‘A man got to have a code.’


I wasn’t causing anybody harm, unless it was people I did not like who were Communists.”

via William Stevenson, 89, Dies – Wrote About Espionage – NYTimes.com.



‘Kill Anything That Moves’

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in VietnamKill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Uncomfortable. Seemingly well-researched, if not comprehensive.

Basically, the author Nick Turse stumbled across a rich vein of government documents that described a series of incidents during the Vietnam War, many of which can be fairly called atrocities. (All of them are horrible.)

Way led onto way, of course, and after the opening of many file cabinets, Mr. Turse has constructed over the course of 200-some pages a broad and readable sketch of such incidents underscored by a well-reasoned analysis of possible explanations.

He anchors some of his reporting to the well-known My Lai massacre of 1968 — in which 347 people were killed, according to the Army — pointing out the probably-not-surprising fact that similar, smaller-scale events were widespread, if not widely reported by the news media, before (and after) that time.

What he doesn’t do is try to list them all. Probably, there are too many. But meaningful records exist for only a small fraction of the incidents.

…this book is almost guaranteed to reveal something that will drop your jaw…

via A Nation Unhinged: The Grim Realities of “The Real American War” |.

I was not surprised by anything I read in the book — even though, I am led to understand, it breaks considerable new ground.

And I am not a historian, or even that world weary. Still, my collective, limited experience of the war — taken mostly from movies of probably dubious authenticity, like “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill,” but also countless television shows and the fictional recollections of a friend of mine, who claimed for years to have been in the Green Berets — jibes neatly with the extraordinary stories recounted by Mr. Turse.

I had no trouble picturing some of it in my head; many of the quotes came to life in imaginary drawls. I am not sure if that is more about pop culture or my own cynicism. And I am not sure what it says about the potential reception of this book. I am guessing it will be well-regarded by a few commentators, but ignored by the public.

In any case, it is not exactly the kind of ready-for-the-History-Channel title that can be seen on The Times’s hardcover nonfiction best-seller list.

Mr. Turse reckons more than seven million civilian casualties in Vietnam, from the end of World War II to the withdrawal of the United States’ military. That includes more than two million dead in a country of not-quite 20 million.

It says here, that’s a lot.

That is so many that a person has to wonder how many more unreported incidents like My Lai there still are. In one part of the book, Mr. Turse is recalling a trip he made to Vietnam to find the site of a particular incident. He is told the village is just up the road. When he gets there, he finds a memorial to a massacre by American troops — but realizes after talking to the locals that he has the wrong place. The village he wants is up the road, the locals tell him. When he gets there, after finding another memorial, he realizes, again, that he has the wrong place. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If the number is even close to being true, it is the only evidence Mr. Turse needs to back up his assertion that the war was a keenly-managed slaughter. That many dead people is one of those Facts in Plain Sight that can’t be explained away by a government’s propaganda machine.

Not that anyone is really trying, anymore. In all the digging that Mr. Turse did, he never reports any obstinence from the authorities. He finds evidence of it, in missing and presumably destroyed files, and in some uncooperative former G.I.’s. But by now, most of the principal figures are too old to fight.

Mr. Turse contemplates military training in an early chapter. This is one part of the book that particularly interested me, though not because of his thesis that American troops were being “brainwashed” as killers.

“That bastard stood right in front of me,” said Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, his voice rising as he gestured toward Sergeant Bales. “I wanted to ask him: ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?’ ”

via Villagers Tell of Slaughter by a Soldier in Kandahar – NYTimes.com.

I get it. But what else would you expect?

I was more interested in Mr. Turse’s seeming alarm over those methods, and how it served as a broader indictment of war making. I mean, if it is distressing that some men are transformed by basic military training, then isn’t their existence as an organization in peace time appalling? On some level, the idea of a war crime is an absurdity.

With his training chapter, Mr. Turse is filling in the blanks for a bigger theme of his book, that is that a combination of the training techniques, the overwhelming firepower of American forces and a systematic dehumanizing of the Vietnamese people by government and military authorities added vastly to the body count. In other words, My Lai wasn’t the exception, it was part of a well-planned rule.

The natural thing is to reflect now on how these corrosive elements could have been ameliorated, how the massacres could have been mitigated. Is it possible to train soldiers to be cerebral and discriminating in the flash and grind of combat? And what does it say about the American way when so much of our national production is devoted to conducting exactly such an enterprise?

Somewhere out there is a courageous historian who is building, file folder by file folder, a similar book focusing on the so-called Allies in the Second World War.

View all my reviews


Here is another thing to blame the Nazis for.


This 22-year-old, who wrote numerous letters home begging for more Pervitin, was not just any soldier — he was Heinrich Böll, who would go on to become one of Germanys leading postwar writers and win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. And the drug he asked for is now illegal, notoriously so. We now know it as crystal meth.

via Crystal Meth Origins Link Back to Nazi Germany and World War II – SPIEGEL ONLINE.


Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman

Life and FateLife and Fate by Vasily Grossman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a word, Epic.

View all my reviews

…instead of a means for strengthening a human community, “race, party, and state” become the end. “Nyet, nyet, nyet! The sole, true, and eternal objective of the struggle for life is a human being, his humble particularity, his right to this particularity.”

via The Russian Masterpiece Youve Never Heard of – By Leon Aron | Foreign Policy.

To get plausibly inside the past, we need to allow it to have been, as well as tragic, also hopeful, funny, preoccupied and ordinary.

via Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman | Books | The Guardian.

The zealots, bigots and creeps on both sides come across with equal clarity.

via “Life and Fate”: War, peace and love | The Economist.

When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me.

via The Year in Listening: Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” : The New Yorker.

“Yes, as well as this terrible Good…there is everyday human kindness”

via Life and Fate – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


On memories, and persistence.


“I forget a lot of things, or so my wife tells me. But I don’t forget those things,” said Stultz, 91, from his home in New Carrollton, Md. “It was rough, in a way. I got through it. We did our job.”

via I dont forget: Memories of battles past stay forever with oldest veterans – U.S. News.

New research is showing that every time we recall an event, the structure of that memory in the brain is altered in light of the present moment, warped by our current feelings and knowledge.

via The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever | Wired Magazine | Wired.com.


The gratingest generation.


But in “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France,” the historian Mary Louise Roberts draws on French archives, American military records, wartime propaganda and other sources to advance a provocative argument: The liberation of France was “sold” to soldiers not as a battle for freedom but as an erotic adventure among oversexed Frenchwomen, stirring up a “tsunami of male lust” that a battered and mistrustful population often saw as a second assault on its sovereignty and dignity.

via Rape by American Soldiers in World War II France – NYTimes.com.


Last Week’s News: [Expletives Not Deleted]

English: Director Werner Herzog at a press con...

Werner Herzog. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the spirit of Internet immediacy, here is a review of what I was reading online last week.

From my 119 subscriptions, over the last 30 days I read 6,028 items, clicked 329 items, starred 0 items, and emailed 14 items.

‘Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945’

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over all, worth it. There is little inside that is controversial, or novel. Indeed, Mr. Kennedy devotes not a little brainpower to debunking some of the controversial and novel myth-making that had preceded him. And he does so ably.

But you should realize that this is, as it says, a history of the New Deal and of the United States’ involvement in World War II. It is a big-picture view, with insightful and engaging big-picture analysis. And despite its being a part of the so-called Oxford History of the United States, it is only those things. The words Joe Dimaggio and Joan Crawford do not appear anywhere in its 800-some pages, for instance; “John Steinbeck” does, but only to add muscle to contemporary descriptions of real life. (It seems “Grapes of Wrath” was fairly spot-on.)

In other words, if I had to criticize this book, which was good fun and is much-recommended, I would say that I would gladly have read past 1,000 pages over all if Mr. Kennedy had discussed, you know, movies and radio and, I dunno, art. Possibly his editors would have laughed at that suggestion; probably that was farther than he wanted to go. No one asked me, I know.

In any case, it is not often that I enjoy a book that I wish was 200 pages longer, but I wish it had been.

View all my reviews


Yesterday’s News: Enlightened Entitlement

In the spirit of Internet immediacy, here is a review of what I read online yesterday.

I am halfway through David M. Kennedy’s “Freedom from Fear,” an insightful and engaging history of the New Deal and World War II — though of only those things — and it obviously adds a lot of context to current political debates. Particularly revealing is that President Roosevelt, at least in part, imagined the New Deal as a hammer he could use to reshape the Democratic Party, drumming its Southern, conservative wing into meek, or irrelevant, submission.

The irony is, it will perhaps require a similar manipulation of the political spectrum to save the New Deal’s legacy, namely its most famous still-existing program, Social Security, and the groundbreaking appendages, Medicare and Medicaid.

“But while reports of a crisis are overblown, and conservative proposals to solve it are draconian, progressives do need to think about how best to reform the entitlement programs.” via Henry J. Aaron for Democracy Journal: Progressives and the Safety Net.

In the meantime, why shouldn’t we be spending again?

“The reason is that although the government is borrowing a lot of money, it is doing so very cheaply because interest rates are low both over all and on government debt specifically.” via What Is Driving Growth in Government Spending? – NYTimes.com.

Thence, some interesting pairings. For the first, start with a filmmaker who actually said “I’ve seen ‘The Master’ six or seven times, and I can’t wait to see it an eighth.” The quote is from an article about a movie made at Disney World without Disney’s permission. It’s notable because the critic seems to think that is the most interesting thing about the movie. via Sundance 2013: How did a newbie make an unapproved film in Disney parks? – latimes.com.

Finish with an author who makes a bold and possibly revealing attack on Charles Darwin, but does so in a poorly written book: “‘Mind and Cosmos’ is certainly provocative and it reflects the efforts of a fiercely independent mind. In important places, however, I believe that it is wrong.” via Awaiting a New Darwin by H. Allen Orr | The New York Review of Books.

Pairing 2 begins with a rift in the abortion rights movement. Apparently, the do-nothing 20-somethings are tired of being seen that way. “They are the generation that gave us legalized abortions, but they also screwed up,” via Why Abortion-Rights Activists Have Been Losing Ever Since Roe v. Wade — Printout — TIME.

Finish with a distressing look at the rights women were/are fighting for. “For most of history, abortion has been a dangerous procedure a woman attempted to perform on herself. In private. Without painkillers.” via Leeches, Lye and Spanish Fly – NYTimes.com.

Finally, three sentences to meditate on.

  1. “Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired?” via Pedophilia, Preemptive Imprisonment, and the Ethics of Predisposition | Practical Ethics.
  2. “What are athletes doing when they play sports, and what are we watching when we watch?” via The New Atlantis » How to Think About Our Steroid Supermen.
  3. Ursus arctos horribilis, with an emphasis on the horribilis.” via Hey, Bear – The Morning News.

The Baby Boomer Belly Drop

Having lived through a spectacular bull market, boomers now sell off assets to finance retirement, putting pressure on equity prices and denying young workers an easy route to wealth.

via The next crisis: Sponging boomers | The Economist.

The stylebook says, “As allusions to the population surge after World War II — between 1946 and 1964 — baby boom and baby boomer are overused; ration them.” Would that we could ration the boomers themselves.

The bill (hundreds of billions more in benefits than they pay in taxes) is coming due on the so-called boomers, and it is worth asking whether all the fun they had was worth the trouble to come. Following hard on the heels of the Greatest Generation — by the way, Guys, what have you done for us lately? — boomers can be thought of as the Greedy Generation.

In their youth, boomers — many of them, anyway — reveled in putting themselves first, carving an underground of drugs and confused sex out of the prosperous, if bigoted and superficial, America of the 1950s. That me-first attitude was indelible; less than 1 percent of boomers served in the military; about 10 percent of their parents did.

When they stopped smoking pot every day, boomers profited in putting themselves first at the office. But that was a good thing. There were so many them, and that meant more workers — and large numbers of women, too. If they had stopped there, that might have been O.K.

But in their dotage, boomers, still putting themselves first, have become a generational buzz kill that will transform the country for centuries. Like what, for instance?

  • The benefit derived from boomers’ knuckling under to the Man and joining the work force will become a serious liability as those hippies retire. Someone has to pay for their retirement.
  • Of course, the groundbreaking they did by bringing women along with them to work can’t be repeated.
  • Neither can you repeat the revolution in education wrought of the G.I. bill.
  • Boomers aren’t shy about applying political leverage, either, having pushed for lower taxes and generous government benefits for decades. Economists have calculated that “each American born in 1945 can expect nearly $2.2 million in lifetime net transfers from the state.”

But the biggest thing to me is that, unlike boomers who fattened nest eggs with decades of rising equity prices, young workers will be on their own. To add insult to the tax bill, most are surrounded by aging mentors who advise them to buy houses and invest their money in the stock market.

The model of America most older Americans believe is still in place is stuck in low gear. As The Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in August, referring to today’s equity markets, “An entire generation of investors hasn’t made a buck.”

What I would like to see from the self-indulgent boomers who are getting into politics now is fewer rambles about the Constitution (“have you read it?”) and more ideas about how to fix the mess they made.