March 30, 2006

Book 9: Sacred War

Sacred War
William J. Duiker

Here's another quick summary of a book I read for my Vietnam class, again in installments. This book is somewhat different than any I've come across so far, in that it was written primarily to show the war through Vietnamese eyes. I think there's a tendency for us in America to view the Vietnam War as a conflict that had great bearing for our country, which it did. However, I agree with Duiker when he says that we tend to forget about Vietnam. His main goal in writing the book is to show how Hanoi won the war, rather than focusing on how the United States lost it.

This approach works very well. It puts the entire mess into interesting perspective and challenges the reader to realize that the Americans in Vietnam were invaders. It also gives the communist leadership in Hanoi credit that it must deserve. After all, they did win. The only major pitfall of the book is that it gets rather academic in some areas, but as an alternative explanation of events in Vietnam I think it is very useful.

Grade: B

March 26, 2006

Book 8: A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam

A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam
Robert D. Shulzinger

I read this book for my history class on Vietnam this semester, and because of this it was done in several installments. I think, though, that I was able to get a fairly decent picture of the book as a whole. It's basically a summary of United States policy towards Vietnam from the very beginnings of involvement in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to withdrawal at the Embassy under President Ford. The only thing that really got on my nerves about this book was its propensity to forget to capitalize some acronyms. Any book about Vietnam will be chock-full of acronyms, I can assure you, but though this annoyed me I was able to get over it.

As the title implies, Shulzinger's main thesis is that conceptions of time in relation to Vietnam were all off. Was it to be a quick war, a long war, how long would it take for peace talks to conclude, etc. I suppose these are questions inherent in all wars, but in a war such as the Vietnamese struggle these questions are of increasing importance. Vietnam had no real objectives, unless preventing a communist takeover counts, and I for one think that is a really lame ex-post-facto excuse for killing so many of our young men uselessly.

My personal opinions aside, however, the book is pretty well-written, though it can be a little overwhelmingly information-heavy at times. For someone looking for a good, comprehensive introduction to United States policy regarding Vietnam (but not necessarily events within the war itself), I would recommend taking a look at this book.

Grade: B

March 22, 2006

Book 7: The Pianist

The Pianist
Wladyslaw Szpilman

I am surprised that I've never read this before, seeing as it's both a well-known Holocaust memoir and a popular film. It differs in most Holocaust memoirs in that it was written in 1945, right after Mr. Szpilman was liberated in Warsaw by the Soviet Army. It is also unusual in that the author was never in a camp, but managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto in its final throes, just before its famous uprising, which he witnessed. Today when we were discussing the book in history, several of my classmates said they found a sense of rage in the book. I have to disagree. I think that the author knows he is lucky to be alive and is giving more of a play-by-play description. Of course he is angry, but he does not seek to kill all Germans, something I would expect a feeling of rage to provoke.

Regardless, the memoir is very moving and covers a somewhat unfamiliar aspect of the Holocaust. Szpilman was priveliged and lived in the better part of the ghetto (but of course, all is relative), always able to eat and always with a job. His luck is unbelievable. He isn't instinctively geared to survival and only gains this ability after being forced to. Strangely, too, he is unusually concerned with his hands, and apparently likes to attempt suicide. I think, though, that this illustrates an interesting point about the Holocaust: sometimes, those who survived were almost the least-equipped, while many able-bodied and resourceful souls were doomed to tragedy as soon as they left the train in Treblinka. This book is an interesting perspective on the Holocaust, a survival story different from any I've read.

Grade: A

March 6, 2006

Book 6: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque

Yes, I chose to follow up a book on the Great War with a book on, well, the Great War. Actually, this one was for class, and I didn't realize until after I had finished Shaara's excellent book that the Great War was our topic for next week's history class. Well, I've read this book many times (most recently last semester) and I'm very familiar with it, but since it's a really quick read I decided to go ahead and plunge in for a couple of hours on a Monday night, having nothing better to do.

There is a reason that this book is the defining book of the Great War, particularly of its Western Front. The book is able to capture the absolute horror of the whole experience, outlining its effects on its veterans (surviving and dead alike) through the reflections of a German volunteer. The book spends more time in a philosophical quandry than actually advancing a plot, but I think that is the point. In this war, every battle is the same, and a jarring trip home functions not so much a plot device as a way to illustrate the great changes that war exacts on those who live through it.

The book was written by a German veteran himself, lending credibility to its depiction of the actual fighting, but the mindset itself seems to be grounded in the context of its writing, that is to say a downward spiralling Weimar Republic circa 1924-1925. The book is more a reflection of war than anything else, and I've found that I've been able to apply it to the mindset of soldiers in the Vietnamese Conflict as well. That said, the book can be a bit overreaching and somewhat unbelievable in parts, if only because most soldiers probably did not have the time nor energy to do as much existential self-reflection and questioning that Paul, the narrator, does.

All told, however, this is a moving memoir of a fictional soldier who, deliberately I think, embodies all the men who served in the trenches of the Western Front on both sides, and the book does an excellent job of personalizing the mental effects war has on its participants. It is a moving account of destruction of all kind, and a glimpse inside the men of a lost generation.

Grade: A

March 2, 2006

Book 5: To the Last Man

To the Last Man
Jeff Shaara

I loved this book. Callie recommended it to me a while ago, and one time when I was up at the house her sister Kimberly gave it to me and told me to read it. I finally had a chance to devote sufficient time to it over Spring Break, and it was my great accomplishment of the period.

The book is primarily fiction, but like Shaara's other novels (and his father's), they are rooted in fact. The main characters (there are four in this particular novel) were all real people who were involved in the conflict, and though it is a novel, the book does a good job of creating realistic situations, dialogue, and reactions in its narrative. I could not put it better than one of its blurbs: it is a novel that reads like history and history that reads like a novel. I think that is really what this book is all about. It's brilliant and finally, something historical I've encountered is well-written. I couldn't be happier.

The only places where I kind of got lost were certain sections about General Pershing. I think, though, that the fault is mine. I'm not one who deals with general strategy (though I assure you, I know the Von Schlieffen Plan damn well, thank you) very much, rather life in the trenches, but if someone is interested in this kind of thing I think the interaction between the three Entente generals can be really intriguing. Judging by the construction of the rest of the novel, I'll assume it's very well done.

Even the parts I found a little boring had their merits and the plot never stands still. The book manages to give a survey of the war experience through just a few eyes, using Pershing's story to complement the more narratively-inclined plotlines regarding the actual fighting of the war. The opening chapter is a stunning glimpse of life in the trenches for a new recruit and makes its point (the most popular point regarding this war...but I'll let you figure it out) very clearly by the time the last sentence hammers you over the head (and quite effectively at that; I've still got bruises).

The second part of the book concentrates mostly on the air war, seen through the eyes of Baron Manfred von Richthofen (yes, that baron) and Raol Lufbery, both aviators. I think this approach is very effective because trench warfare has been looked at a lot (I'm assuming most people who would read Shaara's book are well acquainted with All Quiet on the Western Front) in other books and there does not seem to be that much popular literature about the air war. Additionally, Shaara's focus on personalized, moving plots does not lend itself well to trench drudgery, where life expectancy was shockingly low and life consisted of the same pointless movements day after prolonged, agonizing day.

By the time we get to ground warfare, after the pilots' stories are fleshed out and Pershing's has shown how the Americans ended up in the quagmire, the trench lines are moving and the war has changed shape. We see the war now through the eyes of a young American soldier who witnesses his share of horror but is making actual quantifiable progress, ensuring that Shaara's battle-based view of warfare does not grow stale as it likely would in the trenches. Shaara sticks to what he's good at here and leaves the philosophy to writers like Remarque, though any novel about World War I is likely to make the basic argument regarding the effectiveness of the Great War. Shaara's book is good for gaining additional useful perspectives on a vague conflict often ignored in the shadow of World War II and Adolf Hitler.

Go read this book. It is most excellent.

Grade: A