds of the British infantry officers had fallen, along with a like number of privates." As the British charged into the maw, the militiamen, by prior agreement, retreated rapidly to an area behind the regulars. As anticipated by Morgan, the Kings men assumed they were in a cowardly retreat and plunged headlong into the bloody fire of the massed Continentals lying prone amongst the tree cover atop the leading edge of a swale. The American cavalry support was outstanding, as Tarleton had unwisely left a number of his troops in reserve, including some of his best cavalry. The changing tactics amidst the battle, attested to by the archived interview materials, helped the author to better understand the flow of the battle.

"Mounted operations are a major key to understanding Morgan's victory, even though they were the least orchestrated by his tactical planning." While American mounted strength was less than half that of the British, they performed brilliantly. They were lead by another tactical genius, Lt. Col. Wm Washington, who judiciously selected when and where to use his dragoons.

Babits goes on to discuss wounds, management, survival, etc. It is interesting to see his assessment of how specific wounds lend themselves to determining how they were wrought, and where the combatants were at the time they were inflicted. He comments that most of the American officers were wounded or killed because they led their troops "from the front," while British officers, generally, were picked off by snipers.

It was a horrific battle with many casualties on both sides. Those trapped by the Continentals were slaughtered. The British survivors broke and ran; survivors were gathered after the battle, having been wounded or trapped by exhaustion, and ready pickings for American cavalry. Altogether it is a stirring report of one of the most important battles in American history.

The Continentals eventually won the war by staying on the field. "The British lost the south, and ultimately the Revolutionary War, largely because [the American combatants] never gave up. Most of their battles were lost, but not this one, which passed into legend and history along with Ticonderoga, Saratoga and the final British loss at Yorktown where the French were in critical support. If you like Revolutionary history, you'll like this book.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 2:08 PM

April 17, 2010

Incredible Victory

The Battle of Midway, June 4th, 1942
Walter Lord - ISBN - 9780060923600

(The ISBN given is for the paperback version. I purchased the original hardbound volume for $3.00. Neither is in print. It is well worth the time and minimal effort to purchase and read.)

By any standard, this is a marvelous book; the first and best recounting of the battle of Midway (1942). I found it exciting to read, though I've known much of the history of that day for most of my life. It was a spectacular victory. The Japanese plot was to lure the remaining vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a battle for supremacy, which logic dictated the Japanese would win; but it became America's Trafalgar. It remains the most decisive single naval battle in U.S. history. Even as I write this review I get a "tingle down my leg" (but over something magnificent, and incredibly important, unlike the infamous MSNBC commentator and recognized air-head who experienced his while listening to an oration by Emperor Obama.)

The book begins stirringly: "They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war. More than that, they added a new name--Midway--to that small list that inspires men by example . . . like Marathon, the Armada, the Marne [he might have noted the stunning clash of the 300 at Thermopylae in 480 BC]. Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit--a magic blend of skill, faith and valor--that can lift men from certain defeat to Incredible Victory."

Lord first explores the intelligence underlying the victory, without which the battle would have been lost. History lay in the hands of U.S. command. If they were able to keep secret their knowledge of the Japanese attack plan, and the location of the Pacific Fleet, a surprise attack might once more make the U.S. supreme in the Pacific; but if the plan became known, and/or the battle lost, the Japanese would "walk in to take Midway; Pearl [Harbor, Hawaii, would] be almost neutralized and in dire danger . . . the fate of our nation [was] in our hands."

The U.S. had no battleships, the Japanese eleven; we, eight cruisers, the enemy, twenty-three; we had three air-craft carriers--one crippled--they had eight; our shore defenses were composed largely of guns from the turn of the century manned by a relative handful of men, while their invasion force alone included many thousands of experienced soldiers with modern weapons. Our men were, almost without exception, new to war; theirs, experienced from many battles since the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. They had the most experienced pilots flying the best airplanes on the planet, while ours were just out of flight school, many flying planes made of wood with canvas coverings. Some of our "dive bombers" couldn't dive--the fabric came off of the wings. Our torpedoes were slow and unreliable, and the torpedo planes were even worse. Our military men were exhausted, theirs well rested. It is impossible to envisage worse odds.

Of our torpedo squadrons virtually all of the men were killed without inflicting damage on the Japanese. Our fighters did little better: one squadron lost 21 of 27 planes and crews. He details the events hour by hour, including many interesting asides. Under usual circumstances I might have commented that there was too much information, but somehow his expert synthesis kept the narrative fascinating. His colorful and exceptional descriptions of the pandemonium of combat are especially riveting.

He spent several years interviewing survivors of the battle on both sides of the Pacific. They are absorbing. As well there are a few previously unpublished pictures from the Japanese archives. He delves into the weaknesses of the Japanese plan, noting that they expected the Americans to respond in a given way, and when they did not they were flummoxed. Yamamoto, the Japanese commander, "frittered away" his incredible advantage by not properly concentrating his ships. Hubris and the overconfidence based upon prior battles resulted in "victory disease," and this was compromised further by their "dangerous contempt" for the enemy, whom they had presumed to be cowards. He mentions but fails to pursue another point about which I have read previously: when the commanding Admiral Fletcher found himself aboard the sinking carrier flagship Yorktown he immediately transferred command to Admiral Spruance aboard the carrier Enterprise, because Spruance was now in a better position to command. Neither power nor fame--let alone ego--mattered. Winning was the only consideration. That is something no Japanese admiral would ever do. As well he gives little attention to the fact that Yorktown was near mortally damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea only a month before. When she limped into Pearl it was determined that it would take months to repair the damage. It could not wait; time was of the essence, and while not up to par she was rendered combat ready within 72 hours. (Only In America!) She played a major role at Midway before finally being sunk by the Japanese.

Winston Churchill observed: "This memorable American victory was of cardinal importance, not only to the United States, but to the whole Allied cause. . . . At one stroke, the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed. . . . The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock . . . the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour."

As Lord reviews the history of the events he emphasizes that "In ticking off the things that weren't done, it is easy to forget the big thing that was done. . . . At 10:22 A.M. . . . the crack Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were heading proudly for the battle that was to finish the U.S. Pacific Fleet. By 10:28 A.M. all three were blazing wrecks." Yes, the Yorktown and a destroyer were sunk, but the Yanks won! They inflicted disastrous losses upon the Japanese navy and its empire, and reversed the momentum of the war "in one swell foop."

Wonderful read . . . makes everyone proud to be American (the execrable Tom Hanks and his ilk excepted--Hanks, you may not be aware, recently opined that our war with Japan was purely "racist.")

Posted by Curmudgeon at 3:10 PM

April 14, 2010

The Last Goodnights

Assisting My Parents with Their Suicides
John West

This book valiantly, at considerable personal risk, provides the essence of the argument for physician-assisted suicide. (There is, after all, no statute of limitations on the felony charge of murder, and Dr. Kevorkian's situation presents a frightening precedent.) It was written by a lawyer who knew exactly what he was doing. A decade later he shares his legal and emotional dilemma. It is highly recommended for "anyone who expects to die in the future, with or without help, and/or by his own hand . . . or not."

The situation is somewhat unique in that both of his parents were professionals. Both knew what they asked, and both understood the implications. His father, a psychiatrist, had a rapidly progressive, extremely painful terminal cancer. He discussed with his son the "psychology and autonomy of self-deTermination." His mother, a psychologist, was in rapid decline due to Alzheimer's. For neither was there an answer except to "suck it up." Mother, when alert, was in full possession of her faculties, and "would not allow herself to devolve into a walking broccoli, a drooling, diapered, disoriented 'non-creature.'"

West chronicles, "blow by blow" what he--and they--faced and experienced as he helped them consummate their deaths. He is candid, with a touch of irony, as he explores the problem, separating his problem within context, from theirs, making a compassionate plea for serious consideration of this ever-growing dilemma.

He asserts many valid points, and makes them well. Along the way he ruminates about the obscenely complicated rituals of hospitals, not a few of which I have experienced myself (e.g., getting prescriptions from the pharmacy at the time of the patient's discharge which is unconscionably difficult. His father was a renowned faculty member which, as with me, made absolutely no difference. All parties are equally abused.)

In a fugue of "black humor" he recites the "stock observations" about suicide's possibilities--tall buildings, arching bridges, railroad tracks, etc . . . all of which are predicated on an alert orientation, physical mobility, and a certain élan over doing yourself in.

After his first "assist," when he was required to force pills down his father's throat since he had begun to slumber before he had had sufficient medication, he observes: "Although I'd known it intellectually for months, I finally felt--viscerally--that this was precisely why assisted suicide should not be attempted by amateurs, and why it should be a legally accepted part of the doctor-patient relationship." The emotional impact was severe, and made his relationship with his parents difficult, even though he was "comfortable" with their decision to ask, and his decision to comply. "Emotions I had to hide [from others, including family, in whom he could not confide.] Emotions that kicked my ass."

Throughout the book, he maintains a wry sense of humor, bordering on the mordant from time to time, as he discusses the attendant anguish and personal pain, yet the recitation is seasoned with love and insight.

The situation is, compared to that described in Tuesday's with Morrie, exactly opposite. And "Morrie" is relevant because he chose to die differently; hence the dilemma.

My concerns, as a physician and amateur philosopher, is what happens if/when assisted suicide is sanctioned? We can all understand the spectrum and both poles. We may well acknowledge that people ought to be able to select their mode of demise, and yet the example of Holland bears heavily on my mind. A situation in which "the kids" are now free to "off Gramma" to relieve themselves of the burden and/or get at their inheritance a little early. One who understands human nature, and considers progressive, omni-tolerant government, must take into account what may--and likely will--become the standard should physician-assisted suicide become legal here. They're already there in Holland. It isn't pretty, and there is likely no turning back.

Rigorous caution, careful consideration and debate are necessary!

Posted by Curmudgeon at 2:51 PM

April 10, 2010

Reagan's Secret War

The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster
Martin and Annelise Anderson - 9780307238610

This new book opens still more doors into the mind of Ronald Reagan. It includes more exculpatory evidence that he was not the "amiable dunce" the left claims him to be; an attitude widely accepted, based upon personal prejudice and a deep seated, irrational hatred of the man. Would that a man of his character, conviction, grace and amiable steel were in the White House now. I'd even vote for JFK, the last courageous, well-grounded, patriotic American president from the left--which left was a hell of a lot further right than it is now. Indeed, JFK was well to the right of most every prominent Republican on the scene today. But I digress.

Declassification of documents made this book possible. "Reagan accomplished so much with such apparent ease that the casual observer often assumes he had nothing to do with it." The authors then chronicle what Reagan did, factually and in depth. Myriad documents were reviewed, portions of which are entered into the narrative. Amongst them are cabinet minutes, congressional records, and Reagan's own notes and diaries.

Those who believe Reagan to be a humorous, doddering old shit with stage presence, need be prepared to be surprised, even awed if approached with an open mind. After Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and the catastrophic Jimmie Carter it was felt by most that the presidency was unmanageable by any one. Reagan proved this conclusion false by commanding the resurrection of the economy and the restoration of our military might, while elevating our image in the world and authoring victory in the cold war. His simple--anything but simplistic--philosophy regarding communism? "We win, they lose!" He had help, but it was his passion an assurance which drove the efforts. His cabinet was widely accepted as the best in the 20th century, and contrary to popular opinion he made all of the decisions himself, often against the recommendations of his advisers.

Soviet "shopping" had always included theft--thru espionage. It had been widely recognized, but until Reagan, nothing was done to stop it. Their huge weapons build-up was fueled by pirated technology; Reagan reduced the theft and overwhelmed them with new technology. The Soviet economy was largely dependent on raw materials. They found that the price of wood, oil, gas, even (or especially) gold dropped to historic lows, which eliminated the flow of hard currency at a time they were ramping up production. This was a result of Reagan's plan and actions! In essence he said to hell with coexistence . . . you wanna rumble? Great! Have at it. We'll play the game to win--no quarter--and do whatever it takes to bury you (Khrushchev's line.)

Because of their financial difficulties the Soviets were themselves considering, or at least receptive to weapons reduction. Reagan played upon that. Depleting their revenues by reducing the price of raw materials helped immensely. He was the first to convince the Soviets to sign treaties reducing armaments . . . a complete contradiction of Kissinger's realpolitik and prevailing concepts of coexistence . . . of staying even . . . of MAD (mutual assured destruction.) Whole classes of weapons disappeared as a result of negotiated treaties.

Decades before his election he had asked in his diary, "How much is it worth to not fight World War III?" He dedicated his life to achieving that goal. The book chronicles his numerous and varietal efforts to reduce nuclear armament, open up trade and dialogue with the Soviet Union, and ultimately, bring it down. Gorbachev may have been a factor, but Reagan, Thatcher and the Pope were the architects of its demise. They didn't set a goal of keeping the Soviets at bay. Their goal was to defeat the U.S.S.R.

His personal correspondence with leaders, most notably with masters of the Kremlin (from Brezhnev to Gorbachev) is reviewed in detail. Much of it is fascinating; equally so in reportage of his "face-offs" with Soviet power. It necessarily includes discussion of his famous "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin, and there is considerable verbiage about the Reykjavik summit. Gorbachev came determined not to sign any document permitting the continuation of research into anti-missile defense. Reagan simply walked out. "With nothing!" The press, the state department, the left and Gorbachev were apoplectic. He'd ruined the summit . . . !! . . . well, maybe not. Gorbachev later returned, reluctantly, to sign on to the missile reduction without eliminating "Star Wars." The cold war was won. The Soviets could not create, and could no longer borrow, buy, steal (or even afford) the technology to keep up with the mighty economic and military engines Reagan had rebuilt. It took a while, but the gate was opened. The wall did come down. Germany was reunified, Poland and other satellites were free, and the U.S.S.R. did devolve; buried in the "ash heap" of history by its own inadequacies.

So, how did the old duffer accomplish so much? He had a clear vision of what he wished to do. He was a superb communicator, a skilled negotiator and the supreme "decider" (a familiar Bush term.) But even now, decades after his departure and a decade after his death he is not understood . . . in large measure because a considerable majority of the left is unwilling to acknowledge his accomplishments.

Shortly after his inauguration Reagan opined that he wanted to change the nation. Instead--with help from the Pope, Thatcher, and some from Gorbachev--he changed the world.

Read it. It is a masterfully done book, enlightening and heartening.

(I purchased this book "used" but unused. Inside was a library envelope dated May 28, 2009, indicating it had arrived on publication. It showed up as a used book only a few months later! Perhaps it was gifted to the library by a conservative? No library purchases and then divests itself of a $33 book a couple of months on, before it has even been checked out! The library clearly practiced censorship. How awful! How unforgivable! It's history, not pornography . . . er, sorry, I forgot . . . porn is permitted in libraries; just not stuff about conservatives.)

Posted by Curmudgeon at 11:02 AM

April 5, 2010

Delta Force

The Army's Elite Counterterrorist Unit
Col. Charlie A. Beckwith (Ret.) - ISBN - 9780380809394

This book, by the founder and first commanding officer of Delta Force is quite interesting; not especially well written or edited, it is still worthwhile for those curious about Delta. His candor adds considerably to the book, and his honorable reportage is beyond reproach.

He covers a lot of territory, beginning with the Green Berets and his "learning tour of duty" with the precedent setting force, SAS (the British Special Air Service Regiment; the first dedicated counterterrorism unit in the world.) This is followed by his decade long effort to establish a comparable entity within the U.S. Army. The discussion wanders, and includes considerable activity, some of it trivial and of no particular interest to the average reader.

Still, he gives the complete story, including the disastrous Carter administration policy--implemented by retired Admiral Stansfield Turner, who, as director, gutted the CIA and in large measure authored the still extant problems we have with critical, foreign intelligence. He removed "spies" from the equation, and forbid dealing with "corrupt people." (Of course his program still permitted CIA agents to deal with honorable, pleasant, reliable, "nice" people amongst the cadre of leaders and acolytes of the most vile countries in the world.) Needless to say this led to the complete lack of accurate and timely intelligence for the entire U.S. military and foreign policy establishments. Brilliant ! Especially so when it came, not much later, to Operation Eagle Claw, which was designed to extract the embassy hostages from Iran. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After butting heads for a very long time he was finally permitted to begin the establishment of Delta, but was still stiff-armed by the other forces within the military, most notably the Navy Seals, the Army Rangers. They made the claim that Delta was a duplication of efforts within their purview, which was not true. Just a turf battle. When overruled they prevented any of the men within their units from applying for Delta. When overruled again they complied . . . but reluctantly.

Eventually, however, the force was established, trained and ready. Their first assignment was Eagle Claw, which was a catastrophic failure. Beckwith deals with the intricacies of the planning, practice and mis-execution of the mission. He discusses both the reasons for failure and the implementation of the correctives which followed. He retired shortly thereafter, ending a military career of over 30 years.

He did, however, go on to discuss the Mogadishu disaster, and provides a similarly informative postmortem. Unit function was superb, but a combination of intelligence failure and a chicken-s**t cop out by Bill Clinton authored tragic events reminiscent of Kennedy's failure to support the Bay of Pigs invasion decades before. This time there were 18 Americans dead (their corpses dragged thru the streets--on international T.V!), 84 wounded, and hundreds of Somalis killed; civilians and terrorists alike. This failure ignited even more terrorism, inasmuch as the U.S. appeared spineless and cowardly. (This was, you'll recall, the predecessor of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole--also on Clinton's watch--which emphasized our unwillingness to deal with terrorists.)

Finally, with problems ironed out, interagency dilemmas and disagreements resolved, Delta went on to become a cutting-edge organization; probably the best anti-terrorism unit in the world. Inasmuch as their "black-ops" are under everyone's radar, little additional information can be discussed, but his legacy (he died in 1994) lives on in the formidable force he shepherded into existence; a superlative force in the armamentarium of the United States military.

Unfortunately, the CIA situation hasn't improved very much. We still have huge holes in our intelligence network, thanks to reprehensibly cautious Washington liberals, and the continuing residuum of the disastrous Carter presidency . . . soon to be displaced as the worst in history by that of King Barack.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:39 PM