Tuesday, September 27, 2011

#69: The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950 by Bill Sloan

Simon and Schuster, New York: 2009. 383 pages

I don't know anything about Korea, and in this I am pretty close to average. I know my father was active during the war and was in the Air Force. I know that on the show "Mad Men" this is Don Draper's war, one that we somehow lost or no one cared about. Before I read this book, I knew these facts and more:

1. That the Korean War was never ended by an armistice. It remains in a state of cease fire.
2. The Chinese were involved and suffered massive casualties.
3. Douglas MacArthur was fired during the war, gave a maudlin speech and then was never heard from again

The subtitle of this text puts forth the idea that in 1950 the US Marine Corps was in danger of being eliminated. After WWII, the US government did not want to have a large standing army; between 1945 and 1949, the size of the US army dropped by nearly 85%. The Marines were viewed as somewhat archaic. Far from being a cheerleading book for the USMC, Sloan's text provides some answers as to why the USMC survived. To be quite blunt, they were better led and had more esprit d'corps than the army. If anything, the USMC had to save the army's bacon multiple times.

However, this was not the army's fault. One thing that absolutely leaps out at the reader here is the utter craziness of the Korean War in general. This was a war that the US did not want to fight and so did with 1 hand behind its back. In essence, the American public, as well as many soldiers in Korea, asked "Who gives two pinches of shit about this place?" That question is never fully answered and the reasons for that are well investigated in this text.

Also, Douglas MacArthur was a complete and absolute 24- karat asshole. While I was under this impression before I read this book, the text and Sloan's evenhanded description of the arrogant asshole with the corncob pipe reinforced this in spades. I mean, the jack ass literally lied about his ability, and when the Marines landed and kicked ass on Inchon, this prick said "OK, well that's it" and went to drink tea below decks of his ship. There is a phrase for this that was en vogue in Vietnam: REMFS. That stands for Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. Most generals are those; ask those poor bastards on Corrigedor in World War II what MacArthur was. They'll answer "Oh, that REMF that evacuated to Australia while we went on the Death March?". What a fuck.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

#68: D-Day: The Battle For Normandy by Anthony Beevor

Penguin Press, New York: 2009. 592 pages

Anthony Beevor is perhaps best known for his book about Stalingrad. For this text, he uses sources from U.S., English, French and German archives to try to get a round picture of the campaign that went from the invasion of France to the liberation of Paris. The tale is replete with crazy stories, horror, absolute random violence and random kindnesses. What is missing to a point are villains and heroes. If anyone is a hero here, it is in an abstract sense. Villains are in the SS (where they should be) and are products of a fucked up worldview.

The "indoctrinated" view of most SS soldiers that Beevor takes makes sense in this PC addled world of ours. In the diary entries that Beevor uses (which are used brilliantly and poignantly I might add) the German troops themselves tended to dislike the SS troops. US troops used some SS prisoners as human shields on jeeps. The French Resistance would just as soon murder one of those bastards as look at 'em. And, by and large, I did not care. This is difficult for me to say, but the SS troops, officers and leaders strike me as a group of gangsters-cum-art-thieves who happen to have tanks and artillery. For this reader, it is difficult to find any sort of sympathy for them. If anyone is sympathetic here, it is the much-maligned-by-U.S.-authors French.

Beevor details the suffering of the civilians of Caen (bombed to bits by the Allies because Monty could not close the deal on the ground), the incredibly dangerous and irreplaceable work of the French Resistance before and after the invasion and the relationships of the Free French Forces with the Allies. I found the descriptions of the work of the Resistance following the invasion more compelling than the description of the invasion itself. Perhaps because the buildup and the invasion is a well known subject to this reader, the somewhat uneasy relationship between the Allies and French Resistance read like a combo soap opera and John Wayne movie.

What authors such as Beevor do is subtly shift the "hometown hero" trope used by some historians and put the reader on the lines with these draftees and volunteers of both armies. In reading this text (and the next text that I will review) the reader gets the sense that combat is random, destructive and for the most part, impersonal. It is all frightening but when it gets personal it becomes terrifying. This is the value of these books when done well: leaving the reader with the idea that I NEVER want to be in a situation like that, but that men in our midst once did these things.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

#67: The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars by Lee Lowenfish

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010 edition

This is not a "ohhhhhh, Baseball should never go on strike" book, nor is it "the owners can't kill baseball so it will go on forever" book. It splits the difference, and remains through three editions the essential book about labor in baseball history. The prologue begins with the decision by Peter Seitz that ended the reserve clause and instituted free agency; Lowenfish strives to present the major leaguer as "a worker in an industry". (23). He does; while many fans complain about multi-million dollar contracts, the fans are not conditioned to look at the players as men at work plying a trade.

The Reserve Clause, instituted in 1879, limited a player to signing with whatever team he played for the previous season. The player could not negotiate with anyone else or play with anyone but an outlaw league. This was done with the express intent to limit salaries, and it worked. To put this in perspective, let us look at Mickey Mantle.

In 1957, Mantle was paid $58,000, a raise of $ 50,500 since his rookie year in 1951. By 1957, he was a 5 time all star and the American League MVP in 1956. In 2010 money (per www.measuringworth.com) this is equivalent to $449,000. This is approximately 1/4 the league minimum salary as of this year. This does not mean that today's players make too much; it means that players until the 1970s were paid too little. If ticket prices at Yankee Stadium were set at 50 cents per seat (which they were not) and they attracted their usual crowds of 19,943, they could pay Mantle's salary by the 7th game of the season. This is on ticket sales alone and does not count TV, commission sales or anything else.

In any event, Lowenfish interviewed many of the big names of the labor strife in baseball (union head Marvin Miller, former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and multiple team owners) and provides much insight into the mindset of both sides. Consider the following comments by the establishment:

1. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators: The Reserve Clause "Was to give a man the right to keep what they had." (177). He was talking about players. It should be remembered that Griffith jumped from the NL to the new, "outlaw" American League in 1900.

2. J.G. Taylor Spink, publisher of the Sporting News: "Anyone who fights the reserve is a Communist." (180)

Or, consider that the TOPPS company paid nearly 3/4 of a million dollars into MLB's coffers each year from 1957-1960, with each player receiving....between 2-3 dollars each. MLB got the rest. Lowenfish describes in many ways a long train of abuses, but manages to not make the owners look greedy. They just look silly and about 40 years behind the times. Sort of like the people I work for and most Republican presidential candidates. If you are looking for a way to keep baseball in the front of your mind this winter, you could do much worse than this text.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

#66: The Haves and Have Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality by Branko Milanovic

New York: Basic Books, 2010. 276 pages

This book is fascinating. I use that word a lot so maybe I need a new one. This book has only three chapters, but each is followed by a series of vignettes that illustrate the main point of the chapter. As all of these focus on inequality, one may think that this is a little Commie plot made for us to feel badly about ourselves. Well, it isn't. I also do no feel bad. I actually feel quite fortunate. Here are the highlights:

1. One of the vignettes in the first chapter asks "Who is the richest person in history?" Most people would instantly say Bill Gates, I would guess Marcus Licnius Crassus. Most people and yours truly would be wrong. But, the thing that jumped out at me was that Emperor Augustus enjoyed an income of 1/8 that of the empire as a whole. If this extended to President Obama, his income would be in the neighborhood of $30 billion. As it is, he makes roughly $400,000. (41) Milanovic points out that the best way to judge wealth is to ask the question in a way that figures out the power of purchasing labor. Crassus could purchase the labor of roughly 38,000 people in Rome. John D. Rockefeller could purchase the labor of roughly 116,000 people. (40-42) Who wins? Read the book.

2. Milanovic introduces the idea of Price Level Parity in chapter two. This is a nice way to express GDP per capita by using US Dollars. The idea behind the math is that $100 will buy $100 worth of stuff in the US. In China, "$100 will have twice the purchasing power of $100 in the US." (99) In essence, if you make $42 in China, it is the equivalent of $100 in the US.

Why is this relevant? Milanovic points out that countries are more unequal now than they were in 1820 due to something called "income divergence." In 1820, the UK was roughly 2.5 times as wealthy as China. Now, they are 6 times as wealthy using price level parity. (99) In general, Milanovic notes that the poorer the economy in 1970, the worse the economic performance since then. (101) But, Milanovic then states that inequality is more and more based on citizenship rather than ability. He expands on this quite a bit, and it makes damning reading of a lot of the "Free Market" hogwash that CEOs like to trot out.

3. This inequality and its repercussions is further illuminated by the Lucas Paradox: "capital flows from rich country to rich country and from poor to rich." (106). In 2007, foreign investment in China was $138 billion. In the US, it was $240 billion (105). Wealthy Chinese citizens invested nearly as much in the US as US citizens invested in China.

4. While this book is studded with jaw dropping statistics, the best are saved for Vignette 2.2 about income gaps and income groups. Try this chestnut: the poorest 10% of people in the U.S. are better off than 68% of the people on Earth. Inequality in the US is still far less than that in China or Brazil. (117)

5. The richest 10% of people on this rock receive 56% of the income. The poorest 10% receive 0.7%. (153). For every 80 dollars the richest 10% make, the poorest make $1.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is, quite simply, the best book about economics that this humble reader has encountered.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

#65: Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington by Rick Perry

New York: Little, Brown and Co 2010: 220 pages

I picked this up to better understand the Texas governor who is now leading President Obama in the worthless polls that people like Rush Limbaugh cream their pants over and people like Keith Olbermann cite as a sign of the End Times. After reading it, I don't feel as if I learned much of anything.

Perry offers  the usual Beckian reading of American history: Woodrow Wilson is the Devil, Liberals are "statists" (13), "old Guard Republicans" enable and hasten the destruction of the country (14). Perry also makes the comment that Federalism "led to the creation of the Underground Railroad" because citizens could decide to help runaway slaves in violation of Federal Law (34).  I cannot begin to say how silly this idea is.

In between the history lesson and his plans for the country, Perry makes multiple claims. Including:
1. The Federal government stopped Louisiana from deploying oil booms following the Deepwater Horizon blowout.  (36) Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal spent days bitching about BP dragging their feet, but did not directly accuse the federal government of obstruction.

2. In a claim that gets a lot of play right now, Perry calls Social Security "an illegal ponzi scheme".  (60-62). I have made this claim to play devil's advocate with people, but stopped short of calling it illegal. He does not explicitly state that Medicare is unconstitutional, but it "violates the commerce clause" (51)

3. Perry calls the 16th amendment "a milestone of the road to serfdom" as it created "a non stop faucet of cash" for the Federal government. (41) This is not new, it is straight Glen Beck.

There are four tropes in this book, which by now are old to anyone who has been paying attention to the "new" Republican Party over the last 5 years:

1. The Supreme Court now has a role "not envisioned by the Founders" (38). It is interesting that Perry does not bash John Marshall, perhaps the chief architect of that "new" role.

2. The country passed the 16th and 17th Amendments "in a fit of populist rage". (39) True, but so what? Populism for Perry is a bad word; he and his ilk are NOT Populists. They are Calhounites who bear much more resemblance to the irascible old Democrat John Calhoun from South Carolina than Ronald Reagan.

3. The usual FDR as a socialist trope. Want the real reason a lot of people bitch about the stimulus packages? That's it. They are afraid of a new WPA or Social Security program.

4. The Great Society of the 1960s somehow morally bankrupted the country. While Perry says folksy things like "Texans elect folks like me" (26) he neglects to mention the architect of the Great Society was  Lyndon Johnson, a fellow Texan.

How can we free ourselves from Washington's Iron Grip of Fiscal Damnation?

1. Repeal Obamacare, a "misguided and un-American system." (176) God forbid, the Government forcing you to buy insurance. Well, state governments mandate car insurance and home insurance, but that's OK. They are local.

2. Stand up and lead. By this, Perry means states. He makes the statement that "states are not compelled to enforce Federal Laws" (177) He cites Printz v. United States, a 1997 case where the SC decided that the Federal government could not enforce a federal regulatory program, namely the background check demanded by the Brady Handgun Bill. In this, he is correct.

3. Dialogue about limited national government and a restoration of American Federalism.

4. Restrict Federal Spending: "pass an annual budget with across the board non-defense spending cuts" (183). Well, sure thing! That's sounds good.

I could go on, but none of this is new, and only those who have not paid attention over the last five years think it is. At the black heart of the Tea Party is a great paradox. When immigrants "flooded to America in 1900 and produced an ethically diverse workforce" that was OK. (40).  Perry writes that "peace through strength" is good for the United States, but lists Veterans Benefits as an example of "reckless spending". (70). In other words, this is simply policy based upon the twin ideas of "I got mine" and "What have you done for me lately." It is not that Perry is dumb (he is not) or selfish (he may be, but I don't know him). He is jammed and twisted into a paradox of a 1950s past that did not exist with the present that the actual 1950s created. The Civil Rights movement was great, and sorry about that whole Jim Crow thing, but now that you have been heard, go home. We still need a giant military but we can't continue to waste money on educational programs and terrible teachers.

#64: Cardboard Gods: An All American Tale Told with Baseball Cards by Josh Wilker

Seven Footer Press, NY: 2010 243 pages

Josh Wilker grew up with baseball cards, a brother, a mom and sometimes a dad and another guy who his dad supported. Wilker tells the story of his life through the prism of the baseball card, stringing together events of his life with great players like Carlton Fisk and Carl Yasztremski and nobodies like Bo McLaughlin. I recognized some of these cards and owned some of them myself; hell, even Daryl Dawkins (AKA Chocolate Thunder) makes an appearance.

More than that, I began to remember what I did with these cards as a kid. No stick 'em in the spokes for me; I did not have a bike. I made teams out of them, carefully arranging batting orders that made absolutely no fucking sense. This has led me to remember names such as Bill Nahordny, Vic Correll and the legendary Shooty Babbit. Billy Martin once said "If I have to watch him play second base again, just shooty me." Why have a team with Shooty Babbit, who in the game I made up in my 8-10 year old loneliness hit leadoff, play short five inning games with David Clyde? In short, I wanted to be on a card, just like everyone else I knew and just like Wilker.

More than that, I now as a 38 year old waste inordinate amounts of time playing a game called baseball mogul, in which the card teams ride again. Wilker's Cardboard Gods wander in and out; Herb Washington, the designated pinch runner of the A's, is used to ask "what the fuck" as his mom's boyfriend Tom tries to make a living as.....a blacksmith. Kurt Bevacqua appears because Josh realizes that his brother Ian is getting annoyed with him for asking how to pronounce "Bevacqua"; Josh then begins to understand that he and his brother will not always be sharing a room.

Childhood is scary. When your family is fucked up as a kid, you hang on to things that you understand. For Wilker, it was baseball cards. For me, it was Dungeons and Dragons. I think in both respects, we were something with these items. We were better with these things than without them; in some cases they can become a prison of our own making. In most cases, they can be a maze which gives us some confidence providing we can find our way through. Wilker's book is funny, irritating, brilliant and moving. Do yourself a favor and read about him navigating the maze.

Friday, September 2, 2011

#63: Hitler's Holy Relics: A True Story of Nazi Plunder and the Race to Recover the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire by Sidney Kirkpatrick

Simon and Schuster, New York: 336 pages

This fuckin' thing was just plain creepy. First, I kept thinking of Indiana Jones. The story finds our hero, Walter Horn, stationed in Nurnberg just after the fall of the city. Horn is a German-born art historian whose family fled to the United States in the 1930s. He took a job teaching at Berkeley, but maintained as many contacts in Germany as was possible. In the meantime, the Nazis push forward in creating an ideology so arcane and bizarre that I have trouble believing any of this crap actually happened. All I have to say is Edgar Cayce did not have anything on Heinrich Himmler. That little SOB with the glasses was a world class freakshow.

The plot centers on the actions and trail of Horn in finding the lost scepter, crown and sword of the Holy Roman Emperors. These were taken from Austria in 1938 and placed in a vault in Nurnberg. While some of the vestments and other relics (Including the Lance used by Longinus to pierce the side of Christ) were still in the bunker in May of 1945, the biggies were gone. This leads Horn and his assistant on a chase after the relics. The story is told with relish, is well paced and has as many twists as your garden variety spy novel.

What separates this book is Kirkpatrick's delve into Nazi Ideology. (Insert Here: "Hitler's obsessed with the occult.") I had always known that the Nazis corrupted multiple religious ideologies for their own aims; what Kirkpatrick presents is almost a complete mythological worldview held by Hitler and his cronies. (Indiana! This is a transmitter! A transmitter for talking directly to God!) If this was a separate book from the hunt for the artifacts, both would stand on their own as compelling reads.

Perhaps the best thing Kirkpatrick does is subtly take on those who believe that Christians are not capable of such atrocities as those perpetrated by the Nazis. Any religion or belief system can be corrupted to serve a powerful interest; the Nazis followed a very distinct corruption of Christian history, and identified themselves as Christians. Were they nuts? No. Were they living in fantasy land? Occasionally, but not often enough to justify that as an excuse.