Friday, December 26, 2008

Away Too Long, Reading on War

And for that I apologize. I've been through two serious disasters since the beginning of November, including losing computer, and more than my share of bite-sized inconveniences. These will be rectified and recorded for your entertainment in due course. In the meantime, I'm back online. I spent my Christmas Day uploading all my old music to my new computer, drinking hefeweizen and watching a Sci-Fi Channel marathon of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Really, one could do worse.

Something that happened in the interim between my last post in November and now: For some reason, unbeknownst to myself or anyone else, I decided to read a 500-page book about the Civil War--Stephen Sears' Gettysburg. It was one of those books that was fascinating for the first third, boring for the second third as you wait for the good part, and trying at the end because you just want to finish it.

Reading about war in detail is eye-opening because most of us only get the Cliff's Notes version of war. We learned when the war happened, that Gettysburg was a deciding point, that someone named Pickett made a charge and another gentleman in a top hat commemorated the whole affair with a lovely speech. But reading about battles in 500-page detail takes you into the arena of people who read magazines about a war that happened 150 years ago, or dress up in blue or grey to stage it once again.

A few thoughts:

1. I read the bit about how Lee sent out his cavalry on an ill-advised mission to circle the Union army, only to lose them during the lead-up to Gettysburg and thus be deprived of his intelligence wing and left in the dark as to the state of his opponent. Then I rode the subway to work, and one of the ads in which they print literary quotes had one about how America was discovered by people trying desperately to get around it, and named for someone who played no part in its discovery. The passage then concludes, "History is like that, very chancy." Very chancy indeed. That is one of my new favorite quotes.

2. Thanks to the cavalry debacle, the pivotal battle in the pivotal war in our nation's history was won largely because Robert E Lee couldn't figure out just how many Union soldiers were over the next ridge--only a few, or the entire goddamned army. One of my favorite things about reading history is when people were confounded by problems that modern technology could solve in seconds.

3. History is a narrative, and so battle stories like to focus on individuals--even simplistic high school history classes inform their students on the leadership advantage that Robert E Lee and his lieutenants enjoyed over the revolving door generalship of the Union forces. But while Lee certainly made the lion's share of blunders, the entire reading of Gettysburg was, for me, a reiteration of the fact that logistics win wars much moreso than tactics. Really, the South would've had to fight a near-perfect war to prevail, just like the Japanese would've had to fight a near-perfect war to win in WWII. I learned during a story for PM that the Japanese hand-made many of the parts of their Zero fighter planes. That's not how you get it done.

Resources matter, which is yet another reason to be terrified of the future.

4. Reading the bloodbath page after page, it's even more staggering than the total figures they give you in history class--more the 600,000 for both sides, including disease and all that. But that's just a big number, and big number without context don't really mean anything. You can tell people that more Americans died in the Civil War than in any other conflict and people start to get it. You could tell them that the death toll was more than 10 times as much as Vietnam and it gets even clearer. But you really feel it when you read battle details, and a regiment loses 40 percent of its strength during one brutal assault. Thank you, artillery.

5. Color Guards--Has there ever been anything more futile? At Gettysburg, the slaughter is disgusting. Man after man would be pick up the flag, wave it around to say, "go ahead you Yankee bastards, fucking shoot me," and then get shot. Just like the overall deaths, it hits you much more heavily just how stupid color guards are when you read time after time after time of them getting mowed down like chaff.

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