Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eagle Against the Sun

Yes, Christine’s military history seminar returns once again, with a brief detour into World War II. This shoots Ohio State University’s reading list all to hell, of course.

OSU’s list ordered me to read eight general works before going on to European and American military history. I read three before hopping to the end of the list. When I checked the World War II book out of the library, I imagined a room full of militant academics, all wearing those Prussian helmets with the spikes, shouting “Nein! Nein! You must follow the plan!”

My latest book is Eagle Against the Sun by Ronald H. Spector, which deals with the American war with Japan.

I took this bold step after seeing the movie “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood and shot from the Japanese point of view. (1) The main character was very engaging. We meet him digging trenches on the island’s volcanic, ashy beach, preparing for the American invasion. “Why do the Americans want this little shit island?” he asks his friend as he digs. “As far as I’m concerned, they can have it.”

I didn’t know squat about Iwo Jima when I saw the movie. I didn’t even know that famous picture of the Marines raising the flag was taken there. Naval histories bored me to death; I always skipped the Pacific theater in World War II books. But the Japanese in the Iwo Jima movie intrigued me. They had a brilliant commander and a harsh but admirable philosophy. What was the war against them like? So I hauled out Ohio State’s reading list and found “Eagle Against the Sun.”

I tell you, after three books describing military strategy and philosophy, “Eagle” read like a dime-store novel. I could actually concentrate on one war in one century in one area of the world. No more time traveling between Thermopolaye, Waterloo and the Franco-Prussian War within one paragraph. No more treatises on the development of spears and tercios and matchlock rifles. (2) Instead, “Eagle” had the American and the Japanese fleets and a ton of dinky islands and that was it. Excellent.

But now that I’ve finished “Eagle,” I find it a difficult book to summarize and review. Clausewitz and Kennedy and MacNeill spoke from the sunny heights of military theory and philosophy. They invited you to join the command centers of battle, where maps and strategies and civilized discussions reigned.

“Eagle Against the Sun” was very different. The reader did spend the first few chapters snug in his armchair, discussing the American state of mind (complacent, isolationist and ill prepared) and the Japanese state of mind (militant and bragging, but also ill prepared). The navies of both countries were enamored by a troublemaker named Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval historian whose book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” (thankfully not on the reading list), influenced naval strategy in WWII.

Mahan imagined big fleets of battleships that would fight one decisive battle and win “command of the sea.” It all sounded very dramatic and fun, so everyone went around dreaming of big guns, big ships and big battles, and practically ignoring torpedos and aircraft. The American navy endlessly replayed Trafalgar (1805) and the Battle of Jutland (1916) up to World War II. (3)

But reading Mahan wasn’t a great idea. As Spector put it, “Japanese naval officers , too, had inhaled deeply the heady, if somewhat musty, fumes of Mahan’s classic brew of imperialism and salt water.” Many historians believe that Japan’s fanatical efforts to bring about Mahan’s “decisive battle” contributed to its defeat.

So in the first few chapters of “Eagle Against the Sun” I was in familiar territory, reading about strategy and snickering at clueless, if influential, historians (remember Clause making fun of Jomini?). Pearl Harbor was described with drama and emotion – you could almost hear the dramatic music swelling in the background.

But then Ronald Spector turned to the actual war and the party was over. Before I knew it, I was thrown into the battles: the Philippines, Midway, Massacre Valley, Guadalcanal, the Gilberts, Kwajalein, the Marianas, all the way to Leyte and Luzon. I started carrying around a world atlas so I could figure out where all the teeny islands were. I didn’t know the outcome of most of the battles, so I followed the war’s twists and turns with wide eyes, elated by the victories, but most of the time just angry and sad.

But all in all, I’m glad I broke ranks and skipped to the end of the reading list. When I go back to reading general strategy (Peter Paret’s giant tome, “Makers of Modern Strategy” is glowering at me from the bookshelf), I won’t forget the suffering that all those abstract discussions ultimately lead to.


1) I liked it much better than “Flags of our Fathers,” which I rented later and found disjointed and occasionally dull.

2) The third book, “Pursuit of Power” started with 1000 AD and devoted pages to the development of iron weapons. It was enough to make a grown woman cry.

3) I will never cease to goggle at that. Trafalgar was um, against Napolean, you know. The ships had sails and were made of WOOD, guys.


Monday, April 09, 2007

The Dark Gloomy Spring of Our Discontent

When last we posted on BabySpace, our intrepid heroine was preparing her house for sale. The water heater was replaced and the basement floor stripped down to gloomy dark concrete. All that remained was a litany of picky awful chores before the house was revealed to the world.

Well, we did it, but not without more loss of funds and some serious psychological trauma. Truly, it's been too painful to write about. A simple repainting of a corner of our home office turned into a major project requiring new paint on the walls, ceiling and doorway. Ron and I tried to do it, but the project dragged on for weeks until I finally brought in two seriously weird guys to throw a little paint around. Meanwhile another guy installed carpeting and tile in the basement and Barry returned to replace our dryer vent.

The night before our home's debut on Sunday, March 4, Ron and I worked like dogs all day and were relaxing around 11 p.m. when I decided to put some cute towels in the basement's half-bath. I went downstairs and promptly stepped into a huge puddle of water. Apparently the washing machine had had a nervous breakdown and leaked all over the laundry room and into the half-bath. Ron and I gloomily mopped up the puddle, vowing never to own a home again.

The next day we gussied up the house some more. Then, one hour before the open house, while Benny was napping, I realized the upstairs toilet had been bubbling for a while. Suddenly we were in crisis mode again, because we couldn't make it stop. Ron nearly tore the thing apart, then considered turning it off, when finally, 20 minutes to the open house, it quit bubbling and we could grab Benny and flee.

The open house went well, so I went on to the second tier of picky to-dos in March. Nothing was easy. I needed to get the shades in the dining room cleaned, for example. But these aren't ordinary shades, these are fancy-linen-paneled shades with cute tassels, purchased by Crazy Phil, our home's former owner. I talked to two drapery stores and a dry cleaner before someone could tell me what the damn things were called (Roman shades). Then I visited two cleaners before I found someone who could deal with them. Apparently these shades were custom-made and cost hundreds of dollars. They certainly cost a pretty penny to clean. And the cleaning guy was kind of nuts, cornering me when I came to get the shades and talking about how women in labor shouldn't use drugs and sick people should Just Welcome Jesus.

With the house finally in order, we addressed our sadly neglected yard. We spent hours in late March raking leaves and spreading mulch and pulling up a few early-bird weeds. Ron repaired the winding path in our backyard and brought in rocks and dirt to fill up Lake Leuty, a puddle that appears whenever we get a lot of rain.

The front yard looked really good, with dozens of purple and white flowers popping up everywhere. I was very proud. We enjoyed the spectacle for three days, then an April snowstorm fell on us and wiped out everything. All our flowers are dead. I had to dig Benny's winter coat and scarf out of storage and I still haven't found his hat. Temperatures have been in the 20s for more than a week. Today it's 40 degrees and I'm pathetically grateful.

So the house has been on the market for about a month now. Lots of showings, sometimes twice, but no offers yet. I yearn for warm, sunny days and monied home buyers who don't like flowers anyway.