Saturday, December 27, 2014

End of Days by James Swanson

I really liked Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy, so I picked up another book on the Kennedy assassination, End of Days by James Swanson. I’m not sure it added much to what I already knew.

In the author’s own words, he states, “This book attempts to re-create a moment when time stopped. It seeks to recapture how Americans lived through this tragedy and to resurrect the mood and emotions of those unforgettable days between President John F. Kennedy’s murder and his funeral.”

He does a good job tracing Lee Harvey Oswald's moves and motives. As well as minute-by-minute details of the Kennedy’s doings. He gets in some behind-the-scenes details and seems to have really researched his subject.

I think this is a good, simple to read narrative of the end of JFK’s life. Great for anyone who doesn’t know that much about it. But I think I would recommend Killing Kennedy over this one. It reads more like a novel.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Father of us All: War and History: Ancient and Modern by Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is one of the last of what seems a dying breed. He is a war historian. He wrote The Father of us All: War and History: Ancient and Modern because he believes that, “War is inseparable from the human condition...As an empiricist, I note only that war -- like birth, aging, death, politics, and age-old emotions such as fear, pride, and honor -- has never disappeared. This so-called tragic view concedes that depressing fact about the human condition, and yet it steels the individual to the notion that suffering is a part of our human lot, and unfortunately cannot be entirely eradicated by any amount of well-intended nurturing.” He believes that the long-neglected study of wars past “still best explain present conflicts.” It seems the changing nature of universities “ensured the decline of the formal discipline of military history. Race, class, and gender studies sought to deal with the anonymous masses of history, not its medaled grandees and deskbound planners.” What a shame.

Without a literacy about the conflicts of the past, the public can find itself easily confused when confronted with the dogs of war. We become ill-equipped to make informed judgments. Military history is important for many reasons. One of which is its ability to remind us of how often pre-war planning is futile. Military history also shows how often things go wrong. Our expectation would be very different if we had a good understanding of the wars that came before. 

To study the classic Greek wars is to understand why Muslims, feeling envious and despising our culture, would attack us on 9/11. We would learn that wars involving democratic countries must have the support of the people. We would see the futility of reasoning with enemies when war is in the air. Thucydides’ “description of the horrific plague at Athens is both scientific and gruesome, as he chronicles the social chaos in the manner of a physician reviewing symptoms, formulating a diagnosis, and offering a bleak cultural prognosis.” These may be unwelcome lessons, but they are critical. 

Hanson gives us a bit of the military history we are missing through a series of essays he has written over the years and edited for this book.

He starts with what to read. His first essay is “Thallatta! Thallatta!: the timeless attraction of Xenophon.” He describes Xenophon as a man who “traveled, fought, wrote, and hobnobbed more than almost any other Greek of his age. He also had a multi-faced ability to relate such a rich life through the art of storytelling __ and nowhere better than in his gripping tale of thousands of greek mercenaries abandoned and trapped in hostile Persia.” 

His second essay recommends “The Old Breed: The brilliant but harrowing narrative of E.B. Sledge.” “Sledge, a previously unknown retired professor, late in life published his first book, which was originally drawn from contemporary notes taken during battle and intended only as a private memoir for his family. Yet within two decades of publication that draft became acknowledged as the finest literary account to emerge about the Pacific war.”

He next recommends Professor Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War in his essay “The War to Begin All Wars: Athens Meets Sparta.” Kagan has related this most famous of battles to our contemporary Great War. “It was a tragic event, a great turning point in history, the end of an era of progress, prosperity, confidence, and hope, and the beginning of a darker time.”

Next is Niccolo Capponi’s The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto. Seeing as we face this battle again, it’s helpful to have some history for perspective.

Next his essays enter into modern warfare and how often, even in our days of nuclear arms and AK-47s we can still learn from the past. 

He asks, “Have we seen in our time the end of decisive battles between conventional armies and navies in the long tradition of Cunaxa, Lepanto, and Okinawa?” For the foreseeable future, it appears that we will not have large decisive battles. Terror and small skirmishes have replaced them. The stakes are simply too high and large battles could do too much damage. But with an apocalyptic Iran, that may change. The horror of large decisive battles may yet return. 

My favorite line in the whole book was in an essay titled, “The American Way of War -- Past, Present, and Future.” He states, “We concede that American success in fostering democracy in post-war Germany, Italy, and Japan was predicated by age-old, rather dark assumptions that the Nazis, Fascists, and Japanese militarists had to be defeated, humiliated, and only then helped -- and in that order. But whereas we now welcome the latter step of aiding a former enemy in the building of democracy, we loathe the first two requisites of inflicting a level of damage to ensure its success.” So true. We want to nation build our enemies without first defeating and humiliating them. Even saying those words sounds foreign. But our military and political leaders in the past knew that unless the enemy was soundly defeated and subsequently humiliated, helping would only give him time to rearm. They must be taught to NEVER attack again. Or they will attack again.

Hanson makes a great statement when he discusses how wars are lost, “But perhaps the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. Present generations of unprecedented leisure, affluence, and technology no longer so easily accept human imperfections. We seem to care less about correcting problems than assessing blame ... We fail to realize that the enemy makes as many mistakes but probably addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Rarely are we fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.” We have accepted defeat as somewhat inevitable. Wow.

As far as current warfare, he finds the West hold itself to an impossible standard and therefore makes actually winning wars all but impossible. We must suffer no casualties, we must have an exit strategy, we must not go into poor third-world nations, we must build up before we defeat, and certainly we must not humiliate, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold the enemy to, the war cannot be led by a right-wing war-monger, we must force democracy on nations with no institutions to support it or prior experience with it, we must make no mistakes, we must respond proportionately, and it goes on and on. All of this gives a huge advantage to insurgents and terrorists who have no such obstacles.

In short, because we have no sense of the history of war, we seemed doomed to continual failure in current conflicts. Sigh.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Jefferson and Hamilton: A Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling

Since I love, love, love history, especially American history, how could I not read a book featuring the contrast between two of America’s most influential historical figures, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton? Because Jefferson is so enigmatic and Hamilton is so good looking, yet despite what the kids will tell you today, he never became president, both present interesting character studies.

The author of Jefferson and Hamilton: A Rivalry That Forged a Nation, John Ferling notes that Jefferson and Hamilton, more than any other Revolutionary figures, shaped our great nation. “The strong central government, our system of finance, and the industrial vigor of the United States are Hamilton’s legacy. America’s bedrock belief in equality, its quest for novelty, and the continental span of the nation were bequeathed to succeeding generations by Jefferson.” In addition, some form of their historical rivalry continues to play out today as America experiences partisan clashes.

Their beginnings could not have been more different. Jefferson, heir to a large plantation, was the consummate Southern gentleman. Hamilton grew up with a single mother in disreputable circumstances. It was only the kindness of wealthy patrons who recognized something remarkable in Hamilton that allowed him to move to the continental mainland and get an education. Jefferson remained mired in history and tradition, wanting the newly formed America to be agrarian and believing slavery to be an entrenched, unsolvable problem. Hamilton knew the future American economy must be built on a strong industrial base, following the new-fangled ideas of Adam Smith and his “free market.” Hamilton was also “strikingly ahead of his time in his thinking on race.”

Jefferson definitely shaped America’s ideas on liberty and freedom. Although he couldn’t quite bring himself to apply these principles to blacks, for the white Americans, he saw the Revolutionary War all about preservation and expanding freedom and independence. Hamilton, who appeared to be much more pragmatic, knew these ideas were chimerical in a nation without a strong and secure national government. This ancient dichotomy of freedom vs. security continues today.

Although not born into the world of gentlemen, Hamilton recognized that people are inherently unequal. Therefore he desired a nation run by the best kinds of people. The will of the people and popular self-rule were not ideas that he promulgated. Meanwhile Jefferson, the consummate upper-class gentleman, fought for giving every citizen a voice in the government. He trusted the masses far more than Hamilton. 

Jefferson’s experience in a Europe undergoing the violent throes of the Industrial Revolution soured him to that form of economy. He saw the misery this caused to the common people and the grab for power by the wealthy and connected. Hamilton did not spend formative time in Europe, but saw an economy based in cities with industrial power as the only way to secure America’s place in the world as an economic powerhouse. 

It was interesting to see both men’s attitudes in respect to tradition. Perhaps because Jefferson was seeped in it, he saw the restrictiveness of blindly following the old ways. Hamilton, who was not raised in a traditional environment, “cherished the past as a weapon against radical innovation.” I believe both men were acting out of their individual experiences, both rejecting what they grew up with. This would have enormous ramifications for the newly forming United States. 

They also had strikingly different views of human nature in general. Jefferson was optimistic when it came to humanity. Hamilton had seen too much of the dark side of people not to hold “mankind in a pragmatic distrust.” He believed humankind to be easily manipulated by passion and possibly incapable of self-government. Jefferson believed that with education and the leveling of social classes, “the good in mankind would predominate.” These competing ideas of man’s basic goodness or fallenness lead to the two competing camps of liberals vs conservatives we continue to grapple with. Each view leads to radically different conclusions. 

One incident perfectly portrays the difference between the men. As Hamilton gazed at three portraits Jefferson owned, he asked the identity of the men. Jefferson responded that they were the three greatest men to have ever lived – John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Sir Francis Bacon, all men of the Enlightenment. Hamilton responded that the greatest man to have lived was Julius Caesar. 

Their most heated battles came when Hamilton began to set up a financial system Jefferson believed would only benefit the wealthy. Hamilton called for a national bank and assumption of state debts incurred in the War. His basic view of humanity driven by ambition caused him to try to channel those impulses through a hierarchical society. He worried about disorder that he believed would result without a strong central government. Jefferson believed humanity’s basic goodness would manifest itself best with the greatest possible allowance for individual independence. It’s odd to me that today, Hamilton’s beliefs lead conservatives to desire more individual independence, and Jefferson’s lead liberals to desire more government control. Perhaps it’s a case of the pendulum swinging too far one way or the other. 

Both inside Washington’s cabinet and certainly once freed of the conciliatory Washington, the partisan passions of Jefferson and Hamilton led to years of fighting. Often, Hamilton showed a hot-headedness that worked against him. He pushed his views and causes to his own detriment. But because Hamilton, more than Jefferson, had Washington’s ear, it was he who really “forged the contours of the new American nation.” But Jefferson gave us our highest ideals for who we are as a people and who we wanted to become. He too became seemingly irrational at times in his fight against the monarchical tendencies he saw all too often. 

I’m grateful to both men, extreme as they were, for shaping our nation. Both contributed in mighty ways the success of our nation today. It seems the pendulum has swung far in the directions both men feared. We need a return to the ideas of these men to see how we got here, and how we can further strengthen our great country.