Tuesday, May 22, 2007

First, a couple links. Tallyrand's a scumbag. Here's proof.

A bit far afield for me, but this book on the provenance of the Gospels sounds really interesting.

I'm torn on this article. It is a must-read, rest assured, but do I let it stand alone for all its admirable qualities? Do I pass it on and get out of the way? No, I must add something, and hope that my something does not detract.

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.
Is this an American thing? I don't know--it would be interesting to repeat the experiment in other areas around the country. Is it a big city thing? I don't know--my short time visiting Chicago was very different from Washington. People talked to each other on trains--there seemed to be some sort of community walking around the midwestern metropolis that was not there in D.C. This ability to ignore is particularly developed in the D.C. area, where the importance and perceived importance of everyday activities consume the locals like nowhere else I have lived. The self-importance and self-involvement there, though in some ways justified, was overwhelming.

The author should have finished with the kids--the children who tried to stop and listen, the children who do not know yet, and so know better.

Robinson was not alone. There has been lots of commemorating of the 60th aniversary of Jackie Robinson's first appearance in a major league game. It has been wonderful. It also prompted an absolute must-read post at First Things about a book on Branch Rickey.

And while we're at it, don't forget about Larry Doby--this year should belong to him every bit as much as Robinson.

I hate to sound like a homer (well, actually I don't), but it seems to me that some enterprising historian of black civil rights could find something interesting to say about Cleveland and the movement. Migration from the south, Chester K. Gillespie, Doby, Marion Motley and Bill Willis, Jim Brown, Frank Robinson, Hough Riots, Carl Stokes, busing, the school voucher system, etc. There's something there, right?

This one more time, that's it. The First Things blog entry includes this aside: "...schoolchildren in the Soviet Union were taught that the Second World War was a matter of the Red Army defeating the Wehrmacht, as if the American soldiers on the Western front made no serious difference...."

And the post-Michael Kelly demise of The Atlantic Monthly continues apace. The May issue stands out in this regard. First, there is no Mark Steyn obituary, because apparently Steyn and the magazine have had a falling out. Which means I have one less reason to read the thing.

Then there is the latest problem with the work of book review editor Benjamin Schwarz. I've commented on him before on what I've seen as weaknesses in interpretation. Only this time, he makes such an egregious mistake of fact that it is awfully hard to give him or his magazine the benefit of the doubt. The title of the review is "Stalin's Gift," and the theme, retreaded from time to time by folks who insist on not getting it, is that Stalin's gift to all of us was in doing the heavy lifting in defeating Nazi Germany. Fair enough in many ways. It is hard to ignore the overwhelming casualties absorbed and inflicted by the Red Army on the Eastern Front. That is the central point of several of the books Schwarz reviews in "Stalin's Gift," particularly Norman Davies, Europe at War, 1939-1945. Schwarz summarizes Davies thusly:

Although it seems to have been hastily and hotly written and contains too many embarrassing errors, it rearranges and juxtaposes facts and events in often unexpectedly illuminating ways. Most important, it's infused with irony and paradox, qualities essential to comprehending history but largely absent from the American view of the second World War.

Davies finds insufferable a perspective on the conflict that emphasizes El Alamein, the Normandy landings, and the Bulge, and he condemns the American moral narcissism that holds that, to quote Stephen Ambrose, it was U.S. soldiers who would "win the war against Nazi Germany," and that Americans "stopped Hitler." Rather, he contends that "two core issues"-"proportionality" and "criminality"- "provide the key" to properly grasping the war in Europe.

As for the first, he recognizes that the Eastern Front was without question the pivotal theater of the war: For four years, more than 400 Red Army and German divisions clashed in an unrelenting series of military operations over a front extending more than 1,000 miles. (At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehrmacht divisions.) Eighty-eight percent of the German military dead fell there; in July 1943, in the decisive battle of the war, the Soviets permanently broke the Wehrmacht's capacity for large-scale attack at Kursk, "the one name," Davies properly asserts, "which all historians of the second World War should remember." He goes on to argue:

The Soviet war effort was so overwhelming that impartial historians of the future are unlikely to rate the British and American contribution to the European theatre as much more than a sound supporting role.
So (and this brings us to Davies's second point) the most odious criminal regime in Europe's history was defeated by an even more murderous regime, if numbers are the yardstick-which significantly tarnishes any notion of the "Good War."
In case you may have missed the theme about Americans and their historiography, let's return to the very first line of this article: "It's time for those (mostly male) readers interested in the second World War to put down that umpteenth account of D-Day and turn to the new crop of books on the most colossal conflict the world has ever seen: the German-Soviet clash on the Eastern Front."

Let's leave aside a debate over the main contention of the review and the books. No serious student of the Second World War should dismiss or downplay the Soviet contribution to victory over Nazi Germany. Of course no serious student should ignore or downplay the British and American contributions to defeating Nazi Germany. (Let alone the wars against Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, to which the Soviets contributed next to nothing.) A serious historian of the war would weigh the relative contributions of all the Allies and go from there. The haughty sarcasm of Schwarz (and, to a lesser extent, Davies) is a poor substitute for thoughtful analysis.

Besides, it opens one up to a response in kind. Go back and read the quotation from Schwarz's review. Does anything in particular stand out? Well, something sure caught the eye of this male American who has read umpteen books on D-Day.

(At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehrmacht divisions.)
I have read my fair share of books, magazines, journals, newspapers, online commentary, and so on, and I can say without reservation that that is the single most willfully ignorant sentence I have ever read in a serious publication.

Furthermore, such a mistake calls into question whether Schwarz actually read any of the books on the Allied effort in World War II about which he has commented and written reviews. I simply cannot believe that it is possible for anyone who had done even superficial reading on the Western front in the Second World War to write the line above.

Perhaps if Comrade Schwarz had read just one of the umpteen books on D-Day, he would know that elements of at least eleven (11) Allied (US, GB, Canada) infantry, armored, and airborne divisions landed in Normandy on June 6 alone. Perhaps he then would have then thought to himself that if the Western Allies landed eleven divisions against a defended territory and across a large body of water on a single day, maybe fifteen divisions is a rather low number for the maximum number of Allied divisions fighting in the West. Perhaps he could have taken off his shoes and got a friend and added those eleven D-Day divisions to the at least fifteen Allied (US, GB, New Zealand, Indian, Polish) divisions fighting in Italy on June 6, 1944.

Perhaps he could have picked up any general study of World War II or even a general military history survey and gotten in the neighborhood of the real numbers--like, perhaps, the U.S. Army Center of Military History's American Military History, which has this little helpful section:

As V-E Day came, Allied forces in Western Europe consisted of 4.5 million men, including 9 armies (5 of them American—1 of which, the Fifteenth, saw action only at the last), 23 corps, 91 divisions (61 of them American), 6 tactical air commands (4 American), and 2 strategic air forces (1 American). The Allies had 28,000 combat aircraft, of which 14,845 were American; and they had brought into Western Europe more than 970,000 vehicles and 18 million tons of supplies. At the same time they were achieving final victory in Italy with 18 divisions (7 of them American).
Perhaps if Schwarz had actually read Stephen Ambrose's (or any other U.S. in WWII) books, he would be familiar with the idea of the "90 Division Gamble," which might have indicated that the fifteen number was a tad off. Perhaps he would know that the Germans attacked into the Ardennes with 30 divisions in December 1944. Perhaps he would know that on more than one occasion--in the Argentan-Falaise pocket, in the Bulge, and in the Ruhr pocket--the western Allies destroyed at least fourteen German divisions in a single battle. Shall I go on?

I would be more charitable, except that Schwarz burned up all his charity with snide pontifications about 'moral narcissism', 'embarrassing errors', and 'proper assertions'. Whatever your position on the relative Allied contributions to victory in World War II, it is unforgivable to be so blinded by an agenda that you could seize on an absurdly incorrect statistic and cite it as fact.

What's more, all Schwarz did was prove his agenda wrong. If he and the crew of editors at a learned magazine like the Atlantic were so ignorant of the Allied contribution to World War II that they could let the fifteen division figure fly by untouched, then it's pretty damn clear that some Americans aren't reading enough about their country's efforts in World War II. Everyone on the staff of the Atlantic who had anything to do with that article needs get their asses to the nearest book store, pick up any of the histories of World War II, and actually read the thing.

As for Benjamin Schwarz, I'd rather he just shut the hell up about what he doesn't know.

When my latest subscription to the Atlantic runs out, so too shall my interest.

(cont.) Well... maybe not. Just when I think they can't get any worse, they totally redeem themselves, kind of. The June issue includes a first-rate article by Brian Mockenhaupt about training in the Army. (Full disclosure: I helped Brian, ever so slightly, with his research.) I still think the Atlantic has fallen off, but Mockenhaupt's piece is a reminder of how good they can be when they get it together.

3 comments:

greg said...

You writin' a letter to the editor?
Please do.

greg said...

The article you helped with was a very good article, by the way.

Stephen said...

No kidding. More people should be reading this.