27 April 2007

One Dead in Fight Over Bronze Soldier

If you thought the controversy over the WWII Memorial in D.C. got heated, be glad you don't live in Tallinn, Estonia.

Estonian officials are trying to move a Soviet-built WWII memorial and military grave complex out of the center of their capital city. Estonian nationalists say that 'Bronze Soldier' is a reminder of the Soviet conquest and occupation of the Baltic States in 1940 (and again in 1944). As in many parts of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, partisans stayed in the wild to battle the Red Army after harassing the Nazis for years. Ethnic Russians in Estonia feel that the memorial simply honors the soldiers who died to defeat Nazi Germany.

Excavations have begun to move the memorial and at least one man is dead in the subsequent protests and riots. The Russia's upper house of Parliament is calling for a break in diplomatic relations with Estonia. Even with the threats and the violence, it looks like the Bronze Soldier can expect to find a new home in a military cemetery outside the city.

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26 April 2007

What I'm Reading

Life may be hectic, but I have always felt that having something that you are reading is important. I thought I'd take a moment to cover two books, one I just finished and a second I've started to dig into.

First is The Utility of Force by General Rupert Smith. I was inspired to order this book after seeing Smith, a retired British general and former D-SACEUR in NATO, give history lessons to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

Although the book was only 400+ pages, it was amazingly dense with analysis of war and military power from the reforms of Napoleon to our current mess in Iraq. The main thrust was to show how the militaries of the West in particular are still wed to the idea of 'industrial war' that was created by revolutionary France and 'perfected,' for lack of a better term, in the two World Wars. The advent of the atomic bomb made that sort of war unwinnable. Instead, almost all wars since 1945 have grown out of the guerrilla tradition. Now we face what Smith inelegantly calls "war among the people." Instead of using strength and force to break the will of your enemy, we must capture the will of the people to break the strength of the enemy.

I'm really not doing justice to the book here. Smith is calling for a fundamental re-assessment of the purpose and organization of the military in a way that has not been seen since Clausewitz. It is not an easy read, but it does put all of the political and military fumblings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Chechnya in a stark,but now understandable framework. I wish it were required reading for any of our presidential candidates.

So, after a scholarly work of military theory, I decided to slip into my guilty reading pleasure, the sometimes pulpy alternate-histories of Harry Turtledove. In this case "The End of the Beginning," the second book in his "Days of Infamy" series. The point of departure is the decision by the Japanese to not only bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but to follow-up with an immediate invasion of the islands.

Folks can debate all they'd like whether the Japanese had the logistical ability to handle such a long-range operation, but I think Turtledove handles these questions pretty well. The interesting challenge with this series versus other alt-histories is that the invasion isn't likely to irrevocably change the world. In the World War series, alien invasion changes the world eventually beyond recognition. Turtledove's Great War series, has a much smaller point of departure (a dropped set of orders wrapped around some cigars), but has led to a version of WWII being fought in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Here, the Japanese hold the Hawaiian islands, but the most I can see that doing for them is to delay the inevitable for a year or so.

Turtledove is clearly aware that he is not playing with the fate of worlds in this series and instead limits his point-of-view characters to the island of Oahu and a few Americans training stateside for the inevitable US invasion. The trick works rather well; the reader finds themselves hanging on every rumor of the war in the wider world. The limited geography also helps to create more of a feeling of oppression and claustrophobia inherent in the occupied territory. In the end, it isn't great literature, but for a WWII geek like myself, it's an enjoyable read.

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04 April 2007

'Black Book' and Women in WWII

Paul Verhoeven the director of such pulpy Hollywood movies as Robocop, Showgirls and Basic Instinct has decided to try his hand at WWII movie making back in his native Holland. Black Book follows the adventures of Rachel Stein, a Dutch Jewish woman through the closing years of the war. After the trauma of Allied air raids and betrayal of an escape plan she joins the Resistance. Here she her sexual assets to seduce, and apparently turn, the commander of the Gestapo in the Hague.

I've never been much for Verhoeven's ham-handed stylings. He seems to think that as long has he provides a mixture of sex and violence at regular intervals, he can keep an audience from thinking any deep thoughts about what he has to say. However, Verhoeven is delving into an growing area of WWII study and writing, the role of women in the war, particularly in the various Resistance movements. Vera Atkins and Virginia Hall probably never used sex as weapon in the model of Verhoeven's heroine, but they were certainly formidable opponents to the Nazis and their collaborators.

Is 'Black Book' at all accurate? No. Is it a turning point for Verhoeven to serious matters (a la Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List)? I doubt it. Will it be entertaining and will it sell tickets? Of course.

And maybe someone walking out of the theatre will go and pick up the biography of Elsa Caspers to see how life really was for a female spy in Holland.

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