Book Review: Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941 – 1945 by John C. McManus (Four Stars)

Book Review: Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941 – 1943 by John C. McManus (Four Stars)

“And on the American side, the land war was fought primarily by the Army, though popular memory has focused almost exclusively on the comparatively smaller Marine effort.”

A corrective for the incomplete and Marine Corp-centric detailing of the other half of World War Two. Based on original sources from dairies of dead Japanese and American soldiers to those of the three-stars. Excellent context for American involvement in subsequent Southeast and Southwest Asia conflicts.

The Death March was not an organized, calculated atrocity, in the manner of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the cold-blooded executions in Katyn Forest. Instead, it was the product of chaos, poor planning, command confusion, inertia, disorganization, and dismissive cruelty. The ubiquitous cruelty of many Japanese guards and their propensity toward mindless violence was another matter altogether.

Probably more than the average reader wishes of the brutality of war, especially of the inhuman treatment of the survivors Bataan. Repetitious and slow moving. McManus repeats whole paragraphs and pages of previous material.

“He was . . . the only commander I recall who used the heading bearing his own name for official messages and communiqués,” Eisenhower later said. Of 142 communiqués dispatched by USAFFE headquarters during this period, 109 mentioned only MacArthur.

Exhaustive detailing of the leadership foibles which helped and hindered the Allied effort in the Pacific and Asia. Probably only needed to be told once what an egomaniac MacArthur was. He was not alone. That the Army, Navy and Marines fought their own intercollegiate war is not news either.

One soldier, writing to his mother late in 1943, expressed a fairly typical sentiment. “I guess everyone back home thinks MacArthur is some swell fellow. But the boys in the Southwest Pacific have another idea. He doesn’t do anything but ride around in his big car and live in a Hotel. He doesn’t know how it is up here in the jungle.”

Much has been written, then and now, about the huge materiel advantage of the United States, but having all that stuff and getting it to the soldiers at the front are two different things. Over and over the United States flunks logistics. In Vietnam, in the Gulf War and (I suspect) since we ship piles of stuff to the warfighters, the medics, the cooks, and much of it ends up rotting on some beach. (I was at Dhahran in 1990; the desert next to the cargo ramp was filled with hundreds on pallets (big, modern pallets) of stuff and nobody knew where it was or who it was for. My aircraft maintainers searched it for pallets for other maintainers throughout Arabia, but the war was practically over before that backlog got cleared away.

“The true determining factor in this conflict’s outcome, as with nearly all wars, was human will. In the Pacific, the Americans would be determined to fight to the finish with all weapons at their disposal, while observing only the rules that led to survival and victory. This has not been true in the decades since.”

This book ends with Tarawa in November 1943.

Though none of the soldiers could have known that the reversal at Moresby foretold the future pattern of the war, when the Japanese would seldom again advance strategically, at least on land, they did sense that a terrible moment had come. “We never knew how to retreat because we had never done it before,” one [Japanese] NCO later said.

Book Review: The Vikings: A New History by Neil Oliver (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Vikings: A New History by Neil Oliver (Three Stars)

“If you ask me, a fascination triggered by a story heard in childhood — be it from a novel, action-movie or whatever else — is the purest of all.”

A comprehensive investigation into the roots and impact of the Viking expansion period in the ninth and tenth centuries. Much of the pop culture image is wrong, but we knew that. Not that Oliver hews to high academia. Think of this as one person’s informed musings.

“The Vikings were a long time coming. The product of 8,000 years’ worth of lives lived — hunters, farmers and metal-workers; masters of boats, carved in stone and crafted from timber; traders in amber, furs and oil; warriors and kings; clients of Rome.” (True of all western Europe)

Stars slowly and follows many extraneous rabbit trails. Two hundred pages of scholarship spread among two hundred pages of opinion. No archeology project too small or too unrelated to fail to distract Oliver from touting his favorite field.

“the so-called ‘Near East’ of Mesopotamia”

Quibbles: He gets lots of details wrong, which uncuts the credibility of the rest.

“one story suggested by …” “I like to imagine …” “Maybe some of the inspiration for those elegant craft had come …” “I even like the thought that …” “it is hard to resist the notion that …”

Oliver trashes his sources but then builds on their unreliable testimony anyway. He passes off his opinions as fact. Most of the above quotes all occurred on one page. The book’s big weakness is also makes it so readable: Oliver repeatedly injecting himself into the narrative. Reads like the script to reality television.

“In any event its appearance in a village on a Swedish island is as surprising as would be the discovery of a pair of Swedish skis beneath the paved floor of a Thai temple.”  (Not so.)

Book Review: The Address Book by Deirdre Mask (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask (Three Stars)

“House numbers exist not to help you find your way, but rather to help the government find you.”

Entertaining book about the evolution and impact of house addresses. Unfortunately marred by several agendas which have little to do with the subject. Lots of emotion, suggestion, and fabrication.

“The employers’ blatant discrimination is based in part on mistaken views of who the homeless really are.”

Unfortunately, Mask often strays from facts into assumptions and opinion. Opinions are fine if presented as such.

“If they couldn’t number you, if they couldn’t conscript you, if they couldn’t see you, they didn’t own you—you really were a free man.”

How does it merit three stars? Lots of good, if trivial facts among the politics. Mostly because Mask’s concerns are well-founded, if not well presented.

“We don’t know what the near future is going to look like—technologically or politically. Change seems to come more outrageously every year. And the more things change, the more we feel the need to anchor ourselves to the past. Street addresses have become one way to remember.”

Book Review: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. (Five Stars)

Book Review: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. (Five Stars)

“I don’t know who you are anymore, but I know that You are all that matters.”

Unusually well-presented conversion testimonial. No glib made-for-television syrup; Nabeel shares his core-of-his-being struggle to determine who God is and how to relate. Unique in that Qureshi is an American Muslim. He believes in God, but he also believes in analytical thinking. That makes his story more understandable to Americans, though may diminishes its impact to other Muslims. That the Qureshi family, while devout, are members of a splinter Islamic sect may also reduce its broader effect.

“Then what hope is there for us, David?” “Only the grace of God.” “But why would He give me His grace?” “Because He loves you.” “Why would he love me, a sinner?” Because He’s your Father.”

Not light reading. Slow start as Nabeel introduces us to Islamic culture as well as himself and his family. While the tone is intimate and conversational, the text is heavily interspersed with Arabic quotations (well translated and explained), theology, history, differential religions (another of Qureshi’s friends is Buddhist), and inner turmoil. Qureshi didn’t want to convert. Unlike many stories of abused Muslims finding Jesus, Nabeel is a comfortable, happy Muslim. In fact, he enjoys proselytizing Christians.

“Effective evangelism requires relationships.”

Qureshi never doubts that God exists and knows him personally. He has encountered God in a prophetic dream prior to his crisis of faith. Qureshi also has a Christian friend who is well-versed on his faith, the Bible, and the points of contention between Islam and Christianity.

“How can God hold me eternally accountable for not grasping a finite fact, one which I have no access to in the first place?” “You know full well that if you ask Him to reveal the truth to you, He will.”

Nabeel also believes in the current efficacy of dreams and visions, unlike many modern Christians. He prays for a dream or vision expecting to get one. He has a firm enough belief in God that his crisis is know who God was, not whether he is. Many of the philosophic and religious arguments for and against religion in general and these religions in particular were inadequate to him; he knows God is.

“The natural Eastern tendency to hide shameful truths exacerbates the Western tendency to feel guilty.”

An excellent inside comparison of the Muslim honor and shame approach to life as opposed to the Christian innocence and guilt perspective. “It’s okay so long as you don’t get caught.” Knowing the difference is one key to understanding their differing worldview and behavior.

“On a particular day, when a Muslim, a Christian, and a Buddhist were sitting in a smoothie bar ….”

(I lived in Saudi Arabia twice in the 1980s, working closely enough with several members of the Royal Saudi Air Force that we often discussed our respective beliefs. I have also read upwards of a dozen books about Muslim beliefs and conversions as well as dozens on Christian apologetics. My one published book is a study of Romans.)

Book Review: True Strength by Kevin Sorbo (Four Stars)

Book Review: True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life by Kevin Sorbo (Four Stars)

“When I got back to LA I was booked into a six-week Action Hero Boot Camp, and the rest, as they say, is history—with a little mythology thrown in.”

Well-told story of Sorbo’s largely unknown with aneurysm, blood clots, and stroke which nearly killed him while portraying demi-gods and science fiction heroes to the world. Straight-forward prose and transparency lift this autobiography above the norm. Written in 2011.

“Huizenga’s evening assurances of being on track to finding the problem only seemed to emphasize the fact that no one knew what was wrong with me.”

Sorbo allows other voices to tell parts of his story, adding depth and perspective. (He kept watching TV even amid the headaches. Would have thought the flashing images would make them worse.)

“‘Norwegian! Your name ends with a f-ing vowel! You’re a f-ing Italian!’ [said Joe Pesci.] We’ve been friends ever since.”

Sorbo is something of a straight arrow among the hedonists of Hollywood. Even before arriving in tinsel town, he eschewed drugs, smoking, and the alternate lifestyles often associated with modeling and acting. Despite being a clean liver, at thirty-eight Sorbo was struck by an aneurysm which triggered blood clots in his left arm and brain—resulting in almost losing the arm and three micro-strokes. Yet he tried to continue his career, marry, and have children.

“Thinking positive things when your health is absolutely tanking is difficult. You become self-absorbed: my vanished past, my lost future. I was clinically depressed, for sure, if that counts as good reason.”

How did he do it? Read the book.

“The unforgiving industry equates dropping out of a show to a betrayal, and I equate my career with my life. The fact that we’re both wrong is irrelevant.”

Book Review: Dutch Girl by Robert Matzen (Four Stars)

Book Review: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen (Four Stars)

“It always boils down to the same thing of receiving love but desperately wanting to give it.” Audrey Hepburn

Terrible opening to a worthwhile book. Opening scene focuses on Nazi sympathies of Ella van Heemstra, Audrey’s mother. Then follows a chapter on family genealogy. Readers may be excused for wondering who the book is about. Persistence is rewarded.

“After living the long months and years under the Germans, you dreamed what would happen if you ever got out. You swore you would never complain about anything again.” AH

Not a biography. Rather a detailed history of Audrey’s childhood and war years, which coincided with her early teens. Matzen weaves the many threads of the girl who became an international celebrity and ambassador for children.

“I was so destroyed by [reading Anne Frank‘s diary] again that I said I couldn’t deal with it. It’s a little bit as if this has happened to my sister. I couldn’t play my sister’s life It’s too close, in a way she was a soul sister….”

Forward flashes jolt the reader out of the moment of the story. As it is, many chapters open with a Hepburn quote from interviews thirty and forty years later. Overall, an excellent, if flawed work.

“The fact that she was speaking German to an all-German kitchen staff in a German war hospital would haunt her in the years to come.”

Not to mention two gushing articles Ella van Heemstra authored about Hitler. About her mother: officially labeled “politically unreliable” and “silly,” she was in fact a collaborator until the middle of the war. Don’t judge her too harshly, many contemporary British and Americans swooned over Hitler … and Stalin. She strove mightily to protect Audrey from the taint of her foolishness.

“I experienced a lot then, but it was not all misery. The circumstance brought family and friends closer together. You ate the last potatoes together.” AH

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan (Three Stars)

“The most ambitious war project in military history rested squarely on the shoulders of tens of thousands of ordinary people, many of them young women.”

Excellent history of a slice of the effort required to produce atomic bombs. Of necessity, she spreads her net far beyond Oak Ridge, TN, to include women who made significant contributions to the science and industry which produced the first nuclear weapons. For better or worse, they changed the world forever.

“There is no such place as Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”

Sadly many, especially Lise Meitner, never got the recognition they deserved. Most didn’t get equal pay or living conditions because for their gender or race. But they all contributed to a massive project (about which they knew nothing) in the hope they were shortening World War Two.

“Elizabeth Edwards, Oak Ridge’s librarian, … looked over the spines and stopped at the volume containing the letter U. As she picked up the book, it fell open as if on command, the spine already worn and bent and broken from more than a year of being opened to the same page over and over by chemistry-savvy people trying to make sense of what they thought might possibly be going on.”

Kierman refrains from using the word uranium, substituting the then-current code word Tubealloy.

“For the last year [1944], roughly 22,000 people had been working at Y-12 day in and day out, 24 hours a day, as 1,152 calutrons managed to enrich 50 kilograms, or just over 100 pounds, of enriched Tubealloy.” (Uranium-235)

My wife’s great aunt was one of them. She never told us what she did, but her experiences parallels those reported here.

Q: What are they making in those plants?
A: About 80 cents an hour.

Q: What do you do out there?
A: As little as possible.

Q: How many people are working in Oak Ridge?
A: About half of them.

“Bigger! More! Now!” (MajGen. Leslie Groves, USA)

Book Review: Selkirk’s Island by Diana Souhami (Four Stars)

Book Review: Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe by Diana Souhami (Four Stars)

“‘Our Pinnace return’d from the shore’ Woodes Rogers wrote in his journal, ‘and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth’d in Goat Skins who look’d wilder than the first Owners of them.’”

The prototype for Robinson Crusoe was more extraordinary but less uplifting than Daniel Defoe’s fictional hero. His humanness as well as that of scallywags with whom he sailed—and who marooned him in the South Pacific—bursts through in Souhami’s meticulously researched volume.

“[Dampier] bragged ‘that he knew where to go and could not fail of taking to the value of £500,000 any Day in the year’.† He was not believed. This captain, when it came to action, hid behind a mattress and gave no orders. He was cowardly, incompetent and usually drunk.”

Alexander Selkirk’s “rescue” comes halfway through his story. It goes downhill from there. He was a born buccaneer, despite a Scot Presbyterian upbringing and the four years isolation. Sadly, this tiger didn’t change his stripes, even though contemporaries whitewashed his story as a modern (eighteenth century) Pilgrim’s Progress. Defoe met Selkirk and undoubtedly recognized that he was not the morally uplifting hero the public needed. Hence his fictional re-incarnation.

“He was, he thought, a better cook, tailor and carpenter than before, and a better Christian too.” Followed by a discussion of his sexual relations with the goats.

Souhani tells Selkirk’s tale “warts and all.” The telling is occasionally tedious, occasionally shocking. But the truth tells through.

“This plain Man’s Story is a memorable Example, that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities; and he that goes further in his Desires, increases his Wants in Proportion to his Acquisitions; or to use his own Expression, I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.”

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers by John McCain and Mark Salter (Four Stars)

Book Review: Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir by John McCain and Mark Salter (Four Stars)

“If you valued them, and held them strongly, love and honor would endure undiminished by the passing of time and the most determined assault on your dignity.”

An engaging family history by the deceased senator and POW. Written presumably as a presidential propaganda piece for McCain’s first run for the Oval Office. Despite that it is well-written and absent the vitriol expected from politicians.

“Some officers get it backwards. They don’t understand that we are responsible for our men, not the other way around. That’s what forges trust and loyalty.” John S. McCain Jr. (his father)

McCain credits his grandfather and father with both his dedication to service to his country and the strength of character which saw him through six years of isolation and torture as a prisoner of war.

“Like other senior commanders, [my father] believed the United States had squandered its best opportunity to win the war in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, ‘when we had destroyed the back of the Viet Cong…. And when we had finally drawn North Vietnamese troops out into the open.’”

McCain’s criticism of how LBJ and McNamara mishandled the Vietnam War is shared by almost every participant. I was one of them. It was a stupid waste of humanity and resources and accomplished nothing. That Nixon did little better during his first term indicates what a Gordian Knot a land war in Asia can become. Apparently, we unlearned that lesson in one generation.

“A lot of men died who shouldn’t have, the victims of genuine war crimes.”

Never a classic conservative or Republican, he was a man of integrity who followed his inner compass even when those around him urged him not to.

“This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to. It was the faith I had unknowingly embraced at the Naval Academy. It was my father’s and grandfather’s faith. A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”

Book Review: Servants & Spies by Mike Kastle (Three Stars)

Book Review: Servants & Spies: Exploits from the Covert Mission Field by Mike Kastle (Three Stars)

“Most things we accomplish in the Kingdom of God are like that. We almost never know the result from the onset. In fact, the result is usually not what we had initially envisioned when we started.”

Very few actual exploits. Kastle (a pseudonym) follows an attention getting tale which goes nowhere with forty pages of introduction. A lot of telling what he’s going to tell, telling it, then telling what he has told. The little that’s new is good but would hardly fill more than a pamphlet.

“It was like solving a mystery by reading a book backwards, seeing the outcome, and then reviewing and seeing how it all came together. That is, because His work had begun before I knew it.”

Even Christians will find the text dense and slow reading. Non-Christians will be bored and bewildered. Kastle never quotes one Bible verse when three are available. Half the text is sermons about Christian life and missions. Less than a third relates Kastle’s life, ministry or missions. Lots of repetition. He tends to build the clock to tell the time. Over and over. Needs editing.

“The battle is the Lord’s, but it is a battle. The war is won, but it still must be fought before we experience the victory that He has already won.”