book review

book review

Against A Noble Lie: “Canadians Under Fire” by Robert Engen

a woman in overalls and a bandana holds a newly completed light machine gun on a table in front of a poster
Gunsmith Veronica Foster of the John Inglis Co. Ltd, Toronto ON 1941. The Canadians say that the National Film Board’s publicity for her as “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” inspired the Americans to create “Rosie the Riveter” the following year. Public domain image c/o https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Veronica_Foster,_ww2_gunsmith,_displays_a_finished_Bren_gun_-c.jpg

Robert Engen, Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 [Bookfinder] [Biblio]

In this plague time, zombie ideas walk the earth, for all our attempts to call down academic fire on them. One of those is S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that only 15-25% of American infantry in WW II fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy. Although Marshall’s trustworthiness had been undermined by the 1980s, and he left no records of the interviews where he claimed to have learned this embarrassing truth, the idea gained a new life after it was popularized by writers like columnist Gwynne Dyer and the smooth smiling David Grossman. Engen’s book focuses on another body of evidence which exists today: surveys mailed to Canadian infantry captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels returning to Britain after fighting on the continent. Anyone can go and read the original documents in Ottawa, and they were filled out within a few weeks of leaving combat for an internal military audience. While Engen dutifully reminds readers that combat is confusing, memories are maleable, and people don’t always say exactly what they remember, these surveys are better sources than anecdotes or the opinions of one amateur historian with a gift for self-publicity.

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So Take Your Last Look Upon Sunshine and Brook: Citino’s “Death of the Wehrmacht”

A round table on a stone patio with lines pointing to Györ 179 km, Volgograd 2165 km, Budapest 277 km, Debrecen 471 km, "east," and Sevastopol 1427 km
Some displaced ambition from the Schlossberg, Graz. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Robert M. Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, KA, 2007) ISBN-13 978-0-7006-1791-3 [Bookfinder]

Robert Citino’s Death of the Wehrmacht (2007) is a third type of history book. Rather than a journalistic history drawing on interviews or a monograph with carefully limited scope, it is a book with a big idea inspired by experience lecturing. He believes that the kind of land war which Germany waged from 1939 to 1945 was not just a product of a bad strategic situation or Nazi ideology but a particular way of fighting wars which went back to Frederick the Great’s Prussia. This type of warfare focused on throwing the army against the largest concentration of enemy troops from an unexpected direction and relying on highly trained officers and men to overcome larger, better-funded armies in a few weeks of fighting. He then uses this way of thinking to explain the major German offensives of 1942: in the Crimea, at Kharkov in Ukraine (where the Soviets attacked first), against the oil fields of the South Caucasus and to the lower Volga, and against the Nile Delta to close the Suez Canal. This is a book about the Prussian and then German officer corps as an institution, anchored in several centuries of history rather than the Third Reich.

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And the Morning Road Leads to Stalingrad

The Second World War created the world that I grew up in, and the central event of that war was the Nazi-Soviet struggle. 80% of the Germans and Austrians killed or captured in the war were killed or captured by the Soviets (Glantz, The Soviet-German War 1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay [2001]). My standby reference on the war, R.A.C. Parker’s brilliantly concise The Second World War: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 1989), was written too early to take advantage of the opening of the Soviet archives and the deconstruction of the German generals’ memoirs. Two recent English books represent two major approaches to writing about this unspeakably terrible conflict.

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Cross-Post: Some Thoughts on Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West”

Even in this most unusual year, the plants grow and people play volleyball This week’s blog post is on Ancient World Magazine: a review of Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900” (Routledge, 2003). Halsall is a thoughtful scholar, and when I read his book I was struck... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Some Thoughts on Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West”

Staring Evil in the Face: Some Thoughts on Hanson’s “The Other Greeks”

a view to the bottom of a river on a sunny winter day

Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.

– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Slavery_a_Positive_Good

I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.

The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.

To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).

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Some Thoughts on “The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy”

A snowy field with construction cranes in the distant background beyond a fence

Violet Blue, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy: Practical Tips for Staying Safe Online (No Starch Press: San Francesco CA, 2015) Digita Publications

Writer and journalist Violet Blue is working on a new edition of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy. So even though its a little bit late for Data Protection Day on 28 January, I think its time to dust off my review. Her book has a clear and distinct vision of its audience, and avoids the traps which most writers on security and privacy fall in to.

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I Don’t Understand Martin Gurri

A park in autumn with fallen yellow leaves, trees, and a sign on a lamp post telling dog owners to clean up their pet's poop
Living together always creates some tensions, like this passive-aggressive but very Austrian message to dog owners in Innsbruck: SEI NICHT GRAUSLIG! Hundekot gehört ins Sackerl und dann in den Mistkübel! DANKE! (“DON’T BE GROSS! Dog waste belongs in a bag and then in the wastebin! THANKS!”)

A few people have recommended Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (second edition 2018, available on Bookfinder) but I don’t understand the author’s ideas as they are presented on his blog and in interviews. Granted that he writes his blog in a poetic style, where key concepts are never defined because you are supposed to roll them around and absorb the general meaning in terms that make sense to you.  I suspect that some times he says something he knows is not quite right because it will provoke readers or catch their attention. I would like to see how his book defines elite and why (to me, it seems like the period since 1990 has been hard for journalists and experts in bureaucracies, but great for the rich and academics). In 2017 he paraphrased José Ortega y Gasset that “The quality that sets elites apart – that imparts authority to their actions and expressions – isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even persuasiveness. It’s integrity in life and work” but he also said that elites are those who “run the great institutions of the industrial age,” and I can’t reach from one definition to the other with a barge-pole made up of recycled Margaret Wente columns, Theranos stock certificates, and prospectuses for investors in Dalian, China.

I am confused by his prescription in ‘Has Government Failed?’ because that sounds like the response of the officeholding class, bureaucracy, and old-media commentators to critics in Canada: “you ask us to stop doing some evil thing, and we understand your idealism but that is just not practical for reasons which we can’t quite explain.  Yes, we told you we would do it if you elected us, and its a matter of a few thousand words of legislation or a few phone calls to officials and police departments, but its much too difficult, maybe if you re-elect us we can make time for it then?”  Contrarians in the United States often present climate change as a sinister plot to engineer society by distant intellectuals, and Gurri places such a scheme in the mouth of his ‘elite’, but in Canada it is grasasroots environmental organizations, small parties, and First Nations who push action and large business owners, the Liberal and Conservative party machines, and Old Media commentators who try to diffuse and delay.

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Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’

Brian Hughes and Fergus Robson (eds.) Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) circa 80 Euros on Bookfinder

I borrowed this volume in hopes that it would have more clues as to the oldest source for Good King Robert’s Testament (it did not, although Alastair John MacDonald very kindly helped me with modern editions of the Scotichronicon). But I ended up reading about half of it (skipping the chapters on 20th century warfare such as Julia Welland on NATO’s unlucky intervention in Afghanistan and Raphäelle Branche on French Algeria).

The book is in reverse chronological order, but lets begin with Tim Piceu describing an outbreak of small war in Flanders as the Dutch Republic and Hapsburgs wrestled for control (p. 160, 164)

Freebooter raids generally started in a tavern in one of the above-mentioned frontier towns or in a town in the island of Walcheren (Zeeland). There a group of around a dozen men- no women are known to have been freebooters- discussed a tip received by a local informant who knew of booty. Although frebooter bands acted under the guidance of an experienced marauder, the conducteur, and some friends raided together, there seemed to be no regular composition of the crew. Everybody who had the courage could join in. If the value of the booty outweighed the risks, the group would decided to leave for enemy territory. They packed their weapons and victuals for some days, dressed themselves like peasants, and slipped past enemy posts to a hiding-place in enemy territory. The sources mention freebooters carrying a vaulting-pole to move across the many Flemish creeks, ditches, and tidal inlets. Travelling happened mostly at night and the band avoided major roads. … Most freebooters probably used their takings for living expenses, paying off debt or, to quote a Dutch civil servant, ‘to indulge for a little time in a bad and godforsaken life of drunkenness and whoring.’

You all meet in a tavern, forsooth! And every gamer agrees with that Dutch civil servant about the proper way to spend the spoils of an adventure, even if they have not read sources from the Wars of the Low Countries or the Yukon Gold Rush.

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Some Thoughts on Niven’s “A Gift from Earth”

Larry Niven, A Gift from Earth (Ballantine Books: New York, 1968)

Larry Niven had a brilliant creative career from his first published story in 1964 to the Tales from Draco’s Tavern and The Integral Trees in the mid-1980s. Since then his star has faded, although his name often appears on covers next to a co-author; I get the impression that he got bored with writing but did not find a new vocation. I recently had a chance to re-read one of his novels which I don’t often return to, and was struck by how good it is.
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