THE PIANO TUNER by Daniel Mason

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(A French Erard piano)

 

Imagine you are an unassuming piano tuner living in London.  You are bespectacled, self-effacing and a master of your craft, particularly when it comes to a special type of piano.  Your wife Katherine thinks the world of your talent and you have a special relationship.   All seems well, then you are summoned to the British War Office in 1886 and you are told about a strange request from a Surgeon-Major who is stationed in the eastern area of Burma.  This scenario forms the basis of Daniel Mason’s exceptional first novel, THE PIANO TUNER.

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The core of the novel takes place in the far reaches of the British Empire where the War Office is concerned about French encroachment on Burma that could lead to issues in India.  The French are ensconced by the Mekong River close to Siam which borders on Burma.  There is growing discontent among the princes in the region, but the British have a special individual who seems successful in maintaining support for the British in this region called the Shan states.  The individual is Dr. Anthony J. Carroll.  The Surgeon-Major, his military title is a Renaissance type of person whose interests know no bounds.  He has been stationed in Burma for over twelve years and has become an expert in the fauna and flora of the region, the culture of the people, has conducted a myriad of medical research to help the Burmese, and possesses a love of music.  Carroll lives in a far-flung outpost in eastern Burma, called Mae Lwin, and among the natives he is seen as a poet-soldier.  One of the keys to Carroll’s success is an 1840 Erard grand piano which he had the War Office send him.  It seems music is a means of calming the people of the region who see it as having wonderful powers.  The problem is that the humidity and brigands in the region have reduced the piano’s efficiency.  Hence the call to London to dispatch a piano tuner to Carroll’s jungle fort east of Mandalay, Burma.  This is Carroll’s stated request, but his goals run deeper.  He needs his piano repaired, but he needs a kindred soul to help him maintain peace in the region without the dispatch of more British troops.

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(Colonial Burma)

The recipient of that request is Edgar Drake, a London piano tuner with expertise in repairing and tuning Erard pianos.  Drake is also a dilettante when it comes to knowledge.  Though he was not formally educated at the schools of the British upper class, his self-education places him on an intellectual level above most British prep school types.  These men, Carroll and Drake are the chief protagonists of the novel and their relationship, though unusual is the key element as the story evolves.

Mason introduces many characters, and for each one a picture forms in the reader’s mind as to their strengths, weaknesses, looks, and the personalities that are behind the mask which is their public face.  Mason conveys his story through several vehicles including letters from Drake to his wife, the writings of Carroll, as well as the myth and traditions of the Burmese people. Individuals like the infamous bandit, Twet Nga Lu; Captain Trevor Nash-Burnham of the British army; Nok Lek; a fifteen-year-old fighter who protects Carroll; Khin Myo, Drake’s female caretaker all have important roles to play.

The manner of late 19th century British imperialism is present for all to see.  The haughtiness and racism of British officers is clear as is seen in several instances as the Burmese people do not measure up to English standards.  Mason conveys the interactions between the British and Burmese people very carefully and the underlying feelings of each is easy to understand from the dialogue. Mason takes the reader on a journey that begins in London and takes Drake across the Middle East and Southwest Asia until he reaches Burma.  In so doing the sights and sounds of ocean and river travel in these areas are fascinating.  Once Drake has arrived, he experiences Burmese culture particularly the “puppet dramas” that are endemic to the region.  The topography of Burma is explored in detail and as the novel progresses one wonders if Drake will ever return home.

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Mason is a literary craftsman with elements of Joseph Conrad throughout the novel.  His sentences flow as do his descriptions and dialogue that easily capture the interest of the reader.  His plot moves at a very even plane, then it reaches a crescendo as Drake is placed in an untenable position as Carroll tries to implement his own agenda which British higher ups are totally against.  A key element to the novel concerns Carroll; what does he really believe, is he trustworthy, and in the end is he another “Kurtz” type figure from Conrad’s THE HEART OF DARKNESS or a Russian spy?

Mason’s own background makes the subject matter of the novel a perfect fit.  When he was a young medical student with a biology degree from Harvard, he studied malaria on the Thai-Burmese border and in northeast Burma.  In fact, he wrote the novel “between lessons at medical school.”  This makes him almost an authority on certain aspects of the region and contributes greatly to the success of the novel.  Mason’s ability to integrate the history of the region makes the violent nature of British imperialism as it tries to consolidate its hold on eastern Burma much clearer.  If there is a weakness to the novel it is the amount of time spent on Drake’s journey to Burma and what he experiences which take up almost two-thirds of the book, however this is offset by Mason’s expertise in the technical detail and methodical tuning of the piano and his discussion of malaria treatment once Drake becomes ill.

Whatever flaws exist, they are superseded by a dramatic and intense story that has left this reader excited to read Mason’s new novel, THE WINTER SOLDIER that deals with war, medicine, family, and the sweeping panorama of history surrounding World War I.

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(A French Erard piano)

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RAMPAGE: MacARTHUR, YAMASHITA, AND THE BATTLE OF MANILA by James M. Scott

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(Massacre at the Battle of Manila, February, 1945)

One of the most iconic statements in American military history was uttered by General Douglas MacArthur as he fled the Philippine Island of Corregidor on March 11, 1942 and reached Australia.  Upon his arrival, MacArthur remarked that “I came through and I shall return,” a promise he would keep in February 1945, a promise that was kept because of MacArthur’s enormous ego and refusal to accept existing American intelligence estimates concerning Japanese capabilities, particularly as it effected Manila.  The result was the brutal slaughter; rape, and murderous behavior reigned upon civilian and POWs by Japanese marines, while MacArthur was planning his victory parade.   What the Japanese engaged in was a rampage against anything or person that opposed them.  Japanese behavior, policies, their rationale, and results of their barbarity are the subject of James M. Scott’s new book, MacARTHUR, YAMASHITA AND THE BATTLE OF MANILA.

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Scott’s approach to his topic is a careful and insightful presentation of events that rely on numerous interviews of survivors of the Japanese rampage, immersion into trial transcripts, official military reports, individual diaries, to create and an exacting reportage of what transpired.  Two decades ago I read THE RAPE OF NANKING by Iris Chang, and I thought I had been exposed to the depths of humanity in her description of Japanese behavior, but Scott reinforces Chang’s descriptions and takes them to a new level of inhumanity and disgust.

Scott begins his narrative by focusing on the role the Philippines played in MacArthur’s family from 1898 onward as his father became military governor and oversaw “stitching the nation back together again” after years of bloody guerilla warfare.  MacArthur himself would experience four assignments in the Philippines and would develop many important relationships, and to his credit he was unaffected by the racial bias of the day and considered the Philippines as his home.

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(Manila, February, 1945)

Scott does a nice job developing MacArthur’s relationship with his mother, Pinky who smothered her son with attention and her opinions throughout her life, and his oversized ego stems from his socialization at the feet of his mother.  By 1935 he became the father of the Filipino army and helped to westernize the area.  This would be shattered on December 7, 1941 as he had a front row seat as 43,000 Japanese troops came ashore forcing MacArthur to flee under the cover of darkness.  Scott does a similar job conveying the upbringing and education of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the victor over the British at the Battle of Singapore, in addition to the challenges he faced in dealing with the internal politics that existed within the Japanese military hierarchy.  In comparing the two Scott points out that both men had similar difficulties.  MacArthur was destined to fight in a Pacific backwater, while others earned glory in Europe, while Yamashita had been exiled to military oblivion in Manchuria because of the hatred and jealousy of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

In part, RAMPAGE concentrates on the background and clash between MacArthur and Yamashita, a battle over the last major roadblock that stood between American forces and the Japanese homeland.  Yamashita’s goal was to devastate the Philippines, and bog down MacArthur’s forces to allow Japan to dig shelters and prepare for the eventual American invasion. Yamashita was a realist and was cognizant of the fact that his task was somewhat hopeless, but he would do his best, and accepted that the result would be his own death.

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(M4 Sherman Tank at the gate of Ft. Santiago)

Aside from MacArthur and Yamashita, Scott develops the role of Japanese Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi whose job was to do everything in his power to stop MacArthur’s forces, including the destruction of Manila.  Eventually Yamashita would withdraw his forces from the city, but Iwabuschi had no plans to leave, and instructed his troops to fortify the city and fight to the last man.  Scott presents an accurate description of the fighting in the Philippines as he leads up to what transpired in Manila.

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(Tomoyuki Yamashita)

Scott’s focus is on the suffering of the men, women, and children that were occupied and imprisoned by the Japanese.  The emotions of people run the gamut from joy upon being liberated by US soldiers at Santo Tomas, to other sites were the inmates were not as lucky.  Scott bases his narrative on interviews of survivors who were victimized by the brutality heaped on them by Japanese soldiers and how they suffered.  Hague and Geneva Conventions meant little to the Japanese military hierarchy and their soldiers carried out the most outrageous behavior that can be imagined.  Scott devotes what seems like more than half the narrative to descriptions of Japanese behavior which was mind boggling; severing of heads, slicing off body parts, dousing individuals with gasoline and setting them on fire, direct shootings, rape, and other forms of torture that are described in detail.  Family histories are presented in addition to their plight at the hands of the Japanese that numbered in the thousands.  At times the descriptions become overwhelming for the reader, particularly the minutia presented in the chapters dealing with the rape of women and teenagers by Japanese marines; and what survivors found once they were liberated from Japanese imprisonment.

The question must be raised whether some of what the Japanese perpetrated could have been offset, at least, in part with a different strategy.  President Roosevelt and his advisers wanted to focus on Formosa as a stepping stone to Japan, but MacArthur insisted on a Filipino centric approach.  MacArthur badgered Roosevelt until he gave in, allowing MacArthur to assuage his ego by returning to the site of his greatest defeat.  Once plans were made for the retaking of the Philippines, MacArthur refused to believe his own intelligence concerning the level of Japanese forces and their plans to level Manila, and the lies that were told to the press, i.e.; that Manila was liberated at a time it was being destroyed by the Japanese, and civilians were being slaughtered.  At times plans were made for parades to make MacArthur look like the conquering hero in American newsreels, at a time when death and destruction reigned on Manila and other areas. When the general finally sloshed ashore at Lingayen Gulf, he was convinced that the battle for the Philippines had already been won on Leyte, one of many errors in judgement that had grave consequences. As Scott correctly points out, liberating Manila was an obsession and “would serve as the redemptive final chapter to his earlier story of defeat.”

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(General Douglas MacArthur)

In his description of the 29 days of Japanese rape, pillage, and mutilation, Scott relies on the commentary of reporters like Frank Hewlett and Life magazine reporter Carl Mydans to describe the agony of liberation and recapture.  The diaries of people like Tressa Roka, an army nurse, poet and teacher; Robert Kentner, Robert Wygle, and CBS reporter Bill Dunn, among others presents a window into what prisoners experienced.  Further, the reaction of American soldiers to the condition of prisoners who had been unmercifully starved to half their body weight, suffered from unescapable malnutrition, along with other medical conditions is heart rendering.  The descriptions are appalling as Japanese shelling and shrapnel tore apart people’s bodies and as they conducted a block to block destruction of the city it would erase four centuries of history almost in one afternoon!

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(Liberation of Santo Thomas Prison, February, 1945)

For US forces the recapture of Manila was a street by street affair.  MacArthur had forbidden the use of aerial bombing to retake the city and would reluctantly allow the use of artillery as he sought to preserve as much of the city and save as many inhabitants as possible.  Despite MacArthur’s desires US forces would resort to massive artillery and bombing of parts of the city where Japanese forces refused to surrender resulting in civilian casualties and contributing to the destruction of the city.  By March 3, 1945, the last of the Japanese forces in Manila were killed or surrendered. The Battle of Manila was over. U.S. forces suffered 1,010 killed and 5,565 wounded retaking the capital. Japan lost 16,665 soldiers killed. More than 100,000 civilians lost their lives to Japanese butchery and the inevitable collateral damage of war. (422)

Following the war General Yamashita was tried and convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging, even though he had not directly ordered the atrocities that the troops under his command committed. Scott describes Yamashita’s trial and fairly presents the evidence and arguments of both the prosecution and the defense.  The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and let the sentence stand.  Yamashita’s claim that he was unaware of what was transpiring in Manila is belied by the fact that his headquarters was in wireless contact with Admiral Iwabuchi throughout the period of atrocities. What transpired in Manila was part of a pattern of Japanese atrocities begun in Manchuria against the Chinese in the 1930s, that continued in all areas that they occupied or engaged with civilian areas, POWs, or in general battlefield behavior throughout the war in the Pacific.

The author reminds us once again that man’s depravity takes exception to the idea of human progress. Scott’s description of Japanese behavior in the Philippines, and Manila in particular reflects a warlike society that committed, along with the Nazi Holocaust crimes against humanity, actions that could hardly have been imagined before the 1930s.  We know of other examples of atrocities throughout history, but never on the scale of WWII, especially with the application of advanced technology integrated into the war machine to reduce the civilian population of one’s enemies.

Scott’s narrative description of the 29 days that brought about the destruction of Manila and the death of over 100,000 people is gripping and scary as the reader is carried off into a world where death and sadism seems to be the norm.  War leads to this type of behavior, and one can only wish mankind never experiences this again-but I doubt it.

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(Japanese murder of civilians)

ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE by Hampton Sides

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(American Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, December, 1950)

Hampton Sides latest book, ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE has met, or even surpassed the high standards for excellent narrative history that he has set in his previous works.  The book is based on extensive interviews, memoirs, command of secondary sources, and the ability to place the reader along side historical decision makers and the soldiers who carried out their orders.  Whether Sides is writing about James Earl Ray and the assassination of Martin Luther King; the last survivors of the Bataan Death March; a biography of Kit Carson; or the late 19th century voyage of the USS Jeanette to the unchartered Artic waters, he tells his stories with uncanny historical accuracy and incisive analysis.

In his current effort Sides conveys the authenticity and intensity of war on the Korean peninsula.  His portrayal of the bravery of America soldiers is clear and unsettling as the realism of combat is laid bare for all to see.  At times it is difficult to comprehend what these soldiers were able to overcome and reading the book during the week of Veteran’s Day makes Sides work that more relevant.

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(Major-General Oliver Prince Smith)

Sides integrates all the important historical figures into his narrative, including American Marines and members of the US Army.  We meet the egotistical General Douglas MacArthur and his staff of sycophants and supplicants.  MacArthur can carry out the Inchon landing against all odds, but this logistical miracle seems to fuel is insatiable need for further glory.  Fed by men like General Ned Almond whose main goal was to carry out MacArthur’s wishes, sluffing off any advice or criticism by other planners the only result could be the disaster that encompassed American soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir and along the Yalu River.  Disregarding intelligence that went against his own staff, MacArthur and Almond would push on disregarding and ignoring contrary opinions.  President Harry Truman appears and seems to go along with MacArthur, particularly at the Wake Island Conference until proof emerges that over 250,000 Chinese Communist soldiers have poured into North Korea from mid-October 1950 onward.

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(Major-General Edward “Ned” Almond)

Perhaps Sides most revealing portrait in explaining how American soldiers met disaster in the Chosin Reservoir region was his comparison of the views of Major-General Oliver Prince Smith, the Commander of the First Marine Division, a by the book Marine who described MacArthur as “a man with a solemn regard for his own divinity;” and Major-General Edward “Ned” Almond, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff.  All Almond cared about was speed, disregarding the obstacles that Smith faced in planning MacArthur’s assault on northern Korea.  Smith was a deliberate and  fastidious planner who resented Almond’s constant goading.  He felt that Almond strutted around (like MacArthur!) and made pronouncements based on minimum intelligence.  Almond was a racist who down played the abilities of Hispanic American troops and thought very little of the fighting ability of the Chinese.  For Almond’s part he viewed Smith as an impediment to his overall goals of carrying out MacArthur’s wishes.  He believed that Smith was overly concerned with planning minutiae, and his deliberate approach detracted from his grand plans.

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(General Douglas MacArthur watching the Inchon Landing)

Sides portrayals of American soldiers and the their character provides insights and provide a mirror for the reader into the person’s abilities and their impact on their units, individual bravery, and the success or failure of their unit, battalion, or company’s mission.  Studies of Lee Bae-Suk, a Chinese-American who escaped North Korea as a teenager and enlisted in the Marines; Captain William Earl Barber, Commander of Company F, 2nd Battalion role protecting the Toktong Pass, a key route to the Chosin Reservoir, and a student of Sun Tzu as was Mao Zedong; the exploits of Seventh Marines’ Company E, known as “Easy” Commander, First Lieutenant John Yancy at Hill 1282; Lieutenant Chew-Een who led the column to rescue Fox Company encircled by Chinese troops; the Jersey contingent of private Kenneth Benson and Private Hector Cafferata, Jr.’s heroism in Fox Company; Lieutenant Thomas Hudner who would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery for his attempt to rescue Ensign Jesse Brown who hailed from a Mississippi sharecroppers background to become the first African-American fighter pilot in the US Navy; are among many along with other portrayals that are eye opening, as so many soldiers continued to fight on against all odds, despite wounds that would not have allowed most to even stand upright.

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at their Wake Island meeting)

Sides description of combat is almost pure in of itself, but completely unnerving.  A prime example is the fight for Hill 1282 and the rescue attempt of Fox Company.  The Chinese would attack American soldiers in human waves by the thousands paying little, or no attention to casualties as Marines repeatedly cut them down.  The carnage and suffering are hard to comprehend as is the bravery of US Marines fighting in sub zero temperatures in the middle of the night to protect a small piece of geography in northern Korea against an enemy, lacking in communications using the unnerving sounds of bugles, cymbals, whistles and such to organize their attacks.  Battles are seen through the eyes of the participants and the will and desire of each man is on full display.

Sides has written an excellent narrative military history, but on another level, he has produced a study that highlights the relationship between men in combat and how they rely upon each other for their survival.  It is a book about heroes, the idiocy of war, and the incompetence of decision-making by people at the top who are willing to send men to their deaths, in many cases without batting an eye.  The book reads like a novel, but it presents history as truth, that cannot be denied or dismissed.

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(US soldiers retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, December, 1950)

 

THE LONGEST DAY by Cornelius Ryan

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(June 6, 1944….D-Day landing at Normandy)

On June 6, 2019 thousands will descend onto the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the allied landing that would eventually bring an end to Nazi domination of Europe during World War II.  Since my wife and I plan on traveling to Normandy at that time I felt it was important to read the latest works on the topic.  It made sense to me to reread Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, first published in 1959, a book that has not lost its resonance to this day. As I began to familiarize myself with the history of the events that led up to the invasion, the invasion itself, and its historical ramifications I felt that Ryan’s work was a good place to begin.

Ryan’s work, along with A BRIDGE TO FAR and THE LAST BATTLE are well written accounts of the war that in most cases have stood the test of time.  In THE LONGEST DAY, Ryan recounts the horrors of war that took place the night of the invasion, and what followed the day after.  His research consisted of hundreds of interviews of the participants including Americans, Canadians, British, French, and German soldiers and civilian, along with primary documents that were available.  In his account we can discern the difficulties in planning the invasion, carrying it out, and its emotional and physical impact on those who approached the Normandy beaches, and what transpired once they landed.  In the end roughly 12,000 allied soldiers perished in the attack, with the Americans bearing half the number of casualties.

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(German obstacles on the beaches)

Ryan possesses an almost intimate knowledge of what transpired, particularly the thoughts of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who believed an allied invasion would coincide with a Russian move in the east.  Since a Russian attack was delayed because of a late thaw in Poland, Rommel decided to travel home on June 5th.  Rommel firmly believed that he had left the beaches protected with the numerous underwater obstacles he created as well as the 60 million mines that were buried on the beaches.  For Rommel, the key was to destroy invasion forces in the water before they could reach land.

At times, Ryan’s account reads like a novel as he describes the various aspects of the invasion.  Whether he is describing the actions of allied midget submarines X20 and X23 off the shore of Normandy, the inability of the German command to obtain permission to release the 12th SS and Panzer Lehr divisions to combat the invasion, the experiences of individuals as they tried to cope with what was occurring around them, Ryan places the reader in the middle of the action, and one can visualize what is happening very clearly from his descriptions.

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(Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Ryan is correct in his account of how the German High Command reacted to reports of the allied landings.  They could not accept the magnitude of the assault and those who were witnessing it, like Major Werner Pluskot could not seem to convey to higher ups that “a ghostly armada somehow appeared from nowhere.”  Ryan presents a realistic portrayal as the allied landing forces begin to approach the beaches as he describes the many accidents, drownings, explosions, and deaths that occurred before the fighting even commenced.  Ryan’s reporting of certain incidents is chilling; for example, when soldiers saw their compatriots drowning or injured, they were ordered not to assist them and stick to the tight schedule that planners wanted implemented.

Ryan’s descriptive approach is on full display as he describes the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne units and their plight as they parachuted behind German lines as the first component of the invasion.  Ryan provides individual stories of the participants ranging from Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort who fought for 40 days on a broken ankle, General Dwight Eisenhower’s agonizing decision making in dealing with weather issues as he tries to determine whether to unleash allied forces, to members of the French underground and their work, to civilians in England, Germany, and France and how they dealt with loss and anxiety about their loved ones.

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There are several interesting aspects dealing with the technological ingenuity of the allies, particularly the creation of two floating harbors that were towed across the channel, each harbor amazingly replicating the size of Dover, England.  The invasion was a logistical nightmare and Ryan does a wonderful job providing insights into how certain problems were dealt with.

Ryan’s work was published in 1959 after years of research and the final product was exemplary when written and remains a classic account of D-Day seventy-five years later.

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BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher

Image result for photo of Weimar Berlin 1929(Weimar Berlin, 1929)

After recently visiting the Jewish quarter of Budapest, former Nazi sites in Nuremberg, and several German towns along the Danube and Rhine Rivers, 20th century German history has taken hold of my thoughts.  When I travel I have a personal tradition of trying to discover regional authors who have written historical mysteries about countries I have visited.  In this case I have come upon, Volker Kutscher’s first novel, BABYLON BERLIN, which introduces Book I of his Gerson Rath series.

Gerson Rath is an interesting protagonist who stems from a somewhat questionable background.  A former Cologne detective, he was forced to leave that police department due to a shooting incident where Rath was strongly implicated.  Because of the influence of his father, Police Director Engelbert Rath, he was able to transfer to a vice squad in the Berlin Police Department as an investigative detective.  From that point on Kutscher provides an insightful look at the underside of Weimar Berlin in 1929 as the depression looms and right-wing parties begin to proliferate.  Kutscher explores the role of drugs, pornography, and the actions of immigrant elements and their effect on German crime, politics and society in general.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1929 witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party)

Rath soon finds himself involved in a series of vice raids, but his heart is in solving homicides, not busting pimps, prostitutes, or porno-film producers.  After several murders take place, Rath sees an opportunity to solve them as a vehicle of self-glorification to gain a promotion to the Homicide Division.  He keeps information from his superiors, becomes involved in an accidental murder which he hides, false in love with a stenographer in Homicide, all on the way to achieving a promotion, due in large part once again to his father’s influence.

As Rath proceeds with his own investigations, the pervading atmosphere in Berlin is one of fear of communist demonstrations that could lead to a coup against the government.  This fear was further reinforced with the emergence of a group called the “Red Fortress.” Pre-Hitlerite Berlin is on full display as we witness the rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Party, the cafes and dance halls infested with alcohol and cocaine, opium dens, mob killings, corruption, and labor unrest.  Berlin is a city where Communists and ultra-nationalists are at war with each other to wreck the Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy. Another component to Kutscher’s plot emerges as Rath discovers a connection with a circle of oppositional Russian exiles who try to purchase weapons with smuggled gold stolen from Stalinist Russia.  Rath’s actions and machinations should be self-destructive as he himself becomes a murder suspect.  Rath is a character with many secrets, which include PTSD from combat in World War I, and Kutscher has no compunction about presenting Rath as an individual who is morally compromised as he tries to achieve a greater good for his city.

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(1929, Hitler the politician in Weimar Berlin)

Kutscher introduces several interesting characters to carry his novel.  Among them are Charlotte Ritter, a stenographer in the Homicide Department that Rath falls in love with; Elizabeth Behnke, Rath’s landlady who is jilted by Rath after a one night stand; Detective Chief Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a boisterous commander that Rath must deal with; Dr. Magnus Schwartz, the coroner who repeatedly tests Rath’s reaction to autopsies;  Berthold Weinert, a newsman and neighbor of Rath; Commissioner Zorgiebel, a friend of Rath’s father, who needed publicity the way an addict needs his drug fix; Bruno Wolter, Rath’s partner;  Countess Svetlana Sorokina, whose family held $80 million worth of gold; Alexej Ivanovitsch Kardakov, worked to smuggle gold into Germany; and Johann Marlow, a cocaine dealer linked to the Red Fortress plot. Other criminals and interesting personality types are also present representing the Russian mob, drug dealers, murderers, and Nazis, all designed to complete a complex plot line that meanders throughout the novel.  For Rath, as the investigation proceeds he is forced to ask himself; “how was it that every time he learned something new about the case, he understood less than before?”

Kutscher has written a fast-paced story that seems to twist and turn from page to page.  It will keep the reader’s attention through an excellent translation from German and the end result should surprise everyone.  The end of the novel forms the basis of a continuing series involving Detective Investigator Rath in the second installment, entitled, THE SILENT DEATH.  For those interested, BABYLON BERLIN, currently forms the basis of a new series on Netflix.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1933)

THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMAN by John Lawton

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(Berlin Wall)

John Lawton is perhaps one of the best practitioners of the art of Cold War noir.  He has written two separate series that deal with historical events behind the Iron Curtain and other areas and each has a scintillating plot that reeks of historical probability.  The third installment of Lawton’s Joe Wilderness series, THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMEN is an excellent example of this successful genre.  The novel is set in the early 1960s with Nikita Khrushchev master of the Soviet Union in competition for the hearts and minds of third world countries with John F. Kennedy.  In England MI6 is growing concerned about Soviet nuclear capability as are the Americans.

The story unfolds with a return to post war Berlin when former MI6 operative Joe Wildnerness accidently shoots a woman who is involved with a plot to smuggle a nuclear physicist out of East Berlin to send her to newly created state of Israel.  Wilderness is arrested and is freed by the West German authorities through the intervention of Alec Berne-Jones, an MI6 fixture for years, who happens to be Wilderness’ father-in-law.  In return for his freedom, Wilderness agrees to rejoin MI6.  Further, Lawton introduces Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn, a British Squadron Leader who is shot down over Silesia in March, 1963, captured and finally liberated by the Russians.  The NKVD, never would never miss an opportunity, takes the body of Alleyn which they have recovered and use his identity and substitute an agent, Leonoid L’vovich Liubimov to infiltrate the British Defense establishment.

British Intelligence has its own plans to infiltrate the Soviet Defense apparatus.  It seems that their entire Russian operation has been rolled by a treasonous spy by the name of George Blake, who of course had ties to the Cambridge Five.  MI6 decides to develop an “out of the box” agent, Geoffrey Masefield, an expert in metallurgy who suffers from low self-esteem, but had delusions that he could be a successful spy.  The story that is concocted deals with idium, a rare metal that Masefield, posing as an industrial representative will try and purchase in Moscow.  The goal is to gain Soviet interest in Masefield which would allow him to visit certain sites that might be of interest.  Lawton’s development of Masefield’s character and spy ability is classic and his adventures in Russia become a core of the novel.  Masefield develops a relationship with Tanya Dmitrievna Tsitikova his “Russian watcher,” of course a KGB spy, as well as Professor of Physics Grigory Grigoryevich Matsekyolyev of the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, who also is a KGB spy, which makes for interesting scenes and dialogue.

Lawton’s novel is presented in layers.  First, introducing the major characters and their possible relationship to the world of intelligence.  Second, developing each character fully, and lastly tying them together in an intricate plot that attracts the readers complete attention.  While doing so Lawton integrates historical events, concepts, and figures that provide the novel with an air of accuracy when applied to the course of the Cold War.  Events that are easily recognizable are the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna, the U2 Incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, trading of spies, among others.  The realism that is evident does at times seems at times to be a tad far fetched as is evidences by Wilderness’ meeting with Khrushchev on the western side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall in late September, 1961.  But to Lawton’s credit his sarcasm papers over several situations as his somewhat dark humor presides.

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Lawton presents all the clichés associated with the world of spies through the character of Masefield.  Further, the reader gets a sense of Moscow during the Cold War with the lines for poor quality goods, the black market, overcrowded and run down housing, and the ever present KGB which seems to be everywhere.  Other important characters play important roles.  Wilderness’s wife, Judy, a saucy BBC producer, and daughter of her husband’s boss tries to keep her husband on track.  Tom Radley is an incompetent British MI6 Station Chief in Berlin who makes a series of errors, Nell Burkhardt who was close with Wilderness after the war and finds herself running a refugee camp, the Marooned Centre in Berlin in the early 1960s, Frank Spoleta, a self-indulgent CIA operative who seems to alienate everyone he encounters, among others.

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(President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev)

British intelligence chiefs are in a quandary as to how to further employ Masefield.  Wilderness is extremely skeptical in extending Masefield’s leash, so he can try and penetrate the Soviet Defense Ministry further.  On the other hand, Radley, the Berlin Chief wants to provide his agent carte blanche.  The result is that Radley’s view is put forth leading to disastrous consequences and his removal from his position.  At this point the novel takes on an exceptionally serious hue as M16 officials, Wilderness, and his father-in-law must change course in order to contain the intelligence gaffe, and deal with the fallout that may foster more drastic Soviet actions.

Lawton, as per usual has written an exciting Cold War mystery, with strong character development, the ability to integrate the unusual into his dialogue and story line, and take the reader back and forth from post war Berlin to the machinations of the 1960s.  For those who enjoy David Downing, Olen Steinhauer, Philip Kerr, or Luke McCallin, they will find Lawton to be equal to, if not a step up in his approach to Cold War espionage.  Lawton is a great read, no matter what book of his you might pick up, so enjoy.

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(Berlin Wall, upon completion)

LIE IN THE DARK by Dan Fesperman

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(Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Civil War-1990s)

The names Slobadan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Franjo Tudman probably have long receded from our minds.  Perhaps places like Srebrenica, Racak, Banja Luka, the sites of massacres during the 1990s Yugoslav civil war might jog your memory, if not Dan Fesperman’s novel, LIE IN THE DARK explores the terrors and murder associated with that dark time concentrating on Sarajevo.  The story will take you back to a period of intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and wonderment about the depths of evils that people succumb to.

Fesperman sets the tone of his novel from the outset as homicide investigator, Vlado Petric observes the early morning grave digging crew unearthing bodies that were victims of shelling and sniper fire the previous day.  His observations go directly to the absurdity of war as he describes grave digging during a period of genocide, the continuous cycle of snipers and shelling as almost normal vocations.  Sarajevo and its environs presented a universe of slaughter, death, and destruction which was the daily norm for the city.  It is a story dealing with human depravity, treachery, and ethnic cleansing among Serbs, Croats, and Moslems.  To what end was the glory of this national ideal, a belief resting on genocide with groups like the Chetniks, the Ustasha, and others committing murder daily.  In this environment Petric believed that what he did made a difference, but his rationalization did not always protect him from the reality of this brutal civil war.

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(Siege of Sarajevo)

Petric was Catholic and a Croat who had sent his wife and daughters to Germany to escape the civil war, a conflict where the Serbs were bent on leveling Sarajevo layer upon layer if they could not capture it.  Fesperman’s description of the morass of the civil war places the reader amid the carnage that was Sarajevo.  During the shelling Petric tried to maintain his sanity by painting miniature soldiers from diverse historical periods, an occupation that became his therapy.  Petric’s secondary therapy was police work, investigating murders amidst the war raging around him.  A world where the paucity of food, supplies and the necessities of life became a battle of scavenging, barter, and other strategies to deal with the black market on which their lives depended.

The novel centers on the murder of Esmir Vitas, the Chief of the Ministry of the Special Police.  Petric is placed in charge of the investigation as he is seen as not being tainted by the war, which made him palatable to United Nations bureaucrats.  Petric pursues a standard approach to his investigation, but he soon runs into road blocks forcing him to stretch police procedures to their limits.  Vitas’ murder goes deeper than meets the eye after Petric conducts a few interviews, and takes the investigation into Sarajevo’s underworld of gangs, war lords, and government and United Nations officials who have their own agendas and cannot be trusted.

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(a woman risks her life for food in Sarajevo)

Fesperman presents a parallel track in the novel as he describes the dehumanizing nature of the war, and how the ongoing fighting affects people’s daily lives.  For the civilian population there is no such thing as a casual stroll.  If you went out for food, desperate from hunger you took your life into your own hands, and most likely you would become a target for a sniper.  Fesperman spends an inordinate amount of time presenting the lunacy of war, but he does provide glimpses into the bygone age when life was normal, but boys playing basketball off a bent rim with sniper fire all around is a bit disconcerting to categorize as normal.  Petric, like others has difficulty coping with the separation from his family as he realizes he does not know his daughter after two years of being apart following her first birthday.  He can speak by telephone for a brief time monthly, but this just heightens his anguish.

Perhaps Fesperman’s most interesting character is Milan Glavas, a white haired individual with a hacking cough who was an expert in Yugoslav art and antiquities from World War II to the 1990s.  Petric learned from Glavas about the lists of artifacts and other objects that had been stolen since the war.  The recovery of objects from the Nazis led to a black market trade that disseminated art works throughout Yugoslavia and other countries.  Glavas had gone to Germany at the end of the war to investigate and he became a wealth of knowledge concerning the location of these items.  A transfer file had been created which had been destroyed in a fire, but Glavas supposedly was the only source for that information.  The novel takes on a different tact as Glavas, “the curator of the world’s most scattered collection.  The shepherd, if you will, of all of [Yugoslavia’s] wandering lambs,” is introduced.   It seems the black market trade, the role of certain military officials, bureaucrats, and United Nations representatives is greatly involved, and the question is how does Vitas’ murder fit into the main plot. What results is a fascinating story were by a senile woman, a reluctant prostitute, and an English reporter play prominent roles.

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Fesperman is masterful story teller with excellent command of the historical information that makes this novel believable.  Fesperman is not your typical novelist as he has constructed the netherworld of art seizures and recovery from World War II.  He explores how items are smuggled, and the lengths that some go to enrich themselves from this illegal trade.  For some the story might be far-fetched, but seen in the context of the 1990s in Yugoslavia, it is an accurate setting.  I have read a few Fesperman’s later novels including, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO and THE WARLORD’S SON, and LIE IN THE DARK begins a pattern of excellence that is followed in all of his later books.  Fesperman has become one of my favorite practitioners of historical “mystery” fiction, and his gripping style and character development should attract a wide audience.

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(Sarajevo during 1990s Yugoslav Civil War)

FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward

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What is one to think of a book whose closing line is a quote from John Dowd, who resigned as President Trump’s lawyer in March 2018, that states “the president is a fucking liar.”  The book in question is FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward, and like his other books it is based on his own reporting, extensive interviewing, gathering information directly and indirectly from other publications and news accounts.  Woodward’s narrative covers the Trump presidential campaign through the resignation of Dowd, and presents, perhaps the most dysfunctional White House in American history.

Recently, the public has been bombarded with books dealing with the rise of the Trump presidency.  What sets Woodward’s monograph apart is the author’s reputation and history of access to sources that others do not employ.  The book presents an administration that Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly describes as “crazy town,” and the former aide to the president, Rob Porter defines Trump as a “professional liar.”  Woodward’s command of the material is excellent and integrates all the characters discussed daily by cable news and the print media.  The plight of Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Hope Hicks, and many others is present for all to see as they try and protect the president from himself.

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(Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic advisor)

From the start outset the narrative Woodward presents a scary scene as Trump wants to withdraw from the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, an action which could have grave national security consequences in dealing with Kim Jong Un and North Korea.  The situation is offset by the head of Trump’s Economic Council, Gary Cohn who steals the letter telling South Korean President Moon of his intentions from the president’s desk.  This type of behavior is just the tip of the ice berg as Woodward recounts the daily machinations of the West Wing.

Much of what Woodward writes has appeared in some form or another elsewhere for those who followed the 2016 election and the first 15 months of the Trump presidency.  For some the book may be repetitious, but Woodward has done an excellent job of integrating new material that he has uncovered with that of other accounts.  Woodward provides numerous tidbits that will make the reader wonder what is going on at the White House.  Gary Cohn plays a major role in trying to steer Trump toward economic policies that are sound and will not destroy trade with our allies, and China.  For Cohn, seen by his opponents in the administration as a New York Democrat and a “globalist,” believes that Trump had no basic understanding of how the US economy works.  Trump just wanted to print more money and had no concept of how the debt cycle worked.  For Trump, deficits worked as bankruptcies in his real estate businesses, and large deficits in the federal budget could work the same way – hence the massive tax cuts passed by Congress.

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(Peter Navarro)

Large swaths of FEAR are spent detailing tariff and trade issues.  For years Trump believed that China, South Korea and others had been taking advantage of the United States – as president he would rectify that situation.  Woodward provides interesting details dealing with the clash of Cohn with Peter Navarro, a Trump appointee over deficit spending.  Cohn lays out the arguments carefully for the president as if speaking to a ninth grader.  Ninety-nine percent of economists supported Cohn’s views dealing with NAFTA, the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization etc.  Cohn prepared a short paper to explain his position, but Trump does not read and did not accept Cohn’s facts concerning the service sector of the US economy.  Cohn asked Trump why to do you have these views, Trump replied, “I’ve had these views for thirty years.”  Rob Porter who supported Cohn against Navarro and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross as they tried to explain the interrelationship between American trade policies and American national security.  They, along with Secretary of Defense, James Mattis argued in the case of South Korea that the US had 28,000 troops along the DMZ with North Korea which served as a tripwire for American defense.  Trump was obsessed with the $18 billion trade imbalance with South Korea and wanted Seoul to pay for the THAAD missile system designed to protect our ally, which also protected our troops.  In fact, Seoul did pay $8 billion of the $10 billion cost.   Cohn and Porter repeatedly rehashed their economic and national security arguments to no avail as Navarro and Ross refused to accept the concept that increased tariffs would result in a tax for American consumers.  Navarro and Ross argued that the tariff increase would help Trump with big businesses and unions and would be good for the 2018 midterm elections.  Cohn believed he “was banging his head against the wall,” though he would not resign until the massive tax cut for the upper classes would be implemented.  Cohn had his agenda and he would swallow the events of Charlottesville and Trump’s response, to push through the tax cuts.

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(Trump Chief of Staff, John Kelly and Rob Porter, former presidential aide)

Woodward spends a great deal of time examining the role of Rob Porter who was a restraining influence on Trump.  Once he left because he physically abused his ex-wife the leash on Trump became very loose.  Kelly and Tillerson tried to reign the president in, but both failed.  Tillerson was fired or quit, depending on who you believe, and Kelly remains at his post with little or no influence on the president.

Woodward reinforces the role of Jared and Ivanka Kushner who seemed to live in their own “silo.”  Woodward describes how Trump ordered the assassination of President Bashir Assad of Syria as he said, “let’s go in, let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” but was talked out of it.  Trump’s erratic behavior dominates the book from campaign rallies to Charlottesville, to reacting to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his relationship with Steve Bannon, meetings with John Dowd, his theory that you must deny everything repeatedly no matter what the accusation and the facts are, his comments about Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, etc.  Trump comes off as the ultimate narcissist, a behavior that continues to this day.

For Trump, real power was based on fear, and Woodward captures this emotion exceptionally well in the president.  Woodward writes in his breezy newspaper style and makes the book, no matter how disturbing, an easy read.

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THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ by C.J. Chivers

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(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

Recently, C. J. Chivers appeared on Book TV/C-SPAN and describes how he went about writing his new book, THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ.  After 9/11 the US military mission was to root out and defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Chivers, a New York Times investigative correspondent argues that the mission was accomplished in a few weeks, but after seventeen years, we as a nation still find ourselves supporting the governments in Kabul and Baghdad with thousands of troops.  During those seventeen years over 2.7 million soldiers fought in Afghanistan and Iraq with over 3,000 deaths and 10,000 wounded.  Based on our present circumstances in both countries it is important to understand the experiences of American forces and gain insights into their lives before, during, and after their service.  Chivers engages this task and the result is a powerful book that should be the standard in trying to explain what has happened to the American military and their soldiers during the last seventeen years.

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(author, C.J. Chivers)

Chivers’ approach is broad based.  He relies on interviews of the combatants and narrows it down to six to eight individuals.  They were chosen to represent as many areas as possible; he has chosen soldiers from different phases of the wars discussed; he focuses on the different enemies the US was confronted with; he explores different regions in the combat areas; the characters represent career soldiers from before 9/11, and those who joined because of the attack at the World Trade Center.  Further, he explores the individual MOS of each character, how each soldier readjusted to civilian life, and their views about the wars before, during, and after their involvement.  By using this approach Chivers can dig down and engage the human emotions involved, how combat affected his characters, and how the wars affected their families.

Chivers’ research rests on numerous interviews conducted over a six-year period, diaries maintained by the participants, newspaper accounts, and other primary materials that were available.  The author concludes that the men and women who fought represent only 1% of our country.  The American people do not know that 1%, and most do not know anyone that knows them.  This is important because that being the case the war does not touch most of us, therefore when decisions were made to fight the public debate was minimal.  Perhaps if we had a draft and more people had “skin in the game” the public would be more involved, and it would not be so easy to engage in warfare.  Chivers’ goal is an effort to remedy this situation “in part through demystification.”  In doing so he rejects the views of senior officers.  “It channels those who did the bulk of the fighting with an unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who order them to action—and often try to speak for them too.”  Chivers is correct when he states that the history of warfare can be summed up with “too much general and not enough sergeant.”

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Chivers offers a critical indictment of American decision making and policies that led to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the errors that have ensued during the wars themselves.  The lies, political machinations, career enhancing decisions, and general stupidity of what has occurred over the last seventeen years is on full display.  The author presents six major characters, across numerous military fields in making his arguments.  Chivers begins with Lieutenant Layne McDowell, a combat pilot; he goes on to include Sergeant First Class Leo Kryzewski, a Special Forces team navigator; Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby; Chief Warrant Officer Michael Sebonic, a helicopter commander; Specialist Robert Soto, an eighteen year old radio operator in an infantry unit; and Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, an infantry unit commander.  Chivers allows the reader to get to know each character in a personal way, that when things go wrong they feel the pain that each soldier experiences.  Chivers describes numerous ambushes, mortar attacks, IED explosions, rocket attacks, remote explosions, suicide bombs, and how soldiers tried to cope, especially the after effects.  In effect, Chivers describes the “rawness of combat” and war itself and the difficulties endured by those who served.

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(Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby after the war)

Perhaps the most poignant description in the book is when Petty Officer Dustin “Doc” Kirby spoke with the father of a soldier whose life he had saved, Chivers writes “The voice on the other end was breaking.  Bob Smith was talking through tears.  He pushed on.  ‘My son would not be alive if not for you…. And if I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’  Kirby’s guilt began to lift.”

The military bureaucracy, “chicken shit” attitudes by higher ups, and poor decision-making where things that soldiers had to deal with daily to survive.  For those in combat it came down to the battlefield’s baseline mentality: “They looked after themselves, platoon by platoon, squad by squad, truck crew by truck crew, each marine having the others back, and staying wide of the higher ups.”  If one theme dominants Chivers’ narrative it is that each soldier saw his fellow soldier as a brother to be treated and cared for as they would wish to be treated and cared for themselves.

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(President George W. Bush)

All of these points are encapsulated in the description of Operation Mostar in one of the most dangerous areas of Helmand province as part of the 2010 troop surge in  Afghanistan.  Lt. Jarrod Neff must prove himself as a unit commander to his Marines having been transferred from an intelligence unit.  Neff’s experiences point out the number of important issues related to the war.  After spending billions on training an Afghan National Army, at the time of the surge they remained poorly trained, not trustworthy to the point many were suspected of being Taliban spies, and though they were to take the lead in certain operations, the Marines refused to allow it.  Chivers description of Marine training, readiness and peoperational planning provides a human element in contemplating the violence and death American soldiers were about to deal with.  As Chivers takes the reader through the assault on Marja one can only imagine how our troops can cope with what is happening around them.  The most devastating aspect of the fighting was an errant American bomb that blew up a civilian house resulting in numerous casualties with body parts strewn all around.  What made it worse is that the house contained women and children.  It would fall to Neff’s men to clean up and complete a “body death assessment.”  Chivers points out, that to this day the military has refused to release the investigative report about the incident.

Chivers has written a masterful work that describes the atmosphere that exists in combat and what life was like for those soldiers who returned home.  After reading this book the reader will become angry because of government policies, incompetence, and blindness when it came to American involvement in carrying out these two wars.  The book should now be considered the standard for anyone who wants to vicariously live the life of an American soldier today and understand where US policy went wrong.

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(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)