Book Review – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Mary Roach Grunt

Can I just tell you how much I love Mary Roach? Because I love Mary Roach.

I bought her newest book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War a few months back as a father’s day present for my dad. My dad an I share a common interest in military history, and this seemed like it would be right up his alley as well – seeing as how he is also a scientist. I’ve read a few of Roach’s books in the past (Stiff was particularly fascinating), and I knew I too would love this book. My original intent was to wait until it came out in paperback to get a copy for myself, but ultimately I ended up lacking the self-control to manage it.

It was worth it. The book’s jacket claims that it will “tackle the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries – panic, exhaustion, heat, noise – and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them.” And sure, this book does all that – but it does so with a personality. Roach has such a funny, relatable writing style, and she manages to approach even the most gruesome topics with a perfect balance of reverence and wit. Despite its sometimes gross, sometimes tragic, and oftentimes absurd content, Roach keeps things just light enough, and always engaging enough, to keep the reader both interested, educated, and entertained.

Overall Rating: 5/5 stars.

Would recommend to: Anyone, really. Especially if you’re interested in science, in the military, or if you’re just interested in offbeat oddities – this book is really right up your alley.

Book Review: Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose

Band of Brothers Review

You know, it’s about time I read this. I have seen the series a bunch of times (I’ve rewatched it more than once since my last big rewatch as a historian, which you can read about here), I’ve at this point read several of the guys’ autobiographies, with more of them on my TBR list – but I never actually bothered reading the source material.

I went in kind of expecting the worst to be honest. I’ve read a number of online reviews of the book that hammer hard on the fact that Ambrose didn’t really seem to use much reference material beyond the company memory books, newsletters, and interviews, while still presenting the writing as basically a research book. These criticisms made me skeptical – as you can see from my review of the mini-series. I have no qualms with the occasional “truthiness” of the HBO series, since it’s not presented as a documentary, but I expected to have some massive problems with that in the book.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Ambrose is actually very clear throughout that this information is always coming from recollections – recollections that might be a little fuzzy after 60+ years, and quite possibly a little biased too. He is clear that the story is being told through the eyes of the men of E company, not through the eyes of historians – and based on what I had read beforehand, I had not expected this.

He includes little reminders of the book’s nature as a collective memoir throughout, but nowhere is it more clear than in the treatment of Sobel. Throughout, the man is largely portrayed by the men of Easy as a bit of a villain. He is universally hated and the guys hammer that home throughout their interviews and in their various writings. As a result, his portrayal in the HBO series by David Schwimmer gets roughly the same treatment.

Ambrose, however, on several occasions softens the words of E company with his own assessment, even calling the great Dick Winters into question on occasion. He gives Sobel a lot of credit for preparing E company to deal with what they dealt with, and that, to me, says a lot about Ambrose’s approach. He does not present the testimony of the men as absolute truth, and the result is a really fascinating collective memoir.

A few parts did get a little plodding for me, mainly because I’ve seen the HBO series several times and in its treatment of the big battles it stays pretty faithful to Ambrose’s retelling – and in some cases even makes it more exciting (for example, Bull Randleman killing the German in the barn is like half of an episode in the series but only has like two or three lines devoted to it in the book). But even if you’ve seen the miniseries, I’d still say this is worth the read.

Overall Rating: 8/10.

In other news, I should really decide on a consistent scale to use when rating my books! Suggestions are welcome, since I can’t seem to make up my mind!

Have you read anything good lately?

Mid-January Pleasure Reading Update

Reading Update

So far so good on the whole “read more” goal. As of right now, I’ve already finished two books for pleasure this year (although technically the first one was started in the final days of 2015 – but I’m still counting it). I don’t feel like either book is really worthy of it’s own separate review post, as one was just kind of frivolous fun, and the other, well, wasn’t great… so I think mini-reviews will do the trick nicely.

The first book is Stanley Weintraub’s 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944. I bought this a couple of years ago after I read his Pearl Harbor Christmas, expecting it to be roughly the same thing – and I was pretty much right. Like Pearl Harbor Christmas it is by no means, a traditional or complete history of the Christmas of 1944. Unless you already have a solid knowledge of the overall timeline of the Battle of the Bulge, I actually wouldn’t recommend this book at all. Without already knowing what’s happening where and when – this one’ll confuse you more than inform, because really this book is more of a snapshot of conditions than anything else; a collection of (admittedly scattered) anecdotes and experiences that fall within the month of December during the fight. The author does a lot of name dropping without much explanation, jumps around a lot – from the British, to the Americans, to the Germans – often without warning, and he even occasionally jumps around chronologically. So if you don’t already have decent name and place recognition it’ll be very very disorienting. Hell, it was disorienting for me sometimes, and I DO have those things (although I admittedly favor the PTO over the ETO in my own studies). That said, it’s not without value, and does contain a lot of great stuff. If you’re willing to tough it through the organization, this can be a nice little supplement that serves to humanize the experience through the minutia of life on the ground and in command.

Rating: 3/5 stars – To summarize: very scattered and disorganized, but contains a lot of valuable material if you are willing to sort it out.

The second is a novel that is part of the expanded Dragon Age universe: David Gaider’s The Calling. It’s a prequel of sorts – chronicling the adventures of Ferelden’s King Maric Theirin in the Deep Roads about 20 years before the events of the Dragon Age: Origins video game. It’s nothing spectacular in terms of literature – but it’s a lot of fun. Lots of action, and – minus a few action sequences that dragged on just a *tad* too long for my personal tastes – pacing is generally good and keeps you interested. It also has a lot of great backstory that has me really wanting to replay the game again so I can relive the story with all this new information and perspective. I suppose that’s the real upside to the author actually being the lead writer for the series. Instead of the hole a lot of expanded universe novels fall into of having unconnected authors who often don’t quite have the hang of really writing the characters or the world properly (*coughDOCTORWHOcough*), it actually feels solidly like part of the universe.

Rating: 4/5 stars – To summarize: it’s no work of great literature, but it’s a really fun little romp in a universe I love. If you’re a Dragon Age fan, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Have you read anything great so far in 2016?

30 Days – Day 2: A Photograph

So this one is taking a decidedly unexpected turn. I originally had several cherished family photos in mind when I compiled the challenge list, but ultimately due to questions of whether or not my internet-wary family would appreciate having them posted for all to see I’ve decided to go in a different direction (although the hunt through all our old albums was certainly beneficial for me from a gratitude standpoint – which after all was the point of this project.)

So I’m going in a more professional direction with this and in the process I guess I’m changing the prompt a little.

So here we go.

On day 2 of this challenge, I am grateful for: War Photographers.

Joe Odonnell

A quick warning here: some (all) of the photographs that I will link here are not for the faint of heart. Click through at your own risk.

This probably seems to you like a very strange thing to be grateful for. So let me explain.

See, professionally my research interests are dark. I gravitate towards the history of warfare – particularly the two biggies for the US in the 20th century – WWII and Vietnam. And as someone who routinely and purposefully surrounds herself with some of the worst things humanity has done to itself, the extremes of human suffering and brutality – you sort of develop a distance from the subject. You become jaded and separated from the reality of it, really as a defense mechanism more than anything.

It is easy to stop seeing the people you read about as real. It is easy to begin reading it almost as if it was fiction – to get that same sense of detached disgust that comes with watching a particularly gory battle scene in a movie, or a fictional bad-guy order some sort of horrible fate for the hero. You know it’s awful. You know it’s horrifying. But it doesn’t really pack quite as much of a punch as it should.

You become desensitized. You stop seeing who you’re reading about as people, and more as a subject or a case study.

And as far as I’m concerned, nothing is more dangerous than that.

So today, I am grateful for all the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to record the horrors we’ve precipitated. The photographs they produced are the things that keep me grounded in reality more than anything – by recording the moments when we as a species have lost sight of our humanity, they’ve allowed me to maintain mine as I study it all.

I can read several thousand first hand accounts of the human suffering caused by the firebombing in Japan, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nothing connects me to the reality of that more than photos of it. Nothing reminds me that these were real people who lived through this horror – not some fictional retelling – than the photos that let me see the suffering with my own two eyes. I can read hundreds of historians telling me about the civilian toll of the napalming and “search and destroy” techniques utilized in the Vietnamese countryside, but nothing drives it home quite like seeing the pain in the flesh – in the cries of a little girl in pain, or the fear in an older woman’s eyes. I can read Holocaust memoir after Holocaust memoir, but nothing hammers in the true horror of it like seeing the bodies, seeing the graves, seeing the condition of the survivors.

Seeing, after all, is believing.

And on a far less personal level – nothing forces us (as a society) to confront the reality of our past quite like photography – specifically because it forces us to admit that the pain was real. The suffering was real. That these were actual things that humans did to other humans – purposefully, no less. There’s a realness in the pain behind these photographs that even the best actor couldn’t reproduce, and nothing can remind us of the real human toll of war quite as effectively.

And that reminder is invaluable.

It is horrible that these things happened. But they did. And we cannot let that fact be forgotten. Remembering the human toll of war is what will be most effective in helping us prevent these things from happening again.

You know the old saying, that a picture is worth a thousand words? There is nowhere that this is more true than in photography of war. One photograph can be more effective in arguing for peace than a million words spilled by a million people on the subject. And today, I am grateful for that.

 

[Photo of Joe O’Donnell – US Marine and Photojournalist known for his photos of post-surrender Japan, including the aftermath of the atomic bombs. Clicking the image will take you to the source.]

Bows and Arrows and Glitter, Oh My!

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So, last thing I need is another new hobby, yea?

I mean, I can barely keep up with the ones I already have. Last time I finished a knitting project was literally last year, my photo albums have been sitting neglected for months, my sketchbook is frighteningly bare – as are my nails, and all I ever do is bitch about how little time I have to pursue anything “for fun.” So yea. Last thing I need is yet another hobby to complain about not having time to do.

Well, I wish someone would tell my brain that. Because I guess I’m an archer now.

Whoops.

Bow and arrow on ground

How did this happen? Well, I’m not entirely sure.

I mean, I’ve always been interested by archery. I love watching archery competitions on TV and have always been fascinated by archery as it’s utilized in warfare. It’s an interest that’s only gotten easier to have in recent years what with the outpouring of female archers in pop culture (Katniss Everdeen, Merida, idk some other people I’m sure).

And my dad has this old recurve bow. We’re not quite sure where it came from. His father had been quite the collector/scavenger and from time to time stuff would just “show up” at our house. Usually after my grandmother would have a fit about him bringing in more stuff, I think. That’s how we ended up with a garage full of industrial grade tools, two free riding mowers, a massive highway sign, and a cement mixer.

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The bow was also one of those things that just kind of showed up one day. We think it might have been my great aunt’s? Maybe?

As kids my brother and I used to play with it a bit. We weren’t strong enough to pull it back full draw, so we used to shoot practice arrows off our porch into a paper bag filled with cardboard bits. The arrows never went more than like 10 feet. But it was fun.

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Once we started to get bigger (meaning the arrows started to go further – but we still didn’t quite have the strength needed for accuracy), and the bow string started to get more frayed and old we kind of put the bow away and forgot about it. My father couldn’t find anywhere in the area to get a new string or get us any proper training – all the archery ranges and shops at the time were all compound bow places – so it got unstrung, and sat in its box for the next, oh I don’t know… decade maybe? 15 years? Something like that.

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Well this summer, we dragged it back out. Jim had bought a bow of his own, already being into target shooting with guns (his family hunts), and between those two things he found a shop in the area that does deal in recurve bows. So I dragged out our old bow, interested to see if it even was still safe to use after all these years of a) already being old, and b) sitting in a box in our basement.

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Well, turns out it is. And turns out it’s actually a lot older than we thought (1964) and a lot nicer than we thought (Bear Archery still sells that model, and it’s like a $350-$400 bow now, to say nothing of the antique ones). Ours isn’t worth much as a collectors item, since somewhere along the line someone drilled holes for a sight, but it’s still perfectly functional and safe to use once I bought a new string.

So I started using it.

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And I seriously love it, you guys. It’s fun, and challenging, and empowering… and I’m not half bad at it given that I haven’t had literally any instruction other than Youtube. It also makes me feel really connected to history – a feeling that’s very hard do describe in words, but that manifests itself in an addictive rush every time I pull back the bow string and let an arrow fly.

So yea, I guess I’m an archer now?

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Whoops.

Have you all picked up any new, ill-advised hobbies lately?

(Photos of bow markings taken before it was properly cleaned and serviced – don’t mind the dust!)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front

God, I forgot how soul sucking this book was.

I decided on a whim as Jim and I were perusing through the bookstore weekend before last to pick up a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front. I had read it in college as part of one of my core History classes – back when my head was filled with dreams of being a famous novelist and History was just something interesting and extra to fill spots in my course schedule – and had enjoyed it then. Even then I was drawn to the dark and brutal honesty of the prose. But once I was finished, I promptly put it aside and forgot about it. Eventually my copy found its way into the book donation box at the end of the year as I desperately purged things so we could fit everything in my mom’s car (probably, anyway – I just know I no longer have it).

It is, however, one of those works that I felt the need to re-read now that I’ve refocused my professional life on History. I remembered the experience of reading it only vaguely, but I knew that there was a whole world of stuff within the text that I could appreciate on an entirely new level now. So much small detail and nuance that I can guarantee you that I missed the first time around as a vaguely irritated and majorly homesick college freshman. And of course, I knew that I could see so much more of the big picture this time since I now possess a solid historical background in WWI beyond the, like, 5 minute summary my high school classes gave it and that one page from The Onion’s Our Dumb Century Collection that my Dad keeps on the coffee table.

Our Dumb Century WWI All good comedy has a grain of truth to it.

And oh boy, was I right. When I read it in college, I remember thinking it pretty sad. But it was pretty easy to move on from. Book closed, and on to the next thing – like how the hell I was going to survive this music theory course that I didn’t want to be in? Wam, done, that was that.

This time?

Oh this time.

My first reading of this in college had been split up over probably two weeks – which is a long time, honestly. The book’s not long, and I’m a decently fast reader. I probably read just a handful of pages a day. And now I can honestly say that that’s NOT the way to read this book. Splitting it up like that really really softened the impact of the prose, and of the content. But now, I’ve sort of become a binge reader – because I rarely have time during a normal week to read for pleasure, when I do, I read for literally the entire day. So this time, I read it in one sitting. And honestly? That’s the way to do it to really get it to hit home.

Take a Saturday. Settle in. Read from start to finish.

And when you’re done, take the time you need to recover. Because oh boy, should you need to recover.

This book is often hailed as the best war novel ever written – and quite frankly, for good reason. It is heart-wrenching and horrifying and tragic, and it depicts the cruelty and hopelessness of World War I with a poignancy that stabs you straight in the heart. Repeatedly.

But as traumatic as it is, it’s an experience I feel that everyone should have. It’s one of the few books I’ve encountered in my life that I really feel like everyone should read (and certainly this should be required reading for those in positions of power politically). Fiction though it may be, it strikes at the human reality of the war in ways that no non-fiction book I’ve read has managed. A concrete reminder of the terror of the war – and why we can never allow it to happen again.

I won’t say much more about it here, mainly because to get into details would require giving away content, and this is a book best approached unawares. To spoil content would be to spoil its overall impact. And that would be unforgivable in my eyes.

So I’ll end this review with this brief assessment: 10/10, 5 stars, would require (not just recommend).

(PS – it’s a particularly timely read right now, as we’re currently in the middle of the centennial years of the war – the war ran from July of 1914 to November of 1918.)

It’s Armistice Day (aka Veterans Day, aka Remembrance Day)

In Flanders Feild

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent.

Today here in the US is Veterans Day – a day to celebrate, thank, and honor the men and women who have fought for our country. But it is also a much more specific holiday – and the holiday from which Veterans Day originally evolved: Armistice Day, which celebrates the ceasefire that brought an end to WWI’s Western Front.

Here in the US, World War One doesn’t get too much attention, mainly because our involvement was so limited. But, particularly considering that this year is the centennial of the conflict’s start, I think that it’s very important to take some time today to remember this conflict for what it was: a world war of such magnitude that it was presumed at the time to be the war to end all wars.

When all was said and done, when the battlefields of Europe finally fell silent, more than 17 million people were dead. About 7 million were civilians. The population and physical infrastructure of continental Europe had been ravaged by new military technologies like tanks, flamethrowers (flammenwefer), and chemical weapons like mustard gas. Naval warfare had been changed forever by Dreadnoughts and U-boats, and planes had seen their first usage as a weapon of war*. From the unprecedented destruction that these technologies birthed, to the collapse of four major imperial powers and the planting of economic and nationalist seeds that would later become an even more deadly conflict, there’s no denying that WWI quite literally changed the world. It christened the 20th century in an inferno of violence, death, and destruction.

So today, on the anniversary of the halting of hostilities by ceasefire on the Western Front of WWI, I leave you with the above graphic/printable I made featuring LCol John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” This poem is one of the reasons the poppy has become the international symbol used to commemorate soldiers who have died in war.

Additionally, if you wish to read up on WWI, or investigate the conflict further for yourself, here are a few links you may find helpful/interesting:

WWI by the Numbers: an awesome infographic c/o the History Channel that gives a great overview of the technological and human impact of the war using statistics (and some great graphic design).

WWI at the British Library: an amazing collection of primary sources and specially commissioned articles by historians exploring every facet of the war, from causes to cultural legacies.

WWI at the Imperial War Museum: lots of great exhibits and resources available through their website including online exhibits about life on the front lines, and life back home in Britain.

The National WWI Museum Online: has several great online exhibitions, again, on everything from the causes of the war to life on the homefront (this time in the US).

Operation War Diary: a joint project between the British National Archives and the Imperial War Museum to digitize and organize over 1.5 million pages of WWI diaries by crowdsourcing (I’ve written about this project before).

*Not-so-fun Fact: All this new technology is part of the reason why the war was so deadly – the combination of 20th century technology with 19th century war tactics resulted in bloodbaths of obscene proportions, with very little to show in terms of advancement or gains once the battles ended. Basically, trench warfare was nasty, nasty stuff.
[Graphic Info – Font: Breamcatcher; Image credits: WWI image – Wikimedia Commons and the Imperial War Museum; Poppy field image – koko-stock on deviantart]