Verdun

VERDUN: THE LOST HISTORY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLE OF WORLD WAR I, 1914 – 1918
John Mosier

The historian John Lukacs was fond of saying that all history is necessarily revisionist. It’s an observation I’ve often made myself, though for slightly different reasons. That said, I think the pursuit of “lost histories,” as this account of Verdun dubs itself, can be oversold. In my notes on Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 I said much the same of another attempt to uncover something missing from the well-worn record of the First World War. Here it’s even more in evidence.

For some reason John Mosier thinks it significant that the battle of “Verdun” actually covered a wider geography and longer history than is usually credited. But of course there was a broader theatre of operations, and it was characteristic of many First World War battles to turn into bloody campaigns. That there were actually nine (by Mosier’s accounting) battles of Verdun, of which the fifth is the most famous, tells us nothing. Troy was razed any number of times, but we only care about the destruction of Troy VII.

It’s too bad that Mosier insists on being so contrarian. He might have written a decent history of the fighting around Verdun, even keeping his critical brief against the French GQG, in which I find much to agree with. His discussion of artillery and topography is excellent. But one also has the sense that the book was composed in a rush. The treatment of how casualties have been (mis)calculated is confusing. The writing is very choppy and the crude maps are worthless. Some of the conclusions are a stretch (Hindenburg’s rise was only indirectly connected to what happened at Verdun). And still there is the constant straining to somehow set the record straight when that record is mostly just the straw man of contemporary propaganda. “There are limits to writing histories based on government press releases,” Mosier tells us, but how many historians, especially recent ones, have been guilty of such misconduct? For all the insistence revisionist historians place on setting the record straight, I suspect little history has been lost.

Notes:
Review first published online November 7, 2019.

The Gilded Rage

THE GILDED RAGE: A WILD RIDE THROUGH DONALD TRUMP’S AMERICA
By Alexander Zaitchik

There has been much written over the past few years about the Trump voter. The trouble with defining this semi-mythical beast is that people had different motivations for supporting Trump and it’s difficult to come up with a single, if necessarily composite, portrait.

That said, Alexander Zaitchik’s interviews with various Trump supporters while following the candidate’s campaign in 2016 allow us to make some generalizations. A few of these reinforce what has become a stereotype. The Trump voter tends to be older. Most of the people Zaitchik interviews are middle-aged or retired. They are white. They are male (the women we hear from are mostly just echoes of their partners). While some of them are casualties of economic disruptions, many others are relatively well off. A number of them run their own small businesses.

This is the demographic. As far as the psychology goes, it is dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. “What you’re seeing is an angry America,” one West Virginian Trump voter explains. The first interviewee we meet is described as “affable” but immediately said to be “twice angry” because of having to walk so far to a Trump rally and because his mother’s house had been blocked in by Trump protesters (an inconvenience that has, in turn, sent her directly into the Trump camp). Then, when he finally arrives at the rally, he gets a full dose of the candidate’s “hot and burning hatred.”

As is the case with most angry people – that is, people who aren’t upset at one specific thing but who are just angry – their anger is unfocused but invariably directed outward. The two favourite targets are government and the media. We meet one fellow who blames Obama for his marriage breaking down, and another who blames Jimmy Carter for the auto accident he was in. What government and the media represent are the “elites,” meaning groups that should represent, reflect, and be responsive to their rage but which instead are seen as at best uncaring and at worst mocking them.

Racism and misogyny, two of the more popular accusations made against Trump voters, come across as secondary, if present at all. Instead, what they most despise is the government, and the public sector more generally. They are true believers in capitalism and markets, despite what those forces may have done to them. Hence the importance to them of Trump’s status as a businessman. Even acknowledging his many failures and multiple bankruptcies doesn’t change this. It’s not important that Trump be a successful businessman; it’s enough that he has market values at heart, that he understands the world of business and isn’t someone just feeding at the public trough.

Meanwhile, what these people have really been betrayed by is the ideology (the preferred term these days is neoliberal) that they so want to believe in. They’ve indeed been screwed, just not by the people they blame the most. Trump the failure becomes, in turn, the perfect vehicle to express their misdirected rage.

Notes:
Review published online October 15, 2019. The diagnosis of anger has been so well analyzed now that I think it stands as more fact than theory. The literature is vast. See, for example, my reviews of Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger and Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.

World Without Mind

WORLD WITHOUT MIND: THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT OF BIG TECH
By Franklin Foer

Over the last twenty years (I think it’s been that long) there have been any number of books published about the impact of the digital revolution on the economy, on culture, on politics, and even on our brains. And while I haven’t done a thorough statistical analysis I think it’s safe to say that the majority of these books have taken a negative view of that impact.

In that regard Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is nothing new. There are two points that he emphasizes that are worth taking note of though. Both stem from his focus on Big Tech not as some impersonal force of nature, but as the expression of a targeted corporate agenda.

In the first place, Foer stresses how we are “not just merging with machines, but with the companies that run the machines.” “Technology” is not an abstraction. It does not provide a public space. There are no neutral platforms. When you interact with the Internet, even if just browsing, you are interacting with a corporation that is monetizing that interaction in some way. We tend not to think about the invisible corporate structures and algorithms that shape our experience of the digital world but we should, because they influence not just what we buy and sell, but what we like and dislike and how we feel about ourselves and others. And this is not a shaping that is taking place naturally. Big Tech is taking a guiding hand. “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.”

The second point Foer makes is related to this same hidden corporate influence. We have a tendency to see the outcomes of the digital revolution as being the result of impersonal, and immeasurably vast, economic forces. The collapse of newspapers or the taxi business are just what happens when billions of consumers decide they want something cheaper, or more convenient, or more immediate. But this is to again underestimate Big Tech’s agency. Foer, editor of a journal that was purchased by one of the accidental Facebook billionaires, had a front-row seat at what was really happening in the world of print media. For the platforms to be profitable, content (or information, or knowledge) had to be made free. Which is to say worthless. This was done deliberately. “The Big Tech companies didn’t just benefit from the economic collapse of knowledge. They maneuvered to shred the value of knowledge, so that the old media would come to helplessly depend on their platforms.” Amazon lowers the prices of books because they don’t want the books themselves to have any value. The value will be in its devices and its site. Google and Facebook punish companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. Which vision has it that, as long as it isn’t Google’s or Facebook’s intellectual property, it should be free. At which point, its value lost, it can be absorbed by the tech giants and remonetized.

The knock-on effects have been catastrophic. “By collapsing the value of knowledge, they [Big Tech] have diminished the quality of it.” And this is just the cultural industry we’re talking about. Much the same goes for most goods and services. Yes we can blame consumers for some of this, if blame is the right word, but we should not ignore the pecuniary motives of those who have profited the most from this great transformation.

Notes:
Review first published online September 3, 2019.

Inside Hitler’s Bunker

INSIDE HITLER’S BUNKER: THE LAST DAYS OF THE THIRD REICH
By Joachim Fest

The classic account of the endgame of the Third Reich, at least for English readers, has long been Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler. Trevor-Roper was there on the spot at the end of the war and his book, which came out in 1946, has mostly stood the test of time. Still, some update after sixty years was probably necessary and one couldn’t ask for a better guide than Joachim Fest, whose work on the history of Nazi Germany stands alone for its readability and insight.

Fest begins by making a bold claim for the importance of Hitler’s last two weeks on (or under) earth. “Nothing gets to the root of what drove [Hitler] all his life better than to examine his behavior during those weeks, when he shut himself off from the world more than ever before.” All of his character traits were, in this period, “concentrated and intensified.” As Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg observed, “Hitler in the bunker – that’s the real Hitler!”

As excellent a “historical sketch” as Fest provides us, I can’t accept this premise. Hitler at the end was a physical and mental wreck. To be sure many of his personal qualities and obsessions became even more exaggerated, but he also went off in some new directions. When he said, for example, that he wanted his epitaph to read that he was “the victim of his generals,” this was in response to his feelings of being abandoned and betrayed at the end. It’s not the kind of thing he would have considered just a few years earlier.

As he did in his superb biography of Hitler (still the best one-volume account available, for my money), Fest intersperses more general reflective and thematic chapters into the narrative account of life in the monkey house (to borrow Trevor-Roper’s name for the Nazi court). In the final one of these he sums up Hitler’s world view, which was strictly (social) Darwinist in its positing of life being an endless war of all against all. In his less guarded moments Hitler would “mockingly denounce morality, religion, and all humanitarianism. In the real world, he declared, more ‘naked’ laws applied.” All moral and political codes meant to protect one human being from another were dismissed not only as deceptive and cowardly but as a sin against Nature, which was both the one true God and an “iron law of logic.”

All of which is a fair description of Hitler’s belief system. The depressing, even frightening thought is that it stands as an equally fair description of a lot of today’s politics as well. Longstanding political principles once held to be sacred, like democracy and the rule of law, are increasingly seen as the sort of “twaddle” Hitler derided. The only thing that matters is winners and losers, Lenin’s “Who, whom?” “What makes Hitler a phenomenon unlike any other in history is that his goals included absolutely no civilizing ideas,” Fest concludes. Perhaps not civilizing, but durable.

Notes:
Review first published online August 28, 2019.

Sons of Cain

SONS OF CAIN: A HISTORY OF SERIAL KILLERS FROM THE STONE AGE TO THE PRESENT
By Peter Vronsky

Toronto author and filmmaker Peter Vronsky has written several books on serial killers, and in the introduction to his latest, Sons of Cain, he explains how his fascination with the subject got started.

In 1979 a twenty-three-year-old Vronsky literally bumped into Richard Francis Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Ripper,” in the lobby of a hotel in NYC they were both staying at. As The Ripper walked past him, a cloth bag he was carrying bonked into Vronsky, with what Vronsky thought might be bowling balls inside. In fact, they were the heads of a pair of Cottingham’s victims.

It’s a wonderfully macabre anecdote and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Sons of Cain covers a lot of ground in its informative, entertaining, and at times idiosyncratic take on serial killers.

In addition to providing a plethora of case studies and forensic background Vronsky also draws from such sources as zombie movies and cultural anthropology. This may be the best way to proceed, as serial killers as we have come to know them are semi-mythical figures, having a place both in the annals of true crime and in the collective consciousness shaped by the media and pop culture.

There is little consensus even among experts on such fundamental matters as how to define a serial killer and how to explain their behaviour. Are they born or made? Are taxonomies of different types useful? And to these basic questions Vronsky adds another: Why has the activity of serial killers seemed to surge at different times and places? Are their numbers going up or down?

Vronsky’s own approach sticks mostly to male, fantasy-motivated sexual killers who are driven by their primitive, reptile brain. He suggests from this that “Serial killers are what Mother Nature intended all of us to be in the wild before civilization.” Each of us has an inner Hannibal Lecter that we have to properly socialize in order to restrain. A provocative thought, but it may be taking evolutionary psychology too far.

Of course the stories are the main draw here. Fans of true crime will enjoy going through the catalogue of evil, stocked with names famous and obscure. But while there’s plenty of carnage to rubberneck there are also lots of interesting and original observations along the way, and perhaps something to be learned. You never know who you might bump into in a hotel lobby.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 17, 2018.

Team of Vipers

TEAM OF VIPERS
By Cliff Sims

Team of Vipers offers a slightly different perspective on the Trump White House. Different, that is, from more critical reports like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. Instead of being the work of a journalist trying to present a factual account of what has been going on behind the scenes (with all the attendant questions over accuracy and sourcing that come with such reportage), Team of Vipers is an insider’s account and, even more remarkably, one written by someone who very much supports Trump and his policies.

Indeed Sims, who was at one point Special Assistant to the President and Director of White House Message Strategy, is more a soul mate than mere kindred spirit. When he refers to Trump as “history’s greatest troll” it is with respect and admiration at the president’s game. One also notes, as a reflection of Trump’s narcissism, Sims’ preening self-regard and obtrusive references to his own fame. There is even a section of colour photos, all of which are of . . . Sims himself, posing with different White House players.

In all of this we may see like calling unto like, but at the end of his tenure Sims advances things a bit further:

Mirroring is the phenomenon in which people subconsciously mimic each other in social settings – their body language, posture, and gestures. In Trump World, mirroring took on a life of its own. At home, I’d find myself repositioning my silverware the same way Trump would at the dinner table. While making speeches I would realize – sometimes in the moment, sometimes while watching video after the fact – that I was using certain Trumpian mannerisms.

That said, even if his narcissism only makes him a mirror of his boss (or “The Boss”), Sims does add something of value to the record. He was there in the West Wing and he took notes, even on conversations that he only eavesdropped. What can we learn from what he tells us?

In the end, very little. Sims has a Manichean view of the world, and despite professing to be a man of faith himself (a title that in this context means nothing), and acknowledging that Trump is not, he sees the Democrats as nothing short of pure evil. A vote for Hillary Clinton, he tells us not just once but twice, would have been tantamount to a vote for ISIS. Given that level of moral and intellectual polarization you can expect a lot of heavy lifting to put into trying to make Trump over as one of the Great Men of history. Or at least we’ll hear him say “There’s an argument to be made that Trump is such a man, whether people like it or not.”

Special pleading abounds. One of Trump’s “core operating principles” is said to be “strong opinions, weakly held.” Most of us would say an opinion that is weakly held is not a strong opinion, but Sims appreciates Trump’s ability to have his mind changed by “compelling evidence.” Other accounts of Trump changing his mind based on whoever spoke to him last or flattered his vanity the most must be less well informed. But doesn’t being changeable make Trump just another politician? Not at all, not at all:

This was different from flip-flopping, which politicians do for political expediency. There’s no doubt he changed his position, but from my vantage point he did it because he was presented with new information. And isn’t that what we want from our leaders?

Well, if you put it that way!

As a story told from Sims’ vantage point we may expect to see certain matters being magnified while others are diminished. Apparently the Rob Porter affair was “the single most damaging hit to the White House’s credibility of the early Trump presidency.” An entire chapter is spent on this affair, which occupied, as near as I can remember, perhaps a couple of daily news cycles. Meanwhile almost no mention at all is made of Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, or the Mueller investigation. (As an aside, there could not have been collusion, according to Sims, because people working in the White House couldn’t even collude with themselves. Or, as would be revealed by the Mueller report, Trump and his minions were simply too stupid to collude.) But more than this, any discussion linking Trump and credibility is rather pointless. Let’s face it, after the debacle over the pronouncement of the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration there was little credibility left to lose.

I don’t think Sims has much credibility, or at least objectivity, either, but at least you know where he’s coming from and in what direction he is spinning things. One comes away with little tidbits that may or may not be significant. Apparently Trump does not write all his tweets, though he does sign off on them. He has a habit of rearranging items on his desk, which Sims attributes to OCD but which may be an indication of mental deterioration. His wife is apparently nearly as big a TV junkie as he is.

The biggest takeaway Sims wants us to have, however, is this: whatever might be wrong with the Trump White House it isn’t the fault of the guy at the top. His problems have all been the result of the incompetent, back-biting sycophants writhing in the snake pit. The Boss rises above this all. Meanwhile, Sims no longer works there, having been drummed out of the White House after a round of palace intrigue. Everything happens for a reason!

Notes:
Review first published online June 18, 2019.

The United States of Anger

THE UNITED STATES OF ANGER
By Gavin Esler

This shouldn’t happen. Timely books such as BBC reporter Gavin Esler’s survey of the political climate in America in the mid-1990s have an extremely limited shelf life. In most cases they are only slightly more enduring than the essays found in weekly magazines. So why return to Esler’s book now, over twenty years after it was published? In part, idle curiosity. But also to see how evident, or even obvious, the roots were of the calamities to come. Were we warned?

As I’ve argued before, the primary (and perhaps only) ideological constant shared by today’s political right is their hatred of government. Whether you’re a billionaire looking for tax breaks and deregulation, a libertarian with a hatred of the nanny state, or a survivalist eagerly anticipating the last days of civilization, the government has become not just an obstacle but a demonic adversary. This is the tie that binds together what Noam Chomsky calls the Republican party’s primary or real constituency (wealth and corporate power) with its popular or voting constituency (the rubes). It is also the force that unites the widespread anger, anxiety, and apathy Esler finds throughout his travels across the nation, the way “the US government is now routinely blamed by many of its citizens for every ill which befalls them.”

Esler begins his book with an anecdote of a woman vacationing in Florida who is told to address her complaints of an alligator in her backyard to a government official. “‘Pah,’ she exploded in disgust. ‘What good did government ever do anybody?’ The word ‘government’ was delivered like a swear-word.” The same observation is made when Esler travels to New Hampshire and meets another such figure:

Choo Choo Caron folds his arms across his chest and purses his lips angrily at the mere mention of the government in Washington. Like the woman tourist in Florida, and countless other taxpayers throughout this book, for Choo Choo “government” is almost a swear word.

The “red scare” of the Cold War had been replaced by the “fed scare” of the 1990s, and not just among the lunatic fringe. “The angriest Americans [that is, angry at the government] turn out to be neither poor nor uneducated nor from racial minorities. They are the white, well-educated middle-classes.”

The result of this is both the delegitimizing of government and the “search for a third party, an independent force of ‘anyone but a politician,’” to run for president. This has, Esler writes, “led voters into eccentric blind alleys,” throwing up figures like the billionaires Ross Perot and Steve Forbes and the television personality Pat Robertson. In the future, he prophesies, such faux-populist figures “will seek to bring about the collapse of one or other of the main political parties. Eventually they will succeed. A genuine third force will destroy either the Republicans or the Democrats.” Chalk one up for the forecaster.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, we have Hillary Clinton. Esler: “The Clintons [note the plural] are despised by a vocal minority of the angriest Americans well beyond any failures of specific policies” or political successes. “It is difficult to think of a president in modern times who inspires quite as much personal loathing as Bill Clinton does. . . . He and his wife are symbols of the ‘Bad Generation’.”

This, I need to emphasize, was twenty years ago. Such feelings do not go away, especially when their objects remain prominently in the public eye. They ripen. Such was the politician who would want to run against the “third force” of Donald Trump.

Esler also had some ideas at the time as to what issues would come to dominate American politics. Immigration in the 1990s “had again joined the angriest issues dividing Americans from each other, as divisive as race relations and with an explosive potential to bring about serious political dislocation.” In a “malign scenario” he draws of a possible future he describes how “immigration will be the most notable scapegoat for ‘stealing American jobs’” and may fuel scaremongers “into demanding solutions along the protectionist and isolationist lines.” “The shock [of relative American decline] will quickly spill over into foreign policy, with the search for new enemies. The Chinese? The European Union? Mexico? Arabs?”

How about all of the above.

As noted, this is Esler’s malign scenario. He does, however, express confidence that, somehow, the centre will hold and America will not cease to be good and great. With hindsight, however, his darker imaginings have more purchase.

The malign scenario is, as its worst, very frightening indeed. America will come apart, increasingly divided on class and racial lines, staggering under a top-heavy bureaucracy, with an out-of-touch governing elite incapable of reform, buffeted by extremists, religious bigots and unscrupulous populists offering simplistic solutions to a shrinking middle class fearful of change.

Fear of change is, in fact, one of the likeliest guarantors of radical, disruptive change. A society can adapt and evolve or it can face revolution and collapse. In not choosing to make a choice a choice is made. Then apathy, as Esler shows, quickly turns to anger. Which will come too late.

Notes:
Review first published online May 21, 2019.