Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning.

Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning. Hachette, 2017 paper.

This is a tale from the South Pacific during World War II. Pappy (P.I. or Paul Irving) Gunn was a pilot for the Philippines Air Lines when war broke out in December 1940. Prior to that he had served in the US Navy for twenty-one years. In 1941 he was commissioned into the US Army Air Services where he became a legend for his skill and determination to be part of the fight to liberate the Philippines. Having said this, John Bruning’s claim that he single-handedly changed the course of the war is an exaggeration.

It had been decided that the Allies’ first priority would be the defeat of Germany and its allies; supplying the Far Eastern Theater would be a lower priority. That angered Gunn and other American military serving in the South Pacific intent upon defeating the Japanese.

Stationed in Manila, Gunn had wanted to move his family to a less dangerous place than Luzon. He felt guilty for not having done so before the War began. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Gunn, his family (wife Polly, two sons, and two daughters) had been forced into an internment camp when the Japanese occupied Manila. Gunn hoped that he would receive an assignment which would allow him to find and rescue them, and fly them to Australia. That, also, never worked out.  For the rest of the War, neither the family nor Gunn knew that the other was alive. They were only reunited after the Philippines was liberated in 1944.

While the title of Bruning’s book is hyperbole, he, Gunn did devise alterations in the B-17 and B-25 medium bombers that allowed them to fly low enough to drop bombs with devastating effect on Japanese aircraft carriers and troop transport. He was also given small but important assignments. For example, he was assigned the task of flying some of General MacArthur’s headquarter’s staff out of Manila. He also delivered quinine to treat besieged American troops suffering from malaria in Bataan.

It is amazing how unscripted the Pacific Theater seems. According to Bruning’s Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission…, the War was fought from one day to the next. Gunn would propose a mission, and his commanding officer would generally approve it. Or if he, Gunn, thought a mission would accomplish the purpose of defeating the Japanese – and ultimately finding his family, he would, get permission, grab an idle plane, and take off for the target.

The reader soon begins to appreciate the quandaries that arose, given this informal front. Could a target be reached with the amount of aviation fuel that the plane could stow on board and still get off the ground? There was always the trade-off between additional cannons built into the nose of the plane to add fighting power and room for those fuel tanks needed for the greater distances. The Japanese Zeros were a formidable opponent and Japanese pilots skilled. Could Pappy Gunn’s skills off-set these formidable fighter escorts and their pilots?

Perhaps Gunn’s most important contribution to the air war in Southeast Asia was to instruct pilots under his command to fly low, barely above the ocean waves to achieve greater accuracy in their bombing runs. The B-25 had been designed to support ground troops in the European theater and had to be adapted to the precision bombing of Japanese shipping. According to the author, Gunn kept the B-25 alive in those years of aviation innovation.

Gunn was a gifted mechanic as were many of the ground crews on whom he depended to keep the bombers going. But they needed spare parts to do their job. Gunn found the American military warehouse system established in Australia to be as frustrating as the enemy was formidable. Shelves containing spare parts in Brisbane and Darwin were carefully guarded by their staffs. If the supply manual did not specify that they should stock a spare part, nothing would get them to do so. Some of the planes were shipped in crates to be assembled by Australians. There were no instructions and often missing parts, and the Australians were reluctant to improvise.

The author tells stories that encourage the reader to commiserate with the Japanese. He describes Japanese seamen being eaten by sharks after their ship was sunk in the Bismarck Sea with no one to rescue them. And the story of the Japanese teenaged soldier who had the task of going from door to door in Manila to order American civilians to proceed to a detention camp. His rifle and fixed bayonet were taller than he. Bruning describes him as being as frightened as the Gunn family. What would have been his fate in this ghastly war?


The Rise of Athens; The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt.

The Rise of Athens; The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt. Random House, 2017.

Anthony Everitt has traced the history of Athens from its origins as one of the many small Greek city states of the sixth century B.C. Part of that history is the complicated endeavor of the Greeks to establish some mechanism for creating both a working consensus within the individual polis and amongst the Greek cities.

The evolution of Athenian leadership, “the rise of Athens,” went through several stages. It began in 478 B.C. with the league or alliance of Ionian Greek city states whose treasury was on the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. The league’s objective was to support the liberation of the Greek cities located in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the eastern Mediterranean from Persian domination. This alliance had various titles:  the Delian League, then the Athenian League, then the Athenian Empire – each reflected stages in the growing domination of Athens.

Mostly a naval alliance, the Athenian-led confederation could construct and support a substantial number of trireme (warships) available to challenge the Persian Empire. Each trireme had three banks of slaves as rowers. It took a considerable population of slaves to man the ships of the Athenian navy.

The city’s trade in vases and other art objects and imports of grain from the Black Sea and Egypt went through the port city of Piraeus. Most of the triremes in the Athenian fleet were built in the Piraeus’s shipyards. A wall was built between Athens and Piraeus to secure that commerce.

“The world’s greatest civilization” may be hyperbole. The Athenian constitution did have a democratic character – if that is how you measure civilization. Its office holders were generally elected. The electors, however, were small in number relative to the total population of the city. Women were not eligible, neither were foreigners and slaves.

Greek cities also fielded a substantial land force, mostly drawn from the class of helots – free men – who had the vote. They were also a vital part of the Athenian war machine; these citizen-soldiers formed into a phalanx. They were farmers and artisans who could afford the bronze armor and iron weaponry. Western democracy can be traced to many origins. Greece is one of them, and particularly this relationship between citizenry, infantry, and a lower class.

Did Greek military tactics shape the Athenian social structure? Or, was it the other way around, a preexisting social structure determined the military system? Everitt makes no call.

Sparta succeeded Athens in the leadership role of the Greek confederation. With Sparta, there is less to be admired. It consisted of small settlements scattered on the muddy Peloponnesian Plain. No great architecture. But the Spartans were heroic in their defense of the collective Greek cities in the 5th Century B.C. Everitt has less to say about their enemy, the Persians, except that their continuing presence and military strength was the primary reason for the “rise of Athens” and Sparta.

Most of Anthony Everitt’s interesting account of classical Greece comes from its own historians and philosophers. Athens functioned in much the same way that university cities do in our day.  That put a premium on conversation which, in the case of Athens, centered on the symposium. The Greek version departed from the symposium as we know it today. There are, however, similarities; for example, the presence of a symposiarch. He was chosen by the throw of the die and functioned as a “Lord of Rule.”

But he was also the “Lord of Misrule” – there was a lot of drinking – unlike our sober symposia. Before participants got too soused, there would be a discussion of the affairs of the city. As things got more out of hand, songs would be sung, there might be entertainment – professional dancers and singers.  And games. The participants reclined on couches, inviting a snooze after the food and wine.

The symposium could be considered anti-democratic since the guest list was short and the participants, no doubt, homogenous, shaped by the socio-economic structure of the city.

Then and now Athens inspired world architecture. The Acropolis was severely damaged when the Persians sacked the city in 480 B.C. It was rebuilt during the leadership of Pericles 495 to 429 B.C.  Athens could afford good architects, good stone, and a generous use of bronze statuary. (It is to be pointed out however, that both the fine marble and bronze were painted over in bright colors.) It was a good investment for the city. Athens was almost immediately a tourist city and remained so over the next two millennia.

Those gods and goddesses on the Athenian acropolis were worshipped. While they introduce rational thought into their religion, Greeks were worshipful. And at the same time tolerant of other religious traditions. They made room for foreigners’ gods and goddesses within their pantheon.

Everitt pays no attention to the centuries of civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, except to point out that Persia represented a threat to the “world’s greatest civilization.”  And perhaps that threat was one cause of its rise.


Blitzed; Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler & Shaum Whiteside, trans.  

Blitzed; Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler & Shaum Whiteside, trans.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

The National Socialists preached an ideology of physical, mental, and moral purity. The Party was intent upon separating itself from the excesses of the preceding Weimar decade. But there was an extensive use of drugs in the Third Reich and Norman Ohler has documented this in his study of drug use in Germany during the war years. Various addictive drugs were consumed by the German public: cocaine, opiates, and most commonly methamphetamines – “uppers.” They were supplied by a growing German pharmaceutical industry. Two companies are familiar to us – Merck and Bayer. There were others as well.

A distinction was made between drug addictions and, on the other hand, prescription drugs that helped maintain one’s stamina and focus – socially useful objectives – even though they often involved the same generic drug. Drug addicts were considered criminals and sent to prison.

The Nazi regime required detailed record keeping of both populations. Hence Norman Ohler had access to the drug regime of “Patient A” – Adolf Hitler – as prescribed by his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell.

Those Germans who used these addictive drugs regularly did so because it improved their energy level and made them more confident of themselves. The author speculates on how drugs might have affected Adolf Hitler’s decision-making. What persuaded Hitler that he was a better commander of the German Wehrmacht than its generals? Was it an overly-stimulated self-confidence that convinced Hitler to order a halt in the German offensive in France in May 1940, allowing 338,000 British soldiers to escape at Dunkirk? Confused, Hitler had decided that he was losing control of the German military command, that his generals were overshadowing him.  Might it have been a variance in how the drug cocktails that he was taking and the confidence they generated? Perhaps a bad drug day?

Norman Ohler believes that some of the stamina that the German troops showed in their drive through the Low Countries and northern France was because they had been issued drugs to prevent battle fatigue and even hunger. Those motorcyclists and tank crews that you see racing across France and Belgium had been issued a drug, Pervitin, which was the trade name for methamphetamine.

Army doctors, however, were already beginning to see some adverse side effects of drug use by German soldiers; particularly speeding up the heartbeat. Pervitin was made subject to the Reich opium regulations in June 1942. Under pressure the administrative ruling was reversed; the drug was declared ‘crucial to the war effort.’

Hitler was given the full pill regime regularly. Morell prescribed as many as 28 pills a day, plus several prophylactic injections. Ohler counted 90 different pills over the months when Hitler spent most of his time in a bunker in eastern Poland from whence he oversaw the invasion of Russia and then the retreat after Stalingrad. His drugs were telling him one thing; the Russian armies another. Would the war on the Eastern Front have been conducted differently had Hitler been in his ‘right mind?’ Would Hitler have declared war on the US in December 1941, following Pearl Harbor?

Hitler decided that he could not face the reality of meeting with Benito Mussolini in Salzburg in 1943 without swallowing Eukodal pills, an opiate (Oxycodone). The result was that Mussolini had to listen to a three-hour long speech by the “peppered up” Führer. Though likely Hitler, without narcotics, was more difficult to deal with than his fueled and often unrealistic optimism.

On 20 July 1944, a group of German army officers attempted to assassinate Hitler. Patient A’s file card indicated that he was ‘full of beans’ that day from an injection. Hitler survived, but his hearing was damaged by the bomb blast. A specialist called in to examine his ears was appalled to learn that Hitler was being maintained by his personal physician on drugs and injections. Thus began what the author calls the Doctors’ War.

Was Hitler’s growing megalomania and physical decline due to his drug-taking? Once revealed by the Doctors’ War, his Nazi colleagues became concerned about the hold which Dr. Morell’s pills had on Hitler.  The drowsiness. The shuffle. The trembling. What was Morell doing to their Hitler?

Morell could stage-manage Hitler for shorter and shorter periods of time. Moreover, the supply line for these pills had been cut. Morell was running out of pills, and Hitler was showing symptoms of withdrawal.

Some authors have suggested that these were symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Norman Ohler thinks it far more likely that those symptoms were the result of the cocktail of drugs that he was taking. Doctor’s orders!


The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis.

The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis. Liveright, 2017.

Professor Jack Davis covers a relatively short period in the history of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Pleistocene, two million years ago, to the Twenty-First Century AD. The Gulf is an enormous body of water that drains an even vaster land area, the basins of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the rivers that deliver fresh water to the Gulf from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. His study of the Gulf is modeled after Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

Davis keeps his sense of humor despite the bad news that flows from his word processor. The subject of his history, he laments, has been “a sandbox for the earth-sculpturing [by the] US Army Corps of Engineers.” Their dike building along the Mississippi is only a small part of the trouble, however. The Gulf has also become a dump for the numerous industries that have clustered around our waterways. Add to that the more recent discovery of off-shore petroleum deposits and their exploitation.

In April 2010 Deepwater Horizon, one of those off-shore oil rigs, blew spewing two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf. But that is less, Davis reminds us, than the annual dose of poisons that comes down the Mississippi River from our Midwestern agricultural heartland. Nor was this the first time that the Gulf has been contaminated by discharge from an off-shore oil rig.

Those ‘tarred and feathered’ birds that attracted so much attention during the press coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill should remind us that the Gulf is a major path for migrating birds. Billions of birds cross the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. It is a six-hundred mile trip for many of them, but shorter ­ “as the crow flies” than any passage over land.

Many of the birds caught in the spill were in their breeding plumage. Look back at photographs of fashionable, turn-of-the-last-century females and you will find their hats decorated with plumage, feathers from egrets, herons, spoonbills, and other mostly wading birds. They were harvested by shooting, hence a rapid reduction in numbers. (Fortunately women’s hat fashion changed during WWI.) Their men folk joined clubs and hunting lodges and, for the sport, aimed their guns at those same migrating birds.

Wading birds may have seemed like ‘small potatoes’ to some hunters, but there were alligators. They were fashioned into ‘big game’. They would likely serve as a prop in a photograph of the dead animal and its hunter. For fishermen, tarpon were the popular fish; their size, according to Davis, would satisfy the national masculinity zeitgeist.

The hoteliers, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, were happy to supply these gentlemen and ladies with luxury accommodations. Both were railroad men, presiding over a transition in the Florida tourist trade. From vacationers arriving by rail, many were now traveling to Florida in automobiles but still staying in their hotels.

The Gulf of Mexico became a second home on or near the beach, which in turn led to rows of high-rise condominiums. With them more roads, more malls, more fast-food restaurants. And more up-rooted mangroves.

Meanwhile the Gulf of Mexico was becoming a major docking facility for container ships. The widening of the Panama Canal resulted in a major transformation of shipping in the Gulf. Huge new machinery, lifts, etc. were necessary to handle these containers.

Sand has always been a tricky foundation for a building of any size. And that became a problem as condo’s etc. were allowed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Moreover, existing regulations, if enforced, have not made allowances for sea level rise. Hurricanes and tropical storms add mother-nature to the mix of good and bad advisors. So the slowly-disappearing beach needed to be armored and replenished.

Gambling. It was decided that the best way to add gambling to the Gulf and keep it more-or-less out of sight was to position it off-shore. That particular gamble however, did not pay off. It didn’t count on an uninvited guest – Hurricane Katrina. The casinos, washed out to sea, were rebuilt. They are now anchored on land near the condominiums and their towns.

Jack Davis ends The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea on a positive note. When the State of Florida banded gill-netting in 1994, Cedar Key fishermen began exploiting a new fishery, clam farming. And the town changed from one where fishers have lived and worked to a successful town of second homes for well-off Floridians. Most of the employed population live inland. They still make their living in Cedar Key, but in the restaurant and souvenir businesses, trading off what used to be. But so be it.


Chasing the Last Laugh; How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks.

Chasing the Last Laugh; How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks. Anchor, 2017 paper.

In 1894 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) took on an around-the-world-tour. A successful writer and publisher, he was, however, not a successful investor. A publishing company that he owned was failing, as was a company that had developed a new typesetting machine in which he owned now worthless stock. The publishing company, however, had had its successes. It had been the publisher of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the highly successful The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Twain had lined up several other Civil War generals, only to have the reading public turn away from the subject.

Richard Zacks has provided a revealing description of the life of a writer over a century ago that would seem familiar to many writers these days. The profession has its ups and downs.

Twain was also working on several writing projects; the most ambitious was a “complete works”, which included his short stories and two travel accounts already published. Each volume would have the same fancy binding. The set would then be marketed directly to Twain’s public by traveling salesmen.

It was decided by his managers, editors, and family that his best hope for a financial recovery was to undertake an around the world tour – first venues in the American west by train and then Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and South Africa, mostly sea voyages, which Twain much preferred over train travel. His manager would make arrangements, rent halls, etc. and schedule several lectures in each venue.  His wife, Olivia (Livy), and one of his three daughters, Clara, would accompany Livy. Zacks has succeeded in bringing together the trials and tribulations of travel in the late nineteenth century, the ignominy and exuberance of public entertainment, but also the perils to family life of this touring.

The touring circuit was well established, and Twain’s reception was gratifying. But the performance of a standup comedian was not to Twain’s liking. He would only accept the best in hotel accommodations and expected a lot from their staffs. He was a big enough star to expect the royal treatment from public officials in the towns where he performed. He was a grouch by nature.

Most of his tour entertained the English-speaking diaspora settled around the British Empire.  Surprisingly, his favorite part of the tour was the time he spent in India. He arrived in Bombay and was taken by India’s exotic opportunities. He says this of the Bombay train station in 1896.  “It was a very large station, yet when we arrived, it seemed as if the whole world was present – half of it inside, the other half outside, and both halves bearing mountainous head-loads of bedding…” His description is remarkably like my experience in the train station in Calcutta some seventy years later.

Twain loved being courted by the various “native princes” that the British had left in place – though under supervision. He liked rolling their titles off his tongue. He liked the fact that cows had the right-of-way on city streets. He liked the noisy crows that awakened him every morning.

The Twains decided that, upon completing their tour in Europe, they would find a place to live that was cheaper than their returning to the States. Vienna filled the bill. They liked hobnobbing with the Viennese elite. Clara took piano and voice lessons in anticipation of returning to a career in the US.

Livy was an important part of the tour. First it was partly her money that had been badly invested and lost. Hence to be recovered. Also she was his editor and routinely cut out some of his off-color jokes and stories. And particularly she censored his maxims, some of his best writing. For example. “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

There were tragedies involving the two other daughters during their stay abroad. Susy died while the Twains were in Europe. Jean was increasingly subject to epileptic seizures. Twain felt guilty about his daughters. Had he not made choices that brought on financial difficulties, he might have been in a better position to help his family. On the other hand his ‘chasing the last laugh’ had allowed him to get out of debt.

This is not a biography. Zacks has given us an account of Twain’s tour but we are left somewhere in the 1890s.


Neighbors. The Crime and the Silence; Massacre… Poland.

The Crime and the Silence; Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont and Alissa Valles, trans. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016.

Neighbors; The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Gross. Penguin, 2016 paper.

Anna Bikont is a journalist who writes for the Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw’s leading newspaper. The Crime and the Silence was first published in Polish in 2004. It is a record of her discoveries as an investigative reporter looking into the events of July 1941.  She began work on the story in the spring of 2001 and finished three years later, after trips to Israel, New York City, and Buenos Aires to visit their expatriate Polish-Jewish communities.

Jan Gross’s Neighbors; The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland was published by Princeton University Press in 2001 and was a National Book Award finalist. Both were available in Poland at about the same time.

In the 1960s a commemorative monument was placed in Jedwabne town square with the inscription: “Site of the Suffering of the Jewish Population. The Gestapo and the Nazi gendarmerie Burned Alive 1600 People on 10 July 1941.” (The monument has since been defaced with a swastika and other graffiti.)

There are several ‘misrepresentations’ of that day in the inscription. The number killed was more likely between 200 and 340. The 1600 figure would, however, be a rough estimate of the total number of Jews killed on the day of the atrocity and several days before and after. Or that larger number might also be countig Jews from surrounding towns that were herded into the Jedwabne square.

Also both Bikont and Gross reject the implication that the Nazi Gestapo and various German paramilitary groups were responsible. There were Germans present on that day, and perhaps they urged the Poles to put to death their “Jewish neighbors.” But the killing was done by Poles, often by Poles that the Jewish victims knew, hence ‘neighbors.’ They were killed with axes and scythes, weapons available to the Poles. To expedite the killing, Jews were forced into a nearby barn, which was then set on fire.

At the same time, many Poles were hiding Jews from the Germans and from those Polish ‘neighbors.’ This was dangerous business. If a Polish household were found to be hiding Jews, the Jews and the entire Polish family would be immediately shot by the Germans.  A recent film “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on a novel by Diane Ackerman, is a good portrayal of the risk involved and the bravery on the part of many Poles.

Poland had been divided into two occupation zones after the Russian and German joint invasion of Poland in September 1939. Most of the two districts involved in this account were occupied and administered by the Russians. Under Russian communism both the land and the economy were nationalized. Poles supported Russian-style social reforms were appointed to the new administrative offices. Jews had been excluded from public office under the older Polish regime and now took advantage of the new situation to obtain appointments. Hence the Jewish “collaboration” with the Russians.

In June 1941 German armies invaded Russia through Poland. They were welcomed in Poland as liberators. The Jewish involvement with the Russians was added to a highly combustible anti-Semitism. The Jews were said to have fingered Poles who had been friendly with the Russians. Thus a burning barn and public killing of these collaborating Jews. And then all Jews.

Both authors give details of the slaughter and the brutality involved. Just one story, perhaps a composite. A Jewish man and his young daughter had not been found until after most of the Jews in the square were forced inside the barn and it was set afire. His throat was cut in front of his daughter, and while he was still alive to witness it, his daughter was thrown into the fire.

After World War II, there were numerous investigations – hearings – where evidence was collected of Polish complicity. But Poland was now subject to another Russian occupation and another version of the slaughter to add to the Jewish, Polish, and German. It is no wonder that “truth” was given the silent treatment. And the Poles were not required to confront the enormity of their crimes. Poles are still reluctant to tell stories that they heard from their mothers and grandmothers.

Often if pressed, the locals will admit that household goods were stolen from vacant Jewish property. Jews, largely traders and shopkeepers, were wealthier than the Polish peasants and tradesmen they lived amongst. Hence acquiring some of those possessions would have been a motive for the murder of their owners.

There is no good answer to the question: Why certain Poles and certain communities murdered their Jewish neighbors and others did not? Bikont is inclined to think that there was a strong correlation between these anti-Semitic Poles and families of men who had participated in the Home Army, particularly in the districts occupied by the Russians.

What surprised Bikont was the lingering Anti-Semitism she continued to confront when she did her interviewing of the locals in the early 2000s. Some potential interviews would literally slam the door in her face. “That doesn’t concern me.” Or “Gross has written a pack of lies.” Amongst German allies in World War II, Poland lags in its restitution payments.

Many Jedwabne Jews did escape, either by migration to Palestine, or Argentina, or to New York. Immigrants in the US from Jedwabne built a synagogue in the Lower East Side on Henry Street, now the Congregation Anshe Yedwabne.

Urban Forests; A Natural History of Trees and People

Urban Forests; A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes. Viking 2016.

Americans are moving into urban areas in increasing numbers, leaving our wooded environments behind, forest dwellers turned urbanites. And so have many of our tree species.  Jill Jonnes salutes the many “tree huggers” whose concern is helping to preserve these urban forests.

Because of the parallel growth of trade and a world economy, we have been importing wood from abroad mostly for furniture making and wooden crates. No one paid much attention, however, to the various insects and other plagues that accompanied those imports.

The American chestnut (Castanea dentate) is a native of the Appalachian forests. It was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease, which probably arrived from China. Over three million chestnut trees were destroyed in the first half of the twentieth century. They were once the keystone species of the Appalachia. We roasted the nuts on an open fire. The chestnut was an important food source for white-tailed deer, black bear, and wild turkey.  Its disappearance also was costly to bird populations. Though never an important species in the urban forests, its demise left a huge gap in the upper canopy of our woods.

The American ash (Faxinus americana) was also once an important component tree in the eastern hardwood forests, from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and south to north Florida and across the South to eastern Texas. Favored for furniture and flooring, the ash was widely planted as an urban street tree.

Elms were perhaps the most important tree species in the urban forest prior to their demise in the 1960s. Their loss was deeply felt by many of us who grew up under the shade of a stately elm. They died of Dutch elm disease imported from Holland. Elm burl logs, intended for use as veneer for furniture, contained the Elm bark beetle which hitched a ride. It carried with it fungus spores that quickly found the enormous elms that were so commonly used as street trees. The fungus clogged up the elm’s water-carrying vessels. The beetles moved quickly to the top of the tree where the wind could scatter the beetle to nearby trees.

It should be noticed in all of these cases, the tree species were introduced as a monolythic species. When the disease hit one individual tree, the avenue trees would soon be lost.

There are some happy stories. Cherry trees were imported from Japan, to decorate the Washington Mall. They were the project of Eliza Scidmore, a journalist, world traveler, and tree enthusiast. After a two-year campaign from 1904 to 1906 she got President Theodore Roosevelt to agree to the project. Off and on, plant enthusiasts have gotten assistance from American Presidents. George H.W. Bush urged us all to leave our home, neighborhood, and town better than we had found and suggested our attention to urban trees. Several first ladies also found urban forests to be one of their causes.

Exotics are not, however, a good idea. The Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) a tree that grew in Brooklyn — and elsewhere — was a highly praised species from China when it arrived via Europe. It was commonly used as a street tree in the nineteenth century because it grows fast and has a considerable spring blooming season. But it is no longer praised for that quality and is, in fact, considered invasive.

The favored sugar maples of Vermont are no longer as spectacular with their fall colors as they once were. That is because the manufacture of maple sugar no longer depends upon clear cutting all other tree species to fuel the process. As those elms, chestnuts, and other trees grow up among the sugar maples, they gradually dilute those wonderful fall colors.

Jonnes argues that if we were to calculate the dollar benefits of trees and particularly urban trees, we might be more willing to trade trees for the endless layers of asphalt and black top that are filling our cities with heat-absorbing, impermeable surfaces. That asphalt with which we lather a good portion of our unbuilt spaces, has the company of our utilities on poles. Utility poles provide neither the shade nor return nutrients to the soil!

Jill Jonnes speaks eloquently of the many ordinary citizens who tend the urban forest. She is equally complementary of the work of professionals from the early plant explorers, to arborists to urban foresters, to botanists, to nurserymen. They continue to remind us that urban forests are an essential element in a city’s infrastructure.



Black Flags; The Rise of ISIS

Black Flags; The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick. Anchor, 2016 paper.

This is the complicated story of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, to a leadership position within ISIS, a radical Islamic organization which he claims to have founded. Zarqawi is known for his cruelty and ultimately that brought him down.

Joby Warrick is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. He works for The Washington Post.

The black flags referred to in the title of the book are associated with the Caliphate, the tradition that a “steward” would arise to unite the fractured world of Islam. The Caliphs would more-or-less anoint themselves as a supreme religious and political leader. The institution of the Caliph dates back to the seventh century, most recently it was claimed by the Ottoman Empire. Calling for the reestablishment of a Caliphate provides opportunity for acquiring reputation. Warrick argues that the civil wars in Syria and Jordan and our responses have actually created a set of opportunists.

Zarqawi was a Jordanian, imprisoned in 1992 and released in 1999 from a Jordanian prison under a royal amnesty. He became a “terrorist star” after he planned the bombing of three western-owned hotels in Amman, Jordan in 2005.  But there were many Jordanians who were appalled at the loss of life and particularly the fact that one of the hotels had a wedding party going on. Witnesses had to face stacked bodies of young girls in their pretty white dresses.

Jordan’s intelligence community was not sufficiently informed to stop the bombing of the three hotels, though they did arrest Zarqawi and other terrorists. But then what is to be done with these terrorists. Mix these men together and you have what Warrick calls a “jihad university.”

Warrick argues that the Central Intelligence Agency, Colin Powell’s Defense Department, and Jordan’s intelligence service gave Zarqawi a career. Their response to his minor role in the terrorist movement made him his reputation.

Zarqawi’s terrorism intended to intensify existing divisions within the Arab world. The targets of his insurgent bombs were selected so as to divide Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites, Moslems and secularists. The bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque (Najaf) in 2003 or the Al-Askari Mosque( Samarra) in 2006, for example, involved picking sites that would maximize internal conflict at that point and then later as scores were settle.

In 2004 an American, Nicholas Berg, had gone to Iraq to look for opportunities in an American secured country. He was taken hostage by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi took this opportunity to gain a needed notoriety for brutality in order to make an impression on other terrorists. As the video cameras rolled Zarqawi cut Berg’s throat, then cut off his head, and lifted his head for all to see. He could depend upon the Internet to provide him with international attention. It also got him the “promotion” within the terrorist community that he sought. Zarqawi was eventually assassinated by an American-Jordanian air strike on one of his hiding places.

The author argues that George W. Bush’s Gulf War was not thought out well. Who would govern Iraq after the invasion in 2003? The decision to dissolve the Iraqi army’s officer class and ban anyone with membership in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party from positions of authority in the new government failed to take into account the fact that anyone with any management experience in Iraq would have to have joined the Party. For example all applicants for University positions had been forced to join. Hence there was no pool of government officials from which to draw once Hussein was out of the way, leaving leadership positions open to many new “entrepreneurs.” Like Zarqawi.

Not enough has been said about the continuing presence of outsiders in the Middle East and elsewhere who are often using terrorists as proxies for acquiring stakes in this oil-rich Islamic world. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian monarch, has been able to survive despite his chemical warfare and other outrages because he manages to balance himself between Russia, Iran, and Syria vs. the US, Europe, and Jordan.

Thus Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is one of many ambitious terrorists and al-Qaeda and ISIS are two of several organizations in which he had acquired leadership positions. We took care of him, but how completely should we involve ourselves in these deadly squabbles. John McCain and others have urged strongly for us to keep our distance.


The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914

The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, paper.

            Margaret MacMillan describes in detail the complicated great-power diplomacy that led up to World War I. There was, she argues, no inevitability in the series of diplomatic and military events in the decades before the War. She believes that war could have been avoided and looks to the failure of diplomats and the ruling classes to take the threat of war seriously.

            She is critical of the European royal families, many of them related. They were playing with a new set of strategies and weaponry which encouraged a rapid mobilization of armies and on planned short, but decisive, military campaigns. These ‘shielding strategies’ were, however, quick on the trigger. Strike before your rival was capable of doing so.

            These new strategies required the great powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Russia, and France – to have well-formulated plans for mobilization and attack. The Schlieffen Plan is a good example. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff, Imperial Army. The plan that bears his name was worked out by the General Staff between 1906 and 1914. The strategy avoided crossing through the Netherlands, which had declared its neutrality, instead invading France through Belgium and Luxembourg on 4 August 1914

            MacMillan’s focus on the importance of European royalty and social elites, but ignores the fact that most of the military and civil leaders of the time were drawn from a rising middle class. They had made their money during the prosperous nineteenth century, and service to their country was now expected of them. They were imbued with the nationalism they had picked up in their education and at the public spectacles of the decades before the war.

            Oddly MacMillan begins her story with the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. It was the world’s fair of that year with pavilions dedicated to harmony and peace. But in the midst of the Boer War (1899 -1902)! The British fought an alliance of the small Dutch-speaking republics in the Cape of South Africa. Although they won the War, Britain’s armies performed badly and much of Europe had cheered for the Boers.

            Russia also looked unprepared, even weak, after their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The Russians needed a year-round warm-water port and Vladivostok wouldn’t do. But they took on a formidable opponent, Japan, and their supply lines were stretched over the length of the Trans-Siberian railroad. There were demonstrations and strikes in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the Imperial Guard fired on the marchers approaching the Winter Palace. Bloody Sunday, it was called.

            It was feared that military defeat would lead to revolution within the belligerent country. Defeat would also complicated efforts to establish a system of alliances and alignments like the international structure that had kept the peace during the Bismarck era. For example, was a defeated Russia a dependable partner for France, given the revolutionary activity that had convulsed St. Petersburg?

 And France had its own weaknesses as an alliance partner.  The French public was distracted by the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906. Alfred Dreyfus, a young artillery officer from Alsace and of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason on a trumped up charge in 1894 and again in a second trial in 1899. He was eventually acquitted, but this and other public controversies made France a somewhat doubtful alliance partner.

Thus neither France nor Russia appeared to have the domestic stability to make them an easy choice for the British. And Great Britain was having its own “troubles,” conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Sir Edward Grey was serving as Foreign Secretary in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal British cabinet from 1905 to 1916. He is often treated as a clairvoyant by historians because of his famous statement to a friend, as he looked out over a courtyard in the Foreign Office as it was being lighted, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” But he was less successful as a peace-keeper.

Grey was uncertain about how to proceed – join up with Russia and France or pursue an understanding with Germany. Germany and Britain had been engaged in an armaments race for several years – constructing battleships. Just when Britain seemed to be winning, the battleship count was complicated by the opening of the Kiel Canal across the isthmus between the Baltic and North Seas in 1895. Now the two German fleets could serve on either Sea during a war.

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a young Serbian nationalist while being driven through the streets of Sarajevo was but one of several violent events that are considered to be “The Road to 1914.” But the “peace of Europe” was crumbling step-by-step as diplomacy no longer settled anything.

The General vs. the President; MacArthur and Truman

The General vs. the President; MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands.  Doubleday, 2016.

In April 1951 Harry Truman, in his second term as President, fired General Douglas MacArthur, then commander of the United Nations forces in the Korean War. North Korean forces had crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea one year earlier in June 1950, with the intention of uniting the peninsula. At that time General MacArthur was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Occupied Japan, and he continued in this role until the peace treaty was signed in San Francisco in September 1951. He is considered to have been successful at guiding Japan toward a democracy and helping to restart its economy. He was also in charge of American forces in the Pacific and thus Korea fell under this command.

In 1948 MacArthur had indicated an interest in running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Presidency. He withdrew after the Wisconsin Primary and the nomination went to Thomas Dewey. H.W. Brands suggests that MacArthur’s interest in elected office was a factor in the friction between the General and the President.

It happened that Russia was boycotting the United Nations Security Council when it received the call from the Republic of South Korea asking for military assistance. Hence Russia was not able to block the UN’s decision.

China also had a permanent seat on the Security Council held by the Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang). The Nationalists had lost a civil war on the Mainland to the Communists. Their power was confined to the island of Taiwan (Formosa). Most of the troops were supplied by the US, but several other countries also contributed: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Philippines, and Turkey.

Almost from the beginning of our deployment, General MacArthur and President Truman had disagreed about the conduct of the War, and how autonomous a field commander should be from his Commander-in-Chief. MacArthur considered the Korean peninsula to be part of his Pacific command and, without waiting for instructions from President Truman, had begun sending military aid to the South Koreans. Next came American ground troops, part of the occupation forces stationed in Japan. Then the use of American airpower based in Japan, and then the bombing of the Yahu bridges to intercept the supply of arms coming from China and Russia.

Each time, MacArthur claimed that his decision was essential to keeping the North Koreans from permanently occupying the peninsula south of the 38th Parallel. And they were the prerogative of the field commander.  Each time Truman edged closer to firing MacArthur for insubordination; but hesitated to do so in view of his popularity with the American public.

The use of the atom bomb as a tactical weapon, according to Brands, was under discussion. It had only been five years since the bomb had been used against Japan. But that had been for strategic objectives, never on the battlefield. The Truman Administration worried about MacArthur being “trigger-happy.”

One major bone of contention was MacArthur’s suggestion that the UN make use of the Nationalist troops on Formosa against the North Koreans, now being reinforced by Chinese “volunteers.” Truman understood the nature of limited warfare better than did several of his successors in the Presidency, and he realized that this might bring on a larger confrontation and involve large numbers of American fatalities.

In 1951 my older brother turned eighteen. The extended family had lost a father/son in World War II. Even as a twelve-year old, I sensed the unpopularity of another war. But I was also captivated by The Des Moines Register’s daily maps showing the progress of the North Koreans; I read about the successful amphibious assault at Inchon and then the Chinese intervention and our retreat from the Yalu River.

The author makes clear his own reservations about MacArthur’s rambunctiousness. And that was true of this reader in the first half of the book. But Brands also allows the reader to wonder about the way MacArthur was treated after his dismissal. Was his firing the result of his advocating a more aggressive policy in Korea?  Might it have involved American presidential election politics? As it turned out MacArthur’s dismissal resulted in another general, Dwight Eisenhower, pushing MacArthur aside and ending any chance of his gaining the Republican nomination in1952.

MacArthur had his comeuppance, however. As he bid farewell to Japan, crowds gathered to provide him with a royal departure. More crowds greeted him when he arrived in San Francisco, and then in Washington. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York. MacArthur was the “man of the hour.”

Truman managed to sulk in silence. Though telling his Whitehouse staff and cabinet that his mistake had been not to fire MacArthur earlier. It is interesting that Eisenhower never invited MacArthur to assist his run for the Presidency.

The peace process stretched out over a two-year stalemate. Our demand for unconditional surrender was eventually relaxed and the war ended. Though obviously not the continuing conflict between the two Koreas and their sponsors. Fortunately so far in this twenty-first-century version of the scrap, both sides are being cautious.