Showing posts with label WWII. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WWII. Show all posts

07 July 2015

Suspense the Hard Way: Writing Suspense Stories When You Already Know the Outcome

In early June, I attended the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City in the LA area. I was on a panel called Thrills and Chills. The panel’s topic was suspense, how to create it, sustain it, etc. Many good points were made by my fellow panelists, D.P. Lyle, Craig Faustus Buck, Laurie Stevens, Diana Gould, moderator, and I hope by me too. Being on that panel got me thinking about what defines suspense? Is it a cliffhanger? A surprise ending? A reversal? A twist? All of which is part of it. Or is there something else? But I’ll leave the micro mechanics of suspense writing for another time. What I want to talk about here is a certain type of suspense/thriller that’s based on real events and/or people.
Thrills and Chills Panel CCWC  -- 6-2015 -- d3

When one’s writing a fictional story with fictional characters it’s one thing. It’s another thing completely when you’re writing a story based on a real character or characters and situations, because, if the reader is halfway literate (which is getting more and more iffy all the time), they will know the outcome of the story before they read the first word.

Some cases in point:

jackal 1aMy favorite example of this is The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. The book came out in 1971, about a year after Charles de Gaulle died. It’s a suspense-thriller about an attempt to assassinate de Gaulle in the early 1960s. I remember reading the book when it came out, turning page after page. Sneaking a read here and there because it kept me so engrossed. And I knew how it would end. At least I knew de Gaulle would not be assassinated, because I knew that in real life he wasn’t murdered. So the incredible thing about that book for me is how the author kept me, and others, interested when we knew the outcome. An amazing feat. And how he had us rooting for the Jackal to succeed, even though we knew he wouldn’t, and even if in real life we wouldn’t have wanted that.

In The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins’ thriller, Nazi commandos allied with Irish revolutionaries attempt to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Complications ensue. But once again, we know the outcome in real life: Churchill was never kidnapped. Still, Higgins manages to keep our attention and keep us guessing—will they succeed? Or is this an alternate history with a totally different outcome from what really happened?

And my wife and I just recently watched Bugsy again, the Warren Beatty movie about the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel. Again we knew the ending. We knew he got murdered, we knew pretty much the how and why, at least according to the movie. Yet still we were glued to the screen. (And as a side note, I grew up across the street from Bugsy’s brother, a doctor—and his family—who Bugsy put through medical school.)

A couple other movies that come to mind are an oldie but goodie, Manhunt, with Walter Pigeon, and Valkyrie-2008-BluRay-postera newer flick, Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise. Both are about plots to assassinate Hitler, and if anyone deserved it, well..., but I digress. Manhunt is a fictional story, to my knowledge, and, as it was made in 1941, World War II was still going strong. So who knew at that time, maybe a plot to kill Hitler was going to happen? But the fact is the story is fiction, and Hitler was still alive and kickin’ when the movie came out. So people watching it then knew the ending wasn’t going to work out, at least not when the movie was released. But somehow the suspense worked and you are sucked into believing it. Valkyrie, based on a true story, came out in 2008, so everybody knew, well almost everybody, well maybe nearly almost everybody, well maybe a handful of people knew, that Hitler hadn’t actually been assassinated. But again the story was like a roller coaster ride at Magic Mountain. You were still rooting for the conspirators to kill Hitler and to get away with their lives even when you knew they wouldn’t. There’s also Argo, with Ben Affleck, and we knew the outcome there too, but were still on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if that group of people would get out of Iran alive.

So how do these authors and filmmakers keep us interested and involved when we already know the outcome?
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
From: Hitchcock
By Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock

The suspense comes from empathizing with the characters, wanting them to get away or even succeed, even if you know they can’t/won’t and even if they’re anti-heroes or badguys. You want them to come out of it alive. Since you know from the get-go that the mission fails, you have a sense of suspense in hoping the character won’t be injured and will get away in the end. We’re also interested in the how of it—the how-dun-it? How do they plan to achieve their aim of killing de Gaulle or Hitler or kidnapping Churchill?
Also, like the ticking bomb in Hitchcock’s example of suspense (see sidebar), the reader knows they’re going to fail so you’re watching them run towards the “ticking timebomb,” hoping they’ll escape before it’s too late. But with Day of the Jackal, also what makes the reader want the killer to succeed? Isn’t he a “bad guy”. Why don’t you want the other characters to succeed in catching him?

So how does a writer achieve this? A full answer would probably take a book, but briefly: Initially you might not be rooting for the anti-hero. But as the author introduces you to the character and his/her goal you might start identifying with them and their mission. And even though you know their mission is a bad one, like kidnapping Churchill that might have changed the outcome of the war, you still feel a sense of suspense in wanting them to either get caught or succeed. It’s not because you identify with the Nazis per se, but you identify with these individuals and their efforts to achieve their goal or you’re hoping like hell that they won’t. And just like with any other character, the author puts them in jeopardy and puts obstacles in their way so the reader wonders whether or not they’ll get out of it. Also, sometimes villains can be charming or tough or cool. We admire their skill and caginess and we want to live vicariously through them and their adventures.

Sometimes the outcome isn’t the most important part of a story. It’s the ride getting there. So, while a spectacular ending may be good in some books, for some it is more important to build great characters and suspense and not rely on a surprise ending to leave the reader with a good feeling. In a way you have to work harder on the meat of the story when readers already know the outcome, but it is one way you can really distinguish a writer who is a master of suspense—when they can still build suspense with a known outcome.

So sometimes suspense isn’t just about the surprise ending or the unexpected, sometimes it’s about knowing what’s going to happen but wanting something different to happen and how that in itself can create tension, suspense and a great ride along the way.


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22 April 2015


by David Edgerley Gates

Okay, so it's a Brad Pitt picture, but forget about that Quentin Tarantino nonsense, and it ain't TROY. Brad Pitt's actually a good actor, not just a pretty boy. He himself once remarked that Hollywood is full of pretty boys, and whether or not you get noticed is by and large blind luck. In other words, don't take it for granted, and show up on time for the audition.

If you've read the Max Hastings book ARMAGEDDON, you get a convincing and frightening overview of the last year of the European war, from D-Day to the fall of Berlin. It was a savage, gruesome fight, with very little quarter given, on any side. FURY, like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, is about a small engagement. It's
a platoon movie, in effect, a bunch of guys in a tight, claustrophobic space - a Sherman tank, this time around - hoping to make it through the war alive. Shermans were outgunned by the German Tigers, which had better armor and heavier weapons, and a direct hit could turn the American tanks into flaming coffins. Tanks are in fact ungainly and vulnerable, steel boxes with only a few exits, and FURY puts this across in clenched interior shots, most of which seem to be from underneath a guy's cramped knees. You don't get much in the way of omniscient viewpoint, or a sense of any larger battlefield strategy.

Are there generic conventions? I'm not sure war movies can avoid them. The hardened NCO, the green recruit who turns stone killer. The story arc with this kind of picture is usually about initiation, the learning curve, the so-called warrior mindset. I don't have a quarrel with it, but it's a narrative device. Although it rings true, it's still a contrivance, and over-familiar. And then there are things in the movie I wasn't right with. They execute a German prisoner in cold blood. Yes, no, maybe? We know there were incidents like this, even if they didn't make it into the record, or it was reported as shot trying to escape, but the way it was presented, as an object lesson, made me hesitate. Another thing that bothered me was seeing the tanks take point, with infantry creeping along behind. It seems like sound tactics - why expose yourself to enemy fire? - but I always had the impression armor and infantry leapfrogged each other on patrol, feeling out a hostile environment. Maybe somebody here with more hands-on can steer me right. Having said this, otherwise the movie felt honest. I didn't find it exaggerated or false.

Once the Allies pushed across the Rhine - and the Russians crossed the Oder from the East - Germany was finished. The question people ask is why they kept fighting. One answer is of course Hitler's insanity. Another is simply that the Wehrmacht was under discipline, even that late. And yet another is that they were hoping they could hold out for a negotiated peace in the West. Germans were terrified of what the Soviet armies would do to them, as conquerors, and their worst fears were realized, when the Russians did get there. If the Germans could hold the Eastern Front and buy time to make a deal with the U.S. and Britain, they might save themselves. It was a long shot, and never came to pass. In the end, Germany suffered total defeat, and the Russians sacked Berlin. Fury, indeed. More than enough to go around.

War pictures aren't necessarily everybody's cup of tea. The famous early ones, like ALL QUIET, are famous in large part as anti-war stories. And guys like Wellman and Ford - who weren't shrinking violets - made some ambiguous pictures between the wars. 'Between' the operative word. The movies that came out of American studios during WWII were flag-wavers, how not? Then a little doubt begins to creep in. There's a story I heard that somebody, and it might have been Wellman, told Lewis Milestone he thought A WALK IN THE SUN was fake from beginning to end, which is pretty strong. Point being, is authenticity the sell? And say it is, are you obligated in any way to watch these movies?

BAND OF BROTHERS more or less sets the bar, for my money. I own the boxed set, and I've done the whole thing three or four times. Then again, I had a girlfriend a few years back, who was a screenwriter, and she hated war pictures. Hated. I told her the screenplay for PATTON was a model of movie architecture, but she couldn't bring herself to sit down and plug in the DVD. I get it. The single most effective sequence in PATTON, to my mind, is the war prayer, the voice-over. It also happens to be the only scene where you see men stumble and die, the snow around them lit up with artillery impacts, and you count the cost. Where to draw the line? I haven't fully made up my mind.

We're saturated with images, some real, some imagined, and all of them manipulated for effect. They make us uneasy, or uncomfortable. There's a squirm factor. Robert Capa's famous photograph of a Spanish Civil War solder in the moment of his death, or the Saigon police chief, putting a bullet in the head of a
VC suspect. Do we need another one? FURY reminds us, I think, that war is a bitter business. Good men die. Sometimes they die for dumb-ass reasons, bad generalship, unnecessary objectives, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not about the irony. It's that we seem to be hard-wired for the warrior gene. Which is still too convenient an answer, that the fault lies in our stars. Perhaps we're drawn, by instinct and muscle memory, to the elemental. To the point of no return, a place where choice determines nothing. We're in the hands of God, or mischance, and death is only the final accident of life.

The dead speak to us from a place we can't know, but we can hear their voices, if we listen for them. The lessons of war can be heard in the voices of the dead. They become interpreters. In this narrow sense, then, war stories have something to tell us. Of course, it's a mixed message.

25 March 2015

Dead Zero

I came to Steve Hunter somewhere in mid-career - I mean his - when I read HOT SPRINGS, which came out in 2000. The next book I read was DIRTY WHITE BOYS, which had been released in 1994. Then, like a lot of us do, I went back and started at the beginning, with THE MASTER SNIPER, from 1980, and read the rest of his novels in order. Although some of them are stand-alones, most of them focus on a Marine sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, who saw combat in Viet Nam, and his dad, Earl, a Medal of Honor winner in the Pacific war. And the books cross-pollinate, in the sense that some members of the cast have running cameos.

My own personal favorite in BLACK LIGHT, and when I suggested to Hunter in an e-mail exchange that I guessed his own favorite was TIME TO HUNT, he admitted it was true. My reasons for liking BLACK LIGHT are its nimbleness and canny plotting, and I think Steve's reasons for liking TIME TO HUNT are about emotional resonance.

I have to say that a couple of the recent Bob Lee books left me somewhat lukewarm. DEAD ZERO and SOFT TARGET let a little too much of Hunter's politics leak in. I could say the same of John LeCarre, in all fairness. Hunter's somewhere off to my Right, and LeCarre more to my Left. (I found ABSOLUTE FRIENDS enormously irritating.) Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have once said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

Mind you, I love the gun stuff in Hunter's books. I got no issue with it. But everybody doesn't feel the same way. He tells a story where somebody said to him, Gee, they liked the books, but they got bogged down in the guncraft, and couldn't there be less of it? Which reminds me of a Tony Hillerman anecdote. When he pitched the first of his Navajo mysteries, THE BLESSING WAY, one agent came back and told him, This is pretty good, but can you get rid of all that Indian crap? I guess you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

Which brings us to SNIPER'S HONOR, out this past year.

Two linked plot lines. The first is the Ostfront in 1944, a Russian sharpshooter, Mili Petrova, and the second is Bob Lee in present day, trying to figure out how come her story had been erased from the historical record. And of course the stories collide. I happen to really like the device of shifting POV, with the past impinging on the present, not least because I've used it myself. (The bounty hunter novella DOUBTFUL CANYON has two interdependent narratives, told fifty years apart.) In the case of SNIPER'S HONOR, the game's afoot in Ukraine, and Mili and Bob Lee traverse the same terrain, with both similar and competing obstacles in their path. Mili setting up a thousand-yard cold-bore shot on a particularly loathsome Obergruppenfuhrer-SS - think Reinhard Heydrich - and Bob Lee tracking her from a distance in time, but seeing her boots on the ground in his mind's eye.

This is some trick, too, and what you might call a lap dissolve, in movie terms, where you see the landscape mapped out, with a sniper's eye (or rather, two sets of snipers' eyes), and how their parallel approach to the target intersects. The suspense is killing me. Does she make the shot? You know better than to ask. You'll find out on p. 327, point of aim, range, trajectory, bullet weight, deflection - let's just say a few variables.

What you really want to know is, though, is the Master Sniper back on game? I'm here to bear witness. There's a boatload of gun stuff, sure. I ate it up. There's one hell of a good story, too, at both ends. And there's just deserts. (I checked the spelling on that.) Is there anything more you need? Well, the next book, I, RIPPER, is out this coming May. Knife work, I'm thinking. Gaslight. Cobblestoned streets, greasy with damp. Arterial spray. I can't hardly wait.

11 March 2015

Foyle's War

I've been on a Brit bender, lately. Here's another one.
FOYLE'S WAR started running in 2002, and it's still on. Like a lot of British television, they only make three or four episodes a season - but each episode has an hour and a half runtime, and has a five-week shooting schedule. For another thing, it's shot on Super 16MM, not high-def video, which is more expensive, but gives the show the feel of a feature picture, depth of field and a nice saturated color. They put the money up on-screen where you can see it.

The gimmick of the show - you want to call it that - is that it's wartime Britain, 1939-45, and superintendent Foyle (who'd rather be actively serving) is assigned to criminal cases, on the homefront. These, given the genre, are murder mysteries, but the war is always present, in the foreground or just over the horizon.

The canvas is quite broad, although the stories generally resolve themselves in the homely and familiar, the domestic disturbances of daily life. The constants, an illicit affair or an unwanted pregnancy, envy, greed, wrath, and pride, are the usual suspects, but they often involve wider anxieties: the German bombing raids, fears of an impending invasion, rationing and the black market, war profiteers, isolationists and Nazi sympathizers, spy-hunters from Special Branch, the code-breaking at Bletchley, the rescue from Dunkirk, these have all figured in the plotlines. Nor is it window-dressing. The war becomes a character.

Foyle is played by Michael Kitchen, one of those actors you sort of remember, but can't quite place the name. I first noticed him in TO PLAY THE KING, the sequel to HOUSE OF CARDS - the original, with Ian Richardson. Kitchen has a lived-in face. He makes Foyle seem approachable, but there's a weariness, something held in reserve, an inner, or even inward, person. Once in a while, the well-mannered mask slips, and the steel shows through.

An interesting director's device I noticed. They use a lot of close-ups, which is common in television, but in this case, there are often long, very tight shots of Foyle, where you see only a slight facial movement, a tug of his mouth, or his eyes downcast, and then an up-from-under glance. The visual equivalent of Columbo's near-exit line, "Oh, just one more thing - "

When you do period drama, it's more than the vintage cars, or everybody wearing hats. It's about the psychological environment, the circumstance, the way people think. I know this myself, from writing the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place in late 1940's postwar New York, and Janice Law, to take a not-so-random example, is careful in her Francis Bacon novels not to fall into anachronism, meaning her world (and Bacon's) is
pushing up against the Modern, but it hasn't quite arrived, yet. It's just around the corner. This is the background music of FOYLE'S WAR. Nobody knows for sure that Hitler's going to be beaten, or whether England will survive. They go about their business with possible calamity waiting in the wings, but they keep their wits, and their common decency. Foyle is heroic, not because he has extraordinary powers, or sees behind the curtain, but simply because he does his job, in a trying time. He rises to the occasion. This is the persistence of the everyday. Life, in its messy particulars, stumbles ahead. The war effort is one thing, just keeping your head above water is another.

22 October 2014

Dreadful - John Horne Burns

The big books that came out of the Second World War are THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and THE YOUNG LIONS. They were successful at the time, and they're still read, if not the Irwin Shaw so much, which is a shame.

My dad, though, who was himself a Navy vet - the North Atlantic, the Med, and later the Pacific - had a soft spot for John Horne Burns' THE GALLERY, which is a series of linked stories about Naples, under Allied occupation. It's fallen between the cracks, these days.

I discovered an odd, tangential connection of my own to Jack Burns, when I went to the Loomis boarding school, in the 1960's. He'd taught at Loomis, after the war, and then got mired in a scandal of his own making. THE GALLERY had been published in 1947, and got terrific reviews. Jack was on the cover of Saturday Review. A little full of himself - or past caring - he gave an interview to the Boston GLOBE where he waxed snide about Loomis' provincialism. It didn't sit well with the headmaster, the imperious Nathaniel Horton Batchelder, who called Jack on the carpet. Not long afterwards, Jack and Loomis parted ways.

The next novel he published was LUCIFER WITH A BOOK, a poisonous diatribe about a thinly-disguised New England prep school. You wouldn't find it in the Loomis library. And by the time I got there, Jack Burns was the name nobody spoke out loud. There was something else, too.

Jack was gay. He didn't come out of the closet until after he'd left, but it was pretty much an open secret with most of the Loomis faculty, if not the boys. This isn't what put him in Dutch with Batchelder, one of those muscular Christians whose world-view probably didn't admit of Jack's persuasions, but it was one last nail in his coffin.

One of those odd coincidences, another guy who was at Loomis, a few years after I was, is David Margolick, who got interested enough in the Jack Burns mystery to write a biography, DREADFUL. David and I wrote a couple of letters back and forth, it happens, but I couldn't shed much light on the contretemps, other than the enormous silence that descended whenever Jack's name came up. To me, the interesting thing is that David's curiosity was put in play by that very silence. In other words, banishing Jack from living memory only served to whet our appetites, the temptation in the forbidden. You might even find there's a metaphor, here. Jack Burns drawn to the flame.

He wasn't, by all reports, a very nice guy to be around, and he certainly didn't suffer fools gladly. What struck me, re-reading THE GALLERY again, is how chilly it is, even contemptuous. His sympathies aren't invested. You begin to feel sorry for the characters because he so obviously isn't, which is off-putting, as if they really aren't worth his time. I'm not suggesting in the least that this is homosexual self-loathing, but the distance he puts between you and the book creates a disturbance. You wonder why you should care. I don't think this is a conscious effect. I do think it betrays a deep, glacial reserve in Burns. He won't let himself show any weakness. He may have been like that in life, brittle and guarded, all too vulnerable.

He drank himself to death, in Florence, in 1953. He was thirty-six.

08 October 2014

Seeds of Destruction

One of the first places I went to, after I moved to Santa Fe, was Los Alamos, and as it happens, Fuller Lodge was open to visitors. Fuller Lodge, for those of you who don't know, was essentially the social center for the people working on the Manhattan Project. Some dancing to 78's on an old turntable, quite a few martinis, a lot of cigarettes. An opportunity to let your hair down. Fuller Lodge anchored what was know as Bathtub Row, back in the day - what was left of the original buildings from the boys' boarding school that was the only fixture on the mesa before the Army Corps of Engineers came. The other barracks and housing were prefabs and Quonset huts, knocked together quick and dirty for incoming personnel. 

Going up to the Hilltop, as Los Alamos is known, locally, isn't any different from driving into any other town of about 12,000 people. The national lab is the biggest employer, admittedly, and Los Alamos county has the highest per capita income of any county in New Mexico, but there are supermarkets and coffee shops and laundromats and chain stores, which gives it an air of generic normalcy, like Belmont, Massachusetts, or Ashland, Oregon. The difference being that Los Alamos is a complete invention, sprung full blown from the brow of Zeus, or more accurately, from the imagination of Gen. Leslie Groves, the guy who built the Pentagon. Los Alamos was designed for one purpose only, to beat Hitler to the atom bomb.

I was fascinated by the place. Under that placid surface, its air of normalcy, and hiding in plain sight, there was a huge and dangerous secret. I picked up a book called ATOMIC SPACES, which wasn't so much about the Manhattan Project per se as it was about the day-to-day, the homely and domestic - the wives and kids, the local Hispanics recruited as maids or gardeners, the segregated black units off on the periphery - the detail that falls through the cracks of history. And the first story I wrote, in New Mexico, was about that stuff. It was called "The Navarro Sisters," and it introduced Rio Arriba sheriff Benny Salvador. Groves himself was a character, too - he shows up as a cameo in a later Benny story, "Old Man Gloom" - and the story hinged in part on the gaps in his security.

Groves was obsessed with keeping the whole thing under wraps,
and for good reason. Werner Heisenberg, in Berlin, was researching the same physics, and nobody knew how close he was. (It turned out later that Heisenberg might well have been dragging his feet, but that's a tale for another time.) Groves, in fact, wanted the separate disciplines compartmentalized, so his science guys couldn't compare notes. He even suggested they be commissioned as officers, and subject to military punishment if they broke silence.

Groves had brought Robert Oppenheimer on board to run the program, and Oppenheimer said no. That's not how it works. They need to rub up against each other, they need to set off sparks, like static electricity. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You could perhaps see this as a larger metaphor. The bomb was greater than the sum of its parts. And what Oppenheimer understood was that success depended on cross-fertilization. The metallurgists and the physicists, the mathematicians and the engineers, they couldn't operate in isolation, or opposition. They weren't competing. It was all about comparing notes.

Like any good partnership, the tensions between Groves and Oppenheimer produced the result, in the end. A fission device. They set up the test shot. Waiting in the bunker, Edward Teller was taking bets they might set the entire atmosphere on fire. They pulled the trigger, and the bomb lit up the pre-dawn horizon over White Sands. The ground beneath it was fused into glass. Oppenheimer was overheard to say, "I am become Death."

He opposed the actual use of the bomb, against Japan. It was too terrible a weapon. Could they demonstrate it, instead? He was shrugged off. Military necessity. An invasion of the Home Islands would cost a million American lives. They had the means to end the war. It was the only possible choice.

Groves and Teller both later turned against Oppenheimer, each for their own reasons. He was stripped of his security clearance by the Red-hunters, and sidelined. It was a shabby business, all around. Oppenheimer wasn't Faust. He didn't trade his soul for knowledge, or offer to burn his books. He never expressed regret for his part in building the bomb. Morally and practically, it was a necessary effort. He may have flirted with Communism, when he was younger. (His wife Kitty did more than flirt - she was an acknowledged member of the Party.) It's too easy to lose sight of the climate of the 1930's, and the war, the coming of the Red Scare afterwards. Desperate times, desperate measures. Oppenheimer was a product of that age, greater than the sum of his parts. He was both the New Adam, and the Old, with a foot in each camp. He became the destroyer of worlds. 

06 December 2013

Days of Treachery

In The Art of Warfare, Sun Tzu says: "All warfare is based on deception."

Tomorrow marks seventy-two years since the Japanese military forces pulled a sneak attack on America's navy at Pearl Harbor. At the time, the U.S. government didn't expect much to happen because the Japanese diplomats were still negotiating in Washington, D.C. to avoid war. We all know how well that turned out. Even though the Japanese had several previous incidents of engaging in military action in other countries without first declaring hostilities, the U.S. did not prepare itself against this same type of incident. Afterwards, president Franklin D. Roosevelt called it "a day to live in infamy." You'd think we'd not only remember that day, but would also learn a lesson from it.

Sun Tzu says: "Attack him when he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."

Turn the clock forward in time twenty-seven years plus a couple of months from Pearl Harbor. At this point, the U.S. had already been at war in Viet Nam for three years. Our commanders and experts should be prepared for anything, but this is a guerilla war and we have a conventional army. We haven't used guerilla tactics since the American Revolution. Other than several Special Forces teams out in the bush, most commanders are still using strategies left over from Korea and WWII.

Happy New Year to you!!!

For centuries, the calendar used in Viet Nam has been the same as the Chinese one, a lunisolar based calendar. Their new year, called Tet Nguyen Dan, generally falls during late January or early February in our western calendar. Tet is the most important celebration of the year for the Vietnamese. Special foods are cooked and the house is cleaned in preparation for this three-day holiday. On the first day, lucky money in red envelopes is given to children and elders, ancestors are worshiped and there is much wishing of new Year's greetings to friends and family. It is a believed custom that the first person to set foot in the house on that morning determines good luck or bad for that house during the rest of the year. To that end, most families took care to invite whoever was to be the first person stepping into their house on that first day. Sometimes, to avoid any bad luck, the owner himself would leave the house just before midnight and return a few minutes after both clock hands had touched twelve.

It had also been a long standing custom in Viet Nam for both warring sides to call a truce during this holiday period. All of the Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians alike, if they could, went back to their family home to celebrate. The American troops weren't able to return to their homes in the U.S., but since the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese had both agreed to the upcoming cease fire, then the Americans could relax for a few days. After all, nothing had happened in-country during the last few Tet holiday truces. Wrong choice again.

Marines retaking the old capital city of Hue
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had long planned a guerrilla uprising in the south for the first morning of Tet. What better way to show the South Vietnamese their future than to have a Communist guerrilla fighter be the first one to step into their house on this special holiday. In the early morning of January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and troops from the north attacked about one hundred major towns and cities, to include Saigon and the U.S. Embassy. To us, it was treachery in breaking the cease fire they had agreed to, but to them it was just good strategy set forth by an ancient Chinese warrior/philosopher.

American troops quickly rallied and defeated the guerrillas. Some places took a day, some took a month to bring back under control. The Communists lost an estimated 45,000 combatants killed in action. The Americans won the battles, but soon lost the war due to pressure from back on the home front.

So, could the Americans have  been better prepared?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." ~ George Santayana

In 1941, the Japanese already had a record of attacking countries without warning. The American intelligence agencies got caught sleeping on the job, or else they ignored the danger signs. They paid no attention to history. Thus the Pearl Harbor attack found us with no good defense in place.

Then, in early 1968, our military and intelligence agencies got caught short again. They failed to remember the lesson from Pearl Harbor. Perhaps if they'd delved into the history of Viet Nam, they'd have found the example left by the Trung Sisters and taken heed.

Trung Sisters on war elephants
For centuries, Viet Nam (or parts of it) had fought for independence against various invaders: the Chinese (at least three times), the French (twice), the Japanese (during WWII), and the Americans and their allies, not to mention several ancient civilizations and kingdoms long gone to dust. During the first Chinese occupations centuries past, the Trung Sisters grew tired of their oppressors, raised an army of Vietnamese patriots and threw the Chinese out for a few years. What was the date of their uprising? Strangely enough, it was February 6th, right about Tet Nguyen Dan for that year.

There have long been shrines to the Trung Sisters and their rebellion, especially in the north and around Hanoi. It's not like their existence was a secret or something forgotten over the centuries. Evidently, we didn't pay attention to the history of the country we were in.

What next?

History is still out there teaching lessons, both to those who care to learn and with hard lessons to those who don't pay attention to her. Which leaves us with the question; do we have more surprises coming in the future, or are we paying attention yet?

10 October 2013

Rewriting History

There is nothing quite like the lure of rewriting history, whether personal, national, or the world at large.  Back in my teaching days, one of the projects students were given was to choose from a list of pivotal points, write what really happened (so that I could know that they knew something about what they were about to mess with) and then what would have happened if...

Charles Martel lost the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE against the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty, which was trying to move up from (current-day) Spain into the rest of Europe.

William the Conqueror had been slain by a stray arrow in the invasion of 1066.  Or pneumonia.  I wasn't picky. 

The Athenians had won the Peloponnesian Wars of 431-404 BCE.  (HINT:  for one thing, Socrates might not have been tried and executed.)

WWI - What if the French soldiers' mutiny of December, 1916 had succeeded?

WWI - What if Russia had stayed in the war under Lenin?

WWI - What if the United States had maintained its isolationist stance and never gotten involved in WWI at all?

WWII - What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor?

WWII - What if Germany had never declared war on the United States?

WWII - What if Mexico had signed a treaty with Germany and declared war on the US?  (Germany actually pursued this.)

WWII - What if Hitler had not invaded Russia, but stuck with hammering England instead?

I had a lot more of these, and the students loved them.  I got some great papers out of them.  People are fascinated by what might have been.

And they're also fascinated with what might have been on the personal level.  We all know people who are trapped in the "what might have beens", longing, looking, wishing that somehow they could change the past.  This desire to change history is one of the reasons, I think, so many people find it so hard to forgive, and I'm not just talking about the big stuff - because what they really want is not an apology, but for whatever it is NEVER TO HAVE HAPPENED.  And that's impossible, unless the alternate universe theory is true, and even if it is, fat lot of good it does us in this universe.

And, let's face facts, we've all played the game (I believe) on the personal level.  What are the five things that you wish you could change about your past?  If five are too many, try three.  Or one.  What would that change about who you are today?  Would it be worth it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I wish I had never started smoking (I'm proud to say that, as of this writing, I have been 3 years cigarette-free, which is still amazing to me).  I wish I had moved to that place, or stayed there, and a few other things I'm not going into here...  But then again (other than the cigarette thing), maybe not.

The truth is, I kind of like being my cranky, eccentric, bookaholic, mystery-writing, perambulating, muttering, sharp-tongued self.  I don't know that I'd trade it in on an alternate Eve.  But it's an interesting thing to think about.

PS - Which of the above historical "what ifs" would you have picked?