Book Review: Summer of Blood by Dan Jones (four stars)

Book Review: Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution by Dan Jones (four stars)

“When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who, then, was the gentleman?”

The summer of 1381 England experienced a near anarchy as the commons rose up against their royal, noble, and ecclesiastical betters. Jones strings together original sources and supposition to explore the causes, development, and results of the revolt.

“After a whole day spent in such detestable actions, they were at last exhausted by their labours and the drinking of so much more wine than usual; thus in the evening you could see them lying scattered about on the streets and under the walls, sleeping like slaughtered pigs.” Thomas Walsingham

Hardly a scholarly work because Jones depends on his imaginings to connect the dots between the ancient sources. To be fair, we don’t know as much about seven centuries ago as we think. Maps and illustrations help.

The people had frightened their king, and now the king would frighten his people.

Book Review: Operation Pineapple Express by Scott Mann (four stars)

Book Review: Operation Pineapple Express: The Incredible Story of a Group of Americans Who Undertook One Last Mission and Honored a Promise in Afghanistan by Scott Mann (four stars)

“Leaving these guys in the wind is also a massive national security threat.”

How an ad hoc rescue of one threatened Afghan morphed into an underground railroad which saved hundreds of Afghan men, women, and children from Taliban retribution as the United States of America deserted them. Told in third person by a key player in the exfiltration miracle worked by dozens of Americans operating without official support—in fact, occasionally despite official impediment.

“It appeared as if the entire Afghan special operations community was being abandoned. There was zero will among senior leaders to intervene on behalf of partner forces.”

Plenty of blame to spread over four presidential administrations. Our politicians live in a bubble of fantasy that their words alter reality. The language and emotions are raw. Sometimes unnecessarily so, but the author was armpit deep in the trauma.

“‘This was the greatest airlift in American history.’ [said General Mark Milley] In an instant Scott realized this was nothing more than political theater. Legacy damage control. Every ounce of hope he had felt coming in drained away. The buck had been passed—and saluted. This whole thing was bullshit.”

From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs down, we turned our backs on  people who had kept our people alive in the field for twenty years. Ignoring not only a moral obligation but also potential compromise of the inner workings of American special operations.

“Much of the trust in our political administrations, diplomacy, and security has been damaged by the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan and in the botched withdrawal from it.”

If America hadn’t deserted Afghanistan in 2021, would Russia have invaded Ukraine in 2022?

“You’re wasting time with these lists that State keeps asking for. They’re going into a black hole. The only thing that’s working is the ad hoc groups.”

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Washington was rich enough to pay his own way … but devoted enough to the cause to risk it all.

Better essential biography than larger, duller, more famous tomes. Coe eschews details for the larger picture. Her broad brush portrait is adequate for all purposes but the most academic.

Great love stories don’t often begin with dysentery, but had George Washington not contracted the disease during his final year of British service, he would never have met Martha Dandridge Custis.

That said, skip the Preface and Introduction: Coe patting her own back and indulging in the same banal gossip of which she accuses other biographers.

After defending Washington, the Thigh Men usually turn their sight on Martha, blaming her for the couple’s childlessness.

Most biographers agree George was probably the reason he had no children. For which generations of Americans should probably be grateful.

He was most likely a deist.

Not true. Even Cox infuses her volume with many GW quotes which refer to a caring, intervening God. (“I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved, & been bountiful to me.”) Thomas Jefferson was a deist; George Washington was a quiet, conventional Christian of the mainstream denomination.

“Washington did not really outfight the British,” the British spymaster Major George Beckwith said, “He simply outspied us.”

Cox holds the magnifying glass to both Washington’s successes and his failures, among the later his not emancipating his many slaves while he lived.

The figurehead of American liberty was never far from a representation of its (and his own) deep-seated hypocrisy.

Love the cover art. Frequent use of tables summarizes and oversimplify key details. Side bars break up the text in a modern, casual style.

Unbridled partisanship was his greatest fear, and his greatest failure was that he became increasingly partisan.

Book Review: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy (five stars)

Book Review: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy (five stars)

Vladimir Lenin himself spelled out the “lesson of 1919” for his followers. According to Lenin, the Bolsheviks had neglected the nationality question. 

Probably has ten times the detail most first-time readers desire, but enough depth to satisfy those seeking to really understand who, what, where and why Ukraine is headline news. Detailed history of a people many Americans knew only as part of the Evil Empire that tried to break free. Good Job.

The more Rus’ became Christian, the more it turned Slavic as well. 

Starts at the beginning and keeps going. Warts and all. First published in 2015 and updated in 2020. Plokhy is Ukrainian, a historian, and a teacher. He ought to know what he’s talking about and how to communicate it. And does.

Ukrainians probably have just as much right to brag about their role in changing the world as Scots and other nationalities about which books have been written asserting their claim to have shaped the course of human history. 

The reader will feel time and again, the Ukrainians just can’t get a break. Though released prior to Putin’s latest invasion, Plokhy is not surprised. Readers should be either.

Whatever the outcome of the current Ukraine Crisis, on its resolution depends not only the future of Ukraine but also that of relations between Europe’s east and west—Russia and the European Union—and thus the future of Europe as a whole. 

Book Review: Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris (four stars)

Book Review: Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 by Michael C. Harris (four stars)

“Their affairs will be growing worse—our’s better: so that delay will ruin them. It will serve to perplex and fret them, and precipitate them into measures, that we can turn to good account. Our business then is to avoid a General engagement and waste the enemy away by constantly goading their sides, in a desultory way.” Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide de camp

Drawn heavily from primary sources by those who were there, Harris details the engagement which he thinks set America on the sure road to independence. Detailed to unit commanders and their biographies, weather, and politics. Perhaps too exhaustive for casual readers, but valuable documenting what really transpired.

“[M]y prayers went with the ball that it might finish Washington & the Rebelion together.” For the second time that day, the most important man in America barely escaped severe injury or death.

Harris carefully documents and dismisses many of the popular, but fictious anecdotes concerning the battle. Excellent maps. Several “Betsy Ross Flag” myths are exposed.

“Not just chusing to take the Bull by the horns we disappointed Washington and turned his Right.”  [English general] James Grant, October 20, 1777

Lord Howe witnessed the slaughter at Breed’s Hill in 1775 and strove to never repeat it. Washington hoped for repetition and that hope blinded him to what Howe was really doing and Flat Bush, White Plains, and now at the Brandywine River. Howe had only one trick, but Washington never learned it.

Knowledge of the fords and other terrain features could have made the difference. In this regard Washington failed the army; the army did not fail Washington. By contrast, despite operating in hostile territory, Howe’s army succeeded in getting all the information it needed to achieve it main goal of flanking the American army and driving into its rear.

Book Review: Fire Over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar by James Falkner (three stars)

Book Review: Fire Over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar by James Falkner (three stars)

“Great Britain, at open war with France, Spain and Holland and many of her American colonists, had not often been so devoid of close friends.”

A tedious history of a tedious siege. For three years and seven months the British garrison held out against a Spanish-French-Moroccan blockade and siege. This book includes every detail.

“George III commented rather wistfully, ‘I should have liked Minorca, and the two Floridas [East and West] and Guadeloupe better than that proud fortress [Gibraltar], and in my opinion source of another war, or at least of a constant lurking enmity.’”

Paradoxically, from King George III down, most English were indifferent to retaining the Rock. They’d rather have traded it for Minorca or Florida. The Spanish didn’t want it that badly.

“No less than for Spain and France, the major British naval efforts to sustain Eliott’s garrison in Gibraltar proved to be a serious distraction from the troubled task of winning the war for the North American colonies.”

Why would Americans care? Because the siege—specifically, the drain on British naval assets to resupply Gibraltar—directly contributed to the naval loss to the French off the Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1780, which doomed Lord Cornwall to surrender at Yorktown the next month.

‘I think peace in every way necessary to this country,’ George III wrote, ‘and I shall not think it complete if we do not get rid of Gibraltar.’

Nevertheless, Britain still occupies Gibraltar.

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (Five Stars)

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (Five Stars)

“Northerners know nothing at all about slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, slavery; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”
—A Woman of North Carolina.

Primary source on living as a slave. Beats fictionalized and modernized alternatives. Slavery was and is a horrible institution, but it existed in most cultures at most times in history. Moderns do themselves a disservice if they relay on modern representations of the conditions and tolls of slavery. This is the true account of a true person.

No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear.

Approximately 4% of the Africans brought to the Americans as slaves came to the now United States. The circumstances and life probabilities of those others were even worse than the American slaves, but even though the slave-owners and the culture (South and North) that supported them thought the institution benign if not positive, in fact the social, emotional, and physical outcome was despicable.

There may be sophistry in all this [her explanation of being impregnated by a white man, not her owner]; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible.

Permeated with high ideals and scripture references which may be opaque to modern readers. Nonetheless the reader who sticks with it receives a deeper understanding of the institution beyond the white-wash and simplicity of modern accounts. Northerners come under Harriet’s condemnation as well as the South.

I knew my old master was rather skittish of Massachusetts. I relied on her love of freedom, and felt safe on her soil. I am now aware that I honored the old Commonwealth beyond her deserts.

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (Five Stars)

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer (Five Stars)

“Once we have the power we will never give it up. They will have to carry our dead bodies out of the ministries.” Joseph Goebbels

I should have read this book fifty years ago. You should read this book now. Shirer dug deep into the public and private and secret words of Hitler and his cronies documenting who said and did what during the two-decade advent and destruction of Nazism.

“Never in my life have I been so well disposed and inwardly contented as in these days. For hard reality has opened the eyes of millions of Germans to the unprecedented swindles, lies and betrayals of the Marxist deceivers of the people.” AH on the Great Depression

Shirer was a reporter in Germany during the 30s and again after World War Two. He accessed the unprecedented written records the Allies won from the Axis powers in Europe. His not being an academic improves the book’s readability. Footnotes aren’t to the opinions of other academics.

“This burning hatred, which was to infect so many Germans in that empire, would lead ultimately to a massacre so horrible and on such a scale as to leave an ugly scar on civilization that will surely last as long as man on earth.” (Yet only sixty years later some deny the Holocaust happened.)

Twenty-first century American Republicans and Democrats will see parallels in the opposite party but will be blind to those within their own. They’re there. Our unwillingness to see ourselves in this mirror suggests our vulnerability to repeating this horror. Is it a paradox that the totalitarian left which America saved from the totalitarian right in the 1940s bedeviled us the rest of that century as do now the totalitarians (right and left) from within?

“In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” Neville Chamberlain. (How many American politicians delude themselves into thinking they can “work with” international liars and bullies?)

Serious reading for a serious time. I recorded seventeen pages of notes; your mileage may vary. Quotations abound which echo into the twenty-first century.

“As an American citizen of German birth I finally testify that I am painfully familiar with certain political trends. Spiritual intolerance, political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged ‘state of emergency.’ … That is how it started in Germany.” Thomas Mann

Book Review: The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop (Four Stars)

“Our judgments of the Middle Ages as a whole must be relative to our assessment of our own age. It was an age of superstition; and so is ours, though the superstitions are different.”

An overview, not a history, of the Middle Ages. Lots of context, few specifics. In this case, that’s good. Readers put off by lists of kings and battles will find a topical collection essays on what was really going on in the lives of real people.

“In a deeper sense, the Middle Ages were a continuation of the ancient peasant culture that goes back 10,000 or 20,000 years, to the Stone Age.”

A healthy antidote to common misperceptions about what life was really like between AD 50 and 1500.

“Animal fat for cooking was in short supply, for it was in great demand to make candles, soap, and axle grease; a pound of fat cost as much as four pounds of lean meat.”

Repeatedly touches people and events which impact modern (in 1968, when published) pop culture–Joan of Arc and King Arthur–whether fact or fiction.

“Men were not ignorant of the things they needed to know – practical agriculture, weapon-making, the strategies of survival; and they had no interest in rediscovering the speculations of ancient sages.”

Book Review: The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Ghost Army of World War II, How One by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (Four Stars)

Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major campaign.

Most students of World War II are aware of Operation Fortitude, the massive deception to mislead the Germans about the true target of the D-Day landings. Most have never heard of the brigade-sized unit who employed props, radio signals, sound and theatrics to convince the enemy that American units were where they weren’t and vice versa. Unfortunately, it also confused some American units.

“You have to see into the mind of your adversary. You have to create for him a misleading picture of the operation to come. And you have to sell it to him with confidence.” General Wesley Clark

Drawn from personal diaries and reminisces as well as the official history of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Excellent maps and photographs. Padded with works of artists among the troop.

“On every block you can see at least one soldier surrounded by girls, leafing frantically through French-English dictionaries.”