Tag Archives: WWII

Searching for Truthiness

When it comes to non-fiction, I go through a lot of “Dude, I should really read that” but very minimal execution on said talking to myself. Aside from my Read More Mysteries! goal (see our Reading Resolutions group post coming at the end of the month…), I’m gonna try for a non-fiction book a month. Wish me luck, ’cause the topics I’m interested in usually come in 400-page tomes.

These three should take me through March:

Derek Boogaard played hockey at the professional level for six years before his death in May of 2011. John Branch’s Boy on Ice explores his career, especially what it meant to have been an enforcer in the NHL, and how his posthumous diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy has changed the league in the seasons since.

bookcoverMy comic book interests run mainly toward the Dark Knight and his crew. Other than some passing trivia about the lasso of truth, I don’t know much about the Amazon warrior princess. I’m hoping to change that with The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was a psychologist whose research on emotion and blood pressure was a major contribution to the modern polygraph test — later the inspiration for that lasso of truth.

bookcover fcbFive Came Back : A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War dives into how the wartime experiences of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra affected their careers, and Hollywood as a whole. Huston and Stevens both served with the Army Signal Corps, a unit responsible for making documentary films. Ford and Wyler were with the Navy and Air Force, respectively, also creating documentary pieces. Capra entered the Army as an enlisted man and worked directly under Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to make the seven-part Why We Fight series of films.

– Jess

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We Can Do It!

It’s the middle of September and I have my Halloween costume picked out. I’m very rarely so prepared at this stage of the game, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m finding that I need to put as much, if not more thought into my costumes than I did as a kid. There will be at least one party hosted by friends and I’ll need something for our annual bash at Woods Run.

This year, I’m going with something that I can put together with items from my closet and a $3-4 trip to the fabric store – Rosie the Riveter.


Simple, yet effective, right?

And of course, I’ve been doing some research on the history of the illustration. Our girl, now commonly known as Rosie, was created by J. Howard Miller, a graphic artist who lived in Pittsburgh during WWII. The poster was commissioned by Westinghouse Electric, and only displayed internally in the company’s factories in East Pittsburgh and the Midwest during February of 1943 – more to inspire the women already working than to recruit – then it disappeared.  The poster was rediscovered by the National Archives in 1982 – the art was unlicensed and it became the feminist symbol we know and love today.

rosie the riveter

Illustration by Norman Rockwell for the May 29. 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

It was Norman Rockwell’s illustration that had far more traction during the war, especially in connection with a popular song at the time also called “Rosie the Riveter.” While the image was loaned out by Rockwell to the US Treasury for use in propaganda during the war, the copyright kept it from reaching  true icon status. The video below from the Library of Congress is well worth the watch for more information about Rockwell and other art from the time:

For further reading about women in World War II home-front propaganda and the real ladies who held it down in the factories, check out these books and this collection of photos!



– Jess, who needs to make herself a vintage Westinghouse Electric badge


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In Advance of Veteran’s Day

“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” – Tim O’Brien

I’ve never served in the military. I have no interest in ever doing so (I’m a big ol’ wimp. I give all the props in the world to those who choose this route). However, one of my go-to genres is a good war memoir. This is probably because of the whole “this is the most realistic thing I’ll never experience for myself” thing.

In college, I took a cluster course called “America at War in the Age of Rock and Roll” – a value-meal sized class that married War Literature and Film with Politics of Rock and Roll (Yay, liberal arts!). I think this played a large part in sparking my interest, thanks to two engaging professors, but especially in reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. While fiction, this reads like any personal account of war that you’ll find.

Despite starting off with the Vietnam War, my interests have been split evenly between World War II and the current war, as they bear the more personal connections (also, HBO’s penchant for producing a really good mini-series). My grandfather served as a Naval radio man in the Pacific theater of WWII; my brother-in-law spent a year at Camp Bucca as an MP.

I absorbed  The Pacific when it aired on TV a few years ago and then promptly read Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Helmet for My Pillow, by Robert Leckie. Did the same thing after finally watching Band of Brothers – Stephen Ambrose’s book is a fine piece of source material.

As for more contemporary tales, my go-to recommdations stem from Generation Kill. Evan Wright, a reporter from Rolling Stone, was embedded with the First Recon Marines in the spring of 2003 as they acted as “the tip of the spear” during the early days of our presense in Iraq. Wright’s outsider-looking-in account is balanced by One Bullet Away, written by Nathaniel Fick, then a lieutenant in that same company. Fick was close to graduating from Dartmoth when he decided to follow his college education with Marine Corps Officer Candidates School. His is one of the smartest memoirs I’ve read.

I only wish there were more from a woman’s perspective, although the Library of Congress has a neat aural history collection from women in their Veteran’s History Project.

Here’s a few more to check out:



– Jess


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Inglourious Basterds

Enough time has passed by now that I shouldn’t be ruining the storyline to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s dual-purpose war movie.  While giving a sidelong glance at the “Final Solution” through the lens of improbable kitsch, the movie also pays homage — on several levels — to Hollywood types and genres.  The frequently-recited premise of the film is that it’s about a group of behind-the-lines Jewish GIs (led by part Apache, part good-old-boy Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines) exacting murderous revenge on the Germans.  Before its release there was even a hint of the film being based on factual events.

First and foremost, this is a Tarantino film:  think Kill Bill (either one) without the leggy blonde, or Pulp Fiction without the Ezekiel-quoting Samuel L. Jackson character (my personal favorite). Just so you can suspend disbelief a little more than you otherwise might, the story is supposed to bring together the Fuhrer, his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and a host of other prominent Nazis at a film premiere in a Paris cinema, where they could be killed by Pitt and his Kosher Commandos.  The theater itself is owned and operated by a young Jewish woman — Shosanna Dreyfus — who escaped being murdered with the rest of her family underneath a French farmhouse in the film’s opening chapter.  In the tradition of  Lee Marvin’sC’mon, Jiminez, move it!“, this film’s tagline would be S.S. Colonel Hans Landa’s breezy “Au revoir, Shosanna” as she runs from the farmhouse where her family had been hiding (Landa is a special kind of guy).

When asked what I thought of the film, I had two responses:  one very shallow and reflexive, the other a little more subjective and thoughtful.  Reflexively I liked it, despite my objections to characterizations and historical accuracy — a little knowledge can be dangerous.  It was entertaining, and I have to admit it appealed (for all the wrong reasons) to my own immature and and sometimes unsophisticated emotional requirements.  I happen to like Tarentino films and this one had the added bonus of severe whoop-ass on Nazis, Brad Pitt tripping on his overdone backwoods accent, and a skinning knife the size of Montana.

So that’s the dollar review.  Over time, other thoughts and meanings became clearer.  There’s the obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1967 masterpiece, The Dirty Dozen — obvious to me, anyway; maybe it’s a Boomer thing.  Some of the parallels jump right out, while others are more subtle.  Both groups are deep behind enemy lines, and rely on enemy uniforms in the tried and true “you will be shot as spies if caught” formula to prolong tension.  Raines’s Jews aren’t misfits in the way the Dozen are, but they might be more certifiably psychotic because they’re so otherwise normal.  Would I rather share a taxi with Eli Roth’s “Bear Jew” (whacks Nazis to death with a bat on command) or Clint Walker’s oversized Dozen character, Sampson Posey?  At least Posey killed his victim in a bar fight by accident, without malice.  Having said that, Tarrantino’s Basterds dont have a Maggot  (Telly Savalas’s scripture-quoting social outcast) to make you appreciate how normal the rest of us are.

If a movie can inspire a degree of serious thought, then this one did bring out an unhappy or unpleasant one:  the primacy of and/or fascination with evil.  When I left the theater I started thinking back to Schindler’s List, which is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel (originally titled Schindler’s Ark).

You might be asking yourself why I’d think that — the two movies are like night and day in their premise and execution, and one is pure fantasy.  But here’s the thing:  I hardly remember Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler or the Yitzhak Stern character played by Ben Kingsley. In Schindler I was consumed by the malevolent, extroverted charm of Capt. Amon Goeth, as performed by Ralph Fiennes. In Basterds, Tarantino’s Landa affected me the same way. Whether historic (Goeth) or fictional (Landa), evil draws us in.


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What if Napoleon Had a B-52 at Waterloo?

That skit — and I don’t remember which of the SNL cast were in it* — may be one of the best one-sentence summations of that offshoot of fiction:  alternative history.

In 30 seconds or less, what distinguishes AH from regular fiction and its close relative, historic fiction?  Well, fiction is fiction.  In 1851 George Payn Quackenbos wrote, in First Lessons in Composition:

Fiction is a species of composition in which events are narrated that have no foundation except in the imagination of the writer.

For historic fiction, take that definition, add your storyline and characters, and deposit them into an event or events that are matters of historic record — Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Columbus sailing from Spain, Gettysburg, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, etc. — and make them part of the story. Even as characters and plot are added, the outcome of history isn’t altered, nor do the facts change. Leon Uris, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Michael Shaara and James Jones come to mind as examples of great authors of the genre.

What is alternative history?  Take the formula for historic fiction and bend history.  Use the characters and plot to alter events and change the outcome: Pickett doesn’t charge, Lincoln goes to bed early, Napoleon gets a B-52, etc.  For me, good AH needs to be plausible and believable, without compelling me to suspend belief.  The change in the course of events or in the flow of history has to be logical . . . but that’s just me.  There is certainly excellent AH that borders on (or is outright) science fiction, but that sets my “plausibility meter” going.

Recently several authors’ works have drawn me in. Among them are:  

Robert Conroy, whose books take the titles of the years he’s altering: 1862, Conroy 18621901, 1942, 1945, and Red Inferno: 1945.  They are dominated by war, but they aren’t techno-thrillers.  The circumstances are very credible, the characters are sympathetic, but all too human; they could be us. Conroy’s historic twists are well thought out and compelling.  In one or two cases he has to line up a copious quantity of ducks to have events fall into place as he intends, but he’s the author, and he gets to do that.

GettysburgNewt Gingrich, collaborating with William Fortchen, has also written an enjoyable and plausible set of novels that include a civil war trilogy: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat.   They also collaborated on an equally well-written pair of books, Pearl Harbor and Days of Infamy, which explore the emerging diplomatic crisis between the United States and Japan and culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As in Conroy’s 1952, Hawaii doesn’t remain uncontested.

Harry Turtledove, one of the deans of AH, and perhaps its most prolific How Few Remainwriter.  Turtledove has published over 50 books ranging from true AH to regular sci-fi.  He’s not as conventional as Conroy or Gingrich & Co., but can easily draw the reader in. 

Turtledove has written several series that cross over each other, covering almost 100 years of history from the Civil War through the mid-1940s.  In How Few Remain, the work that introduces this combination series, the Confederacy is victorious over the Union, and both U.S. and world history going forward are radically changed. Utah and Quebec are independent republics, and Imperial Germany is the ally of a rogue United States, while the Confederate States of America are allied with Britain. The next sets of series, the Great War and American Empire trilogies and the Settling Accounts tetralogy, provide a thorough and well-planned century of angst and patriotism, as well as the rise of a Nazi-like movement and unmitigated efforts by the stronger but unsuccessful North to reunify the two Americas.

Turtledove stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but also presents the most disturbing scenarios that ask hard questions in the guise of literature.  Could Americans be just as susceptible and guilty as the Germans of two generations ago were of “just following orders?”

The Plot Against AmericaAnd — last, but certainly not least — Philip Roth, who asks the same questions Turtledove does in his pseudo-autobiographical work of fiction, The Plot Against America.  In Roth’s case, the backdrop is an America confronted by a Europe at war, domestic politics dominated by America Firsters, and Charles Lindbergh as president.  Like Turtledove, Roth wonders if American democracy and its traditions of liberty and individual belief could withstand everything thrown at it.  Roth portrays a U.S. dominated by the isolationist sentiments that were very prevalent in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. His projections for what could have been aren’t wholly unwarranted.


*Editor’s Note:  According to this transcript, both Jane Curtin and John Belushi were involved.

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