Yet Another Post That Started With A Point, But Lost It…

I’ve been busy over the past week or so.  Oh, not too busy to think and write, but still busy nonetheless.  The fact that it is a business of my own creation and choice makes it a thing very different from those days when “busy” meant running to meetings I didn’t want to attend, with people I didn’t want to talk to, in places I didn’t want to be…

In that life, busy meant miserable.  Busy also meant trying to pass the day ever more quickly so I could get to those few hours of “non-busy” in the brewery taproom, spending time with those with whom I did want to talk.  Compared to those days, nothing will ever be “busy” again…

Thank God.

This busy-ness — the busy-ness of the last few days — has been a thing important to me on both a personal and a professional level.  And, no, before you ask, I have not shared it here on the blog.  It isn’t yet time.  When that time does come, however, you can rest assured that I will talk — probably non-stop! — about it here.

Even in the midst of all that busy-ness, however, I have been making time for myself to do more reading.  Now, as is usual for me, I have been focusing that reading on history.  I know, I know…you are very surprised by that.  I mean, who would ever have thought that I read history?  My God, before you know it I’ll be talking about crazy shit like astronomy and cosmology!

Ahem.  Never mind.  Let’s just /sarcasm and move on…

My reading of late has gone back to what is perhaps the greatest well in all of European history for stories of power politics and intrigues and ruthlessness: the English Wars of the Roses.  Look, there is a reason why Shakespeare’s most impactful characters and plays comes from his cycle about this period.  Hell, it was for the very same reason that modern writers take the Wars of the Roses as the basis for something like, oh, a million stories.  Shit, every single bit of Game of Thrones came from this freaking period!  Even the dragons!

Err…well…maybe not the dragons…unless, of course, you want to postulate early canons and artillery as “dragons”!

Err, sorry about that.  Give me a moment to /nerd too…

There, that’s better.

So, I’ve been reading about the Wars of the Roses and, well…shit.  What writer can not think about characters and plots with that particular bit of history in front of them?!  Even better — or worse, depending on your point of view — I’ve been diving back into the stories and details about the death of Edward IV; the machinations of his queen, Elizabeth Wydville; the ambitions of his brother, Richard of Gloucester (yeah, I pretty much refuse to give him the royal styling of Richard III — sue me, I’m convinced of his guilt); and all of the ruthlessness and maneuvering around the fates of the Princes in the Tower.

If you don’t know, by the way, that final phrase refers to the 12 year old King Edward V, and his nine year old brother Richard, Duke of York.  Now, no work of history can get into the reality of those two boys because, quite simply, all we can definitively say about them is that their uncle imprisoned and murdered them in order to seize the throne.  And in that simple sentence I just typed there lie literally millions of words of stories and characters and conflict as inspiration for a fiction writer!

The Princes in the Tower

There is a record, from a contemporary writer unaffiliated with either political faction of the day, about how people used to gather across the Thames from the Tower to watch the imprisoned princes come outside to play everyday.  Then…one day…the boys just never reappeared.  It was only after that disappearance that everyday, average Londoners turned against Richard Gloucester.  It was only after that disappearance that people began to question whether a man so popular and respected could be so ruthless and evil.

I’m sorry, but just how can you not take something like that and run with it?

One of the things I find most compelling about the whole story is the fact that not a single one of the players involved gave a damn about anything other than their own power.  Elizabeth Wydville was a grasping, ruthless woman committed to cementing her own (unofficial) power and influence over the government of England at all costs.  Richard of Gloucester had more official and legitimate claims to power — as regent, not king — but that most certainly wasn’t enough for him.  Hastings and Buckingham (if you remember them from your Shakespeare!) wanted desperately to cement their own power…

And not one of those people, trusted with the care of two young boys unable to defend themselves as much as they were trusted with the care of England itself, cared one whit for any of their charges.  Nor did they, to get more to the point in terms of today’s world and politics, ever bother to pause and think about what was best for the nation or the people.

And in all of that you have…everything.   You have characters who are sympathetic, and characters who are detestable.  You have conflict and tension on multiple levels, from the personal to the international.  You have scheming and murder; evil deeds and cowardice; manipulations and mistakes; hell, you have a dude executed by being drowned in a barrel of wine (!). You have, when you get right down to it, an illustration over just a few short months of everything that makes humanity so fucked up and miserable…and so very human.

Richard III

Oh…also…if you extend the window out a bit, you do get a touch of justice, too.  Hastings and Buckingham were executed by their former master, Richard of Gloucester.  Not much later, Dicky 3 himself died at the hands of a man whose claim to the throne was laughably thin; a man who barely spoke any English; a man whose grandfather was nothing more than a Welsh groom with the good luck to marry a (former) queen…

That man, who became Henry VII, had his faults and problems, but let’s be honest here — he not only killed Richard of Gloucester, he married the dead princes’ sister and gave eventual rise to a magnificent grandchild in the form of Elizabeth I.  So well done, Hank.

Err…on a pointless history-is-complicated note: Hank7 didn’t actually turn out to be a terribly nice guy.  He wasn’t a hugely bad one, mind you, but he was certainly no shining, chivalric hero.  His mother, on the other hand, was one of the strongest and most remarkable women you’ll ever come across.  Which leads inevitably to a whole separate character-inspiration rant.

*sigh*

Anyone who says history is simple, and writing easy, is either crazy, or lying their ass off.

I Don’t Know

Really?  Did you think I wouldn’t do a special post with June 6th right around the corner?  C’mon…

I’m a fairly brave individual…or so I’ve heard.  I’m brave, they say, because there ain’t a whole lot in this world of which I’m well and truly afraid.  There ain’t a whole lot that gets much reaction from me beyond some tension and a shrug of my shoulders.  But…

But, there’s always a but…

But, I’ve never had anyone want to kill me.  Oh, I’ve had people want to kick my ass — had a lot of them try, too.  I’ve had bears contemplate just how I’d taste garnished with some berries and a nice drink of fresh spring water.  I’ve even had a wolf pack stalk me for a couple of miles…

But I’ve never had anyone really try to do me in, however.  Never had anyone whose own life depended on ending mine.

I’ve never waded ashore with the freight-train sound of shells ripping overhead.  I’ve never heard the snap of a bullet just feet away.  I’ve never felt the ground shake from explosions, never had my eardrums blown out from the concussions.  I’ve never had my life lie in the hands of compatriots on either side of me.

I’ve never seen the blood flow from a fresh chest wound.  I’ve never heard the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.

When you get right down it, I’ve never felt the reality of true, undeniable, unstoppable fear.  

I can’t tell you — just as I can’t tell myself — if I would have been a hero or a coward on D-Day, because I just don’t know.  I don’t know, and I never will.

Look, I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is one of my great passions.  I’ve mentioned also that that topic, along with video games, is how I got started writing professionally.  I may be an expert in Naval History, but I’m an expert who has never lived it.

I don’t know, and I can’t know…not truly.

Oh, I’ve done oral history interviews with Marines who waded ashore at some of the most godforsaken places in the world, just as I’ve done interviews with sailors who lived through some of the worst battles in history.  I’ve talked to, and learned from, men who swam away from an exploding ship, only to spend days more in the water…only to watch their buddies, their fellow survivors, get pulled under one by one by the circling sharks.

I’ve listened to all that, just as I’ve written about all that.  I’m considered an expert on all that…

…and I don’t know.

I don’t know, and I can’t know.  I don’t know it because I never lived it.  It is all, when you get right down it, just words and images to me.  Just emotion and memory learned second- and third-hand.

“I didn’t do a damned thing.  I just worked in the mailroom.  Now my buddy John, he was the real hero…” so said a former sailor, a man in his late 80’s.  A man who fought in, and survived, the most surprising and impressive victory in the long history of the US Navy.  A man who worked in the mailroom on the Sammy B Roberts…a man whose worst day involves more courage and accomplishment than the entire sum of my life…

It’s always someone else, to those Marines and sailors I’ve talked to.  It’s always that buddy, the one who brings a wordless tear to their eyes.  It’s always those who are lost, but are never forgotten.

That man died not long after I spent a couple of hours with him.  He died without me ever expressing my gratitude…or my awe.

Just as those who truly remember June 6th, 1944 are dying.  Just as those who heard the ripping of bullets, and the freight-train rumble of shells.  Those who felt the fear, and still waded ashore.  Those who lost friends and brothers, and still waded ashore.  Those who know.

We’ve all heard Eisenhower’s plan, just as we’ve all heard the codenames: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.  We’ve heard those things, but they are just mnemonics…talismans that no longer do a good job of invoking the reality that truly matters:

4,414 Allied soldiers died on June 6th, 1944.  Most were from the US, UK, and Canada, but losses came also from Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

Almost 9,000 soldiers in German uniform died that day, as well.

7B620855-2577-4D9F-8C52-79AB7156719CI’ve never heard the drums of war, and I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I know enough to pay my heartfelt respects to those who do…to those who were there.

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…