summer book exchange #9: Christmas Truce

There’s stories, rumors, apocrypha, legends and myths. Telling the difference between them – for historians – is critical and often difficult.

Christmas Truce, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, 1984

photo 2There have been dozens of books, articles and movies written about the legendary Christmas Truce in World War I. This book, though a bit older, is one of the better ones.

In 1914, the governments of Europe merrily sent their sons off to fight what they were sure would be a very short war filled with honor and glory. “We’ll be home by Christmas,” they all cheered, certain of their impending victory.

Then they discovered the realities of machine guns, artillery and poison gas. Those who died, many have said, were the lucky ones, because the rest of us had to live forever in a new and unpleasant world.

Christmas Truce examines day-by-day the break in the fighting that spontaneously happened in December 1914. Soldiers who had only the day before been eagerly trying to kill each other stopped fighting, shook hands, exchanged gifts, and some even played in pickup soccer games.

Brown and Seaton present here a good examination of the before, during and after of the impromptu truce. The pacing of history books is often monotonous, dragging facts through the molasses of time, but the authors’ work in television has apparently given them some insights into how better to pace a book to keep the reader interested.

The book is well and thoroughly researched. If you’re interested in WW1 history, this is one to pick up.

tom clancy dead at age 66

539945Tom Clancy is dead. He was 66. While few articles are speculating as to the cause of death, Clancy was well known to be a heavy smoker; that no doubt contributed to his early demise.

I never met the man, but his books meant a whole lot to me. As I say to my students, I have to tell you this story to tell you that story.

You see, I’m a child of the Cold War. I wasn’t just a child during the Cold War, I was a child IN the Cold War.

In 1976, the US Air Force saw fit to station my father in Germany, at an air base called Sembach. We joined him there a year later (going to see Star Wars was the last big thing I did in the States before we left – thanks, Uncle Brian & Aunt Julie!).

This means that my father was attached to the 601st Tactical Air Control Wing, part of the 17th Air Force. I was too young then to grasp whatever it was he did, but I knew one thing – we lived near a base where they had OV-10s, and as a fourth grader, I was absolutely captivated by those slow, ugly bastards. I used to sit on the hill behind my elementary school and watch them take off and land, over and over. We lived in a little town called Otterberg in an apartment above a nice German family.

GermanyAfter Sembach, we lived near Hahn AFB for a short time. I traded the turboprop OV-10s for on-their-way-out F-4Es – still one of the coolest-looking fighters the USAF ever flew. I’m not sure which unit my father was part of, but it was either the 10th, 313th or 496th Tactical Fighter Group. Much to my ultimate dismay, we moved to another base before Hahn got its F-16s in 1979.

From Hahn, we took kind of a weird turn, as my father was sent to Neubrücke Kaserne, a tiny-ass Army installation not far from the border between Germany and Luxembourg. This was the first time since we left the States that we lived on base, in a shitty Army apartment building.

When we lived at Neubrücke, I lost all connection with what it was my father did for the USAF. “What’d you do at work today?” I’d ask. “Nothin’,” he’d say.

Every. Day.

The weird thing about Neubrücke – beyond its very small size – was the buildings.  Nearly every major building had a hallway that clearly went underground, but was blocked off by a locked gate.  Sometimes I could see equipment stacked up on the other side of the gates, but usually it was just kind of ghostly.  I learned later that, in the event of war, our little installation would quickly be converted to either a fallout shelter or a hospital, whichever was needed more. It was stocked to do either – or both.

I remember being excited one day when my father brought something home from work. It was a printout – you remember those big, roll-fed dot-matrix printers? They fed this wide paper that was striped with a pale green for readability. He showed me the printout. I thought I was finally going to get some insight into what he did all day, every day in that mountain he worked inside. Instead, what I saw was the printout of a text-based computerized Star Trek game – he’d finally beaten the Klingons, and was so proud of his accomplishment that he brought it home to show me.  (Imagine Zork, but with the Enterprise.)

A fucking computer game. Who’d’a thunk it.  Star Trek to boot.

It was several years later when I finally figured out that’s when he started his career in intelligence work, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Neubrücke, we moved to SHAPE HQ in Mons, Belgium. We lived in a tiny hamlet called Harmignies. Our bus driver and his backup were always armed. It seemed perfectly normal to us – after all, we’d been living on or near military bases nearly our whole lives at that point. I didn’t even blanche when I saw some knucklehead racing to get into an NBC suit, an Uzi or 2 certainly wouldn’t have phased me.

Sorry, I’m digressing.

The whole time we lived in Germany, we were never more than 100 miles from Frankfurt, which means we were never more than about 150 miles from Fulda, which means we were within just a few minutes’ flight time of the Fulda Gap.

“What’s the Fulda Gap?” I hear you cry.

The Fulda Gap is where NATO fully expected two entire Soviet tank armies to invade when the Cold War got hot. The air bases we lived at were forward support for US tanks (3rd Armored Division) and infantry (8th Mechanized Division) that were in place specifically to plug the Fulda Gap when World War 3 started.

Yeah. Lay that on a 10-year-old and see how he does with it.

By the time I was 14 years old – in 1984 – I had regular nightmares about exactly what a tactical nuclear weapon would do to me. I knew more about fighter planes and main battle tanks than any 9th grader should, and all of it scared the living shit out of me.

In one of his rare instances of paternal insight, my father realized that he could do something to help his oldest son. He came home from work one day and sat me down at the kitchen table. Very dramatically, he put his briefcase on the table and snapped open the latches.

“I’m going to give you something,” he said. “You can’t take it out of the house, and you can’t ever tell anybody you have it.” He looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Nobody. Ever.”

No pressure, right?

To this day, I don’t know if he was being melodramatic or if he could have really gotten in trouble, but he’d never shown that level of trust in me before, so I was nearly apoplectic trying to figure out what was going on.

soviet military powerHe opened his briefcase and brought out a crimson-red book. It was 8.5 x 11 and the title – “SOVIET MILITARY POWER” – was all that was on the cover, along with a tiny “1983” at the bottom.

“This is for you,” he said, “So you can understand what we’re up against. You know what we have and how we’ll use it if we need to, so I want you to see what the threat really is.”

I probably didn’t come out of my room except to eat or go to school for three days after that. I was so afraid of somebody finding this book that I hid it between the mattress and box spring of my bed.

(Yeah, I know. I should have been hiding Playboys there, but you already knew I was a nerd, so is this a big surprise?)

The book broke down in meticulous detail the stats, specs and capabilities of every piece of Soviet hardware, even fessing up when US/NATO intelligence knew very little (or nothing) about a weapons platform. It went on to detail how many of this or that were stationed where, even making some attempts to predict what Soviet strategies would be if a war started.

My father was right – having that book helped. A lot. The nightmares didn’t disappear, but they did lessen in frequency and intensity. The dreams lost their persecutory atmosphere as well, the idea that the Soviets were coming after ME.

I found out several years later that later volumes of this series (they put one out every year) weren’t classified – but they were hard to get. My father was able to nab a copy each year, at first due to his position working for the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – a guy called General Bernard Rogers at the time) and later through his job on the bottom floor of the Pentagon. I filled out my collection – 1989 & 1990, the last 2 years of them, of course – at a library sale in the late 1990s.

Less than a year after giving me that first one, he brought home a book from work. It was an advance copy of the first work of fiction ever published by the Naval Institute Press. He read it in a couple of days and gave it to me – “You’re going to love this book,” he said.

The advance copy’s cover used a similar stark typeface to the Soviet Military Power reports, and it read, simply: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

He was right – I loved that book. As soon as it was commercially available, I got my own copy, the first hardback book I ever spent my own money on.

Clancy’s next novel, Red Storm Rising, was even better. I later learned it was actually the first book he wrote, but “Red October” was the first he got published. If you read Red Storm first, you can see a lot of the sub chase sequences from Red October in them.

Red Storm Rising was epic in scope – World War 3 on land, at sea and in the air. It had some clunky characters (the clueless Air Force weather man in Iceland comes to mind), but the plot was solid and it was a fantastic read. I’ve read my copy so many times that it’s falling apart.

Clancy went the James Bond route after that, developing the character Jack Ryan (the hero of Red October) on and on until Ryan actually becomes the president of the United States. Patriot Games, The Cardinal in the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears – all solid spy books.

What attracted me to Clancy’s writing was its military precision. He described the technology with loving detail; his description of stealth fighters in Red Storm will give you chills. He seemed to know as much (if not more) about military hardware as I did, and I always felt like he was writing those books just for me, that scared kid who grew up in Europe just a short drive from the Fulda Gap.  You could tell he totally geeked out on the hardware, and I just ate it up.

After those books, though, I kind of lost interest in Clancy’s work. Without Remorse was OK. I found the climax of Debt of Honor (published 1994) to be completely implausible – what kind of crazy person would commandeer an airliner and crash it into a building? Debt also made me uncomfortable because it rode a wave of Japan-bashing that was sweeping the US at the time, and I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, its people and their culture.

Executive Orders was also an OK book, as was SSN, but neither was great. Clancy seemed to get some of his zing back when he brought back John Clark, a character from Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse, and put him in charge of the book’s eponymous Rainbox Six counter-terrorist group.

I read The Bear and the Dragon and Red Rabbit, but that was pretty much it for me. I felt like Clancy lost what had made him great – the techno-spy-thriller aspects of his writing weren’t shining through like they did in his first few books. I never read his last solo book, The Teeth of the Tiger, because I couldn’t get into Jack Ryan’s son picking up his father’s mantle. This probably had something to do with the fact that, by 2003, my own father and I were quite distant from each other – we never had much of a relationship after 2001, and frankly, not much of one before that, either.

I wasn’t interested in reading any of the books Clancy co-wrote with other authors. I’m not a fan of co-written fiction books, so I just didn’t bother.

Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October will always hold a special place in my heart because they helped me be less afraid of nuclear war. I saw in these books the intense ways in which the commanders of US & Soviet forces wanted to avoid throwing nukes – even when it seemed like the only possible option for victory.

One of Red October‘s main characters, the Captain Marko Ramius, astutely realizes his new submarine is – as we now call them – a WMD, purpose-built to sneak up on the USSR’s enemy and launch a devastating attack. He takes it upon himself to even the playing field and drastically reduce the possibility of nuclear war.

That always meant a lot to me.

use of chemical weapons since 1961


1961-71: US uses 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid & 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (collectively known as Agent Orange) in Vietnam.  While technically classified as an herbicide and used as a defoliant (to kill plants & vegetation in large quantities), its effects on humans is widely documented & was well known, even in the 1960s.

UN reaction: NONE
3 June 1963: South Vietnamese soldiers attack Buddhist monks in Hue with concentrated, liquid tear gas. 70 people are hospitalized.

UN reaction: NONE
US reaction: threat to reduce/withdraw support for ruling regime; subsequent reduction of financial support from the South Vietnamese ruling regime leads to a US-supported coup

1980-88: Iraq uses a variety of chemical weapons against Iran in their 8-year war.

UN reaction: condemnation, investigation(s)
US reaction: no public reaction; privately allegedly supports the use of chemical weapons against Iran – this support is partially confirmed by recently declassified CIA documents. The CIA is also suspected of actively suppressing information & hindering UN investigators

16 March 1988: Iraq massacres Kurds in Halabja, killing up to 5,000 people & injuring up to 10,000 immediately. While there’s no official confirmation, from eyewitness accounts, it is believed the attack used mustard, sarin, tabun & VX gasses, as well as hydrogen cyanide, delivered by artillery, rockets & bombs.

UN reaction: NONE
US reaction: accuses Iran of perpetrating the attack

March-April 1991: Iraq uses chemical weapons of an undetermined nature, most likely mustard gas, against a combined Shia/Kurd uprising. Numbers of dead & wounded are not known but are estimated as being near 100,000. US forces in the region informally (and unofficially) confirm use of chemical weapons.

UN reaction: after investigation, denies chemical weapons were used
US reaction: President Bush issues stern warning
Delayed reaction, 2008: “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majid gets a 2nd death sentence for his participation in chemical weapon use against civilians, including this event.

15 May 2007: Terrorists set off a chlorine gas bomb in Abu Sayda, Iraq, killing about 50 people & wounding about another 50.

UN reaction: NONE
US reaction: denies use of chlorine in attack

21 August 2013: Syrian gov’t uses sarin gas, a potent nerve agent, in a rocket attack against rebels near Damascus. 1,400 are reported dead, including several hundred children.

UN reaction: investigation, report not issued yet; UN officials say report will only determine IF chemical weapons were used, not who was responsible for their use
US reaction: calls for attacks against the ruling regime

What lesson can we learn from this?

When chemical weapons are used in a way that furthers US interests, it’s fine. If not, well, obviously we must bomb them.

The Americans I’ve talked to in the last week overwhelmingly do not support US military intervention in Syria, chemical weapon use or not. They say almost the same thing: “Aren’t we already fighting 2 wars?”  The ones that support US intervention also say nearly the same thing: “Assad must be punished for using chemical weapons.” Where was this desire for justice or punishment when it was Saddam Hussein killing Kurds & Iranians?  Nobody seemed to give a shit back then.

I find it very interesting that the same politicians (Obama, Pelosi, Kerry, Schakowsky) who not only opposed the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan but also contributed mightily to the budgetary clusterfuck that led to sequestration are the ones supporting the idea that we spend even more money & possibly more American lives by getting militarily involved in Syria.

We barely have enough money to run this country, but the president wants to start dumping a shitload of money into a THIRD war?

I’ve supported President Obama on some of the things he’s tried to accomplish in his time as our nation’s leader, but I’ve got to draw a red line on sending our troops after Syria. It might start with smart bombs and cruise missiles, but it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that those things can easily be followed by enforcing no-fly zones, advisors & later, troops on the ground.  It’s happened before.

I also find it very interesting & more than a little suspicious that many of the celebrities that have been quite outspoken against the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan haven’t said a goddam word about the prospect of war in Syria. I’m talking about Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Madonna, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman, George Clooney, Janeane Garofalo, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Andy Serkis, Kim Basinger, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson, Richard Gere, Jessica Lange, Natalie Maines, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen & more. They raised a hue & cry about going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they’re keeping their mouths shut about going to war in Syria.

Maybe, like many Americans, they’re just sick & fucking tired of talking about war.

get in there and hurt somebody

I was just looking through a list of wars the US has been actively involved in, dating back to the 1st shots of the American Revolution in 1774. In those 239 years, we’ve been at war somewhere here or there for 176 years, including dozens of wars against native American Indian tribes throughout most of the 1800s. Even during the devastating Civil War, the US Army kept fighting the Indians.

I wonder what the stats are for other countries in their 1st 240 years of existence, or even the last 240 years of their existence.

Looking at the wars fought by the Roman Republic in the 239 years between 351*-112 BC, Rome was at war for a total of 99 years. In the last 239 years of the Roman Empire (155-394** AD), Rome was in an active state of war (or civil war) for 115 years. I think we can all agree that Rome certainly meddled in the affairs of the nations/tribes surrounding it, so, like the USA, there was certainly military action going on in other years, but I’m talking about active, publicly declared wars of some sort.

To recap: USA is 239 years old & has been at war for 176 of them. The beginning & ending 239 years of the Roman Republic/Empire, Rome was at war for 99/115 years respectively.

I suppose you can balance that out by looking at Napoleon, who reigned for 19 years (1796-1815, 1st as a member of the Directory & later as Emperor) & was only not at war during 1803, 1810-11 & during his exile on Elba from May 1814 to February 1815 – let’s call that 1 year. During 19 years of rule, then, Napoleon was actively at war with somebody for 15 years. That’s a mighty percentage.

What, exactly, is my point?  I don’t know, exactly, except to say that for the first time in a long time, I think it’s time that the US stop dropping bombs on the people of some other nation simply because we don’t like what they do to their own people. Yes, if it did indeed happen, it is reprehensible that Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, used sarin gas on the rebels that have risen against him.

It was less than 100 years ago that many of the major civilized nations of the west – England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia and the United States – were using chemical weapons against each other with enthusiasm. Oh, it started innocently enough with tear gas, which police forces & militaries around the world continue to use to pacify crowds. It went on from there, though, to xylyl bromide, chlorine (produced by the German company BASF, which is still in manufacturing today), phosgene (invented by French scientists & responsible for most of the gas-related deaths in the war), a nifty blend of chlorine AND phosgene, and, of course, mustard gas, which wasn’t really meant to kill many people (and didn’t) but rather as a way to make the battlefield (or at least the enemy’s trenches) uninhabitable.

Chemical weapons, though universally recognized as horrific, remained in vogue in military circles worldwide throughout the 1920s, but haven’t really been used in large-scale combat since 1925, when most WW1 combatants (not the US, though) signed the first treaty banning the use of such weapons. The US didn’t sign the Geneva Protocol until the 1970s. Note that the GC only bans the USE of chemical weapons – not the creation or stockpiling of such weapons.  The last country to use chemical weapons during a war in a big way was Iraq, which used mustard & other gasses to kill or wound about 100,000 of Iran’s forces.

In between, of course, was Germany again, using Zyklon B to gas into oblivion millions of European Jews during WW2, but I think we can all agree that doesn’t really count as combat.

The USA is still the only nation in the world to have used the entire suite of NBC weapons – nuclear, biological & chemical – to kill its enemies. While our leaders have promised not to use chemical or biological weapons in the future, that doesn’t stop them from continuing to manufacture and stockpile them.  It takes a pretty sturdy soap box to support you in condemning any government from using chemical weapons when you yourself produce tons of them every year.

None of this makes it right for Assad to attack his own people with chemical weapons (if, indeed, he did) – but is it any more right for the US to drop bombs on Syria as “punishment” for his having done so?  My mother always told me that “two wrongs don’t make a right” (even though three lefts do), so I’m having a hard time reconciling that the USA is making plans to spank Syria for gassing its own people.

As many people have pointed out, the revolution in Syria has cost at least 100,000 lives so far. Why is the most recent 1,000 of them, though killed by sarin gas, the ones that finally “demand” action from anywhere else in the world?

I think it’s time for the US to stop acting like the world’s police force and stick to fixing things in its own back yard.  With an active war going on in Afghanistan (because, you know, previous wars involving Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Mughals, the British & the Soviet Union all turned out so spectacularly) and another one in Iraq mostly winding down, is the US just so bored that it’s time to start another war that’s going to cost billions of dollars & possibly thousands of lives?  They SAY “no boots on the ground” now, but things hardly ever stay that way.

Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our health care costs are out of control. Our education system is in shambles.  Our leaders are corrupt.  Our businesses are robbing us blind.  Our borders are porous.  Our atmosphere is disintegrating.  Our power grid is being pushed to capacity.  We have 100s of 1000s of people in this country that are unemployed, hungry or homeless. How about instead of throwing expensive weapons at another nation, we dump some of that money into fixing problems here in the United States?

I think the underlying reason we don’t pay more attention to our own problems is because it’s easier to point the self-righteous finger of judgment at the actions and ideas of others than it is to examine the gaping holes in our own system.

* 351 BC saw the end of the war between the Roman Republic & the Tarquinii, Falerii & Caere – while it’s debatable as to when the Roman Republic can first be considered an empire, there is NO DOUBT that after 351 BC (the end of this 8-year war), the Romans were the dominant power in the region.

** 394 AD wasn’t the end-end of the Roman Empire, but with the end of the last of the real Roman Civil Wars in this year, it can easily be identified as a clear end-point for the Romans despite another 100+ years of the barbarian tribes of Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East & Northern Africa picking apart the remnants of the empire.