War: What Is It Good For?

Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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Book Review: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“First of all, you can’t fall into hating the people you are killing. Because you’ll carry that hate with you longer than you will the actual killing itself. It is only by the grace of God that you are on one side and your enemy is on the other side. I often think, ‘I could have been born in North Vietnam.’”

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes, August 20, 2010 The Times (London).

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War launched onto the bestseller lists in 2010, when United States was entrenched in two unpopular wars in ill-understood and seemingly hopeless places: Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither of these wars is comparable to Vietnam in terms of tactical warfare, terrain, volume of casualties and mis-treatment of vets by their fellow citizens, but the cultural divisions at home, the politicizing of the conflicts and the anger and sorrow over the loss of soldiers and civilians remain the same.

Matterhorn tells the Odyssey of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he leads Bravo Company through the jungle near Vietnam’s border with Laos, just beyond the DMZ. The company’s mission is to secure a remote hilltop base: the fictional Matterhorn. This novel is a living thing. It breathes and pulses, it horrifies and heartens. It is a brilliantly written tribute to combat veterans and a searing examination of the fog of war.

Bravo Company becomes a collective Sisyphus, at the mercy of the gods of the Fifth Marine Division. It spins in circles in the jungle, trying to make sense of the quixotic orders of base commanders more concerned with their careers than the lives of the young men in their charge. The soldiers of Bravo Company endure the unbearable: jungle rot, immersion (or trench) foot, man-eating tigers, near-starvation and dehydration, and of course, the horrific wounds of war: bullets, grenades, mines and shrapnel cut down the company throughout their journey.

The narrative has many themes: the adventure of battle and the camaraderie of soldiers; the value of a well-trained militia in sharp contrast with inherent unjustifiable nature of war; the racial tension between black soldiers and white that brings the conflicts of home to the battlefields of Vietnam; and the truth of military politics - the power struggles between reserve and regular officers and “lifers” on the ground and with their commanding officers, who adjust casualty numbers and keep up a pretense of victory to look good to their superiors and to the press at home.

Marlantes writes with clarity and authenticity, in a style that is raw, vivid and surprisingly readable. Matterhorn flows with fully realized characters whom you come to love or revile with ferocity, your heart breaking with each loss. He provides breathtaking detail; the combat scenes are rendered in a minute-by-minute reel and you experience the soliders' fear, adrenalin and pain.

It took Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and accomplished civilian (Lieutenant, USMC; Rhodes Scholar, Oxford) thirty years to write, rewrite and find a publisher for Matterhorn. Although I would not wish such an arduous journey to publication on any writer, I believe that telling this story now, in a new century, to a generation for which the Vietnam War is an anecdote or a chapter in an American History textbook, benefits the book's readers and its subject.

Among the most precious and devastating aspects of any war are the soldiers’ stories. No one who has not served in combat can understand what a soldier suffers physically and emotionally. For Vietnam veterans, who returned home only to face insults and shunning, the stories remained locked inside. Writers who record their stories speak for the millions who cannot. In 1977, journalist Michael Herr published Dispatches, an account of his experiences in Vietnam in 1967-68 embedded with platoons; Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien offered the beautiful and compelling The Things They Carried in 1990. Twenty years later - and thirty-five years after the end of the war in Vietnam - Karl Marlantes reminds us that the stories of young soldiers in the jungles of Southeast Asia are as devastating and relevant now as they were to a generation once removed - our fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers  - who still live with these experiences tormenting their hearts.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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