World War I and the unconscious

Posted in Culture, European, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on April 9, 2011

Photo of an iceberg (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iceberg_Antarctica.jpg)I was in Barnes & Noble earlier today and, intrigued by the cover of the latest Time magazine (which oddly featured a full-page photograph of Abraham Lincoln), I realized that the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War is coming up in three days (April 12, 2011). Such numerically-significant anniversaries are rare occasions for the national discourse to turn and (briefly) examine the significance of history to contemporary life. I always seem to miss these kinds of precious discussions. Currently, I’m working through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and am still on the early-20th-century wavelength (oh! where was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter when I was reading Paul Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and was on my Civil War “kick”?).

Fussell’s book, though, is yielding too much nutritious food for thought to put aside. In the chapter titled “Adversary Proceedings”, Fussell quotes 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung for whom the First World War was such a such a strong influence that it crept into his dreams after (and, if we are to believe his enigmatic Red Book, even before) the war:

[Jung] dreamed that he was ‘driving back from the front line with a little man, a peasant, in his horse-drawn wagon. All around us were shells exploding, and I knew that we had to push on as quickly as possible, for it was very dangerous [. . .] The shells falling from the sky were, interpreted psychologically, missiles coming from the “other side.” They were, therefore, effects emanating from the unconscious, from the shadow side of the mind [. . .] The happenings in the dream suggested that the war, which in the outer world had taken place some years before, was not yet over, but was continuing to be fought within the psyche.’

Reading this quote by Jung made me think of something that has fascinated me about psychology for some years. Specifically, it’s been a mystery to me how widely the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and an iconic figure, were taken up by the Western world and how deeply ingrained some of them have become even though many of his theories were not very scientific. (more…)

The death of “high” diction

Posted in Culture, European, Reading by Alex L. on April 4, 2011

(Image links to Amazon.com) Photo of a soldier during World War ILike anyone who reads a lot of books written before one’s grandparents were born, the imaginary world of literature and history begins in the mind to contend with the perception of the immediate world of real life. Outmoded words begin to enter the vocabulary, and must be consciously prevented from escaping into the daylight of ordinary conversation. One instinctively knows that words like “valor”, “comradeship”, and “foe” have no place in everyday language (“How was your basketball game today?” “Oh, it was a great! My comrades and I vanquished the foe 3-1.”) though words such as these crop up in older writings all of the time. Like chivalry, these “high” forms of speaking are now dead. But what killed them?

This week, I started reading The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) by Paul Fussell, which describes the traumatizing shock that the First World War delivered to the Western psyche. To die with the millions of soldiers in combat was a European idea about the perfectibility of mankind and society. The effect of this collective experience lasts to this day, even in America.

The summer before the war, the summer of 1914, was memorable for its picnic-perfect weather. During these warm summer months, Europe (especially Britain, which hadn’t really seen war for a hundred years) breathed the air of chivalry, romanticism, and boundless self-confidence for the last time. The shock of the war to come contrasted so sharply with the idyllic season before it (Fussell describes at length in the first chapter how this dichotomy created a sharp and enduring impression of the irony of life on the Western psyche), that “the summer of 1914” would for many decades become synonymous with astonishing naiveness.

To illustrate how this change took place, Fussell relates a handful of the countless ironic (meaning, having one’s optimistic hopes about the future punished with exaggerated misery instead) experiences that soldiers witnessed during the war. Fussell quotes one instance from another author’s memoir: (more…)

Building aircraft out of ash wood and Irish linen

Posted in European, Just for Fun, Websites by Alex L. on January 9, 2011

SE.5a under construction at the Vintage Aviator shop. Image courtesy of The Vintage Aviator: http://thevintageaviator.co.nz/node/2784

If left to my own devices, without the influence of classes or teachers or scholarly communities, my interests will naturally gravitate and oscillate between two subjects: submarines and airplanes. It has been like this since I was in middle school, except now instead of scouring books for colorful pictures and playing computer simulations, I read memoirs and secondary sources about air wars and naval battles of the 20th century.

After a visitation from the Muse of U.S. Submarine Operations in the Second World War (which compelled me to dive deep into my long-shelved copy of Clay Blair’s classic, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan) my tastes were swung upwards and backwards to the heights of the air war during World War I. What did it this time was a documentary I watched on YouTube one night about the British aces James McCudden and Edward Mannock, which described their struggles with the stresses of primitive air combat and their untimely deaths.

This led me to embark on an unsystematic perambulation through the history of air combat during World War I. Curse Amazon and their “1-Click Ordering”, but I impulsively bought James McCudden’s memoir, Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, for my Kindle and received instant gratification reading it at a local Starbucks. I am still working through it, but have also gone on to watch other documentaries freely accessed on YouTube on the subject (such as this hidden gem: “Aces: A Story of the First Air War”, the probably-fictional story of a Canadian pilot in the RFC as narrated to his grandson).

As part of this binge of media consumption, I stumbled upon (though not through StumbleUpon, which I tried as a novel way to browse the web but with which I was slightly disappointed) a site called The Vintage Aviator, which is the actual topic of this post. (more…)

The perils of manipulation

Posted in European, Foreign Affairs, Islam, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on October 31, 2010

Tracks in the desert photoA Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West
by Ian Johnson.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 318 pp., $27 (or free at your local library).

Most people in the United States know that the CIA supported and equipped the mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. This, and the dangers of such a strategy, are now common knowledge. What most Americans don’t know and what journalist Ian Johnson has investigated and described in his book, A Mosque in Munich, for the first time, is that the US strategy of using Islam as a tool of foreign policy has an even longer history that stretches back to events surrounding the Second World War.

This story is one of harsh realpolitik with many covert operations conducted by the US, West Germany, and the Muslim Brotherhood that centered around a mosque in Munich during the Cold War. There are few relatable characters in Johnson’s book, but several of them led colorful lives of travel and geopolitical intrigue as they struggled to co-opt the religion of Islam for national or ideological purposes.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was perhaps the first modern European leader to engage in this kind of manipulation with the goal of undermining another Western power, England, in the diplomatic wrangling leading up to World War I (a book devoted to this topic, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin, was published in September).

The Germans  picked up on this idea during World War II, when they realized that many Muslims living in the Soviet Union were embittered citizens and could be convinced to fight in Nazi uniform against the Soviets when they were captured. About 150,000 Soviet Muslim prisoners volunteered for service in the German army during World War II.


The surrealism of war

Posted in European, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on April 9, 2010

“Anything can happen in war”, writes Evgeni Bessonov in his memoir, Tank Rider: Into the Third Reich with the Red Army. This translation of a Russian soldier’s experiences fighting the Germans during World War II has been my recent reading staple. What does Bessonov mean when he writes that anything can happen in war?

What comes to mind for me when a veteran says something like that is something horrible about war: hand-to-hand combat, grenades blowing off limbs, losing friends in battle. But reading Bessonov’s memoir (and most other personal accounts of war) the reader encounters other stories which are equally surrealistic but not as gruesome.

Bessonov describes one instance when the Germans surprised his unit by attacking at night during a thunderstorm. His platoon retreated as they fought the enemy, but it was so dark that no soldier could tell whether the people around him were Russians or Germans. As rain poured over the forest, the darkness confused everyone and was only brilliantly interrupted by flashes of lightning, which clarified for the soldiers whether the man running next to him was a friend or an enemy. Both Russians and Germans ran through the woods in a kind of “cross country race” until they ran out of the forest and the Germans paused their assault (144-145).

In another encounter, Bessonov, who was a junior officer and only 21 years old at the time, describes getting an order from his superior officer to advance his platoon and attack the enemy. It was an altogether different day, sunny and warm, but Bessonov was exhausted from the night marches and daylight battles.

The sun started to warm us; it was quiet, one could hear only birds singing from the nearest forest, which was not yet occupied by our troops. I replied to the runner that I was about to start the attack; he left, and I again fell asleep. The runner from the company commander ran up again, with the same order and with threats from the company commander. I again replied that we would commence the attack any time soon and fell asleep again – such things had never happened to me before. The runner woke me up and again reminded me of the attack – this time, the company commander ordered him not to leave me before I started the attack. I slept under a bush on soft grass (I did not dig a trench), I had been dreaming about something peaceful and I really did not feel like dying in that quiet hour. . . I tried to think of death as little as possible, but at that moment I was merely overwhelmed by exhaustion and quietness and I really wanted to sleep. (139)

The poet Robert Frost famously likened death to sleep in his poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” For Evgeni Bessonov in late August of 1944, the woods in front of his platoon where the enemy waited meant death. And sleep  for him then was not an embrace of death, but the flight from it.

“The Few” by Alex Kershaw

Posted in American, European by Alex L. on March 23, 2010

In my mind, the Battle of Britain is the most poignant icon of courage and heroism in history. It’s more epic than Lord of the Rings. It’s almost as if the events of the Battle of Britain came out of somebody’s imagination. I’m baffled that hardly any contemporary movies have been made depicting it.

Since the Norman conquest of 1066, England has never been invaded by a foreign army. This proud nation, which nurtured modern democracy for centuries as the aristocracy chipped away at monarchical power, which controlled the largest empire in human history, found itself, in the summer of 1940, on the verge of destruction at the hands of perhaps the cruelest power in history, Nazi Germany.

The only thing that stood in the path to Britain for the German army was a cadre of British airmen, teenagers and 20-year-olds, about 3,000 strong. Outnumbered and out-gunned, these young Englishmen and their allies beat back the German air force sent to pulverize Britain and prepare it for invasion. Like their ancestors 350 years ago who destroyed the Spanish Armada sent to conquer England, the pilots of the RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain have carved their legacy into the minds of all who are attentive to the drama of history.

“The Few” by Alex Kershaw is an important book because it describes the American contribution to the Battle of Britain. America was officially neutral during the time of the Battle of Britain and trying desperately to stay out of the developing world war. Nevertheless, a few adventurous Americans broke neutrality laws, forfeited their American citizenship, and signed up to fly for the Royal Air Force in defense of Britain during the summer of 1940. There were only eight of them. Americans, who had revolted against King George III in the name of liberty, were now renouncing their American citizenship and swearing loyalty to King George VI, in the name of that same liberty.

The historical importance of the Battle of Britain was not lost on Winston Churchill. He captured the spirit of the glorious moment in his speeches during the summer of 1940. In June, in a speech before the House of Commons, he predicted the legacy the RAF pilots were about to write for themselves:

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin . . . The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

“The Pacific” and “The Hurt Locker”

Posted in American, Asian, European, Film, Television by Alex L. on March 9, 2010

I’m glad Avatar did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture this Sunday, and not just because it was over-hyped. The Hurt Locker was genuinely a much better film. I’ve seen many, many war films and The Hurt Locker was unlike any other. It portrayed a type of soldier that I did not know even existed, but, after seeing the movie, seems very real now. The Hurt Locker is about about a specialist in a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team whose personal reasons for fighting in the Iraq War have nothing to do with patriotism, financial need, or even supporting his fellow soldiers. SFC William James is in Iraq because he is addicted to the adrenaline high of high-intensity combat.

The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by a New York Times war correspondent that summarizes the theme of the movie: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For this unique portrayal of war, I think The Hurt Locker deserved all of the Oscars it received.

On another note, I am excited to watch the upcoming HBO miniseries The Pacific. Like the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), this is another collaboration by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks portraying American soldiers during World War II, this time in the campaign against Japan. I am most curious about from what angle Spielberg and Hanks will approach this series to make it different from the others. Spielberg is such a great artist and storyteller, in my opinion, that this won’t just be “another war film”.

Saving Private Ryan is a monumental film – it’s an icon of the horrific events of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in the imagination of a younger generation of Americans. Band of Brothers is also unique in that it follows a single unit of American paratroopers throughout their combat experiences during the entire war, but in a style similar to another HBO series, The Sopranos, where each episode focuses on a different character to create a portrait of the entire group. What will The Pacific be like? I’m eager to find out (the first episode premieres on Sunday, March 14 at 8p CST on HBO).

On a final note, Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role this year for portraying a Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds, performed one of the best feats of acting I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it if for nothing other than to watch Christoph Waltz portray Standartenführer Hans Landa, whom director Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the best characters I’ve ever written and ever will write”.

On effective introductions

Posted in American, European, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 7, 2010

Earlier today, I was in a Barnes & Noble store looking for an interesting book. On trips like these, I usually open dozens of books to read or skim the first paragraph, only to shelve them because the way the writer introduces the story doesn’t seize my long-term attention (visitors to my blog may experience a similar feeling reading these posts). I was surprised today when I found an intriguing book less than a minute after entering the store (in the bargain crates before the main entrance, in fact). It was Alex Kershaw’s The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain.

I have browsed this book on previous visits to B&N, only to put it back on the shelf like many others. This (and other similar experiences) suggests to me that why a book catches a viewer’s attention has a lot to do with when it catches his attention: we see the world through different eyes depending on what state of mind we are in. Today, I was drawn to Kershaw’s story by the beautiful poem, written by a young American fighter pilot, Kershaw had reproduced as an introduction to his book (which reminded me of a famous poem by W.B. Yeats). Here is a copy it:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Nineteen-year-old American pilot, killed December 11, 1941

Shelved: “Crowded with Genius” by James Buchan

Posted in European, Reading by Alex L. on March 5, 2010

In the past, I’ve done several reviews on this blog of books that I had just finished reading. But it often happens that I start a book without finishing it or shelve it for a while only to come back to it later (when I read The Brothers Karamazov, I repeated this process several times over the course of a year until I finally finished it). Well, I thought such “shelved books” deserve a review sometimes as well.

I have developed a habit recently where I go to the library or a bookstore and rove around the aisles browsing books at random for hours on end. This is more disturbing for me to do at a bookstore than at a library, because I am afraid that the managers will suspect me of being a shoplifter or loafer. Despite this, it amuses me to observe what books I naturally gravitate towards while giving my imagination free reign. I was at my local library in such a mood a couple of weeks ago when I picked up Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment – Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind by James Buchan.

This book interested me because I had heard about it while doing research for my senior thesis. Like Athens in the 400-300s B.C., Edinburgh became an unlikely center of culture and learning during the 18th century, hosting such great thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith. Buchan writes:

The town, which had sat little changed on its rock until then, inconvenient, dirty, old-fashioned, alcoholic, quarrelsome and poor, began to alter, first slowly, then in a convulsion. Lochs were drained, ravines spanned by bridges, streets and squares thrown out into the stony fields. Ale gave way to tea and port and whisky. People dined at one o’clock, then two, then three, and then four.

Men discovered there were ways of charming women this side of abduction. They ceased to bring their pistols to table, or to share the same cup. They read newspapers, became Freemasons, danced, burst into tears. [. . .] A new theory of progress, based on good laws, international commerce and the companionship of men and women, displaced the antique world of valour, loyalty, religion, and the dagger. ‘Edinburgh, the Sink of Abomination’ became ‘Edinburgh, the Athens of Great Britain’. (1-2)

The narrative begins strongly but later gets bogged down in the details of old Scottish politics (this book was first released in Scotland). If I were more patient, I would do the page-flipping and wikipedia-searching necessary to untangle the web of ideologies and political alliances that the book describes. But, I was drawn to this book at the library out of all of the others because of the adventurous storytelling, and when that waned, the book was shelved (it was also overdue). To a more patient mind, it holds a lot of promise (even past page 98, where I stopped). At the very least, it’s worth coming back to.

“WWII in HD” — transformative and balanced

Posted in African, American, Asian, European, Television by Alex L. on November 19, 2009

WWII in HDGone are the days when the History Channel disproportionately focused on programs about World War II instead of disproportionately fixating on Bigfoot and Mayan prophecies. Until now. History Channel has a new series which stands apart from the network’s bizarre trend of shows about UFOs, astrology, and monster-hunters. “WWII in HD”, a throwback to History Channel’s roots, is a truly innovative series.

WWII in HD” features almost exclusively rare color war footage. The effect of this is to enliven the 1940s. It feels like watching film from the Vietnam War, which seems more “real” to me because I associate it with color.

The other outstanding element about this series is the dialogue. The show follows twelve American men and women during their service in the war. They are interviewed as elderly veterans, but when the war footage is shown, the interviews transition into voice-overs by younger men and women. This technique is elegantly executed and makes you aware that these aged heroes of an inaccessible age were once the youth of the world. The dialogue is poignant, and the transitional phrases especially are epic.

Finally, the most lasting impression of the series is the footage of carnage. I have heard veterans speak of that shocking aspect of war – the odor of burning flesh, bodies thickly littering the battlefield, disfigured faces. But hearing about it—no matter how vividly told—can not compare to seeing it in color. Short of smelling the awful stench of war, “WWII in HD” portrays the nauseating reality of indiscriminate and grotesque death in battle.

In one episode, President Franklin Roosevelt asks a war correspondent whether he should allow a documentary film about the Battle of Tarawa to be show uncensored to the American public. The reporter, who had been embedded with the Marines in combat, replied that the soldiers wanted the civilians back home to know that the war was not all about victory and glory. The documentary, which featured graphic portrayals of combat, went on to win an Academy Award and significantly increased the sale of war bonds. Like “With the Marines at Tarawa”, “WWII in HD” is a transformative and balanced memorial to the Second World War.