Monthly Archives: September 2009

“may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

This country was not founded by saints.  The men who spread the flag from sea to shining sea – and well beyond – may not have been regular about keeping all of the Commandments. As Orwell said, we sleep safely in our beds at night because strong men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.

Decatur’s actions would have found no fans at today’s State Department nor would the New York Times editorialize in favor of them however he kept American ships safe from Muslim pirates just as his heirs rescued our crew off of Somalia recently. The difference is he returned to the plaudits of a grateful nation and a president who knew that the burden of greatness might include millions for defense but not one penny for tribute.

He was no saint but Guttridge gives him his due and the reader will conclude that we could use more like him!

Our country, right or wrong : the life of Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navy’s most illustrious commander Leonard F. Guttridge United States. Navy , Biography, Decatur, Stephen, 1779-1820, United States , History , War of 1812 , Naval operations New York : Forge, 2006 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 304 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 281-294) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Blazing sea fights and undercurrents of intrigue: these are among the compelling ingredients of a biography that brings to life the most illustrious and formidable figure of the United States Navy. His name is carried by more than two dozen towns and cities. Here at last is a full exploration of Stephen Decatur’s complex character. Reckless in youth, cool yet audacious in combat, loved by those who sailed under his command yet plotted against by rivals in the race for glory, Decatur is brought to life in this enthralling sea story.

Decatur’s heroism became widespread news in 1804 when, sent to reclaim a captured U.S. vessel from Tripoli in the Barbary Wars, he ordered his men to set fire to the captured vessel and proceed to attack the sailors of the Tripoli fleet in hand-to-hand combat. His brilliance continued through the War of 1812, after which he was promoted to the highest naval rank of Commodore.

Decatur not only proved dauntless on the quarterdeck but amazingly effective in Mediterranean diplomacy. His spectacular dealings with Islamic powers presaged America’s twenty-first century involvement in the region.

Readers will also learn the identity of the woman he forsook for a sophisticated beauty pursued by suitors as varied as Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother and Aaron Burr. Through freshly discovered documents, many official, some intensely personal, biographer Leonard Guttridge traces the elements that sped Decatur inexorably into the shadow of murder.

Here, at last, is the full story of the man who raised the most memorable toasts in the history of American celebrations, when he declared in 1816 “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

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The Last Apocalypse is a book rich in historical detail, flavored with the nearly magical sensibility of an apocalyptic age.

There is something in the public perception of millenary times that makes them seem apocalyptic. This may be solely a Western and Christian preoccupation and may be the result of tub thumping theology mixed with snake oil to sell the boobs everything from bomb shelters to plenary indulgences.

We have observed the hysteria that combined everything from pedestrian worries about old computers crashing to neurotics, half in love with easeful death, longing for the end but fearing to enjoy a final debauch just in case there was something after – like death, judgement, Heaven or Hell, the four FINAL things. Unfortunately, for the poor, tired, old sinful world, the euphoria of having survived the millenial decade seems to have resulted in levels of intellectual and moral debauchery unprecedented in the Christian era.

Reston is not much of a historian – you get the feeling that he checked his facts with the Durants or Wikepedia – but he is a good yarn spinner. Without the help of solid evidence and often drawing a plausible conclusion from just plain wrong facts he seems to have captured something of the savor of the last flip of the thousand year calendar.

The last apocalypse : Europe at the year 1000 A.D.      James Reston, Jr. Europe , History , 476-1492 New York : Doubleday, c 1998 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 299 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 282-287) and index.  Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Enter the world of 1000 A.D., when Vikings, Moors, and barbarians battled kings and popes for the fate of Europe.

As the millennium approached, Europeans feared the world would end.  The old order was crumbling, and terrifying and confusing new ideas were gaining hold in the populace.  Random and horrific violence seemed to sprout everywhere without warning, and without apparent remedy.  And, in fact, when the millennium arrived the apocalypse did take place; a world did end, and a new world arose from the ruins.

In 950, Ireland, England, and France were helpless against the ravages of the seagoing Vikings; the fierce and strange Hungarian Magyars laid waste to Germany and Italy; the legions of the Moors ruled Spain and threatened the remnants of Charlemagne’s vast domain.  The papacy was corrupt and decadent, overshadowed by glorious Byzantium.  Yet a mere fifty years later, the gods of the Vikings were dethroned, the shamans of the Magyars were massacred, the magnificent Moorish caliphate disintegrated: The sign of the cross held sway from Spain in the West to Russia in the East.

James Reston, Jr.’s enthralling saga of how the Christian kingdoms converted, conquered, and slaughtered their way to dominance brings to life unforgettable historical characters who embodied the struggle for the soul of Europe.  From the righteous fury of the Viking queen Sigrid the Strong-Minded, who burned unwanted suitors alive; to the brilliant but too-cunning Moor Al-Mansor the Illustrious Victor; to the aptly named English king Ethelred the Unready; to the abiding genius of the age, Pope Sylvester II–warrior-kings and concubine empresses, maniacal warriors and religious zealots, bring this stirring period to life.

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Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.

Almost as soon as Washington spoke these words our greedy and vainglorious politicians have refused to heed them.

World War I effectively started because Germany had missed out on the colonial pillage of the 17th – 19th centuries and efficiently started because Great Britain told Woodrow Wilson that they were bankrupt and unable to continue the war without American fodder.

Although none of the 300,000+ American casualties took place at Verdun it set the stage for the for the more than 1,000,000 American casualties of World War II.

When, precisely, we will learn to let the foreign barbarians carry on their periodic wholesale slaughters of each other, and themselves, without our help and participation we can not tell. We pray that it will be soon – before they suck us into the same cesspits they have created.

Ousby’s book is the prose equivalent of a painting of the Damnation by Hieronymus Bosch and if you still need convincing after reading it you are – as our Latin teacher used to say – in the hopeless case.

The road to Verdun : World War I’s most momentous battle and the folly of nationalism      Ian Ousby World War, 1914-1918 , Campaigns, Verdun, Battle of, Verdun, France, 1916 New York : Doubleday, 2002 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. ix, 393 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 25 cm.  Includes bibliographical references and index.  A powerfully immediate and controversial account of one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of World War I. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

In mid-February 1916, the Germans launched a surprise major offensive at Verdun, an important fortress in northeast France. By mid-March, more than 90,000 French troops had been killed or wounded. The fighting continued for seven long months, with casualties on both sides mounting in astonishing numbers. By the end of the year, the battle had claimed more than 700,000 victims. The butchery had little impact on the course of the war, and Verdun soon became the most potent symbol of the horrors of the war in general, and of trench warfare in particular.

Ian Ousby offers a radical, iconoclastic reevaluation of the meaning and import of this cataclysmic battle in The Road to Verdun. Moving beyond the narrow focus of most military historians, he argues that the French bear a tremendous responsibility for the senseless slaughter. In a work that merges intellectual substance and great battle writing, Ousby shows that the roots of the disaster lay in the French national character–the grandiose, even delusional way they perceived themselves, and their relentless determination to demonize Germans, which began in the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War. Ousby analyzes the generals’ battle plans, and provides a graphic, gripping account of the deprivations and inhumane suffering of the troops who manned the trenches. His incisive, moving descriptions make it painfully clear why the influential French critic and poet Paul Valry called Verdun “a complete war in itself, inserted in the Great War.”

In telling the story of Verdun, Ousby demonstrates that the confrontation marked a critical midpoint in Franco-German hostility. The battle not only carried the burden of history, but with the presence on the battlefield of France’s future leaders–including Pétain and de Gaulle–it fed an increasingly venomous enmity between France and Germany, and lay the groundwork for World War II.

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Way Out There in the Blue is a ground-breaking history of the American side of the end of the Cold War. Both appalling and funny, it is a comedy in which Reagan, playing the role he wrote for himself, is the hero.

As we age it is sad to think how little our children and grand children know, or may ever know, about the events that shaped their lives. I am old enough to remember many things that happened under Truman and just about everything from Eisenhower forward.  My first two sons were born while Ronald Reagan was president and after that the twilight and now the darkness.

Ronald Reagan know how to play poker. He knew how to bluff, when to bluff and could read his opponents tels and make them think his hole card was the fourth ace. More importantly he wasn’t afraid of his own shadow let alone the dark pall cast by communism and he knew the United States of America had a role in world peace and was unwilling to apologize to anybody for its proper exercise.

NO WONDER HE INFURIATED THE LEFT!

Fitzgerald is no fan of Ronald Reagan and it is a tribute to the latter rather than the former that his courage and wit shine through even this hatchet job so that another generation may learn unawares what the presidency can accomplish in a set of skilled hands.

Way out there in the blue : Reagan, Star Wars, and the end of the Cold War      Frances FitzGerald Reagan, Ronald,  Strategic Defense Initiative New York : Simon & Schuster, 2000 Hardcover. First edition and printing. 592 p. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [566]-573) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG Guaranteed to be shipped within 24 hours of our receipt of your order.

Way Out There in the Blue is a major work of history by the Pulitzer Prize­winning author of Fire in the Lake. Using the Star Wars missile defense program as a magnifying glass on his presidency, Frances FitzGerald gives us a wholly original portrait of Ronald Reagan, the most puzzling president of the last half of the twentieth century.

Reagan’s presidency and the man himself have always been difficult to fathom. His influence was enormous, and the few powerful ideas he espoused remain with us still — yet he seemed nothing more than a charming, simple-minded, inattentive actor. FitzGerald shows us a Reagan far more complex than the man we thought we knew. A master of the American language and of self-presentation, the greatest storyteller ever to occupy the Oval Office, Reagan created a compelling public persona that bore little relationship to himself.

The real Ronald Reagan — the Reagan who emerges from FitzGerald’s book — was a gifted politician with a deep understanding of the American national psyche and at the same time an executive almost totally disengaged from the policies of his administration and from the people who surrounded him.

The idea that America should have an impregnable shield against nuclear weapons was Reagan’s invention. His famous Star Wars speech, in which he promised us such a shield and called upon scientists to produce it, gave rise to the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan used his sure understanding of American mythology, history and politics to persuade the country that a perfect defense against Soviet nuclear weapons would be possible, even though the technology did not exist. His idea turned into a multibillion-dollar research program. SDI played a central role in U.S.-Soviet relations at a crucial juncture in the Cold War, and in a different form it survives to this day.

Drawing on prodigious research, including interviews with the participants, FitzGerald offers new insights into American foreign policy in the Reagan era. She gives us revealing portraits of major players in Reagan’s administration, including George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Donald Regan and Paul Nitze, and she provides a radically new view of what happened at the Reagan-Gorbachev summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow.

FitzGerald describes the fierce battles among Reagan’s advisers and the frightening increase of Cold War tensions during Reagan’s first term. She shows how the president who presided over the greatest peacetime military buildup came to espouse the elimination of nuclear weapons, and how the man who insisted that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” came to embrace the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and to proclaim an end to the Cold War long before most in Washington understood that it had ended.

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At once informative and engaging, and filled with some eye-opening revelations about Washington, the war for American independence, and the very nature of military command, General George Washington is a book that reintroduces readers to a figure many think they already know.

Pater patria is certainly far more than the sum of his parts and almost entirely different than the public perceptions about him.

Jefferson may have been a better theoretician, Adams may have been a better  rhetorician and Hamilton may have known more about economics but Washington was the indispensable man. He was the soldier who had been to war and the surveyor and planter who knew the terrain he would have to fight on and the men he would have to fight with.

His statement against entanglements in later days have the savor of someone who knows exactly what they entail. Lengel’s book should be read by everyone from the newest enrolled student in a JROTC class the the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – and by every citizen who is interested in the welfare of his country and needs a yardstick to measure her leaders by.

General George Washington : a military life      Edward G. Lengel Washington, George, 1732-1799 , Military leadership New York : Random House, c 2005 Hardcover. xlii, 450 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 25 cm.      Includes bibliographical references (p. [373]-434) and index.   Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. A superior copy in previously unread condition. VG/VG Guaranteed to be shipped within 24 hours of our receipt of your order.

Much has been written in the past two centuries about George Washington the statesman and “father of his country.” Less often discussed is Washington’s military career, including his exploits as a young officer and his performance as the Revolutionary War commander in chief. Now, in a revealing work of historical biography, Edward Lengel has written the definitive account of George Washington the soldier.

Based largely on Washington’s personal papers, this engrossing book paints a vivid, factual portrait of a man to whom lore and legend so tenaciously cling. To Lengel, Washington was the imperfect commander. Washington possessed no great tactical ingenuity, and his acknowledged “brilliance in retreat” only demonstrates the role luck plays in the fortunes of all great men. He was not an enlisted man’s leader; he made a point of never mingling with his troops. He was not an especially creative military thinker; he fought largely by the book.

He was not a professional, but a citizen soldier, who, at a time when warfare demanded that armies maneuver efficiently in precise formation, had little practical training handling men in combat. Yet despite his flaws, Washington was a remarkable figure, a true man of the moment, a leader who possessed a clear strategic, national, and continental vision, and who inspired complete loyalty from his fellow revolutionaries, officers, and enlisted men. America could never have won freedom without him.

A trained surveyor, Washington mastered topography and used his superior knowledge of battlegrounds to maximum effect. He appreciated the importance of good allies in times of crisis, and understood well the benefits of coordination of ground and naval forces. Like the American nation itself, he was a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts–a remarkable everyman whose acts determined the course of history. Lengel argues that Washington’s excellence was in his completeness, in how he united the military, political, and personal skills necessary to lead a nation in war and peace.

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