Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons, Walter Lord

The EnvoyIn Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, Emile de Becque, the French planter, and US Navy Lieutenant Joseph Cable accept an assignment to go behind enemy lines and observe enemy shipping and aircraft. Cable is killed and de Becque returns alone. de Becque and Cable were coastwatchers. Walter Lord’s Lonely Vigil  is a detailed history of the men who performed this dangerous job in the Solomon Islands during World War II.

The book describes a world that no longer exists. A world of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, populated with expatriates, Methodist missionaries, native tribesman, Catholic nuns, and military misfits. This was before the days of reconnaissance satellites and tracking the aircraft attacking Guadalcanal and the Tokyo Express (the Japanese ships steaming down the slot). When the Japanese attacked the Solomons, many of these people took to the hills with radios in occupied territory to monitor and report. As Lord writes,

If Midway ended forever any chance of a Japanese victory, it was the Allied seizure of Guadalcanal and the recapture of the Solomons that started Tokyo down the road to final defeat.

This book has all the excitement of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan all rolled into one. I could not put it down. These are some of the unsung heroes of the war.

Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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The Envoy, Alex Kershaw

The Envoy

The dis-oriented author is a history buff. I enjoyed Alex Kershaw’s The Few about American pilots in the Battle of Britain. So when I was looking for a book to read on a trip I bought Kershaw’s The Envoy. The book tells the story of one of World War II’s unsung heroes, Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg.

In the waning days of the second World War, Wallenberg volunteered to go to occupied Hungary and work to save the last remaining enclave of Jews under Nazi occupation. It was Götterdämmerung and the Thousand Year Reich was coming to an end. The architect of the Final Solution, Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann had been dispatched to Budapest to deport the Jews of Hungary to the camps.

For most of the war, Hungary’s Jewish population had been spared the horror of the camps. Up until 1944 Hungarian Jews had not experienced thedeportations that occurred across the rest of occupied Europe. In this environment, Wallenberg went to Hungary on behalf of the US funded War Relief Board. A young Swedish aristocrat, Wallenberg was anxious to make a name for himself apart from his family’s business.

Wallenberg gave himself fully to his work and as a result thousands (maybe 10′s of thousands) of Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust. Wallenberg went to Budapest as a diplomat from neutral Sweden. He used his status and his country’s neutrality in creative ways to protect Hungarian Jews. He created passes declaring many of them Swedish citizens under protection of the crown. He appropriated buildings that served as protected shelters. He met many times with Eichmann himself.

As the Soviet army came close to Budapest, Eichmann fled but things we only to get worse not better. In the vacuum, the Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross, came to power. While the Germans were intent on deporting the Jews to Auschwiz, the Arrow Cross were simple thugs who would simply march Jews to the banks of the Danube and shoot them en masse. Despite numerous threats to his life, Wallenberg stood up to the Arrow Cross the same way he stood up to the Nazis.

The tragic ending to this story is that after the Soviets liberated Hungary, they arrested Wallenberg (in violation of his diplomatic passport) and transferred him to the Soviet Union. Despite repeated attempts to find out what had happened to him the Soviet (and later Russian) government has refused to this day to even admit that he was in their custody.

Oskar Schindler was made famous by the movie Schindler’s List, and while he deserves the recognition given him, he was a war profiteer and benefited from Jewish slave labor. Wallenberg, unknown even to many Jews, saved more lives and did so by placing his own life in danger and generally gave his life for the Jews of Hungary. A hero in every sense of the word.

The Envoy gets 4 of 5 dis-oriented smileys ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) -

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A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence

The dis-oriented author is a Francophile. I made my first trip to France in 1978 with my high school French teacher. I was hooked. So it was a no-brainer that I would buy Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. Mayle's is a British ex-pat and his book chronicles his first year in a rehabbed farmhouse in Provence.

Mayle makes the people and the culture of the region come alive.

Since that first trip, I have made another six trips to France. I have been to several different regions of France including Provence. And my daughter is planning to spend next year in Strasbourg. It is in our blood.

Mayle and his wife take the big step and buy an old Provencal farm house. The book is organized into twelve chapters, one for each month of their first year. Throughout the year they have to work with local craftsman to remodel the house. They also have to try to fit into the local community.

Mayle writes an often compelling and always witty account of coming to terms with life in Provence. It is not always wine and poolside parties but reading Mayle — I can feel the sunshine and smell the food.

After reading this book, I am planning my next trip to France.

A year in Provence  gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Generation Kill, Evan Wright

Generation Kill

The dis-oriented author has two boys serving on active duty in the US military. I am also a student of military history. I picked up Evan Wright's Generation Kill because while I have read a great deal about the American Revolution and the two World Wars, I have not really read anything about the modern military. Nothing about the types of experiences that my own sons could encounter.

This current generation of soldiers is not Brokaw's Greatest Generation — they are still a great generation.

Evan Wright is a journalist who was embedded with a Marine Recon unit in the Second Iraq War. In the beginning, Wright notes that in World War II it was often difficult to get new soldiers to actually open fire and kill the enemy. In Iraq, there seemed to be no difficulty at all. The modern American fighting man has grown up in an era of DVD's, cell phones, facebook and video games. The culture in which we live has an impact on the soldiers we send into battle.

The unit Wright is embedded with is mounted in HumVees. Even though they are a Marine Recon unit, in the Iraq conflict they are being used as a Calvary unit. Driving into towns ahead of the main invasion force and oding reconaissance by fire. This book paints a picture of US Marines in combat. It is crude and sometimes difficult, gritty but it feels real. This book is the basis for the HBO mini-series by the same name.

This book gives an intimate view of the modern US fighting man at war.

Generation Kill gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll

Ghost Wats

The dis-oriented author has been reading about the conflict in Iraq. I recently read George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars covers US involvement in Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion to 9-11. This book addresses not only the war but its consequences leading up to the rise of Osama bin Ladin.

After winning World War II we rebuilt Japan and instituted the Marshall Plan in Europe. After winning the Cold War we created Al Qaeda.

It did not have to be this way.

The Cold War. The Cold War was the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. Between the East and the West. It is called the Cold War because it never turned into a shooting war between the US and the Soviets. While there was never a direct shooting war it was still a war. A war of surrogates: Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan were all shooting wars. The Soviets baked North Korea and North Viet Nam against US troops. The US backed the Mujahedeen against Soviet troops.

The United States began arming the Mujahedeen indirectly through Pakistans security forces. Importantly the US provided Stinger surface to air missles to help counter the threat of Soviet aviation. Unfortunately, the distribution of US supplied arms to Islamic leaders became a power struggle in itself. Many fighters did not even know that the US was helping them.

After the Soviet withdrawal US attention turned elsewhere. The tribal rivalries that had lain dormant exploded into civil war. Rather than use our influence to stabilize the country, the US stayed hands off.

The Taliban eventually came to fill in the gap. They provided the vehicle for Osama bin Ladin to grow his nascent Al Qaeda. The eventual result was the twin towers.

Anyone who wants to understand Al Qaeda or Afghanistan should read this book.

Ghost Wars gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times, by George Crile

Charlie Wilsons War

The dis-oriented author grew up during the Cold War. I remember Viet Nam and Afghanistan. I remember when the United States sided with Islamic militias to fight the Soviets. I remember Charlie Wilson's War. George Criles book, Charlie Wilson's War is a look at the Afghan war and how the United States came to side with people like Osama bin Ladin against the Soviet Union.

I remember these events as they unfolded but I never understood them until I read this book.

Charlie Wilson was a congressman from Texas. You might even say that Wilson was a caricature of a congressman from Texas. Handsome and charismatic, he was a bon-vivant and a rake to use the archaic terms. His congressional staffers were all attractive and female and were known on the Hill as Charlie's Angels.

Wilson was a sort of congressional slacker. But when Joanne Herring, a Dallas socialite, introduced him to the Afghan struggle agains the Soviets — Wilson became a man obsessed. Wilson worked both through and around the CIA to provide covert funds for the Mujahedeen. Ultimately Wilson saw the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the withdrawal came as a larger part of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Afghanistan was eclipsed in the news by the Berlin Wall coming down.

As the Soviets left, so did US aid and interest. Afghanistan deteriorated into a bloody civil war. The collapse of Afghan institutions was a significant factor in the birth of Al Qaeda.

This book paints a tremendous picture of victory grasped and opportunity lost.

Charlie Wilson's War gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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21: Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, Ben Mezrich

21: Bringing Down the House

The dis-oriented author is not a gambler. I did however major in mathematics, so I have an interest in numbers. After seeing previews for the movie based on the book, I decided to pick up Ben Mezrich's book, 21: Bringing Down the House. In the book, Mezrich tells the story of a group of MIT math whizzes who form a team to go to Las Vegas and beat the house at Blackjack.

This was a fascinating book.

Card counting. The system is deceptively simple. Keep track of the cards played. Not even the individual cards but their values. When the probabilities stack up against the house, signal another player to come in and start betting. It really is that easy. Except of course that the casinos are monitored 24/7 by video and both uniformed and undercover security.

As the name suggests, this book and the movie by the same name follow a crew of MIT students who take on the casinos and live the high life. All good things come to an end and this adventure is no exception.

I found this book hard to put down, and of course it is better than the movie.

21: Bringing Down the House gets 4 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-(

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Washington’s God, Religion, Liberty and the Father of our Country, Michael Novak and Jana Novak

Washingtons God

The dis-oriented author has has been reading about the founding of our nation. I have been particularly interested in the religious underpinnings of our Republic. While the religious influence of the original settlers is unquestioned. The religious influences on the political founding of the country by the generation of 76 is not as clear. The Novacks' Washington's God makes a case for the religious faith of George Washington.

After reading this book I have more questions than answers.

Michael Novak is a religious Catholic. He and his daughter bring this background to this book. Defining Washington's faith is a difficult task for any historian.

While Washington quotes on faith abound, during his life he was at best, privately religious. Washington rarely attended church and was criticized by some of his contemporaries for not practicing the expressive sort of religion that exemplified the Great Awakening. In this modern era, many religious people are looking for religious clues in the lives of all the founders. While Washington might be the logical place to look — this book offers tenuous proof at best.

This is an interesting book but it does not provide any conclusive answers.

Washington's God gets 2 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-( ;-( ;-(

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Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot, Starr Smith and Walter Cronkite

Jimmy Stewart

The dis-oriented author is a Jimmy Stewart fan. I know that my younger readers may not know who he is. Jimmy Stewart  won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1941 for Philadelphia Story. As an actor, Stewart was known as a self-effacing everyman. The closest modern equivalent would be Tom Hanks. What I learned from Smith and Cronkite's Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot is that during World War II, Stewart volunteered for service in the legendary VIII Bomber Command that flew heavy bombers into occupied Europe and Germany.

Jimmy Stewart was not just an actor — he was a patriot and a hero.

Jimmy Stewart is probably best remembered for his role as Clarence George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. I especially enjoy his performance as Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story. Of course Miller was the legendary swing band leader who volunteered for service in the Army during World War II. Miller's airplane disappeared on his way to entertain troops somewhere over the English Channel. Miller was a hero but until I read this book I did not realize that he was played by a hero.

I do not use the word hero lightly. Stewart did not have to join up. In fact when he tried to enlist he was too light! Eventually he put on enough wight to pass the physical. Already a private pilot with a commercial rating he volunteered for the Air Corps. He eventually qualified in B-17s and became an instructor pilot. He could have spent the entire war stateside but Stewart pulled some strings to get sent to the European Theater of Operations. He arrived in England in time to join the VII Bomber Command. At the time the British were doing night bombing raids over the continent. The Americans were doing much more dangerous daylight raids. All told the Might Eighth performed over 10,000 raids with just over 4,000 losses.

Stewart was a pilot and eventually a Squadron Commander. He ended the war as a Colonel and retired from the Air Force reserve as a Brigadier General. He even flew in an observer role in a B-52 mission over Viet Nam.

With his fame, the Army would have preferred to use Stewart in a public relations role. But he felt his duty was to go to war just like every other able-bodied American.

This is an excellent book about an extraordinary man.

Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot  gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, by Rick Atkinson

The Few

The dis-oriented author has a special interest in World War II. I read the first installment of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, Army at Dawn. I bought
Day of Battle the day it was released. Army at Dawn chronicled the war in Africa and Day of Battle follows up with the war in Sicily and into mainland Italy.

After reading this book I wonder how we won the war.

After achieving success in Africa, the allies were at an crucial juncture. The British wanted to make sure that America remained focused on Europe. At the same time Britain was not prepared for a cross-channel invasion The army that had defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sitting on it’s hands waiting for something to do.

Eventually, the British convinced the Americans to undertake an invasion of Sicily and then mainland Italy. Churchill suggested that this would be a short campaign that Hitler would be forced to pull resources away from the Eastern Front, relieving the pressure on our ally, Stalin. Stalin pointed out that while Russia was fighting the majority of the German army, America and England were not fighting the Germans anywhere.

This book describes the characters and events that led to Allied victory in Italy. It starts with the invasion of Sicily and follows with the landings on the Italian mainland. I could not put down the book when I read about Anzio and Monte Cassino. The conflicts between individual commanders played a big role in the campaign. It was also interesting to see the conflicts between the forces of the different allied countries.

This is an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in World War II.

The Day of Battle gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-)

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