Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

Book Review – Mark Thompson’s The White War

I never thought much about Italy’s experience in the First World War. What I knew about it was an offhand remark from the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, who was emasculated on “a joke front like the Italian”. I knew Erwin Rommel had first come to glory there, putting into practice the theories of warfare that would drive German success early in World War Two, at a time before those theories had even crystallized. And I knew that Italy performed in-line with jokes about its military incompetence..

But it turns out there is a remarkable and important story to be told about the Italian front. I only happened on it by chance in the remaindered section of the Harvard Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Mark Thompson’s The White War for $5, after it had likely sat ignored on the history shelves in the same way that “history buffs” like me tend to ignore its subject matter.

In the main, Thompson’s book fulfills its most important obligation: it tells an interesting and unfamiliar story, and it tells it very well. The White War is stocked with scarcely believable characters, like the proto-Fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who styled himself as the poet laureate of the Italian right and was basically allowed to treat the battlefield as a kind of muse-for-hire. One day he is seen giving pep talks to headquarters staff, the next he is flying over Austrian lines, dropping propaganda leaflets. The next time he pops up, he is arranging some kind of absurd raid to capture a distant castle and raise the Italian flag over its ramparts, thereby boosting morale across the entire front.

In a way, a character like D’Annunzio is laughable, and stereotypically Italian. Look at him bluster, look at his vainglory. Look at this failure.

But the horror of Thompson’s book is that millions of men and women were caught up in this joke, and at the mercy of the pure viciousness that lay behind the strutting vainglory. As the Italian raid on the Austrian castle fell apart at a river crossing, under heavy Austrian fire, stranded Italian troops began advancing toward the Austrians to surrender. D’Annunzio, watching from across the river, was disgusted by their “cowardice” and orders the artillery to execute a fire mission against the Italian “traitors”. And such was the poet’s power in this Italian army that the batteries did indeed open fire and on the victims of D’Annunzio’s own folly.

But all that pales next to the character of Luigi Cadorna, a general whose name I had never heard prior to this book.

Discovering Cadorna and his place in the annals of history’s worst commanders is like discovering there is an extra planet in the solar system that nobody ever mentions. He’s so profoundly awful, as a general and as a human being, that the mind reels.

In fact, The White War warms to its task as Thompson really begins dissecting Cadorna’s record, and shifts focus from the front lines to the rear echelons and headquarters. Cadorna revealed himself to be an ineffectual martinet in the opening stages of the war, as he squandered massive opportunities and then, for good measure, squandered immense numbers of lives trying to crack impregnable Austrian positions across the Alps. Yet he was so arrogant, and so coddled by an Italian government that feared his prestige, that he was neither shaken by his failures nor fearful of their consequences.

But as the war dragged on, Cadorna’s lack of accountability and belief in iron discipline began going to darker and darker places, and Thompson follows right along. Cadorna, so contemptuous of the soldiers he was charged with leading, became convinced that Italian setbacks were due to poor morale, poor discipline, and outright cowardice.

His solution, at first, was limited to trying to remake the Italian soldiery in his image: ascetic, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to duty. Soldiers barely received any leave and, on the rare occasions their units were rotated off the front lines, they were sent not for R&R but for hard-labor behind the lines, lest they become soft. The theory was that soldiers should greet their return to the front with zeal and relief, and go about each day without a thought of home and peacetime pursuits.

But as years of hopeless slaughter took their toll (Thompson’s descriptions of combat along the varied and universally forbidding terrain of the Austro-Italian border are frequently jaw-dropping, like when he describes Italian “lines” where soldiers were living in tents anchored to cliff faces), the Italian troops became increasingly hopeless and their performance seemingly declined. There were more instances of indiscipline and routing.

Cadorna escalated matters, taking a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach, instituting an entirely extralegal regime of summary executions for all manner of infractions, to be pursued at the discretion of officers in the field. Courts martial, he decided, were too lenient for the weak, slovenly Italian army. He openly called it a policy of decimation.

The incidents Thompson brings to light are shocking. Cadorna is a real-life version of General Broulard in Paths of Glory, only far worse than even Stanley Kubrick could plausibly make out. Under his regime, subordinate commanders began looking for reasons to execute soldiers, so that they could demonstrate their fealty and zeal to the generalissimo’s vision.

In one gut-twisting example, Italy’s Ravenna Brigade “mutinies” when it discovers it is being sent back to the line after only a short respite. A few drunk soldiers fire guns in the air, and many soldiers refuse to go. Then the assistant division commander and brigade CO hear out the men’s grievances, summon military police to restore order, and pack the brigade on its way.

Except the division commander and eventually the corps commander get wind of the incident and began demanding executions. First a handful of men are shot and then, as each higher-ranking officer hears of the incident, ever more executions are demanded. In the end, Thompson writes, “29 men died to punish a minor rebellion in one battalion that lasted a few hours, causing no casualties.” (p. 265)

This is just one, unusually well-documented example, Thompson writes. The actual death toll for Cadorna’s summary executions goes as high as 750, if not higher.

Months later, in the autumn of 1917, Cadorna was stunned when a joint German-Austrian offensive hammered his lines at Caporetto and his army collapsed, with entire formations refusing to obey his order to fight to the death.

The Undertow of Progress

This would all make for a riveting account of a disastrous military campaign, but what elevates The White War is Thompson’s broader interest in Italian politics and culture. Cadorna as a general is a villain. But Cadorna’s absolute authority in Italy, his aimless brutality…. all these are harbingers of what is to come.

Over the course of The White War, Thompson shows the seeds of Fascism taking root in a soil rich with political, social, and cultural dysfunction. Italy, a young state in 1915, immediately began drifting toward militaristic hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism as soon as war was declared. The press was promptly muzzled, and happily went along with the policy of official censorship. Civilians were denounced and jailed for defeatism and lack of patriotism. Italy would not become formally fascist until 1924, but its slide in that direction started early in the war.

This had real consequences during the war and lent Italy’s ultimate victory a toxic legacy. There were always more delusions and excuses that enabled Cadorna’s mismanagement of the war. Socialist agitators sapped the soldiers of their will to fight. Italy’s allies weren’t helping enough. Unpatriotic politicians were shaking the army’s belief in itself every time they raised questions about the campaign. The soldiers were weak, lazy, ignorant who broke faith when victory was at hand. Each of these stories became a part of the right-wing’s founding myth of fascist Italy.

Cadorna himself was called “Il Duce” long before Mussolini (who lurks at the margins of his narrative, a minor player in the unfolding political drama, and not yet sure of his own beliefs). He was actively indulgent of suggestions that he be made dictator. Cocooned by a restricted press that parroted his own propaganda back at him, and a quiescent general staff that had been conditioned to flattery and mimicry, Cadorna became convinced of these “facts” that he’d helped invent.

Thompson also shows how Cadorna’s mindless credos, his oft-disproven and oft-repeated belief in the power of the offensive and the “irresistible spirit” of a good army, had their underpinnings in a widely-shared, somewhat incoherent set of beliefs called vitalism, which valued intuition personal character over intellect or material goods. In an insightful and important passage that helps explain the entire era, he writes:

“Vitalism appealed to the anti-intellectual bent of intellectuals who already doubted the rationalist rules of their game. Trapped in the vast dynamics of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, industrialisation and commerce, and by the theories of natural evolution, human history and the unconscious mind discovered by Darwin, Marx and Freud, what room was left for individual reason and moral will? How should men not succumb to the dark currents running below Progress (justly called ‘the political principle of the nineteenth century’), namely a gnawing sense of degeneration and impotence, merging fear of technology with fear of women? In hindsight, vitalism was a resistance movement, a late-romantic defence of the individual male and his solitary resources, a consolation after the ‘death of God’ in the mid-nineteenth century and before the birth of ‘human rights’ after 1945. For the vitalist vision is self-deifying, promising to restore mankind to his rightful place in the scheme of things, able to master all species and materials through mystical life-force.” (p. 229-230)

This is a passage that immediately helps crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into World War I, and even more of what came out of it. It’s fascinating that the Italian Front provides such a perfect window into the 20th century, in Thompson’s telling.

The ultimate tragedy of The White War, beyond all the lives lost, is that Thompson convincingly demonstrates that this incoherent mix of self-loathing and denial never really left Italy. Italy, a young country at the time of World War 1, was traumatized by its monumental failures against the Austrians. It promoted the idea that Italy itself was broken and needed to be fixed, and Fascism took advantage of that impulse when it sought to rehabilitate the war and sell it as a “founding myth” of Mussolini’s fledgling empire. When that was discredited, the self-doubt crept back into Italian politics.

In Thompson’s view, Italy is stuck with the memory of Caporetto, and the sudden disintegration of their army, their confidence, their view of themselves as a nation. In one form or another, the Italian front unleashed forces and beliefs that have twisted Italian politics ever since.

Rediscovering Reading

I used to read almost a hundred books a year. Sometimes more, but the 80-100 range is where I usually stayed. Funny the things you take for granted. My experience as a child and young adult reader (with sincere but nevertheless slightly affected precocious tastes) was of weekends lost to the pages of books, and of weeknights disappearing into an unexpected dawn as I finally finished the books I could not put down. Then I would creep out of bed and pull away the towel I always stuffed beneath the door in order to keep my parents from spotting the light.

In college, I felt like I read less, but I probably ended up reading even more. I would lock up a booth or a table in my favorite coffee shop for hours on end and retreat to what Prof. Kern called the “historian’s research lab”: stacks of primary and secondary sources, surrounded on all sides by notes. I still miss that active sort of reading, the purposefulness of my college studies. Maybe that is why I almost stopped reading entirely. Once college was over, there was no further need to spend eight hours a day reading and memorizing, and I had almost forgotten other reasons for doing it.

Or maybe I simply got tired of getting bad book suggestions from NY Times reviewers and NPR, two sources that can always be counted on to recommend topical new history that is irrelevant almost as soon as it is published, who seem to love plodding literary fiction, and who seem never to have encountered genre at all. I tried to reserve my time for only the best books, but all I ended up with was a stack of obligations that I didn’t really enjoy.

All that, and then I’ve been busy. I put off reading until I could get some free time for it, except the nature of nearly full-employment is that there are no more long stretches of free time. I can’t cruise by on five hours of sleep a night anymore, and I can’t blow off work to crank through a paperback. So I basically stopped reading.

Not all reading. But books and magazines dropped out of the rotation, and about the only thing I could find time for was articles on the web. A few good blogs, and whatever Twitter said was good. But that’s the kind of reading that doesn’t quite count. The nature of the web itself doesn’t help, of course. Crowded with links and ads, a hundred things on each page clamoring for attention, and that’s before you even look up at the browser tabs and their illusory promise that you really can keep from missing a thing, and that you wouldn’t want to. I was a consumer of content, a voracious one, but not a reader.

Oddly enough, it was my friend J.P. Grant who snapped me out of it, although he didn’t mean to. He simply gifted me with several volumes of Warhammer 40K fiction as a Nook-warming present, a gift that was as much a joke as anything. We love the unrestrained, arch-Gothic gravitas of the Warhammer universe, but I never imagined I would actually want to read more than a few pages set there. But maybe it was the knowledge that I was reading the literary equivalent of junk-food (and we are talking Bugles-and-fried-Twinkies levels of junk-food here) that let me drop all my pretensions, including respect for the written word as something to be consumed in life’s quieter, more thoughtful moments. When you’re reading about Space Marines blowing each others’ heads apart with bolters, or Imperial Commissars enjoying romantic dinner dates with Inquisitors after a hard day of destroying Necron tomb-worlds, you might as well just read the damn thing in whatever fragmented fashion you can manage. It’s not like you’ll want a silent room in which you can enjoy the sound of the prose.

But those books served their purpose: they reminded me how much fun it can be to tear through a novel just to find out what happens next, and how relaxing it is to become absorbed in a story. They also showed me that I do have time to read, just maybe not the way I used to. Most importantly, however, is that they reminded me how nice it is to read without too many expectations, to encounter a book on your own terms without an idea of idea of how you “should” react.

So when I was on vacation this last week, I managed to finish Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy of fantasy novels, and on the flight home I grabbed Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and renewed my acquaintance with Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angie. I’ve got A Dance with Dragons on the table next to me, and after I finish that, I might catch up with Michael Connelly or maybe get started on Terry Pratchett. Hell, there are even some comics I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. I won’t completely abandon my reading list, with its tomes on Russian political philosophers and Irish recession fiction, but I’ll remember that it’s what I get out of reading that matters, not whether I could hold my own at an author’s reading in Manhattan. If it’s a choice between barely reading Important Books or reading lots of enjoyable genre stories, I’ll take my dog-eared paperbacks and impulse Nook purchases. It’s more fun to have stories back in my life.

Happy Hour – August 5

Monday morning I will be 28 years old, and undeniably in my late 20s. I’m always a bit troubled by how quickly time is passing, and how much I wanted, and still want, from life. At the same time, things are going great and I’m feeling far more optimistic about the future than I was a year ago.

So what will I do with these waning days of my mid-20s? I will let them wane as all the others did, with videogames, cooking, and books.  I’ve been loving A Game of Thrones the last couple days, even if it is torture watching tragically flawed characters walking around with targets painted on their backs.

But I like, and even draw comfort from, the way one of the book’s themes is that misfortuneis inevitable, and the heroes are those who confront that head-on. I do not mean that they overcome adversity. That’s often another false hope, another lie we tell ourself. I mean that they accept that the fates are cruel, and so characters like Tyrion or Ned Stark aim for something that cannot be taken by force or fate: self-mastery.

Whether this really serves those around you, or whether it is in some way a selfish indulgence, is another question.

Outside of that, I will be playing some EYE: Divine Cybermancy for review, and at some point I must sneak in a viewing of Life with Father. Aside from that, I’ll be trying to get my Lotus to stop flying off the track at Silverstone in F1 2010, and perhaps destroying some cars in Burnout: Paradise when F1 gets frustrating.

Happy Hour – June 10

Since before the Memorial Day Rabbitcon through today, I’ve been working at a fairly brisk pace. It’s gotten to the point that I actually need to go over my books and Friday and make sure I’m remembering all my invoices. It also means, as I have mentioned before, that it is harder to find things to say here. I write 5 columns a month, and most of what I play is either for review or 3MA, so there’s no need to opine here about any of that stuff.

God, what a boring person I seem to be becoming. “Sorry, guys, all I talk about is games, and I do that for other places.” My original frustration with a lot of games writing was that it was so rarely in dialogue with broader culture and history. Now I am gunning out reviews and columns while a stack of unread books and unwatched films piles up behind me.

Still, this is perhaps the wrong week to complain about this. I finished E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks and Susanne Collins The Hunger Games this week, and The Waterworks is nothing if not inspiring to a writer. I read the first and last dozen pages aloud, because the prose is so completely perfect and evocative. Not just of the time and place, but of the narrator’s character and the people who surround him.

And then I went out to the indie film multiplex a few blocks from my apartment to see a Woody Allen film in a theater for the first time, Midnight in Paris, and a few nights later had a near-religious experience with Steve Gaynor and Chris Remo when we went to see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Actually, scratch that. I’ve had religious experiences. A few dawn Masses when what the Church had to say and what I needed to hear perfectly aligned, or just those days that make pagans of us all, when the perfection and glory of creation seems sufficient proof of God, and spending a day under the open sky seems like the truest act of worship.

Tree of Life wasn’t near-religious. By design, it is explicitly religious. Through the death of a child and the life of a family, Malick is addressing our relationship with Heavenly and earthly Fathers and Mothers. It was about as powerful a film as I have ever seen, the sort of film that lead to an unself-conscious conversation about what it is we are supposed to be doing with our lives and talents. What will make us proud in the twilight years to come.

I guess I had things to say, after all. Maybe the danger of neglecting this space is not that I abandon my audience or become boring, but that I stop believing my mind is engaged with anything other than the workaday tasks for which I spend my Fridays editing and invoicing. That games become all there is, because that’s all I’m bothering to process.

Anyway, I have hopes of this being a grand weekend. The Bruins play in just a moment. F1 is running at Montreal, one of my favorite tracks because it is so ridiculously fast with some truly devilish chicanes and turns that force drivers to the very edge of recklessness. Then there are the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which I will be trying to watch in between a number of podcast obligations. On top of all that, I will likely be playing The Darkness on my 360 and Pride of Nations on my PC.

Not to mention catching up on my reading. My pal J.P. Grant did a great profile for Kill Screen on Greg Kasavin, who is working on one of the very few upcoming games for which I am genuinely excited: Bastion. The few minutes I spent with it suggested that it might be one of the best-written games of the year, and John does a fine job of showing why Kasavin is just the sort of person to make such a game.

I also finished L.A. Noire and was finally able to start reading over the reviews, including Kirk Hamilton’s justly-praised Kill Screen piece. Kirk has an alternate-take on the game, and badly do I wish the game’s central conceit were as interesting and well-thought out. Team Bondi ultimately seemed to reach the same conclusion about Cole Phelps’ character, but the story is too slowly-developed, too literal to draw out Phelps’ real dilemma.

Communism Works

War in the East was one of those wargames that sent me across town to the local library so that I could grab a stack of books on the Eastern Front. I finally finished off the last of them, Leningrad 1941: The Blockade by Dmitri Pavlov, yesterday morning. In many ways it was the most unexpected of the books I read, because so much of its subject was both new (t0 me) and uniquely presented.

Pavlov was a Party bureaucrat who helped managed the distribution of food supplies to the Leningrad Front during the German blockade following Operation Barbarossa. His book is, in some ways, nothing more than a simple report on the food situation in Leningrad during the siege. He describes the city’s pre-blockade food consumption and supplies, the impact of the German advance, the rations provided during the siege, and finally how the city was resupplied by water and, after Lake Ladoga froze, by ice.

The book is full of tables and detailed calorie counts. Just from a mechanical standpoint, the work of maintaining a defensive force and a large civilian population during a near-total encirclement makes for fascinating reading. The type of things I don’t really think about, like how much food an office worker needs to sustain himself as opposed to a front line soldier as opposed to a longshoreman. This was the stuff of life and death in Leningrad as Pavlov and the Soviet officials he worked with cut rations to the bone.

But it’s also an amazing story of endurance and ingenuity, and one of the threads running through Pavlov’s account is a nostalgia for this brief moment when the ideals of the Revolution were manifested in the people, soldiers, and government of Leningrad. He describes how, as the food supply dwindled, researchers in Leningrad were furiously trying to find new ways to stretch the food supply. He goes into detail on how the loaf of bread was reinvented with other grains and low-quality food products, and then reinvented again with cellulose once the other grains ran out.

While Pavlov is no naif (he describes how ration-card fraud required some brutal measures and regulations that were often unintentionally, unavoidably cruel), he is struck by how often the siege brought out the best in people. Order never broke down, even when things were at their most desperate. He draws pictures of starving people holding down a man who attempts to start a bread riot, or standing guard over an overturned bread truck in the dead of a winter night until the authorities can collect the shipment. He frankly admits that when the road over Lake Ladoga first started running, theft was rampant on the part of the drivers and loaders. The operation was so haphazard, the packing materials of such poor quality, and the pace so fast that there was literally no way to police the supply line. But after a week or so, as drivers realized just how desperate things were in Leningrad, supply loss stopped almost entirely.

The suffering on display is also astonishing. During a chapter simply titled, “Hunger”, Pavlov writes:

Cold had settled down to stay in the unheated apartments of the city. Remorselessly it froze the exhausted people. Dystrophy and cold sent 11,085 people to their graves during November, the first to fall under death’s scythe being the old men.

…More and more adults and children died every day. First a person’s arms and legs grew weak, then his body became numb, the numbness gradually approached the heart, gripped it as in a vise, and then the end came.

Death overtook people anywhere. As he walked along the street, a man might fall and not get up. People would go to bed at home and not rise again. Often death would come suddenly as men worked at their machines.

Since public transportation was not operating, burial was a special problem. The dead were usually carried on sleds without coffins. Two or three relatives or close friends would haul the sled along the seemingly endless streets, often losing strength and abandoning the deceased halfway to the cemetary, leaving to the authorities the task of dispoising of the body. …There was not strength enough to dig into the deeply frozen earth. Civil defense crews would blast the ground to make mass graves, into which they would lay tens and sometimes hundreds of bodies without even knowing the names of those they buried.

–May the dead forgive the living who could not, under those desperate conditions, perform the last ceremonies due honest, laborious lives.

Over 600,000 people died of starvation-related causes during the blockade.

From “The Internet Is Awesome” Dept.

A few months ago I did a post on one of my favorite authors, Adrian McKinty, and the path his career has taken since his brilliant crime novel, Dead I Well May Be.

Yesterday he showed up and explained his side of the story, and shared some of his feelings about his own work. You should go check out the post. It’s one of my better ones, and you’re really cheating yourselves if you don’t read either his Dead I Well May Be or Fifty Grand.

But isn’t it odd that we live in a world where you’re just hanging out on your blog, talking about a dude, and then a gong crashes and he appears in a puff of Google-smoke?