Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918 by Tammy M Proctor – A Review

Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918
Tammy M. Proctor
New York University Press, 2010, pg 363

When it comes to the great number of books on war the portion given over to non combatants and the social aspects of war are a small fraction. War is too often a series of maneuvers and counter maneuvers that give geographic and material sense of war, but leave the what took place apart from the battle field unexamined. This is especially true with World War I, Tammy M. Proctor, argues. When describing the war in the west, the relatively narrow stretch of battle field in France and Belgium are the main focus, and for good reason with its legendary stalemate and destruction it is hard to ignore. Other fronts, such as those of eastern Europe, Italy, Turkey, or eastern Africa, are less well known, but surveys of the literature would probably bare out the same finding. Perhaps some of that perception comes the idea that unlike World War II, the First World War was not a very mobile war, the eastern European and east African campaigns aside. However, as Proctor shows, the world of the non combatant was more perilous and central than is usually represented and was a harbinger to what was to come in World War II.

She opens the book with the concept of the citizen soldier, perhaps the weakest part of the book in part because it has been covered in depth in other books. Nonetheless, she provides a good introduction to the need to create soldiers from what, until then, were non combatants. As is not uncommon, her first person material about the reactions of soldiers to their new lives in the armed forces, is the strongest when discussing the western front and helps show the initial call up as of almost joyous confidence (there are scarce records for soldiers who fought on the eastern front). What is most illustrative, though, is the lengths the waring nations went to call men up and how long the plans had been in existence. In the initial call ups you can almost see the course of the war: the Russians chaotic, a paper army in some ways; the Germans efficient and organized; to a lesser extent the same for the French; and the British relied on their professional Imperial volunteers to fight the beginning of the war.

Once she moves away from combatant the book is much more focused and the one take away from the book is that war requires man power, not just at the front, but in support, too. That need drove the use of masses of hired and conscripted labor throughout the war. The British hired men from around the empire, as did the French. Although nominally civilians, dressing in civilian clothing and expected to stay away from the front lines, the men were often quite near combat especially with the advent of aviation and long range artillery. The workers for the allies continued to come in part to show their worth as suggest to the imperial powers and to earn much needed wages. Given that many of the laborers were non European there was racism and smug behavior from the colonial officials that attempted to make sure that the laborers, once exposed to the distractions of France, would be controllable. The same cannot be said for workers for the central powers who used conscription to raise labor battalions. The conscript labor ran the same danger and in a replay of what would happen in World War II as the armies moved back and forth over the same contested terrain, the civilians who had been forced into labor were accused of collaboration.

The chapter on refugees and civilians in occupied areas was also quite good. The difficulty faced by civilians who were caught behind enemy lines could be quite high as neither side really understood how to handle large numbers of refugees or what to do with civilians of an occupied country. The Germans, for example, took hostages in Belgium and obligated countries to provide workers for the war effort. All sides began to use concentration camps to gather contain suspect groups of people. Often the camps were over crowded and badly designed. It is obvious from what she writes, that the civilian encounter with war was much larger than is commonly pictured. Not only were civilians forced to relocate, work, and otherwise help the enemy war effort, with the shifting movement of the front lines in the early days on the western front, throughout the war in the east and in East Africa, civilians were in peril in a greater numbers than any time before.

Proctor is quite good in showing the total mobilization that each country did of its civilian populations. Whether it was women joining the work force or serving as nurses on the fronts, or volunteers joining ambulance units or the YMCA, there was a commitment to seeing the war as something everyone had to take part in in some way. The commitment come from mixed motivations: munitions workers, she notes, coming from working class background, found the work a step up from their typical factory work. The introduction of rationing and the draft on a scale never before seen, also blurred the lines between civilians and soldiers, bringing the war closer to home. Even though some civilians experienced air raids that truly brought the war to a new level, it was total focus on war in all of its aspects that made non combatants something other than civilians.

Civilians in a World at War is successful at showing that World War I had more civilian impact than is generally thought of. She is correct in arguing that World War I redefined the role of the civilian during war. If I have one complaint it was need at the end of every chapter to reargue that she had made her point and that civilians were not people who did not fight, but part of the war and who played critical roles in keeping it sustained.

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Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam – A Review

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam
Nick Turse
Metropolitan Books, 2013, 370 pg

Note to my regular readers: I don’t read as much history as I would like to, but from time to time I will venture away from just literature.

There were more atrocities in Vietnam than Mai Lai is the basic premise of Kill Anything That Moves. It is an important statement because while there have certainly been books that mention various small group actions that could easily be called atrocities (Turse quotes from come of them), there has not been a book to systematically show problematic American behavior in Vietnam was. 370 pages of brutal detail and well documented research, using American documents, contemporary news accounts, and survivor testimony from both American and Vietnamese sources, he shows that American strategy and tactics and general break down of moral conduct of many fighting men lead to countless criminal acts, large and small. It can be tough reading at times, as any book like this can be, but it is a much needed work.

Turse divides up the atrocities in to two general categories: those committed by units or individual soldiers, and those that fall into what one might call industrialized war. It is a good framework for looking at the conduct of the war, because, in Turse’s opinion, the latter led to the former. The chief issue was the term body count. American military planers, prevented from engaging North Vietnamese forces in set piece battles where American arms would prevail, opted for a way of attrition that would bleed the North Vietnamese and lead them to stop the war. The body count statistic was so powerful that units were sent into the field with the expectation that they would return with bodies for the tally board. Unfortunately, that led to commanders who didn’t really care about whether the number of bodies actually had a relation to the captured guns. Too often soldiers would return with disproportionally small number of arms. Moreover, the American military instituted what were called free fire zones in areas of heavy enemy activity. In the zones soldiers had even fewer rules about what they could shoot. A common tactic also was to bring in heavy armaments from fire bases or airplanes to shell and in theory scare the North Vietnamese. Those tactics coupled with the commanders on the ground calling in air and artillery strikes in heavily civilian areas led to massive indiscriminate destruction. This is not to mention defoliation strategies and other industrial methods of clearing the landscape.

Naturally, all these tactics had a heavy toll on the Vietnamese population. Rise fields were damaged, villages destroyed, people killed and wounded, and suffering the effects of toxins. Most villages had bomb shelters or trenches to protect the villagers. Turse doesn’t mention the efficacy of them for safety from shelling, but they became a double edged sword when American troops came saw them. Soldiers took them for something more and did not have patience for villagers who went into them, preferring to kill civilians in them rather than risk a booby trap. The catch 22 nature of the trenches was just one of the ways that the Vietnamese civilians were trapped. An all too common experience was when they ran in fear from soldiers they would be shot because only the enemy runs. That practice often got out of control when a helicopter pilot would hover over a civilian and they would run and be shot.

It is in these encounters with the soldiers in the villages that it is hardest to read. Description after description of one atrocity after the other can make it a little hard to get a little more perspective on what was going on. Turse is aware and points out many times how American soldiers were not well equipped for this kind of counter insurgency, and their frustration could turn into indiscriminate violence. Turse also notes a strain of racism that ran throughout, the most common when describing Asians was “they don’t value life as much as Americans do” and the MGR (mere “gook” rule). The one thing that is missing and probably is impossible to know is just what percentage of patrols were doing these kinds of things. His work is well researched, but when reading it without a sense of where it fits in the overall story it is possible to see every soldier as a killer, which is an overstatement.

Ultimately, we will never know the full scale of these events because many of the court marshals and investigations performed by the military were destroyed or are missing. Turse notes that when he made freedom of information acts he often got empty records. Still, he was able to dig up enough to show there was a pattern of cover ups. Part of the issue was after the soldiers left the army the government no longer wished to prosecute. The other issue was the press was never that interested in writing about war crimes. Before My Lai they didn’t want to do it because of the scandal, after it was as if it was old news. Probably the biggest example of this was the operation in the Mekong delta that two reporters, working from official military press releases, uncovered. They had a story ready to go that showed a very high body count and a very low weapons recover ratio, around 100:1. It might have been a My Lai size story but their editors buried the piece saying the public was tired of the war.

Ultimately, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam describes a war that failed, not as some revisionists might say, because America let down the South Vietnamese, but because the killing was so indiscriminate, at best made the population fear the Americans, at worst supporters of the North. It is a needed book one that adds a fuller dimension to a war that cost so much and did so little.

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1941 – A Review

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1941
Neill Lochery
Public Affairs, 2011, 306 pg

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light will tell you just about everything you will ever need to know about Lisbon and Portugal during World War II. Perhaps, too much depending on you interests. Neill Lochery not only writes about the Salazar government at war, but about the intrigues and, in many ways, the gossip of those who passed through the city. The book is best at laying out Salazar’s plan to stay neutral and how he was able to play the two sides off of each other. As a man without any other goals than staying in power and making Portugal modern, he was able to sell tungsten to Germany without the least scruples in taking German gold (some of which the Bank of Portugal is said to have, Richsbank stamp and all). And with the allies, especially Britain which Portugal had long had alliances, he also sold materials for gold. As long as one side seemed more powerful than the other, he attempted to favor them more, short of joining the war. During the early years of the war he was quite welcoming to Germany, but he didn’t want to join the war, nor did he want Spain to invade. Spain had made several different plans to invade during the war, but Salazar was able to avoid it. He was always cautious, and even in 43 when Germany didn’t look as strong as it had, he delayed granting access to the Azores to the Allies.It is in the context of the scheming man that Lochery notes that any good that came out of Portugal’s neutrality during the war came about because it suited Salazar or he had no control over it. The Jewish refuges are a case and point. While Salazar didn’t kick Jews out of Portugal, he also didn’t want to grant them entry visas. It was his diplomatic officials early in the war who disobeyed orders and were able to allow Jews to escape through Lisbon.

Lisbon itself was a reflection of Salazar. It was full of spies, refugees, and people taking advantage of the situation. With all the refugees and the limited transportation options out of the country many were stranded there and had to do what ever it took to get out. For the rich such as the Gugenhiems, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Hollywood stars like Leslie Howard they stayed in the best hotels and lived a life that had nothing to do with the deprivations of the war. It is here, in the more biographical sections, that the book suffers a bit. Not that it is badly written, it just isn’t that interesting to me. Especially, the part about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At least I know now how self-absorbed he was but other than that I don’t really care. There are definitely some sections one can skip over.

It is an interesting book, but for me only half of the book was interesting. But if you are interested in the history of Portugal during the war you can’t go wrong with this book.

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression – A Review

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009, 598 pg

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark is an impressive piece of scholarship that should last as one of the most important books on the subject for some time. I won’t say it is the most important book of its kind because there are a few gaps in the material but as a work of literary, film and cultural criticism it is a solid work. While one may be forgiven for thinking the books is primarily literary criticism since most of the first 200 pages are an overview of the literature of the period, one of the strengths of the book is his appraisal of the films of the 30s. No cultural history of the time could be without an investigation of film history and his understanding of how the films reflected the times is solid. In particular, when he crosses the genres of film and literature he makes some interesting cases.

He is sympathetic to Stienbeck (perhaps the most famous and most criticized depression writer) who he sees as a good writer of the times, someone who did not get caught up in the proletarian novel like Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, and instead was more interested in observing as a scientist. This led to his weakness as an artist, because he tended to write in terms of types, but it also allowed him in books like In Dubious Battle to see the labor leaders not as heroic martyrs with a degree of complexity. His take on the Grapes of Wrath is positive, calling it one of the better books of the decade, even though it has some silly slang (I remember the use of tom catting as particularly egregious) and he finds the ending too much. It is when he mixes the his film criticism with his literary that his take on the Grapes of Wrath takes its full power. For Dickstein, Grapes the book cannot be understood without the movie. It is the movie that makes the book iconic. The faithful reproduction of the book as a film amplifies the power of his lost eden and smoothes over the awkward moments. It is an interesting take, because it forces the book to be appreciated in terms of another work, and while many works need context to be understood, works typically can stand on there own at some point.

Dickstein sees several trends in the works of the times. One is a sense of mobility that expresses a freedom and a sense that things will get better. Whether in the dance films of Rodgers and Astaire or the Screwball Comedies with their irreverence, they are not so much an escape into the fantasy of being rich, but a moment of complete freedom. These he contrasts to the desperate works that marked the early years of the depression. Books such as Jews With Money where the proletarian characters have to fight their way out of the slum, or the gangster films which are a kind of nihilistic Horatio Alger story where the gangster, usually from an ethnic background, rises to the top with his own muscle and smarts, but falls, much as the American economy had. These stories show the failure of the American dream and show a people desperate and unmoored from the society they thought would hold them together. This image is reflected in countless books such as Tobacco Road and most powerfully, Miss Lonely Hearts, one of Dickstein’s primer works of the decade.

Not having read or seen many of the works it is hard to gauge some of his claims. But the works I do know I found his take to be insightful and nuanced, even if I didn’t agree with it completely, such as his take on parts of the Grapes of Wrath and the USA Trilogy. His take, for example, on Citizen Kane goes beyond the technical or the political controversies that occurred when it was first released. Instead, he sees it, along with Meet John Doe, as an examination of a dark populism, the kind that led to the rise of Hitler, and began to concern artists as World War II approached. Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, all reflect the end of an idealized dream of the people working together for a better society. It is a quite a change from the initial desperation and despair that led to the rise of the belief in the common man. The belief didn’t die just from a few men, but the works of art began to reflect a fuller picture, one where hope can be channeled into dark desires.

While Dancing in the Dark is an impressive bit of scholarship, it suffers in a few areas, in part I think, because to be as expansive as I would like it would be at least twice the size. First, he tends to concentrate on the best of the era, even if you might not think a particular book is good, it is the best of its class. In literature that isn’t such a problem, but in film I would like to have seen more than a passing reference to the silly films like those of Shirley Temple that were so popular. Another area that is missing, and is often missing in studies of the era, is a discussion of radio. Except for the usual Father Coughlin reference, radio doesn’t seem to exist. The lack of coverage of radio is indicative of the large lack of other cultural products of the area, from magazines to comics. I would like to see more of these ephemeral items. He does talk about musical theater, but I get the impression that is because he likes musicals. Musicals were certainly an important art form of the era and he has some insights, but I couldn’t help but feel he included them because he loves them.

Those criticisms aside, Dancing in the Dark is an excellent book and filled with fascinating insights to the era. It should, as it has done for me, make anyone who reads it want to see the movies and read the books he brings to life with his descriptions.

Off the Wall – Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War – A Review

Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War
Zeina Maasri
I. B. Tauris, 168 pg

Every war has its own aesthetic. As bad as it sounds to equate art and style which often had a connotation of beauty and goodness to war, the need to solidify group membership, demonize the other, and provide a vision of the future with its implicit sense of triumph, lend themselves to symbolic interpretation through art. The poster in the modern industrial world is a cheep, quick and disposable medium that has been one of the most common ways to mix art and war. Even if a faction could not afford radio or TV, the poster was available, and that ease of production has left many enduring images that shape the impressions of a war. For Americans, the Uncle Sam I Want You Poster from World War I or Rosie the Riveter from World War II, are as important to the iconography of those wars as a trench scene or raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

It is with these ideas in mind that Zeina Maasri approaches the 150 posters that make up the richly printed collection from the Lebanese Civil War. Maasari finds in the posters reflections of an aesthetic and a politics that were unique to Lebanon. While she notes that the posters may seem at first similar to the propaganda posters of the wars of the 20th century whose goals were to inspire and demonize, the posters in Lebanon, due to the sectional nature of the conflict, were more focused on establishing control and marking territory. Since the lines between combatants were not always marked out clearly, the posters became a means of showing areas of control and describing who was in power. At the same time, the posters performed their traditional role of forging group cohesion. Moreover, Maasari points out that politics in Lebanon for at least the last half of the 20th century was marked by factional dynasties that provided leadership for each group, and whose leaders passed leadership from father to son; thus, the posters often served the dual role of emphasizing the role of the leader as the head of the faction and reminding the view of the faction’s strength. Finally, religion is an important element in many of the posters, especially as the Shiites moved away from the traditionally left leaning parties to the religious.

From these elements which Maasri outlines in a series of insightful chapters that mix the history with posters, the reader can understand not only what the posters mean but their context. Providing context is not a simple task when describing the Lebanese Civil war. The shifting allegiances, numerous parties, and different leaders make it difficult to follow the evolution of the war and the posters. However, Maasri provides a brief introduction to each faction (although she might have noted their general tendencies, such as left, right), a chronology of the war, and an in depth discussion of the posters. Her discussion is broken up into four themes, leadership, commemoration, martyrdom, and belonging, each of which is given its Lebanese context. The chapter on leadership is probably the most helpful, since it is difficult to know who all the iconic leaders are. It also helps to understand how the parties were led by dynasties. The chapter on martyrdom probably is of most interest outside of the civil war. While Maasri sticks only to the war, the concept of martyrdom is comes up in the news, and her explanation of how the various parties developed the posters from almost simple funeral announcements for soldiers killed in battle to symbolic representations of the dead, complete with drawings of the act.

Most of the posters are available on-line at the American University of Beirut, but unless you can read Arabic or the occasional French, it will be hard to understand what is going on in the posters. If you are even a bit interested in the subject the book is worth a read. The only draw back of this otherwise well written book is the first chapter which is an example of everything that is wrong with modern academic writing. I read it, but it was painful and, worse, not really needed. Maasri’s analysis of the posters explains her thesis quite well and is much more palatable. You would do well to read the the chapters after the theory section and pay special attention to her detailed analysis of most of the posters. You will come away with a detailed understanding of the symbols of the factions in the civil war, so of which, like those of Hezbollah, still are effective.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War – A Review

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War
Dora L. Costa & Matthew E. Kahn

I didn’t like the title to begin with. A book about war, especially one by social scientists, should not be called Heroes and Cowards. One, because hero is over used, and cowardice, like heroism, is so fluid it is hard to really say what is heroic at times. Yet the second bit of the title suggests the book will delve deep into what it means to be a soldier, or more accurately, what a soldier’s experience is, since what it means to be anything doesn’t explain much it just an analysis placed on experience. Had the authors stuck to the second part of the title the book might have been a more interesting read. Unfortunately, it is a sociological study that tries to be prescriptive when the best that can be hoped for is the descriptive.

What the authors of Heroes and Cowards attempt to do is explain why some soldiers deserted and why others did not. Unlike historical works that use diaries, letters, and other primary sources as a tool to determine why their subjects behaved in a certain way, they used a data set culled from government enlistment, pension, and other records that represented over 30 different regiments who fought for the Northern side. While the data set is impressive and is useful for explaining trends among soldiers such as enlistment rates, distance from where they lived to the enlistment location, and ethnic make up, the research really doesn’t seem to be particularly useful. For example, in one analysis they noted that desertion rates among soldiers who were all from the same area and, therefore, new each other, versus those who were drawn from a larger group and did not know each other, were 8% for the former and 10% for the latter, suggesting group cohesion means less desertion. At another point in the book doing a similar comparison the numbers seem to flip. In either case, the I don’t know if percentages are really that different. Wider variation in numbers would have made these numbers more telling and meaningful.

The authors are at their best when they take a look at the literary evidence available in journals, letters, etc and use it to illustrate what they think the data show. The literary evidence, though, has the advantage of saying why soldiers deserted or not. The statistical can only say that they deserted and perhaps it was for this reason. While knowing desertion rates and other statistical data is important as part of a whole picture, it turns the war into a numeric puzzle that is incomplete at best. A descriptive history of war is, in an industrial era, natural, but it also takes away context and turns motivation into a mathematical equation: recruitment is high here + tight-nit community = strong cohesion.

Finally, the authors at times seem to over apply the term desertion. Writing about one battle they note that when one unit began to running from the front and cross paths with another unit, the second unit began to run also. The authors called it desertion, but that is too simplistic a read of how battles tend to function. Fortunately, their statistical analysis wasn’t that detailed so they could analyze a moment like that.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War has some relevant information even if it doesn’t seem statistically interesting, but to make it through the book it is best to skip over some of their analysis or you may become mired in an analysis that isn’t particularly astounding.

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – A Review

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War

Peter Carroll, 440 pg.

The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is the definitive account of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, not only during the war, but the before and after. The book is also a labor of love and it some times colors the otherwise solid writing in the book. Carroll clearly loves his subject and it shows in the lengths he goes to show the veterans as committed anti-fascists. Yet as a true believer he is blinded to a few contradictions that should have been addressed in his book.

The book is roughly divided into three parts: before the war; in combat; and after the war. In part one Carroll shows that most of the veterans were already radicalized workers, many who were already communists or labor activists. Many had spent time in jail during labor unrest and were politically aware of what was going on in Europe. There were some college graduates, but most were workers. As the call for volunteers went out, the Communist Party organized the recruitment and because of fears of spies primarily communists were sent to Spain. Others such as socialists were excluded for lack of commitment. What is clear is that most volunteers believed in the party.

Once in Spain the Brigade was not well trained and suffered high losses from initial lack of leadership, training, and bad strategic decisions. Never equipped adequately, the Brigade did their best but suffered high losses. Carroll notes that several times the men expressed discontent with the war and there were some desertions, but in general the men continued to believe in the war and follow the leadership. Carroll goes at great length to show that the men were brave and good soldiers. It often seems that he is determined to show that despite any myths people have heard, they were brave men. He also wants to show that the men were committed and few wanted to desert. While from his numbers that seems to be true, he repeats this several times and one gets the impression this was more than a fact but a detail personally dear to him.

Once the war ends the veterans return to the US where they try to support the defeated republic, a commitment that would follow them throughout their lives. The biggest controversy in this period is when the veterans follow the party line after the Soviet-German non aggression pact and say that it is no longer their business to be anti-fascist. It is here that Carroll doesn’t really examine the case particularlly well. If they were anti-fascist they should have continued with that line, but instead they changed, and Carroll suggests that it was natural, that it wasn’t their fight any more. It is not exactly an apology, but it is a soft peddle that underscores the weaknesses of the book: the soldiers were brave and fought the good fight, therefore, criticism should be kept to a minimum. For Carroll the important thing is to restore the honor of the Brigade, not to find the mistakes they made.

His coverage of the McCarthy era is solid and shows some of the excess of the period quite well. Yet he would have done well to have explained a little better how some veterans were not a threat, while in one case one was a spy for the Soviet Union. He is a little quick on passing over that veteran. And while the McCarthy era was excessive, he needed to better explain what the veterans were and were not. Just because the supreme court found that the enemy agent laws were illegal and suppressed free speech, doesn’t explain the history of the veterans.

Overall, the book is an important resource for the era, but has some weaknesses. I find it hard to imagine that many of the veterans he wrote about in the book would have ever agreed with Antony Beevor that the battles on the Elbro were mostly pointless political theater, and not of strategic value. Nor would Carroll, I suspect.