"No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."

—Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899).

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Spies, Counterspies, and Deception

The D-Day invasion was literally won before the first paratrooper jumped out of a plane or the first landing craft bumped up against the beach.

The absolute supremacy of intelligence work of the Allies, usually thought of by the Ultra program decrypting German signals, was even more dominant than most people think.

Between 1940-1945, British counter-intelligence, better known to most people as MI-5, ran EVERY single German agent in England as a double agent. ALL OF THEM. This is a stunning achievement to consider in wartime.

This book reads like, well, a spy novel. It seems unbelievable, but is absolutely true. The ability of British MI-5 to control what intelligence the Germans received about the planning and buildup to D-Day no doubt provided a critical margin in the early days of the invasion when the Allied forces were at their most vulnerable.

Moreover, the spies England employed were not what one would see as the cloak and dagger types. A Yugoslav playboy, a French lesbian, a Polish triple agent, a Spanish pathological liar--about the only thing these double agents had in common is they formed the Island of Misfit Spies, all under the brilliant direction of a small team of British officers that were equally as eclectic and totally dedicated to helping the Allies land in France.

History has made the D-Day landings seem an inevitable success, but the view from the Allies was far different in early 1944. Previous Allied landings had been near disasters, as a vigorous German counterattack nearly threw the Allies into the sea at Salerno, and the Allied landing at Anzio had been bottled up on the beach head and remained stranded until a land offensive forced the Germans to withdraw.

The Germans knew the Allies were landing in France, so the inevitable choices became a landing in Normandy or the closer area of the Pas De Calais. The Allies launched a massive campaign to make the Germans think the landing was coming in Calais...and it was wildly successful beyond even the most optimistic hope of the Allied spy masters weaving an elaborate deception involving spies, radio deception, dummy armies, and a host of lies and half-truths.

The story of these spies is fascinating. Each of them had their own motivation and foibles, and many were far from likable. But under the steady hand of MI-5, they kept an entire German Army in the wrong place for over a month, allowing the Allies to buildup their forces and eventually break out of the Normandy beach heads and race across France.

This is an important part of the D-Day story that needs to be told...the Allies totally defeated the Germans in the intelligence war, and it did have a decisive effect at the most crucial moment of the European War. All of these folks are now dead, but it's great that their story is finally being told.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Excellent books to start the new year.....

I love good military science fiction.  Starship Troopers remains one of my favorite books, the horrible movie notwithstanding, and it was required reading in my plebe leadership course at ol' Canoe U.  I also immensely enjoyed Ian Douglas's early series on the Space Marines.  Futuristic military fiction like an early anthology by Stephen Coontz and the early books of Harold Coyle are also some of my favorite fiction.

However, good military sci-fi is very tricky to write as you have to seamlessly blend in futuristic technology without forgetting the essential human element of war.

I heard about these books right before Christmas, got all three so I didn't have to wait between volumes, which I really hate, and set out to finish them about two weeks ago.

The series is, in a word, magnificent.  I consumed these books like a bag of Fritos and enjoyed every bite, until the last page and then I wanted...another trilogy.

Ms. Nagata hits all the right buttons in terms of military sci-fi--cool technology, interesting and sympathetic and at times really FUBAR characters, a plot line that races along at Mach 3 and a nearly seamless transition between books that is really impressive.

These are fun and serious, and at the end you wonder...wow, how long before something like this really happens...I won't give any spoilers, but needless to say, much of the technology in these books exists, is being developed, and could be fielded by US troops in the next 10-20 years. 

Short and too the point--if you like Tom Clancy, David Webber, Ian Douglas, Stephen Coontz, or even Vince Flynn or Brad Thor..yes I love them all...go buy these books...ALL of them and sit back and enjoy them.  I promise you won't be disappointed.

Monday, December 28, 2015

It's been a year....

It's been a year since our sweet Courtney finished her journey here on Earth and returned home to God.  In that time our family has undergone many changes, begun new challenges, and generally tried to reorient so much of our lives that was built around the daily care and love for our daughter.

It has not been easy.  For many weeks, Mary or I would wander into Courtney's room at random times in the evening to check on her...except she wasn't there.

We would find little reminders like her wooden spoons still in the silverware drawer or a pair of socks that sunk to the bottom of the sock drawer.  

I found myself randomly saying the words to Fox in Socks or Green Eggs and Ham remembering how much she would giggle when I read them to her.

Of course, I did remember that there would be no more swine flu diapers to change, or no more spinach souffl├ęs sneezed at me and I thought "I won't miss those, for sure."

But Courtney was truly the heart of our home and her presence is missed on a daily basis.

However, life goes on, and I know that's how Courtney would want it.  She was always full of joy and laughter and even in the roughest times would smile for her mom or me..and especially her big brother.

We know she is in a better place, with no more seizures, pain, suffering, or sorrow.  She knows only joy, peace and happiness...as it should be...she was a true prayer warrior here on Earth and continues her prayer service in heaven.

We miss her and love her.

“Day is done, Gone the sun,
From the lake, From the hill,
From the sky.
All is well, Safely rest,
God is nigh.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

This is detailed and exhausting military history.

To call some books a tome does not really do them justice.  This is one of those books.  

David Glantz, a retired Army Colonel who is probably the foremost expert on the Soviet Red Army in the West, has written the first volume of what will probably stand the test of time as the most exhaustive study of this titanic battle ever written.

And I am not just talking about the time it takes to read and truly absorb the truly amazing level of detail Mr. Glantz and his co-author have provided in this book..oh, no, it took me almost 2 years to get through this book, on and off with my other reading efforts as it is truly a labor of love for Mr. Glantz.

Like every book, it has the good, bad, and ugly.

First the good--this book, the first of a four volume trilogy..WHAT, a four volume trilogy yea, you heard me..there is so much going on that it takes four volumes to get through it all.  What Mr. Glantz has accomplished here is the definitive tale of Germany's Operation Blue-the summer 1942 offensive meant to capture the Russian Caucasus oil fields and the city of Stalingrad to bring the Soviet war machine to a halt.  By mining previously unavailable Soviet and German archives, the book offers a truly fresh perspective on this campaign and how the Germans and Soviets fought one of the most titanic battles in history. 

It is nearly incomprehensible to Americans these days to think that nearly 2,000,000 men fought over this city during the course of the entire campaign...that's  almost as big as the current Russian and American armies COMBINED.  

The amount of detail in this book is amazing, and the analysis by Glantz and House is really first rate, it will change how soldiers and historians view those crucial battles and operations that set the stage for the meat grinder of street fighting in Stalingrad.  If you wonder why militaries try to avoid combat in cities, this battle will make you understand.

The bad...well, I have to say I love maps, and this book has plenty of maps...but they are, for the most part unreadable maps.  Glantz has tried to reproduce the actual German operational maps..but they look like really bad photocopies and are practically useless.  For all the awesome work put in this book, a decent cartographer would have been welcome.  The pictures are ok, but they also look like bad photocopies.  The University of Kansas Press...associated with the Army War College---usually produces first rate books...the maps and illustrations in this book were disappointing...hopefully these will be corrected in the succeeding volumes.

The ugly...well, there really isn't any...I mean this book is truly for the SERIOUS grognard, it is not light and fluffy reading...these four volumes weigh in nearly 3000 pages...yup that's right...nearly as many pages as were wasted on Obamacare...and that doesn't even count the end notes and bibliography.  No doubt about it...Glantz is passionate about this subject and no one will produce a study of this battle with his breadth or depth of experience and research...

If you want to learn about the REAL part of World War II...and by that I mean the Eastern Front where the war was really decided, then this is an important book.  Glantz leaves no stone unturned and really sets the stage for the follow-on volumes.

Oh, yea, I am already on volume 2 and it's gonna be epic.  Now the real battle begins...

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Grouchy Historian's Favorite Books of 2015

So another year draws to a close, so in addition to eggnog, tinsel, and useless speeches from a lame duck President, it's time for the best books of the year from my extensive reading list.

This year I actually achieved my goal of 36 books a little early, thanks to a new and extended commute and the wonders of Books on CD....what a wonderful way to read (listen) to fiction.  Haven't really gotten into listening to non-fiction yet...a bit to OCD for that..I like to flip to maps and pictures too much.

I will say this was a particularly tough year to choose..there were so many good books, many of them gloriously sent by my very good comrades at the New York Journal of Books where I had another gratifying year of reviewing some really thoughtful books...some of which I will confess I am still finishing up.  I look forward to another awesome year of their professionalism and enthusiasm for all things bibliophile.

SO, my favorite non-fiction has to be...Ian Toll's two volumes on the Pacific War.  Mr. Toll is rapidly becoming to the Pacific War what Rick Atkinson is to the ETO--the author of the definitive trilogy on the conflict.  Like his counterpart, Mr. Toll has an excellent blend of narrative history, "you were there" stories, and historical analysis to make these really fine volumes.  There is a definite skill to blending the sweeping naval battles with the grinding island assaults and Mr. Toll does this very well...the section on the invasion of Tarawa in the Conquering Tide is nothing sort of magnificent.  He has one more volume in the works covering the final 2 years of the war...I look forward to it very much.

Two honorable mentions were 13 Hours which I listened too and was very hard to distinguish from a Tom Clancy novel...it's going to make an awesome movie.  AND...well, let's face it...like I said, West Point can't play football, but they do awesome military history.  Their West Point History of World War II Volume 1 was a truly awesome work, made even better when you consider it's both a hardcover for us Luddites and a very cool interactive book for the twitchy generation of millennials now attending the service academies...which is ironic since the company making the interactive book is run by a Canoe U graduate.

Fiction...well that was a bit tougher, actually.  Ok, I'll admit it.  I picked a Nora Roberts book.  Hey, don't be a H8er..I am a huge fan of her JD Robb series and I blame my significant otter, who always wants to listen to one of these on a long car trip instead of Tom Clancy.  So I picked this from my library on Audio CD on her recommendation and it occupied almost an entire week of commuting.  The lady who reads them is awesome and as usual, Nora can take a pretty basic story like a treasure hunt combined with a murder mystery and hook you in with her usual excellent dialogue, sympathetic characters and awesome secondary players.  Hey, millions of chicks who buy her books can't be wrong, can they?  Literary masterpieces they aren't, but they are fun, engaging, and help you from wanting to run over the nitwit who cuts you off in traffic.  

The runner up was my old pal Harry Turtledove.  His new series (seriously, the guy only writes trilogies or trilogies of trilogies) of alternate history, one of my favorite fictional genres, goes off in an interesting direction--what if Truman had dropped the bomb on China during the Korean War?  In his usual fashion, Turtledove bounces around the globe, telling the story of a nuclear WWIII, but without ballistic missiles or thermonuclear weapons, and how ordinary people might have reacted to dozens of Hiroshimas around the globe.  A little pedestrian, but nonetheless interesting, and of course Turtledove has mastered the cliffhanger to keep you waiting in anticipation for the next book.