Monthly Archives: June 2016

Book Review — Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice

Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice by Charles Edward Callwell is the reprint of the 1896 publication. This edition is from Endeavour Press. Callwell (1858-1928) was an Anglo-Irish officer who ended his career as a major-general and received a knighthood for his services. He personally fought in the 1880 Afghan War, the 1880-1 First Boer War, the 1897 Greco-Turkish War, and the 1899-1902 Second Boer War before retiring in 1909.

Seldom is it the big wars that bog us down, WWI being the notable exception. It is the little ones that cause the most problems for governments and nations. War historically has been seen as large armies moving against each other. WWII, the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars all were mainly large forces against large forces. However, many conflicts of colonial powers, especially England and France, involved fighting small local bands of rebels or securing peace on their terms. Small war fighting did not go unnoticed in America either. The interwar period saw the US Marines engaged in several actions throughout latin America. Later this experience would get the Marines into Vietnam as the small war experts…thirty years after the fact.

Callwell draws on personal experience and history to show the success and failure of military units in small wars. He explains what tactics should be used and why. Similarly, he explains why some traditional thinking does not work in smaller scale conflicts. Some of the examples seem humorous (in hindsight) and typical of the military and military intelligence. One example was the taking of a fortified position in the middle of the jungle. There were no roads and men, equipment, and animals had to cut a path through the heavy jungle to reach the objective. When they finally arrived, they found the fort to be not only unfortified and unarmed, but a lamasery occupied by a single monk. The tactics are good and most have stood the test of time; however, some are dated. Modern GPS, equipment, and MREs (rather than food on the hoof) have simplified some aspects. The primitive enemy now is more than likely to have the internet and satellite communications and operate much more coordinated than the Zulu or Boers. Also, the Camel Corps is most probably a thing of the past.

An extremely important military book that has been modified and updated by modern services, but still many of its lesson are lost in actual combat.

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Book Review — Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five by Curtis Smith

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked by Curtis Smith is part of IG Publishing’s series of Bookmarked books. Authors are invited to share their story of the book that influenced them the most. I have never met Curtis Smith, but it would almost seem that I knew him for a long time. We have quite a bit in common. We are both from northern cities, fathers, spent money on books as kids, fascinated by shortwave radio, enjoy history especially WWI, and are almost the same age. The writing seems very familiar and almost as though we walked the same path. Smith went to college after high school and became a teacher. I went to the Marines after high school. There is the split. Smith wonders what the military and the possibility of dead bodies would have been an experience he could have endured. I wonder if a classroom of middle school children is something I could have survived.

I first encountered Smith’s work in Best Small Fictions 2016. His contribution was called “Illusions.” After posting my review he asked me if I wanted to read his latest book on the book that inspired him the most — Slaughterhouse Five. I said, “yes” thinking it had to be pretty dark — the firebombing of a city and, from what I recalled, a mentally broken soldier. I read Slaughterhouse Five back in the early 1980s and that is what I remembered of it. I re-read it again before starting on Curtis’ book not trusting my memory and came away with a better understanding. Perhaps I was a bit like the Marine major Billy Pilgrim meets at the Lion’s Club in those days.

Smith starts but telling the reader about the book. It is the 29th most banned book in the United States. In fact, a North Dakota school burned all their copies in the firestorm of the school’s furnace. It has been called anti-Christian and obscene without seeing that the true obscenity lies in the destruction of a beautiful city and the amount of human bone meal the new city is built over. “So it goes” punctuates the violence and acts to numb the reader and allow him or her to simply accept violence and mass murder as something that naturally happens. There is so much horror in the book, but it is broken up with a dark humor. Billy Pilgrim is a walking cartoon for most of his military service and time as a prisoner of war — covered with a too small, fur collared jacket and silver boots.

Paul Lazzaro is the evil man in the story. He promises to kill Billy to avenge the death of Roland Weary who blames Billy for his gangrene and pending death. Lazzaro is by no means a nice guy but he kills Billy with a laser rifle. The whole mockery of death. Slaughterhouse Five was written in 1969. At the time, a laser was seen as a weapon that could split an atom at 20 at light years. Billy’s killer uses precision to accomplish his goal. The bombing of Dresden was the indiscriminate killing thousands. One was evil and the other is accepted.

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Josef Stalin, attributed.

So it goes.

Smith writes in a Tralfamadorian style seemingly jumping randomly from one point to another. It works extremely well and earthlings are clued in on the changes by inserted factoids about exemplary humans like Blokhin, the sporting contest of Mukai and Noda in China, and the origin of the word genocide. Smith also includes his stories of growing up, raising a son, and dealing with common core education.

Smith discusses PTSD and talks of a famous picture of a WWI soldier suffering from shell shock. The black and white adding additional emotion to a haunting picture. I am reminded of Septimus Warren Smith from Virginia Woolf’sMrs. Dalloway. Woolf also entered my mind when Smith was discussing walking along the beach with his wife and son watching the waves. He also reminds the reader of modern literature in the world today. Conservative, Christian leaders in government service preaching the genius of Ayn Rand while missing the point that she was anti-service, an atheist, and a critic of Ronald Reagan.

The biographical information and the discussion ofSlaughterhouse Five tie in superbly. It was like sitting down with an old friend and talking about the past and about that book we read long ago. Far from the dark and depressing story, I was expecting, Smith’s writing on his life and Vonnegut is leveled with good and bad. His historical references in the book prevent it from being a “feel good” book and levels the tone. But all the same, it is a book that embraces the reader into a comfortable learning discussion. Like Slaughterhouse Five’s mixture of humor and horror, Smith finds his mix of book and biography. An outstanding take on life, the world, and the book.

Smith, like Vonnegut, ends his book with a bird’s call of “Poo-tee-weet?” Why does a bird tweet interrogatively? That puzzled me. What could a bird possibly ask? Then I remembered this from Auguries of Innocence and M Train by Patti Smith:

They know, I thought, like the birds of Iraq before shock and awe on the first day of spring. It was said that the sparrows and songbirds stopped singing, their silence heralding the dropping of bombs.

Perhaps the birds are asking is it over, or more likely “arethey over?”

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Poetry Review — Navy Blue

Navy Blue by Steve Meagher

Navy Blue by Steve Meagher is the poet’s first book of poetry. Meagher grew up in Oakville, Ontario. His poems have appeared in Carousel, The Nashwaak Review, and Ottawa Arts Review. He lives in Toronto.

Sharp, jagged, and possibly scarring. The words cut deep even when there are only a few. From watching his sister on her deathbed to grandpa’s bedtime stories, Meagher captures emotion and raw sense of reality. Even the poets in this collection are a strong and dark breed:

The poets of Mimco
They’ll slit your throat
For a dollar and a quarter.

Or

The streets carry me softly
I push away the bright lights
So I can run with the poets
I can say things to the factories.

There is a capturing of what we all share even when it is something we would rather forget. That cheating redneck neighbor is the poet’s “My Pal Sal.” His collection of friends is recorded in “New Saints.” — Shark Tooth, Scarecrow, Tin Man…

Meagher takes the reader to a gritty place of growing up with the street rather than “home.” We question our own mortality and survival. Navy Blue is to poetry what Hubert Selby Jr was to fiction and Lou Reed was to music.

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Book Review — Air of Battle: A Pilot’s Account of World War One

Squadron Leader William Mayes Fry was a World War I Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force fighter ace. He was credited with eleven aerial victories, piloting no fewer than four different types of fighter aircraft.

Fry enlisted in the army underage and made it all the way to the trenches before being sent home. Once back in England and of age, he tried to become an aerial observer and ended up training to be a pilot. Failing the mechanical part of the training and risking washing out of the program, he was saved by new orders. Fry records all his wartime experience in a straightforward manner reporting the facts and experiences without added emotions or exaggeration. He, also, was also one of the lucky ones despite many mishaps, he survived the war and lived to be ninety-five.

For those who read WWI history, especially the air war, most of this book seemed very familiar. There were a few times in the reading that I thought I have read this before. I know I read this before. As it turns out, I did read some of these stories before. Fry’s detailed account of the air war is perhaps one of the most complete and well-written memoirs that have survived. It is often quoted and sourced in WWI aviation histories. The writing style and storytelling make this book hard to put down. As a history, it is hard to beat. A remarkable read.

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Book Review — Hair

Hair by Scott Lowe

Hair by Scott Lowe is another in the Bloomsbury series on common items in everyday life. Lowe is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, and Co-General Editor of Nova Religio.

Humans have hair. It is a trait we share with all mammals along with live birth and lactation. The amount of hair varies and the “acceptable” hair varies with culture and time. Long hair on males has come and gone. I remember being chastised by the head football coach for being a “hair god” along with the other males with long hair. This was in 1980. After than I spent almost a decade with a Marine Corps high and tight. Currently, I haven’t had a haircut in a decade. Lowe points out that hair follicles have a limited life and produces hair length of about 18 inches on average. Perfect for me. A self-maintaining hair length.

Lowe looks at hair through a religious lens since that is his background. My old comment to the nuns “But, Jesus had long hair.” turns out is likely untrue. It seems that shorter hair on men was common. Perhaps the constant warfare and not wanting to give the enemy something to grab may have been part of it. When the Manchu conquered parts of China it required all people to adopt the Manchu hairstyle under the penalty of death. The front part of the head was shaved but a long ponytail in the back. Perhaps the most radical mullet of all time. In colonial America, Quakers refused to remove their hats before the Puritan governor. Several were put to death for failure to obey until the king intervened. The Quakers took their orders from the Bible. God was to see their bare head, not man. I remember Catholic church in the 1970s — Men removed their hats and women covered their heads with scarves or babushkas.

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head” (1 Cor. 1:3-6)

Odd too that we live in a country or culture where we criticize the Hijab. There is no public concern about the Amish women keeping their head covered for religious reasons. The Amish and Islam share another similarity — Facial hair. Beards are a must for men and moustaches are trimmed in Islam or shaved away on Amish males. The moustache is a symbol of the military and the Amish are pacifists. Other religions and cultures are covered too in both the East and West.

Lowe examines hair biologically, historically, and culturally. From fascination of Blonde hair and fear of red hair to the long, short, and style of it all. A well written and researched book on a subject that is so common but has even resulted in death. The hair over our bodies as well as our head is also discussed from the perspective of history and cultures. A fascinating look into the ordinary.

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Book Review — Bread

Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow

Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow is another in the Bloomsbury Academic series. Shershow is a professor of English at UC Davis. His MA and Ph.D. are both from Harvard University,

Bread is a simple thing. It is taken for granted. It is also mentioned in the most known Christian prayer and came down from heaven to feed the fleeing Israelites. The debate between bread and beer linger on as to what actually lead man to settle in cities and cultivate the land. Shershow reminds the reader that early beer and bread did have much in common. Bread not only sustained early civilizations but it also sustains many of us who carry sandwiches to school or work. In fast food, Subway ranks 2nd in the nation between McDonald’s and Starbucks. Panera Bread and Jimmy Johns are in the top 25 fast food restaurants.

Shershow tells the reader about the simple magic of making bread and includes a few pieces of wisdom from food guru, Michael Pollan. Bread is a creation. It takes time and effort. Even more so if one uses their own living starter. There are many types of bread and many of them associated with class. The whitest of the white flour was reserved for the rich. The famous quote “Let them eat cake.” is mistranslated. The French word was “brioche.” Brioche is a white bread fortified with butter and eggs, not really cake at all. Heavy wheat breads were for the poor. These breads were even stretched farther in bad times with additives and even sand.

Bread takes a look at the historical health aspects of bread from the modern gluten-free craze, the paleo diet, and earlier to the chemical leavenings instead of unhealthy yeast. The discussion also includes the religious aspects of bread from the unleavened ,to the last supper, and the miracle of the loaves and fish. Bread has played a central role in the West. In bad times there were bread lines in good there are artisan breads. Even Wal-Mart has jumped on the bandwagon of hot, fresh baked bread in their stores. Bread has rebounded from ever challenge modern society has thrown at it. It outlasted the Atkins diet and will probably be around as long as man walks the earth. A nicely written tribute to an underappreciated food.

 

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Poetry Review — The Land

The Land by Vita Sackville-West

“The Land” is a lengthy, lyrical poem covering the Kent countryside over a period of a year. The poem begins in winter, and even in winter, there are signs of life and a new beginning. Spring begins the greening of the land. The farmer on the hill has fields that require little labor. In the valley, the farmers work rotating crops, working around the weather, and working around the rain or lack of it. They take a pride in their work and hardships and toil to make the land pay off. They look with disdain at those farming on the hill.

Summer’s heat is punctuated with rain in England — the relief from the heat and the smell of water striking the hot ground. The reader is then transported to a place where the rain does not provide relief. Sackville-West draws on her experience in the Middle East and Iran to compare the harsh desert to the lush green of England. This comparison is almost taken directly from her book Passage to Tehran. As in many of her works she draws heavily from her own experiences.

Fall is the completion of the year. The harvests and the plans for next year are gathered and formulated. The crops planted in spring are revisited in their completion and the details noted. It is also a time for cider and woodworking. All that was done since winter becomes ripe for harvest. Even the squirrels know it is time to collect food.

Although the poem concentrates on the land, the passage that appealed to me the most was the one on the constellation Orion. The constellation rises in the fall and sets in the spring. For those who spend time outdoors in the evenings and night, Orion’s march across the sky is as accurate as a calendar. It shows that more than the land changes with the time of the year. It is an example of how our view of the universe changes with time.

Sackville-West takes the reader into something deeper than a nature poem. The farmer and shepherd do not see the year as a discrete unit. To them, it is a scroll that continually loops. The reader could, also, easily fall back into the cycle by returning to the beginning of the poem.

It is a step beyond pastoral poetry and into reality. It is almost as if the reader slipped into the mind of the “ideal” farmer or shepherd. Sackville-West does not just offer descriptions; she gives the reader a three-dimensional journey. It is a virtual reality completed with words. The poem lives and breathes.

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