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Aircraft and submarine restoration near Chicago

Posted in Museums, War by Alex L. on February 6, 2013

USS Drum submarine

I really like the kind of reality shows where you get to watch experts performing complex jobs with great skill. I enjoy it all: from Ice Pilots NWT, where aviators brave extreme winter conditions to fly in northern Canada, to Big Shrimpin’, a show about fishermen plying their trade off of the southern coast of the United States.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been interested in a show called Tank Overhaul. Each episode features a crew of a few men restoring rusty and battle-damaged tanks (from the World War II era and later) to like-new condition. There’s just something about sand-blasting decades-old rust from a tank chassis to reveal a brilliant metallic surface underneath that gets me going. With a wave  of a wand (literally) time is reversed and these half-decayed battle tanks come to life again.

Truth be told, though, I’m not a big tank enthusiast. But this show got me thinking about the restoration and preservation of two types of machines that I do have a passion for: (no surprise here to anyone who reads this blog) submarines and airplanes. So I got to imagining: is there anywhere in the Chicago area where I can see or even volunteer in the restoration of these historical artifacts?

A simple search revealed a few interesting leads. (more…)

New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

Historical Proceedings header

Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)

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‘Low work’ over the Western Front

Posted in European, Reading, War by Alex L. on October 18, 2012

Winged Victory book coverComedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the mark of a great joke is that it stays with you long after the first hearing. There’s something about its premise or symbolism that makes you see the world — or some small part of the world — differently. A great poem functions in a similar way, wrote Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I also feel this way about Victor Maslin Yeates’s autobiographical novel, Winged Victory. I will never think of aerial warfare during the First World War in the same way after having read this book.

It’s not just that Yeates describes the historical moment well. Tom Cundall’s, the protagonist, two flight commanders (Captains Beal and MacAndrews) seem to me like literary recreations of two of the Royal Flying Corps’s legendary aces. Their names even sound similar to the real historical figures. Captain Beal seems to represent Albert Ball, one of the RFC’s earliest heros. Like Ball, Beal is seemingly fearless in accomplishing his gruesome work. Thousands of machine gun bullets fired in his general direction don’t seem to faze him: he is a rare specimen in war. Both the historical and literary figure die in the war, unable to beat the odds against such reckless courage for too long.

The character of MacAndrews (“Mac”) seems to represent the British ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, James McCudden. After Albert Ball’s death, McCudden became one of the leading stars of the RFC. His tactics differed vastly from Ball’s lone-wolf gallantry. McCudden developed the principles of aircraft working in concert with one another to press their advantage against an enemy air formation. If the advantages were not there, McCudden would have no qualms with fleeing the field of battle to fight another day. Through these characters, Yeates gives us an insider’s view into the real-life heroes of the Royal Flying Corps. (more…)

New history books (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Ancient, Books by Alex L. on September 28, 2012

History off the Book header

Scholarship of an empire

Rome book coverThere are really two narratives of the Roman empire. The first one picks up where the Iliad ends, follows the story of Aeneas until the time of the early kings of Rome, observes with admiration the Roman republic, and illustrates the glories and flaws of the Roman emperors. This is the traditional story of ancient Rome.

The second type of narrative is the academic one, which often leaves chronology by the wayside and examines the Roman empire by topic, often sociologically. Greg Woolf’s new book, Rome: An Empire’s Story, seems to be written for the niche of people who are well familiar with the first, traditional, narrative of Rome but have no knowledge of (but a desire to learn) the second, scholarly, dialogue about the empire.

Although Woolf’s writing didn’t inspire an enormous amount of enthusiasm from this reader, the most interesting chapter for me was the second one: “Empires of the Mind.” Reading this chapter made me wonder why it was that Rome apart from all other ancient empires has such a lasting existence in our world. Woolf here also discusses sociological categorization of empires and describes Rome as a conquest state, an entity dependent on political expansion for its very survival. I think such a breakdown of terms like “empire” is useful because, without further reflection, one may assume erroneously that the Roman empire was more similar to, say, the American empire than was actually the case. The United States may arguably be an imperial power but it is not a conquest state. (more…)

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U-boats in World War I

Posted in Books, European, War by Alex L. on August 28, 2012

Part of a photo of the German submarine U-14 (source: Wikipedia)I’ve been interested in submarine warfare 0f the Second World War since I was in middle school. There are a lot of books written in English about the German U-boat campaign targeting Allied ships in the Atlantic and also the American submarine war against Japanese merchant shipping in the Pacific. Relatively little has been written in recent times, though, about submarine operations of any nation during the First World War.

That’s why I was happy to discover a copy of Edwyn Gray’s book, The U-boat War: 1914-1918 (which was originally published in the 1970s as The Killing Time) in Manhattan’s mecca for rare books: the Strand Book Store. I’m really glad I bought this book, because after reading it, I disabused myself of several erroneous notions about these early German submarine operations.

For example, I previously believed that German submarines during WWI in comparison to their counterparts in WWII

  • were generally smaller, slower, and carried less fuel, crew, and torpedoes,
  • exclusively operated in the coastal waters of Western Europe, and
  • did not wage as large or effective of a campaign against merchant shipping.

All of these preconceptions turned out to be false. By way of comparing the U-boat campaigns of the First and Second World War, I turned to some data from uboat.net, an ongoing research project by an amateur historian which I’ve enjoyed visiting since I first started using the internet in the mid-1990s.

Just looking at how many ships U-boats attacked during each war, it’s evident that the number of ships hit by submarines in the 1910s surpasses the totals of the 1940s: (more…)

New history books (June 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Culture by Alex L. on July 24, 2012

History off the Book header

U.S. intellectual history

Mansion-of-HappinessWell-written books about intellectual history are rare, but I had high expectations of Jill Lepore’s new work, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Lepore is not only an academic historian (she is the Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard) but also a regular writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is a collection of her essays about how American ideals about life and death have changed over the past several hundred years. “[M]y argument,” Lepore writes in the Preface, “is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy” (xi).

Of all the essays in the collection, the ones that stuck with me the most were her first and last. She begins the book with a blunt and powerful metaphor: life (the board game, that is). LIFE was part of my childhood collection of pixel-less games, which also included Stratego, Risk, Clue, Parcheesi, Thin Ice, and Go to the Head of the Class (all of which have recently been rescued from a mildewy corner of the crawl space in my parents’ house). But LIFE has a much more extensive genealogy than I realized before reading Lepore’s book.

The first board game of life in America was called The New Game of Human Life, and enjoyed popularity during the Revolutionary period. It reflected a much different view of living than the game that I played as a boy. “The [New Game of Human Life],” writes Lepore, “is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit” (xxi). (more…)

200 mph is the easy part

Posted in American, Just for Fun, Sports, Television by Alex L. on June 28, 2012

Photo from IndyCar.comAs a kid, strong and shining institutions seem immutable: they arise from a misty golden past and will continue even stronger into the future. To see them decline instead of increase is something of a shock and (to me at least) a rallying cry to take up their cause.

I have always loved the instruments of accelerating human movement: automobiles, airplanes, and ships. In the ’90s, IndyCar racing was enjoying a wave of popularity in America: it was our homegrown open-wheel racing series. Not so anymore. On YouTube, which usually squelches unauthorized uploads of sports broadcasts with a silicon fist, videos of full races generously posted by the IndyCar authorities barely manage to scratch together a couple thousand views.

But I’ve a soft spot for lost causes and have been following every race of IndyCar this season. And the drama is truly exciting. During the first couple of races, the series and drivers were still recovering from the death of Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2011 Indy 500, on the track last year. The cars were redesigned to improve safety (but also reduced speed and style).

IndyCar has also taken cues from the vastly more popular (in Europe, that is) Formula 1 series. They have resolved a long-standing dispute in the series by combining two competing organizations into one. They have been racing on street courses — not just the traditional ovals — for the past several years. In 2012, IndyCar introduced technological diversity to the cars by allowing teams to choose engine and chassis manufacturers. Currently, Chevy and Lotus have jumped into the game in addition to the incumbent Honda (although it’s both comical and sad to see Lotus cars break down so early in each race — their engines need more development). (more…)

New songs for old strings

Posted in Music, War by Alex L. on June 9, 2012

Photo of orchestra is courtesy of Pedro Sánchez via WikipediaJake Runestad is the same age as me (26) and is already making a contribution to society. His new project is described in “Out of War, a Symphony,” an article in the New York Times blog At War. Runestad is composing a three-part piece for orchestra, piano, and chorus hoping to capture the emotional journey that soldiers experience when they go to war and back. He is relying on poetry, memoirs, and interviews with American veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to get a sense of their experiences.

Aside from the social benefit of lifting the veil (if only slightly) for the civilian public about what warfare wreaks on the psyche, Runestad is also helping the cause of classical music. Like other forms of expression which originated many generations ago (including, for that matter, the profession of history) classical music has to confront the stigma of irrelevance. A great way of exhibiting the richness of expression that classical music has to offer is to pair it with the emotional experiences of a new generation. New wine may fare better in new skins, but nothing enlivens the sound of an old instrument like a new song.

New history books (April 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on June 5, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverReaders of this blog may notice that my interests have lately been skewed toward the world wars (in particular the air and naval conflicts). When I was a boy my imagination was fired up by stories from my grandfather, who told me about his service as an aviator for the Soviet Navy during the Second World War. I suspect this was when I first became interested in history (I also remember my grandfather reading me a children’s book about the ancient origins of everyday objects, such as matchsticks and clothing irons). Stories about pilots during World War II were my Iliad and Odyssey: they helped me understand concepts such as friendship and courage when I was very young.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that there is hardly anything written in English about the air war on the Eastern Front during World War II. The struggle for dominance in the skies over Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 was the largest and longest air campaign in history according to amateur historian Christer Bergström (whose two sets of books about this conflict — Black Cross/Red Star and The Air Battle series — are some of the only comprehensive histories in English on the subject). That’s why I was eagerly awaiting the release in late March of a new book by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, titled Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. An overhaul of a previous work, Red Phoenix Rising will hopefully do justice to the drama and significance of this struggle (Bergström’s works, if meticulous, are admittedly dry to read). (more…)

A generation passed away

Posted in European, War by Alex L. on February 9, 2012
Photos of the last veterans of World War I

From left to right: Florence Green (d. 2012; UK), Claude Choules (d. 2011; UK), Frank Buckles (d. 2011; US), and Erich Kästner (d. 2008; Germany)

The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died last Saturday. The last American to have served in the war, Frank Buckles, as well as the last veteran to have actually seen combat, Claude Choules, died last year. Their generation saw the accumulation of European culture and technology–the hope of the world–burn for four years on the pyre of war. Theirs was also the first generation to sweep away the ashes and sculpt new strains of Western culture. But almost everything that they (and others after them) wrote, painted, said, and filmed bore the mark of the trauma of World War I.

With the death of these last veterans, we have lost the eyewitnesses to these events. All data now about that time will be secondhand. And collective memory fades quicker when individual memories are stored on hard drives, manuscripts, and film than in human heads.

But there are important lessons to be learned from the experiences this generation recorded. These lessons are best not forgotten, as the men and women would once have told us, who witnessed the radiant procession of humanity in the brilliant summer of 1914 unwittingly march to their oblivion.