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.

The Book I Want to Read

brain1-e1312872869675-281x300I thought about a couple of topics for today. I even had a couple of posts worked up in my mind. Then my brain turned into old cheese, and…well…there ain’t much left in there at this point in time.

Erm…

Okay, so instead of trying to dredge up those sparkling, all-star, award-winning — and lost — ideas, I’ll just go with what I was thinking about as I drove to the coffee shop this morning: a book I wish had been written.

This whole train of thought came about after reading some interviews with Robert Jordan from a few years ago. Now, Jordan* is most famous for passing away with 3 books remaining in his 14-volume magnum opus, The Wheel of Time, but he was a man who most definitely was far more than “just” a massively successful fantasy writer. More on that later.

*A pen name, by the way, but I’ll stick with it as that is how he is best known. Yay for all us pen-name users!

WoT is a great series, by the way, even if it can be infuriating as hell, even frustrating at times. Jordan’s talent as a writer puts him solidly among the very few at the top of the mountain. It also happens to be a favorite of mine; I’ve read those 4+ million words several times, in fact…

But the story of the Dragon Reborn and the White Tower (and all the dozens of other subplots) is NOT the story Jordan set out originally to write. No, the original vision of the story was about an old soldier returning home from his final war. It was a story intended to be about his efforts to rebuild a life, and a spirit, all-but destroyed by war…only to be forced to take part in yet one more fight.

I want to read that story. I want to read about that old soldier.* I want to read Jordan’s insights and emotions on that topic. I want to read it not because of his undeniable talent as a writer, but because he lived it. Jordan’s take on the end of his time in Vietnam is chillingly honest and impactful, especially to those of us with friends and loved ones who have their own demons and memories of combat. Those words, and the wisdom behind them, get to the heart of who Jordan is as a man, and as a writer…and to the heart of the book I wish I could have read.

*Rand’s father, Tam, if you’re familiar at all with the Wheel of Time series.

Here is part of the passage about his time in Vietnam that I found so powerful:

I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t chose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents. Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so.

I didn’t originally plan this post to be solely about Robert Jordan, and about Tam’s unwritten story, but the man has had a profound effect on me as both reader and writer…too great an effect, in fact, to shortchange. He is a major part of the reason — alongside Zelazny, Eddings, Cherryh, LeGuin, Feist, Tolkien and Heinlein — why I write sci-fi and fantasy. For that reason, among others, I owe him a debt I can never repay…

216D3D4C-DEC0-4D48-ACF1-622DAA638CCEPost Script:

This post, by the way, did touch off some thinking about a (necessary) follow-up. A follow-up that will take a great deal more thought, and more time, however, than I generally give to these posts. It’s going to be a post for which I will actually have to do research: the impact of (real) war on sci-fi and fantasy. Jordan wasn’t alone in having his battlefield experiences profoundly affect his writing: from Tolkien in the trenches in WWI, to Haldeman and Jordan (and a host of others) in Vietnam, the realities of combat have shaped some of the best works we have in the field…and that’s without touching on the all-time greats that I love, writers like Graves and Tolstoy and Wouk…

Updated: because I suck at editing.

Update #2: I didn’t think I had to explain — mostly because I buy into the writing theory that you explain only what you have to — but I’ve had a couple of private questions on the passage above, so here is the explanation I avoided before: the photo in question is of Jordan himself, and the “man” he killed is what he had become during the war…

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

I Have No Words

I’ve never heard the drums of war.

I’ve never lived the reality of combat.

As a writer, and as a student of history, I try to learn and to understand, but that understanding is merely intellectual. I know the truth as it has been told to me, but I have no true understanding of the reality.

For this Memorial Day post, I am not going to use my own words. My own words are as inadequate as they are disconnected from that reality. No, instead I am going to use the actions and words of those who know.

From Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, USN — Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Purple Heart:

“Too often, Memorial Day becomes just another three-day weekend, a holiday that marks the beginning of summer, the opening of public pools, the excitement of children who know that the school year is about to end.
The holiday doesn’t have to be this way. It can be more. And it can be more with just a little bit of an effort. You don’t have to give much to get a lot.

If you have not suffered a loss, think of someone who has. Consider what they gave. Consider what they are giving now.

In my case, I will take a few minutes to quietly remember the men I knew who died before this day had a meaning for them. They were too young, too free of terrible memories, too unburdened of wondering if they were good men.”

—Quoted from “How I remember my lost military comrades” in today’s New York Daily News. Read the whole thing.

I wasn’t sure how to approach today’s post, until Lt. Kerrey gave me the idea. Below are the formal citations for several Medal of Honor winners, one from each service…every one of them posthumous.

9E6A169B-35E3-4F55-AEAA-185BC0FD1E30Commander Ernest Evans, USN — Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Purple Heart
— Killed in action October 25, 1944 in the Philippine Sea

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Johnston in action against major units of the enemy Japanese fleet during the battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. The first to lay a smokescreen and to open fire as an enemy task force, vastly superior in number, firepower and armor, rapidly approached. Comdr. Evans gallantly diverted the powerful blasts of hostile guns from the lightly armed and armored carriers under his protection, launching the first torpedo attack when the Johnston came under straddling Japanese shellfire. Undaunted by damage sustained under the terrific volume of fire, he unhesitatingly joined others of his group to provide fire support during subsequent torpedo attacks against the Japanese and, outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile fleet units and our carriers despite the crippling loss of engine power and communications with steering aft, shifted command to the fantail, shouted steering orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and battled furiously until the Johnston, burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after 3 hours of fierce combat. Seriously wounded early in the engagement, Comdr. Evans, by his indomitable courage and brilliant professional skill, aided materially in turning back the enemy during a critical phase of the action. His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will venture as an inspiration to all who served with him.”

02E7682F-7CE5-4185-A483-4B74F35F1CE9Corporal Jason Dunham, USMC — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action April 4, 2004 in Husaybah, Iraq

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rifle Squad Leader, 4th Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (Reinforced), Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division (Reinforced), on 14 April 2004. Corporal Dunham’s squad was conducting a reconnaissance mission in the town of Karabilah, Iraq, when they heard rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire erupt approximately two kilometers to the west. Corporal Dunham led his Combined Anti-Armor Team towards the engagement to provide fire support to their Battalion Commander’s convoy, which had been ambushed as it was traveling to Camp Husaybah. As Corporal Dunham and his Marines advanced, they quickly began to receive enemy fire. Corporal Dunham ordered his squad to dismount their vehicles and led one of his fire teams on foot several blocks south of the ambushed convoy. Discovering seven Iraqi vehicles in a column attempting to depart, Corporal Dunham and his team stopped the vehicles to search them for weapons. As they approached the vehicles, an insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

32EEA3A4-2B54-4B49-BA84-94A9A2B68421Private First Class Anthony Kaho’ohanohano — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action September 1, 1951 near Chup’a-ri, South Korea

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty Private First Class Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano, Company H, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy in the vicinity of Chupa-ri, Korea, on 1 September 1951. On that date, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano was in charge of a machine-gun squad supporting the defensive positioning of Company F when a numerically superior enemy force launched a fierce attack. Because of the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, friendly troops were forced to execute a limited withdrawal. As the men fell back, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano ordered his squad to take up more defensible positions and provide covering fire for the withdrawing friendly force. Although having been wounded in the shoulder during the initial enemy assault, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano gathered a supply of grenades and ammunition and returned to his original position to face the enemy alone. As the hostile troops concentrated their strength against his emplacement in an effort to overrun it, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano fought fiercely and courageously, delivering deadly accurate fire into the ranks of the onrushing enemy. When his ammunition was depleted, he engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat until he was killed. Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s heroic stand so inspired his comrades that they launched a counterattack that completely repulsed the enemy. Upon reaching Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s emplacement, friendly troops discovered 11 enemy soldiers lying dead in front of the emplacement and two inside it, killed in hand-to-hand combat. Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s extraordinary heroism and selfless devotion to duty are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 7th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”

48954FA8-0C46-452C-9FB6-C552CE83FFEECaptain Steven Bennett, USAF — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action June 29, 1972 in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam

“Capt. Bennett was the pilot of a light aircraft flying an artillery adjustment mission along a heavily defended segment of route structure. A large concentration of enemy troops were massing for an attack on a friendly unit. Capt. Bennett requested tactical air support but was advised that none was available. He also requested artillery support, but this too was denied due to the close proximity of friendly troops to the target. Capt. Bennett was determined to aid the endangered unit and elected to strafe the hostile positions. After four such passes, the enemy forces began to retreat. Capt. Bennett continued the attack, but, as he completed his fifth strafing pass, his aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile which severely damaged the left engine and the left main landing gear. As fire spread in the left engine, Capt. Bennett realized that recovery at a friendly airfield was impossible. He instructed his observer to prepare for ejection, but was informed by the observer that his parachute had been shredded by the force of the impacting missile. Although Capt. Bennett had a good parachute, he knew that if he ejected, the observer would have no chance of survival. With complete disregard for his own life, Capt. Bennett elected to ditch the aircraft into the Gulf of Tonkin, even though he realized that a pilot of this type aircraft had never survived a ditching. The ensuing impact upon the water caused the aircraft to cartwheel and severely damage the front cockpit, making escape for Capt. Bennett impossible. The observer successfully made his way out of the aircraft and was rescued. Capt. Bennett’s unparalleled concern for his companion, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.”

A10772B0-7E3C-45E9-AA55-14010FBA02F4Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, USCG — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
— Killed in action September 27, 1942 near Point Cruz, Guadalcanal

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as petty officer in charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal on 27 September 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered marines, Munro, under constant strafing by enemy machine guns on the island, and at great risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”