When It All Changed

Normally I am not someone who will talk about “turning points” and “key moments in history.”  Quite simply, those things are much more rare than folks like to believe.  Most of the time those events and moments and people that we like to describe as “key” and “special” are not.  Instead they are the inevitable outcome of events and tides and movement far outside of their immediate scope.

murder_julian_cesar_bIf you went back in time and decided to “snuff out” Julius Caesar, for instance, you would do nothing to prevent the rise of the Roman Empire.  All you would do is delay that rise for a few years…delay it and put another face on it.  Perhaps an Aemilius, or a Cornelius or Domitius, would have stepped onto the stage and taken on Caesar’s “role.”  Whatever the name of the player, however, the demise of the Republic was written in stone; there was no single turning-point, no crossing of the Rubicon, there was just the evolution of society and economics and politics…

That being said, there ARE a few true turning points in history, a few events that really can be described as cataclysmic and world-shaking.  The most recent of those events happened a hundred years ago…it happened, and it really did change everything:  World War One.

No, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars” — war, I’m sorry to say, will never go away so long as humans are, well, human.  What WWI did do was completely shatter the “old world” and set the stage for all the years, and all the travails and triumphs, since.

Now, a lot of folks would argue that WWI can’t be described in such stark terms, that it’s genesis can and should be described in the years and decades prior to the start of hostilities.  The war, after all, was not about the murder of some random Austro-Hungarian prince by a bunch of Balkan separatists.  No, the war itself was an inevitable clash between the Great Powers of the day, and is fully a “natural outgrowth” of the power-politics and real politik of the day.

So why do I still describe it as a “turning point”?

d_War_i-_Read-Only_It was the first time the gentry and upper classes — the officer-class — lived and suffered and died right alongside the poor enlisted bastards.  It was the first time the barriers were truly broken down, the first time some landed aristocrat ate week-old horsemeat and got trenchfoot right alongside the guy that cleaned his freaking toilets before the war.

It was the first time death and pain and trauma became truly “democratic.”

Yes, it was also the first industrialized war, the first war on a total, unlimited and all-but unstoppable basis.  Yes, it was the first time technology dominated and determined tactics and strategy.  Yes, it was the first time war became an “industry.”  But…

But…

But, none of those things changed the world anywhere near as much as the utter destruction of social and economic differences in the trenches.  As a percentage of the various national populations, far more young men fought in WWI than in any other conflict up to that time.  It was all-encompassing…and because of that, it was all-leveling.

ft342-p5-cover_story_woundedJust how do you go back to “the ways things were” when the supposedly better, smarter and more well-born officer next to you spent the entire Battle of Paeschendale sobbing uncontrollably, unable to move or speak or fight while you had to protect and guide him?

In the trenches, I should explain, the “democratization” of war worked.  The officers knew it, and so did the men.  They could — and did — live and fight and survive together in ways their fathers and grandfathers would have considered both unnatural and dangerous.

And they were…oh, yes they very much were.

They were dangerous not during the war itself, but in the days after…

In the days when every town lost not just “someone”, but many someones.  In the days when an entire generation of European males were decimated by wounds, disease, death and trauma.  In the days when everyone, no matter for which side they fought, returned to countries they no longer recognized as home.  In the days when everything was different.

How do you go back to what you had before?  How do you turn the clock back?

You can’t.

Not even WWII changed the world quite so profoundly, in spite of the even greater death toll.

The history nerd in me wants to add all kinds of thoughts to this — thoughts about the pointlessness of WWI, and about the absurdity of it’s beginning, and about its almost criminally inept conduct by all sides.  Thoughts about the seeds it sowed that led directly to WWII…and how it profoundly affected and controlled those who were commanding nations and armies in that conflict.

I half-want to get in to those thoughts, but this isn’t the time.  No, I’ve prattled and rambled quite enough, I think.  I will, however, add a couple of bits below for further reading.  It’s important, I think, to do so because we don’t spend enough time learning and understanding WWI — we certainly don’t learn just how and why it changed the world…and that leaves the door far, far too open to not learning from it, and to repeating it…

Some suggested reading:

The First World War by John Keegan.  Pay special attention to his description of just how the war actually began…how the deaths of 40 million people can be traced to the all-powerful hand of bureaucratic timetables and schedules…

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves.  Graves was a member of the small group of upper-class poets, writers and creators (he is most famous for writing I, Claudius) who fought in the trenches as junior officers, and it changed the world for him.  Goodbye is the first volume in his autobiography, and is…it’s…well…  Just read it.

Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.  World War One is all about the blood and suffering of the trenches, but it’s start came on the water in the “battleship race” between Germany and Britain.  More importantly, it came in the family feud between two cousins who wanted to live up to their grandmother’s (perceived) expectations — unfortunately, those two unhappy men happened to be the Kaiser of Germany and the King of England.  Grandma Queen Victoria has some ‘splainin to do.

2K47BNZGK5CEFO2DSK42P7X4UIAnd now I’m going to do something I seldom do on this blog: quote extensively from another writer.  I’m not a huge poetry guy, by the way.  I’ve read thousands of the, but I’ve committed to memory just three…the three that are the most powerful for me.  One of those three was written by another member of that war-torn, literary circle I mentioned above.  Unlike Graves, however, Wilfred Owen didn’t make it home…

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

A Bit of History

I’ve mentioned before that I do naval history on the side. I do some professional work within the area, yes, and more volunteer stuff, but mostly it is a personal passion of mine. Now, I may have mentioned that before, but I’ve never really written a post on anything naval (other than the Memorial Day post, which was inspired by one of my heroes: Earnest Evans — read that post here).

This is — technically — a writing(ish) blog, rather than a history or navy blog, but for me those things are completely and totally intertwined. Just as philosophy and literature and personal experience are wound inextricably through everything I create, so too is history.

The sci-fi universe I currently write within owes a great deal to the British empire…and even more to Britain’s East India Company — and all of the colonialism and shit that goes with that — but there are also echoes of many events and dynamics from the last two centuries. The fantasy stories fluttering around inside my head have even more history at their heart. From English nobles to Japanese samurai to Chinese bureaucrats, all come into play…

But I’m not a plot guy, I’m a character guy. Even more important to my writing is the inspiration that comes from the exceptional people history throws at you. Folks like William Marshall, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Tokugawa Ieyasu…the list goes on and on.

Okay, so why did I put together that (long) intro? Because two of the core elements of my “world” came together this morning when I was thinking about what to post: naval history, and the characters who can be (and are) inspired from it.

BD6E7E7C-24CD-4A16-AB0E-0396A8D878A3I’m not going to talk about the characters, however. No, I want to talk about, and celebrate, one of those extraordinary inspirations: Rear Admiral Alene Duerk.

The headline has already been written with Admiral Duerk’s position as the US Navy’s first female flag officer (here is the article that got me thinking). But as so often happens, that headline hides so much more…

Admiral Duerk started her professional life as a young nurse in WWII, including a long stint forward deployed in the Pacific. From sailors and Marines wounded on Okinawa, to US prisoners repatriated after the end of the war, she spent a great deal of time and strength and emotion amidst the chaos and suffering that comes from any war…and especially from the Pacific campaign of WWII.

But she wasn’t done.  No, she went on to train and teach others to do the same, to care for the wounded and dying of the Korean War.

And she kept serving.

Now, for some folks, that last line may mean little, but for me it means everything. Alene Duerk was a strong and capable woman who spent a lifetime in service to her patients, and to her country. To those who still resent the presence of women in the US armed forces, and especially in the navy (whether ashore or afloat), I have this to say: Admiral Duerk was not a woman “allowed into” the Navy. No, she was a talented and smart officer who earned every step of her journey.  Admiral Duerk was one of those quiet heroes most folks never get to hear about.

IMG_0720Fair winds and following seas, Admiral. There’s a drink on the bar for you…

There’s Always More To The Story

Being a history nerd has its challenges. One of those challenges is the complete inability to accept just the “common view” when it comes to events about which you know a thing or two.  In life, as in (good) fiction, there is always more to the story.

Which brings me to today’s post…

Now, most folks (likely) realize that last Wednesday was the 74th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings. Honestly, that is one of those rare events in history that is burned into all of our memories. Most of us share the same iconic images of the soldiers wading ashore, most of us have seen the same movies, heard the same programs. Most of us have the same “common view.”

But to a history nerd — especially a naval history nerd, like me — there is just so much more to that day. Stories you don’t often hear, aspects of the invasion not “interesting enough” to make it into the movies, contingencies that are seldom remembered…

Operation Overlord was, at that particular moment in history, the single biggest logistical operation in the history of the world. In fact, even to this day, it has been eclipsed only one other time — by the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.

The images of D-Day that I find most intriguing, and most telling, are not those iconic pictures and movies of the soldiers wading ashore, but rather those from the days that followed. On June 6th, 160,000 men landed in Normandy. Each day thereafter, additional forces were brought ashore to join the fighting. And every single man had to supplied over those same beaches that they had so recently assaulted. In fact, it wasn’t until June 30th, when the Allied forces ashore had grown to almost a million men, that the port of Cherbourg was captured and the first deepwater ships were able to start coming in…

It takes a lot of bullets and beans (and boots…and band-aids…and benzene…and on and on) to supply a million men engaged in sustained combat. There is a famous Napoleonic quote that “amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics.” Well, below are a few pictures showing what very few amateurs bother to think about:

The other thing to keep in mind is that D-Day was not the “unstoppable might” of the Allies rolling over an exhausted, quiescent German army. There was every chance the invasion would fail, and the men responsible for planning and carrying out the landing knew that fact very well. I think most folks are probably familiar with the letter Eisenhower released when the invasion kicked off. You know the one I’m talking about — it starts, “You are about the embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months…”

Well, that’s not the only letter he wrote about the landings. He also wrote one in case of failure…and it is as telling (and as unknown) as those pictures above:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Yes, failure was a very real possibility…as the man at the heart of that invasion knew so very well.

Look, I’m not going to do an actual history of D-Day in this post. There are amazing ones already out there, ones I turn to when I want the full story. For just a short list: go read Shaara’s historical fiction for the landings themselves, or try Samuel Morrison’s naval history for the USN role and activities.  Max Hastings and Stephen Ambrose both have outstanding books on the subject.  Hell, just go watch The Longest Day, or try Tom Selleck’s (surprisingly very good) biopic about Eisenhower.  Go read Churchill’s memoirs, or Eisenhower’s, or Montgomery’s.  Personally, on the memoirs front, I’m a huge fan of Omar Bradley’s autobiography, as it gives some amazing “behind the scenes” insights.  Or, in the end, you can turn to the best military historian of the last hundred years, and read John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy.

Me, personally? I’ve started re-watching (yet again) Band of Brothers