Previous month:
September 2012
Next month:
November 2012

Book Review: 'A World at Arms' by Gerhard Weinberg

As part of my ongoing search for televised pap to watch in the gym, I decided to check out Band of Brothers, the 2001 HBO miniseries about American paratroopers fighting it out across Western Europe from the beaches of Normandy to Berchtesgaden. The series is based on recollections and memoirs of members of Easy Company, and each episode is prefaced by short interviews with these survivors. Given the names of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the packaging, I was expecting a fairly standard mixture of gung-ho ethnic-comrades war movie and high-tech battle scenes, but it turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected. The characterizations are fairly superficial, but the battle scenes are grisly and harrowing, full of agonizingly random death and disfigurement meted out according to no plan at all. After the battles, the soldiers look drained and slack-jawed, leaving little time for banter about Betty Grable pin-ups. Further, you see American soldiers occasionally doing things that were rarely seen in earlier World War II movies, such as deserting, cowering in terror, going insane from fear, shooting POWs, looting homes, and drunkenly killing their comrades. This is not to say that American troops are portrayed as sadistic marauders -- the opposite is true -- but that the inhuman stress and anarchy of combat grind down all but the strongest characters.

Impressed with the first series, I watched the follow-up series The Pacific, which focuses on a narrower set of characters. This makes it easier to develop an attachment to each of the three main characters. But as before, it's the battle scenes that pack the most punch. The marines fight on Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa in an inferno of charred rock, stunted trees, decomposing corpses, disease, mud, slime, and flying metal. Mire-encrusted Japanese soldiers pop out seemingly at random, rushing marines in horrifyingly, comically futile banzai charges, only to die in hails of machine-gun fire or gouts of napalm. One of the fine things about these series is the avoidance of patronizing voice-overs. You see the war from a grunt's-eye perspective, and you're told nothing more about their missions than they are.

This means I found myself confronting embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of WWII, so I decided to remedy that by reading a nice solid one-volume history of the war. I settled on Gerhard Weinberg's A World at Arms. I wasn't disappointed. First, to get a few things out of the way: this is not a 'social' or oral history. This is straight-ahead generals'-eye view strategic military history. Further, you will not be stunned at the beauty of Weinberg's prose. Once in a while, Weinberg (a German Jew who emigrated to the US in the late 30s and took part as a US soldier in the occupation of Japan) perpetrates what can only be described as barely-comprehensible German Schachtelsätze (box-within-box sentences full of confusing clauses). But aside from these very occasional lapses, though, the prose is serviceable and clear.

What Weinberg excels at -- and really, what the book as a whole is for -- is showing the truly global scope of the war. A bombing raid in Europe destroys telephone cables, forcing the Germans to use radio communications, which in turn provides a critical piece of the puzzle to decode German diplomats' dispatches from Japan, shifting the strategic balance halfway across the world. The re-capture of some resource-rich area by the Soviets disrupts supplies of raw material, causing a production crisis that affects the German front as well as a diplomatic push to secure the material from some neutral country, which then reports this information to the Allies, shifting their priorities. American naval power cuts off supplies of gasoline to the southern Japanese fleet, forcing them to rely on unprocessed oil from Borneo that degrades the performance of Japanese warships and causes them to emit gouts of thick smoke visible for miles. It's global war as three-dimensional chess.

This wide perspective buttresses Weinberg's often-blunt assessments of various military and political leaders. Weinberg has a rather dim view of showboats such as Montgomery, Patton, and MacArthur, whose (occasional) battlefield victories were overshadowed by the unnecessary conflicts cause by their arrogance. Alanbrooke, Marshall, Arnold, Nimitz and Eisenhower get better marks, not only for their strategic insight but also for their understanding that in a war that requires careful management of broad coalitions, a certain amount of humility and respect goes a long way. Churchill, while an inspiring leader, occasionally let his desperate desire to cling to the British empire cloud his judgment. (He wanted to keep Allied forces in the Eastern Mediterranean -- near many British colonies -- long after the strategic focus should have shifted to the Normandy invasion). Roosevelt comes off as perhaps the most far-sighted political leader, encouraging his subordinates to vigorous debate and making surprisingly sound decisions despite limited information. Stalin, although cunning and remorseless, inspired and forced his countrymen to sacrifices which were vital to the war effort. Weinberg singles out Soviet generals for ingeniuously covering-up the weakness of their infantry by skilled and bold use of artillery (especially the 'Stalin organ') and excellent tanks.

Weinberg draws heavily on the memoirs and other papers of British general Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, whom Weinberg argues is perhaps the most-underrated military figure of World War II. Since I'd never heard of him before, I was confused by the mixed references to Alan Brooke and then someone named Alanbrooke, but that's what Google is for. Weinberg doesn't have much time for moral debates. He writes from the perspective of the practical and hard-headed men fighting and planning the war. As soon as the Nazis had started indiscriminate bombing in Poland, Rotterdam, and London, the Allies felt, they had given up any real right to complain. Weinberg also argues for the effectiveness of widespread bombing. It didn't break civilian morale, but it wasn't primarily intended to do that. Once the Allies figured out that they had to repeatedly bomb the same targets to keep them off-line, the bombing severely degraded Germany's war-fighting capacity. Further, the massive bombing of Germany was one of the only ways England and the U.S. could help the Soviet Union during its 1941-44 death match with Hitler in the East. Weinberg also has praise for the Allied strategy in the Pacific -- instead of trying to free every island in the Japanese empire, the allies simply skipped the less important emplacements and established themselves nearer to Japan. This caught the Japanese by surprise and left thousands of soldiers stranded beyond supply lines with no way to effectively attack the Allied rear. Weinberg is particularly good on submarine combat. The Germans' superior tactics and technology enabled them to inflict heavy losses on Allied shipping until advanced countermeasures such as 'Huff-Duff' and Leigh lights began turning the tide.

America's full entry into the war  in 1941, Weinberg shows, started a countdown clock for the Axis powers. America's huge industrial capacity, well beyond the reach of attack, meant that the longer the war lasted, the more lopsided the Allied material advantage would become. Even significant American strategic mistakes, such as the policy of sending green replacements to the Western European front before they were ready, couldn't change this dynamic. This ticking clock forced the Axis powers into strategic gambles designed to achieve some sort of separate peace on one front before American military might could be fully brought to bear. To respond, the Allies early agreed to unanimously demand nothing but unconditional surrender from all foes, a demand that was further justified by the emerging evidence of Axis (especially German) atrocities. Hitler also tried to offset the Allies' growing material advantage by diverting enormous resources into cutting-edge weapons such as advanced submarines which didn't need to surface, unmanned rockets (such as the infamous V-1 and V-2s, which were to be succeeded by ever-more-accurate versions), and supermassive artillery weapons which could only move on railway tracks. Weinberg argues that these programs consumed huge amounts resources while having little practical impact.

As for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Weinberg presents the case not from hindsight, but from the perspective of planners desperate to avoid more hideous battles like Okinawa. FDR (who opposed gas or chemical weapons) essentially saw nuclear weapons as nothing more than ultra-powerful explosives, and would certainly have used them had he survived. Once Stalin was told that the Americans had working bombs, he urged them to drop them on Japan as soon as possible. The Americans had broken most Japanese diplomatic codes and knew the Japanese were putting out peace feelers, but these were not coming from people who had a chance of changing government policy, and in any event stopped well short of accepting unconditional surrender. Even after the bombs had been dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviets had entered the war, it still took Hirohito's personal intervention to force recalcitrant top brass to accept surrender. Even then, they staged a last-minute coup to continue the war which nearly succeeded. The atomic bombings were horrifying and brutal, but no more so than the March 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, which killed upwards of 100,000 people. And the atom bombs did render the invasion of the Japanese home islands -- which would have led to millions more deaths -- unnecessary. One can spin out counterfactuals about other approaches that could have forestalled an invasion of the home islands, but the overwhelming desire of all Allies was to end the war in the Pacific as soon as possible, and the nuclear weapons seemed the likeliest way to accomplish this. The Germans, for their part, never came close to developing an atom bomb, but had been the first to develop military nerve gas in the 1930s. Hitler was mistakenly informed that the Allies probably also had nerve gas, likely much more of it than Germany did, so he never used it. When the Soviets came across the German nerve gas factory in Poland, they quietly dismantled the entire thing and moved it to Russia. No fools, those Soviets.

Weinberg wraps up with a chapter on the aftermath of the war, which included the biggest short-term mass-migration in history, in which 10-12 million Germans were unceremoniously kicked out of the occupied East and forced to return to their ravaged nation. Stalin set up puppet governments in the countries in his sphere of influence, something that the Allies watched with unease but couldn't do much about. It was the titanic sacrifices of the Soviets, after all, that had enabled the Allies to win. East Germany was put under the control of Communist exiles who had fled to Russia. As Weinberg points out, surviving as an exile amid the show trials and purges in Stalin's Russia required extreme timidity and subservience, so the exiles who returned to take over East Germany on Stalin's behalf were, in Weinberg's words, 'certified blockheads'. The British were originally willing to simply issue warrants for high-ranking Nazis ordering them to be shot on sight, but other Allies thought at least some sort of trial was necessary. Greece, although freed from forced membership in the Eastern Bloc, plunged into civil war. In the most optimistic development, Western Europe began knitting itself together in a so-far successful attempt to prevent a further Continent-wide bloodbath.

A World at Arms does have its flaws. Weinberg's treatment of the South Asian and Chinese theaters never quite comes together into a coherent narrative, and I wanted more direct quotations from historical sources, not Weinberg's paraphrases. Further, his historical judgments (on Neville Chamberlain or Soviet foreign policy, for instance) are starkly expressed. You get the sense that he is settling scores with other historians, but you're not provided with enough detail and context to understand the dispute he's taking a side in, or why you should agree with him. However, remedying these defects would have made the book even longer, and Weinberg's bibliographical essay and notes provide plenty of guidance for those who want to go further. All in all, a splendid read.


Teewurst Claims Another Victim, or the Blandness of German Sausage

https://www.bioladen-storkau.de/catalog/images/19%20Teewurst%20fein.jpg

Every Thursday, I go to my local farmers' market (g) and buy cheese, meat and eggs. The market is held at the Lessingplatz, which has a broken-obelisk fountain presumably in memory of one of the leading figures of the German Enlightenment. It's now the main gathering place for the leading figures in Duesseldorf's outdoor alcoholic scene (g). But those folks fade into the background when the market comes.

This farmer's market is not one of those fancy-pants ones where hipsters in porkpie hats sell arugula while guerilla knitting. No, this farmer's market features actual farmers, with dirt-stained hands, fun regional accents, friendly manners, and solid, unspectacular, delicious traditional (not heirloom) potatoes, which are helpfully marked with their texture (creamy, mealy, firm).

Meat I buy form the Vennbachhof (g) stand. Not just because it's good, but because the saleswoman vaguely resembles a more earthy and organic Heidi Klum. If your lifelong fetish dream was to see Heidi Klum sling giant chunks of raw meat (you know who you are), and she still hasn't responded to your messages, then you need to come to the Rheinland.

The only problem is that, as a little dankeschoen, meat-Heidi always gives me a chunk of Teewurst (tea sausage).Why is this a problem? Because then I have to eat it. Now, as Teewurst goes, the Teewurst from the Vennbachhof is probably excellent. But I can't stand Teewurst. The problem with it, as with most German sausages, is that it's hopelessly under-spiced. This means you can actually taste what the sausage was made from. I usually discreetly put the Teewurst out on my balcony, where the creatures of the night feast upon it.

If I wanted to taste organ meat -- and I don't -- I'd just buy a jar of pate. The entire reason sausage exists, if you ask me, is to take the parts of a mammal that nobody in their right mind wants to think about, grind them up, and load them with delicious spices that start a party in your mouth. The best sausages -- which are almost all Polish and Hungarian -- thrust the question of what parts of the animal they're made from far into the background, where it belongs.

I have a Theory about this. Back when European mankind first had the glorious idea to make sausages, powerful Germany could afford the best organ meat, and therefore had little to cover up with spices. Those countries on the 13th-century version of the Eurozone periphery were left to make what they could from the leavin's -- eyes, anii, ears, hoof gristle, what-have-you. To distract themselves from the content of their casings, they turned to huge amounts of garlic, dill, onions, and other dangerously intense 'ethnic' flavors that are much too stimulating for the German palate.

That's my Theory and I'm sticking to it. Fortunately, last night, a friend came by, and I was able to force the Teewurst onto him. Although he doesn't like Teewurst either, he had little choice but to be a nice guest and eat it. I ate a quarter of it out of solidarity. Gad, that hideous brain-like texture...


Austerity Found Not to Be Cure for Cancer

EU austerity measures are destroying Greek healthcare:

As the head of Greece’s largest oncology department, Dr. Kostas Syrigos thought he had seen everything. But nothing prepared him for Elena, an unemployed woman whose breast cancer had been diagnosed a year before she came to him.

By that time, her cancer had grown to the size of an orange and broken through the skin, leaving a wound that she was draining with paper napkins. “When we saw her we were speechless,” said Dr. Syrigos, the chief of oncology at Sotiria General Hospital in central Athens. “Everyone was crying. Things like that are described in textbooks, but you never see them because until now, anybody who got sick in this country could always get help.”

...

Life in Greece has been turned on its head since the debt crisis took hold. But in few areas has the change been more striking than in health care. Until recently, Greece had a typical European health system, with employers and individuals contributing to a fund that with government assistance financed universal care. People who lost their jobs received health care and unemployment benefits for a year, but were still treated by hospitals if they could not afford to pay even after the benefits expired.

Things changed in July 2011, when Greece signed a supplemental loan agreement with international lenders to ward off financial collapse. Now, as stipulated in the deal,  Greeks must pay all costs out of pocket after their benefits expire.

...

The health care system itself is increasingly dysfunctional, and may worsen if the government slashes an additional $2 billion in health spending, which it has proposed as part of a new austerity plan aimed to lock down more financing. With the state coffers drained, supplies have gotten so low that some patients have been forced to bring their own supplies, like stents and syringes, for treatments.

Hospitals and pharmacies now demand cash payment for drugs, which for cancer patients can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, money most of them do not have.

Again, if these were Americans being deprived of healthcare because of the 'international scandal' of a cruel, callous profit-driven healthcare system, the German press would be dripping with (possibly sincere) outrage and empathy (g), and would know exactly where to point the finger. Yet in Germany, coverage of the Greek healthcare collapse virtually always attributes it vaguely to 'the crisis' in general, not to the austerity measures forced on Greece by the troika, which are anything but inevitable (or alternativlos in Merkel's infamous phrase) and to which there are plenty of reasonable alternatives that would not impose massive suffering on ordinary citizens. Atrios sums it up well: "None of this has anything to do with helping Greece, it's only about helping the people who lent money to Greece. And in the end it won't even help them. Needless suffering because austerity."


The Failings of a Two-Party Duopoly, Part XXVII

The United States's extreme first-past-the post voting system makes it difficult to sustain nationally-viable third parties (unless they're founded by a charismatic and/or wealthy politician, but these always fade). This means that as soon as the two mainstream parties agree to ignore an issue for their own reasons, it pretty much disappears from the radar screen. The American criminal justice system, for instance, is a dangerous mess, but as Radley Balko points out, its obvious failings have been ignored by both parties so far:

Our broken criminal justice system wasn't discussed in the first two 2012 debates, and it's unlikely it will be addressed in the two that remain. In fact, crime hasn't been a factor in any presidential campaign since 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush and political strategist Lee Atwater -- along with assists from Al Gore and CNN anchor Bernard Shaw -- hit Michael Dukakis over the head with them. Since then, the only way either major party nominee has talked about crime has been to promise he'll be tougher on it than his opponent.

Even during Supreme Court hearings, the topic only comes up when partisans promise a nominee will crack down on those technicalities crime hawks (mistakenly) believe have turned prison gates into revolving doors. When the Senate was considering Sonia Sotomayor, for example, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) complemented her judicial history by noting she had "ruled for the government in 83% of immigration cases, in 92% of criminal cases." Former prosecutor Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) then praised Sotomayor for those occasions in which she had excused police officers who had violated the Fourth Amendment. Vice President Joe Biden told a gathering of law enforcement organizations that Sotomayor "has got your back," an incredibly inappropriate thing to say (even for Biden). Imagine the uproar if the vice president had said the same thing to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, or the American Civil Liberties Union.

...

There's an important debate to be had about privatizing prisons, and whether it's wise to have a government-created industry with a bottom line dependent on keeping as many people locked up for as long as possible. There's the vastly under-reported national scandal of corrupt crime labs and corrupted forensic evidence. The latest incident involves a crime lab technician in Massachusetts who may have faked thousands of drug tests.

We're in a 30-year trend toward police militarization, a phenomenon that has been driven by federal incentives. And we're expanding the use of solitary confinement (even for children).

Politicians are risk-averse creatures of habit. For decades they've been trained to mutter the same soundbites about crime. Polls show America's opinions on many of these issues are shifting, but few people actually vote on them. And the people most affected when the crime policy pendulum swings too far toward government power aren't large enough in number or stature to force a debate.

This also goes for the international war on drugs:

It’s a social policy that, many experts agree, has failed miserably since it was introduced more than forty years ago, tearing apart families and communities across the United States, consuming tens of thousands of lives abroad, and squandering huge sums of money. Yet hardly any national politician is willing to challenge it, and it’s been completely ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign. >I’m speaking of the war on drugs.

Since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and stated his intention of waging a “new, all-out offensive” against it, the government has spent an estimated trillion dollars on the war. Much of that money has gone to street-level drug arrests, undercover raids, intelligence taskforces, highway patrols, and—most costly of all—prison beds. Of the 2.3 million people in prison in the United States today, nearly half a million are there for drug offenses, many of them of the low-level, non-violent variety. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations—80 percent of them for possession.

In Latin America, the war on drugs has sown misery across a vast swath of territory stretching from the coca fields of Peru to Mexico’s border with the United States. Billions have been spent on crop eradication, commando units, military training, unmanned surveillance drones, and helicopters. The result has been endless bloodshed, widespread corruption, and political instability. In Mexico alone, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the nearly six years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón (encouraged by Washington) declared war on his nation’s drug cartels. One result of the crackdown has been to push traffickers into Central America, where they now terrorize Guatemalans and Hondurans. All the while, drugs continue to flow unabated into the United States. In 1981, a pure gram of cocaine cost $669 (adjusted for inflation); today, it goes for $177.


Harvard Professor Wants to Feel Pretty in his Circle Skirt and Sparkly Rings

Eric Ambler thrillers cleanse the palate between more ambitious books. They've got quite a lot of careful and convincing plot, no sex please, and jolly little nonsense about characters' feelings. Since they always involve people of various nationalities thrown together by fate into a small space or a common plan, they give Ambler a chance to enlarge on one of his favorite themes: what people of different nations publicly say and privately think of one another. At one point in A Passage of Arms, a Chinese chauffeur tries to understand why his American clients always chatter loudly about their most intimate affairs in his hearing, even though they know he speaks fluent English. At first he's tempted to think of it as insulting, but then comes to the conclusion that not only do the Americans. alone among all nationalities, seem to not mind it when other people become privy to their personal affairs, they actually enjoy it.

I had to think of that when I ran across this piece by Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard. He is by most accounts a smart fellow and is indisputably a middle-aged man:

File:Stephen Burt NBCC 2011 Shankbone.jpg

For reasons which will defy any European's comprehension, he's decided to share with the world the following, er, proclivities:

I’m a man, but I like dressing up as a woman, in women’s clothes, wearing lipstick and bracelets and bright rings and women’s shoes. Given my tastes, at the moment, it might be better to say that I like dressing up as a girl. I like to wear costume jewelry, and pastel nail polish, and I do that all the time. I like to wear skirts and tights, or dresses, too, in private sometimes, in public fewer times, and in company when I can find an appropriate occasion, which I rarely can....

Other prized girly possessions, recently acquired: opaque white tights; opaque bright blue tights; a micro-thin blue belt (it goes only with shorts or skirts); a black Maidenform padded bra, which converts a 36AA like me to a 36C; a cotton white-and-magenta circle skirt, which I have worn around Harvard Square; a sleeveless black top with small ruffles and white polka dots, which I have as yet had no occasion to wear. Ten years ago I lost, among other girl clothes, a pair of black and silver opaque tights. I still miss them.

As Burt might say in one of his girlier moments: ZOMG!! TMI!!!

The image of Burt prancing around in tights and sparkly rings and bras will haunt me for weeks. This may be turn out to be a more horrifyingly persistent unwanted mental image (Germans, we need a word for this -- like Ohrwurm, but for mental images) since I read in the Good Soldier Schwejk about the drunken Czech officer who stripped naked, crammed a large mackerel head-first into his backside, and pretended he was a mermaid.


1884: A Chilling Vision of Surveillance

In Frankfurt yesterday I dropped by the Schirn Kunsthalle to see the exhibition on Gustave Caillebotte, perhaps the most interesting of the impressionists (if you ask me). The exhibit's called Gustave Caillebotte, Impressionist and Photography, and shows the give-and-take relationship between Caillebotte's work and the emerging art form of photography. The traditional notion is that artists in the 19th century realized that photography had rendered the pursuit of realistic painted reproduction superfluous, freeing artists to concentrate on a sort of refracted and distilled 'painterly' technique that focused on the act of seeing itself. Caillebotte had a different reaction: he used the emerging technology of photography to enrich his technique. The revolutionary motion studies of Muybridge, for instance, or the odd perspectives and hallucinatory detail of 'stereographic' 3-D panoramas of Parisian streets, or the ability to capture snapshots of laundry billowing in wind.

The actual documentation of the link between photography and Caillebotte's technique was thin, so the exchibit was just pioneering French photography side-by-side with a decent cross-section of Caillebottes (including the famous Floor-Scrapers, which sounds much better in French: Raboteurs de Parquet). But that's something else! Only one of his mesmerizing studies of white laundry, though. The Schirn Kunsthalle is, as always, a weird and uninviting space, and the structure of the exhibition is hard to follow. Plus, they're charging 10 Euros for just one exhibit, which is just too damn high.

One part of the exhibit struck my eye: this ad for the 'Photographic Secret Camera' made by the Stirn Company from Bremen, billed as the 'newest and most amazing invention in the area of photography for professional and amateur photographers.'

20121021_171401

The camera is a metal disc about 14 cm across with an lens emerging near the top. The ad targets four groups. The last two are photographers and tourists, but the first two are more interesting. The first group is 'Officers of the Army and Marines' to take 'snapshots of positions and terrain of military importance'. The second group is 'Secret Police Officials', who can use the camera to copy (copieren) 'suspicious persons, street gatherings, etc.'

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it's pretty sobering to know that there were so many 'secret police officials' skulking around Europe in the late 19th century that they constituted a major target group for camera marketers. It conjures up a Conradian world of malodorous anarchists gathering in seedy underground taverns while desperate informants secretly photograph their gaunt, feverish faces.


Six Years for Multiple Cop-Stabbings

A self-described German Salafist stabbed three police officers during a demonstration, injuring two severely. In Court he shows not a trace of remorse, saying he was justified in his actions because the German state allowed right-wing demonstrators to show caricatures of Mohammed.

And now he's just been sentenced to a not-so-whopping six years (g) in prison, which means he may well get out in 3 or 4. You won't often hear this from me, but this sentence strikes me as ludicrously light. A potentially deadly knife attack against three uniformed police officers must be, in anyone's book, an extremely serious crime. Further, according to news reports, the defendant was sober and sane, acted out of ideological conviction, showed no remorse and indicated he would be a future danger, since he considered himself only accountable to Allah for his actions.

I don't know if the tabloids are complaining about this, but if they aren't, they should be.