Crucible of War

Earlier this year I picked up AGEOD’s Birth of America from the Target bargain rack, which is about the only way a title published by Strategy First is going to find its way into a major retailer. The game was well-reviewed and spawned a series of follow-ups covering different 18th and 19th century conflicts, but my chief reason for buying it is that I have an embarrassingly shallow knowledge of early American history. Since my interest in wargames and history have always marched lockstep, I thought Birth of America might be a good way to dip my toe in the water. Then I grabbed Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. While historical literacy isn’t a necessary component for playing a wargame, it usually helps you make sense of what you’re being asked to do.

My one disappointment with Crucible is that it is not a particularly interesting book of military history. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans probably gave me an unrealistic expectation for how action-packed the French and Indian War was, but that doesn’t change the fact that fighting in the New World tended to be a grubby, ad hoc affair. While over in Europe, Frederick the Great was sending waves of grenadiers into dense lines of white-coated Austrians, British commanders in America were pleading with colonial assemblies to raise a handful of battalions. The most pivotal battle of the war, Quebec, is shown to be a case of mutual blundering followed by an almost inexplicable French collapse. The rest of the war mostly consisted of small expeditions against wilderness forts, accompanied by constant, tedious negotiation with the native peoples.

This might have more to do with Anderson’s own interests than it does with the subject matter. His coverage of the battles makes for good reading, but every campaign reads almost as ponderously as it unfolded. Anderson gets into the nuts and bolts of Indian diplomacy and colonial – military interactions, and ends up belaboring a couple points. One Indian negotiation is much like another, but the reader is treated to the repeated site of Indian warriors bearing gifts and liquor back to their villages, Indian chieftains struggling to maintain their social position, and English officials providing the same hollow assurances. Likewise, we find the colonial assemblies (particularly Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) to be chaotic, bitterly divided, and constantly carping about how difficult it is for them to prosecute this war. If Anderson’s goal is to make you feel the exasperation of any British official who had to deal with America during this period, he succeeds admirably.

Where the book really comes alive, however, is in the war’s closing stages, as the action shifts to London. From that point onward, Anderson seems to be on happier ground. We see Pitt at the height of his power beginning to succumb to a megalomania that disturbs his most important political allies, which sows the soil for the attack that the newly crowned George III and the Earl of Bute are waiting to unleash on him. George III doesn’t come across well in this book, despite Anderson’s attempts to be fair minded, because there is no hiding the degree to which he creates one ministerial crisis after another. George is a monarch very much in the vein of Kaiser Wilhelm II: spoiled, self-assured to a degree far beyond his abilities, and deeply desirous of asserting his prerogative over the state. Both men would take control of a government that wasn’t broken, and then bring the state to ruin in the name of fixing it.

Of some surprise is the degree to which Grenville emerges as a minor hero on the political stage, considering that he writes the Stamp Act that puts the first severe cracks in the foundation of colonial relations. While Anderson does not conceal the degree to which Grenville governed like a tin-eared technocrat, he also celebrates the degree to which Grenville was a perceptive and conscientious head of government. When George III begins making a concerted push to fire him, ultimately replacing him with the inept Duke of Cumberland (whose life after Culloden seems to have been spent plumbing the depths of his own incompetence), there is a definite sense that George is stepping off a ledge into thin air. When the Stamp Act meets with a firestorm of colonial resistance, there is nobody left in government by 1766 that is both competent and strong enough to lead Britain out of the crisis.

The reactions in America to London’s expanded efforts at administration also make for fascinating reading. At first, nobody seems to find anything remarkable in the act and the colonies are on the cusp of accepting it without complaint while leading citizens are fighting for the privilege of administering the tax (the better to skim off the top). Then Patrick Henry passes a resolution in the Virginia House of Burgesses asserting that England lacks the right to lay taxes on the colonies, it gets printed in some newspapers, and the entire seaboard explodes.

In Boston, we see the local Sons of Liberty variant contact both of the city’s official unruly mobs (honest) for the sake of raising nine kinds of hell. Similar mob violence occurs in other northern cities, providing an excellent excuse for simmering tensions within colonial politics to explode. The Penn family and its enemies immediately fall to settling old scores against the backdrop of civil disorder. In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry start overturning rocks and find that the state’s leading planters have embezzled fortunes from the province. In Boston, an angry mob goes looking to lynch Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who spends the long night cutting through backyards and staying with different friends as he is hunted through the city. The mob contents itself with getting liquored up at his mansion, then destroying it. By the time the Stamp Act is supposed to go into effect, there is nobody left who is willing to enforce it.

The book ends on an ambivalent note. Anderson argues that the American Revolution was far from inevitable even at the time of the Stamp Act’s repeal, but that British misconceptions about the nature of their rule in America doomed them to a series of mistakes. Pitt himself, who supported the Stamp Act’s repeal and exulted in colonial resistance, is shown making the argument that the British military could grind the colonies to dust if it needed to. Nobody in London really grasped that their relationship with the colonies was based on the colonists’ affection for the mother country and their sufferance of Britain’s occasional commands. If Britain had allowed the relationship to drift along as it always had, the Revolution might have been avoided.

On this point, Anderson’s point seems purely speculative, and not entirely supported by what he has already shown. While colonists seemed to love the Empire and consider themselves Englishmen, Anderson never really explains what we should make of the shocking violence and resentment that erupted against the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty spoke and thought with cataclysmic overtones, and the mobs they mobilized were as likely to rip apart redcoats as they were stamp collectors. Many colonial elites, like Washington, still cherished their status as Englishmen. But in Boston, New York, and Virginia, there were large and growing factions that were becoming self-aware as Americans. Toward the end of the Stamp Act riots, John Adams wrote in his diary about what a glorious year it had been for America. Looking over the smoldering wreckage of British policy and legitimacy in the colonies, Adams was already starting see the shape the future would take, and he liked what he saw. It did not include a nation of Englishmen.

Third Anniversary

For our anniversary on Tuesday, my partner and I decided against having one of our bank-breaking nights on the town, but we didn’t want to simply stay in and congratulate ourselves on being sensible. So we took a middle course and gave one another the gift of gin.

Now, this might seem like a warning sign to some people, so I’ll just quote Norm MacDonald’s response to being told that denial is the first sign of being alcoholic: “Yeah, but it’s also the first sign of not being an alcoholic.” The reason we felt justified in splurging on gin is because it’s our favorite spirit and certainly our most versatile. The gins we selected are radically different from one another, and produce completely different drinks. This supply should last us a few months, especially as the weather turns colder and gin and tonic season comes to its end.

Anyway, it made for a great day. Beefeater gin and tonics, dry Hendrick’s martinis, and some fantastic Age of Mythology comp-stoming over the LAN. Plus, we made these amazing biscotti late at night.

I’d never made biscotti before, but after discovering how easy and delicious they are to make at home, consider me a convert.

It’s also worth mentioning that a single biscotti is about 100 calories, which is a hell of a lot better than the mighty chocolate chip cookie.

This might have been our least ceremonious anniversary, but I think it may have been our nicest.

Ghostbusters on Film

The first movie I truly loved was Ghostbusters. I watched it at least forty or fifty times before I finished elementary school. If I was home sick from school (which I made sure to be at least once or twice a month), my go-to movie was Ghostbusters. At the time, I didn’t get how funny it was, because to a child ghost busting was pretty serious business. Except for Venkman, of course, but that’s because he didn’t take anything seriously except Dana Barrett.

My point is that I know Ghostbusters by heart, and have since I was little. I hadn’t seen it for several years, but when I learned that it was playing at the revival theater in Harvard Square, I knew I had to go. I feared that I might know the movie too well to really give myself over to it, but I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see a new print on the big screen (although that’s not exactly an accurate description of the screen at the Brattle).

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Yes, I knew the movie backwards and forwards, but so did the rest of the audience on Monday night. People knew exactly who was going to say what and when, and they burst into roaring laughter almost before the beats. I was surprised at how fresh Ghostbusters was after twenty-five years, and the movie delighted me more than ever. In fact, I felt like I was seeing the movie for the first time. Seeing this classic with an audience around me enhanced the experience more than I thought possible, and reminded me of how even a good home theater system doesn’t really bring home the magic of a packed house.

More importantly, however, is the way the film looked on the screen. The Ghostbusters of my memory is from a VHS or DVD copy, and I was completely caught out by how gloriously rich the colors were on celluloid. Furthermore, I was noticing details in each shot that I’d never noticed before, because the larger format makes things obvious that are almost invisible on a TV set. It was just a much, much richer visual experience that I could have expected.

Ghostbusters also serves as a pointed reminder of just how rich movies could be in a world of limited CGI. There are some obvious matte-paintings in Ghostbusters, and the models never seem to inhabit the same reality as the actors (especially when they appear in the same shot). However, I also saw how evocative those techniques were, and how Reitman worked around technical limitations with clever shot composition and editing. Modern movies tend to wallow in the special-effects Uncanny Valley, overusing glossy-looking CG sequences that strike the mind as discordantly false. By contrast, the matte-painting we see of the top of Gozor’s tower is immediately identifiable as a fake backdrop, but then we all accept it into the movie’s reality.

Furthermore, the actors might be staring at a painting, but they’re also standing on a well-designed set, and earlier we’ve seen them on the streets of New York. The special effects sequences might not be quite as realistic as we’d expect today, but the normal shots are vastly more convincing than anything we’re likely to see in a modern summer blockbuster. Ghostbusters is full of regular-looking people, speaking with the right accents and wearing the right clothes, and the camera never has to shy away from wooden performances in front of a green screen. There’s an intimacy to Ghostbusters that used to commonplace in American film, and which has become depressingly hard to find. Where I used to feel like the fifth Ghostbuster, or the fourth Goodfella, I now feel like a spectator watching an amusement park ride go past. It’s little wonder I find modern gaming much more interesting than most modern film.

Still, watching Ghostbusters with an audience including everyone from teenagers to 60 year-olds, I was reassured that we’re all still here. People weren’t just there on a nostalgia trip, but were there to enjoy the kind of movie they still love, even if the film industry no longer knows how to make it.

Year 27's Questionable Start

Yesterday was my 26th birthday, and I had a wonderful plan. Alien was showing at my local revival theater, and the Harvard Film Archive was running On the Waterfront. Since these are both classics that I have never seen, I decided to catch Alien at 4:30 and On the Waterfront at 7. After that, my partner MK and I would take a late dinner and cocktails.

Unfortunately, just as Alien’s main titles came up, I felt my legs get ice cold and prickly. I asked MK if the theater was cold and she confirmed that it was, so I ignored it. But about an hour into the movie, I felt dizzy, my legs were like ice, and I was starting to shake.

A reasonable person would have said, “We have to go home.” But the ship’s mechanic was standing in the ship’s airshaft with the alien suspended in the chains above him, and I wasn’t about to walk out now. So I toughed out the rest of the movie.

Once we were out of the theater, though, I couldn’t fake it anymore. I felt beyond terrible, and I seemed almost to be floating back to the Harvard Square T stop. I barely made it back to the apartment before flopping into bed, pulling the blankets and comforter over me, and passing out.

Even though I’m sure I just had a flu or something similarly mundane, I kept thinking about this lunch I’d taken with an old friend the day before. She’s a grad student in a microbiology lab, and we’ve been friends since 4th grade. I lost touch with her several years ago, and only discovered this past week that we live in the same apartment building.

Anyway, while I was feeling incredibly, dangerously sick, I kept thinking about this friend and how she mentioned she worked with an opportunistic pathogen. And even though it was absurd, a part of me wondered, did her pet pathogen follow her to lunch?

For someone who frequently contemplates epidemics, societal breakdowns, and the zombie apocalypse, this part of Cambridge is a tough place to be in general. I am surrounded by futuristic looking office and laboratory buildings that all service the biotech industry, and many of the people I meet around here are also involved in that field. This all just serves to make sickness just a little more menacing to one with an overactive imagination. Every time I get the flu, I start building it up in my head to be The Stand.

Anyway, that’s how my birthday ended up getting trashed. I’m mostly just annoyed I didn’t get to see On the Waterfront. Why, oh why, did I have to get hit with this yesterday of all days?