Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Price of Leadership: An excerpt from "Master and Commander"

In Patrick O’Brian’s book“Master and Commander” the sixth chapter begins with the ship’s doctor on land thinking about how men age.  After college, in my early 30s, I decided that the price of taking power was far too high, so I determined to be a journeyman at writing rather than a leader.  Dr. Mathurin’s reflections fit my own experience and make me glad of my choice.  Mathurin is thinking about what happens to men as they age and become absorbed by their profession and set on a path by the cumulative effect of their choices. He sees middle age, around 40, as where the line is crossed and is talking specifically about a mid-career Lieutenant, James Dillon:

“It appears to me a critical time for him…a time that will settle him in that particular course he will never leave again, but will persevere in for the rest of his life.  It has often seemed to me that towards this period [middle age] … men strike out their permanent characters; or have those characters struck into them. Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working through, and the man is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it deeper and deeper (a groove or channel), until he is lost in his mere character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to this character.  

James Dillon was a delightful being. Now he is closing in. It is odd—will I say hear-breaking?—how cheerfulness goes: gaiety of mind, natural free-springing joy. Authority is the great enemy—the assumption of authority. I know few men over fifty that seem to me entirely human: virtually none who has long exercised authority. The senior post-captains here…Shriveled men (shriveled in essence: not, alas, in belly). Pomp, an unwholesome diet…pleasure…at too high a price, like lying with a peppered paramour. Yet Lord Nelson, by (Captain) Jack Aubrey’s account, is as direct and unaffected and amiable a man as could be wished. So, indeed, in most ways is Jack Aubrey himself; though a certain careless arrogancy of power appears at times. His cheerfulness at all events is still with him.  

How long will it last? What woman, political cause, disappointment, wound, disease, untoward child, defeat, what strange surprising accident will take it all away? But I am concerned for James Dillon: he is as mercurial as he ever was—moreso—only now it is all ten octaves lower and in a darker key; and sometimes I am afraid in a black humour he will do himself a mischief. – page 202-3.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman: War and Peace set in the 20th Century

“Stalingrad” by Vasily Grossman opens with the sentence:

“On 29 April 1942 Benito Mussolini’s train pulled into Salzburg station, now hung with both Italian and German flags.”

In the first two chapters of this thousand-page novel are a description of a meeting between Adolph Hitler and the Italian fascist dictator. Mussolini is the older of the two, but the junior partner. Mussolini notes the signs of age and exhaustion in the 53-year-old Hitler. Hitler notes the decline in square-jawed Italian who is approaching his 60th year.

Hitler describes his plans for a post-war Nazi-dominated Europe.  As he does, Mussolini sees Hitler as vain and stupid. Mussolini knows he is the smarter of the two, but Hitler has such overwhelming numbers in men and machines, that he can only accept his role as the junior partner. 

Hitler believes one great thrust into Russia will put him in control of all of Europe. Britain will capitulate, America will stay away, and he will be able to concentrate on the new world he created. 

Nothing turned out as Hitler planned.

Grossman is a wonderful storyteller.  This novel in two volumes is nearly 2,000 pages, “War and Peace” set in the 20th Century centered on Stalingrad.  I read second volume “Life and Fate” in 2015.  The first volume was just published in English translation. 

Grossman was a Russian war correspondent throughout the Second World War. Russians everywhere read his dispatches from the front. 

That storytelling ability pulls the reader in, keeping the vast tale personal and close.  After showing the plans of Hitler through the jealous eyes of Mussolini, the next few chapters follow Vavilov, a father in his forties who gets a notice to report for military service the next morning. His son is already in the Army. Vavilov looks with love around his hut and does what he can to make sure his wife and family can survive the next winter without him.

Next we are at a dinner party in Stalingrad. The Nazi armies are still far off, but relentlessly advancing.  The group of professional workers, engineers, doctors, academics, speculate about what will happen to Stalingrad, to Russia, to themselves. 

Then we switch again to following a woman who is an industrial chemist checking for pollution in Soviet factories.  Just Tolstoy moved from ordinary life to war and back, Grossman draws a panorama of the battle for Stalingrad.

I loved “Life and Fate” and am looking forward to how the first volume unfolds. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Old Soldier: New Ignition

I just finished walking two miles because I rented a car with a pushbutton ignition--and I dropped the key!
I rented a 2019 Mitsubishi SUV to bring my son home for the 4th holiday, then to visit his sister Lauren and Godparents Stanley and Terry Morton and in Richmond.
Today I took some recycling to the drop-off point before returning the SUV. As I left the center, I dropped the keys, but the ignition was running so I drove away. I stopped a mile away to an Asian grocery store and the car would not restart. No key.
I knew where the key was, so I called the recycling center. They have a phone with a real answering machine. While I was leaving the message, the manager picked up, we made a couple of jokes about keys, and I walked the rest of the way.
As I returned, the only parked car on the side of the street where I was parked was my rental car. The street sweeper was 50 feet away. I jumped in the the car and took off before I got a $25 ticket.
After that, I bought pickled ginger and went home. Now I am going to return the rental car.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Tank Cannon Splits Turret in Half Every Time We Fire

Every time a gunner pulls his trigger in a tank and fires the main gun, the turret is split in  half as the gun recoils--stopping just a couple of inches before the rear of the turret. 

As the gun snaps back into place, the spent shell pops from the breach, a nearly yard-long cylinder of hot aluminum that bounces from the back of the turret to the turret floor. 

I was thinking about that black cannon cutting the turret in half and the clattering cannon shell bouncing in the turret because I am reading "Master and Commander" by Patrick O'Brian. This exciting book about late 18th Century sea battles explains gunnery at sea in considerable detail, including the injuries common when firing a battery of muzzle-loaded cannons on a ship at sea.  Crushed feet, burned faces, smashed arms, bodies trapped between guns, all these injuries happen frequently enough for Captain Jack Aubrey to say during a long fight, "The guns are as deadly to the crew as to the enemy." 

It reminded me that I could not remember anyone who was injured by our 105mm cannon snapping back in a black blur of recoil then spitting a spent shell as it returned to its lethal place.  I am sure many armor crewman have been injured in a tank turret in the hundred years since tanks debuted on the battlefield, but it did not happen in my tank. 

I am glad to have dangerous fiction and safe reality. 


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Evolution: Israelis and American Jews Grow Apart

in the Sinai during the Six-Day War in 1967

I love Evolution. Not only is it one of the most brilliant theories in the history of science, fundamentalists of every kind just hate it and Charles Darwin is not Jewish, not even a little!!

As a Jew, I have heard the sub-text of criticism of science all my life. Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, brilliant Jews without number have been disparaged for their work by people who hate Jews. But the man fundamentalists hate the most is as thoroughly English as Windsor Castle and the family that lives there.

Darwin, the reclusive English gentleman, developed a theory of life so sweeping that critics, especially religious conservatives, are still trashing his theory 150+ years later: a theory that has proven as tough and durable and resistant to flame as cast iron frying pans. 

Most of all, I am delighted at examples of Evolution working right in front of our eyes. The way to see Evolution work is to take a population of any living thing, separate it into two or more parts as far away from each other as possible, a water barrier is especially good, and watch the two populations change.

Darwin famously illustrated his theory with Galapagos finches.  Gil Hoffman, politics reporter at the Jerusalem Post, showed me how evolution occurred with Jews living in Eastern Europe, primarily Poland and Russia and nearby countries, for hundreds of years before the 20th Century, when everything changed.

At the end of the 19th Century, that population began to divide into two parts.  Zionists left to restore Israel as a nation. Others, like my own grandparents, left for America. 

You could say there were three groups: those who left for America, those who left for the land that would become Israel, and those who stayed.  In 1939, those who stayed were the largest group. By 1945, millions were slaughtered and many survivors fled Europe for the Middle East or North America.  Beginning in the 1970s, more than a million Russian Jews would flee to Israel and America, continuing the trend. 

But the early Zionists and my grandparents in America were the populations that separated and evolved.

Jews who fled for America largely assimilated. The tailors and shopkeepers and laborers had children who became doctors, lawyers and the writers who shaped American literature, Broadway and Hollywood.  They were American success stories. The Zionists became pioneers, making the desert green, fighting for survival, eventually gaining independence and becoming one of the fiercest Armies in the world. 

One culture produces Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon. The other gives the world Jerry Seinfeld and Philip Roth.  All four brilliant in their own way, but no doubt who you would call if you were under attack. 

American and Israeli Jews speak a different language, eat different food, celebrate the same religious festivals in different ways and in this century are increasingly separate on politics. 

Gil Hoffman travels regularly between Israel and America.  He spoke at my Synagogue this year.  He worries about the increasing divide between Israel and American Jews.  He did an excellent episode on the subject on his podcast “Inside IsraelToday” on the Land of Israel Network.

In America, three of four Jews identify as Liberal and/or Democrat and in the same numbers, loathe President Trump.  Israel, in sharp contrast, is one of just three countries in the world that have a positive opinion of Trump: nearly 70% of Israelis have a favorable view of Trump.  The other two countries positive about Trump are the Philippines and Nigeria. Apart form those three nations, the 192 member countries of the United Nations have a negative opinion of America’s chief executive, including America.

As more anti-Semitic incidents happen in America, the gulf between the two communities continues to grow.  Over the last century, American Jews have become much more American: rich, largely insulated from the virulent anti-Semitism of the rest of the world, and driven by personal ambition.

Trump made the alt-right and white supremacists his base, infamously saying there were “fine people on both sides” at an event with one side waving Nazi flags and chanting “Blood and Soil.” Anti-Semitism in America increased rapidly as Trump ran and won his racism-centered campaign.

In Israeli society, universal conscription means the path to power and influence is through the Army.  Israel is under constant threat and defines itself by its readiness to fight with enemies on every side. For Israel, surrounded by enemies, Trump is an ally who moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and pulled out of the Iran treaty that was so unpopular in Israel.  

The political differences between American and Israeli Jews are likely to get worse no matter what the future holds for the two countries.

When groups split and grow apart, the usual trajectory is to grow further apart.  When Gil Hoffman speaks on this topic, he hopes to be a small part of bringing the two groups closer together, even as he reports the news that shows Jews separated by six thousand miles in distance are separating even further in politics and practice. 

I am going to try to live part of my life on both sides of the divide. I am planning to spend the first three months of 2020 traveling in Israel.  For Jews, anti-Semitism is a question of if, not when. Israel is a place of refuge for all Jews everywhere. So I want to know and experience more of the Land of Israel.  We’ll see how my thinking evolves.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Digging Up My Cold War Past: Moving Day Soon

We are moving to a new house next month. Our six kids are in or through college so six bedrooms is more than we need.  As we cleaned the garage, I found this in a corner. My now grown sons used it to play in the yard more than a decade ago. 

In the 70s when I first enlisted, this basic issue.  All of my time in the Cold War Army, I was an Armor Crewman, so I never actually carried my entrenching tool in the field.  But it was fun to look at this old pick/shovel and think this simple, effective tool was part of my life from soon after I graduated from high school. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Grandpa Hyman: My Favorite Draft Dodger

My grandfather Hyman Gussman dodged the draft.  He was 44 years old at the time and in Odessa, a Black Sea port in Tsarist Russia.  It was August 1914 and Grandpa had inexplicably visited his former home after emigrating to America in 1900.

When his ship landed at the Odessa docks, the customs officials realized Grandpa was an emigre Jew and sent him to the Army.  Hyman managed to escape and started walking north.  He kept walking for until February of 1915 when he made it to Finland. On the way he almost died from pneumonia, suffered starvation and terrible Russian winter. 

Eventually he got to Portugal and back to Boston.  He lived until 1932 and in that time never left Boston again.  I wrote more about this story here.

Thinking about Grandpa made me realize that my position on draft dodging has some gray area.  Not in the order of Commander-in-Chief: no one should command armies who let another man serve and die in his place.  But in Tsarist Russia in World War I, the draft was a death sentence for Jews.  I am glad Hyman Gussman disobeyed Russian draft law.

The Price of Leadership: An excerpt from "Master and Commander"

In Patrick O’Brian’s book“Master and Commander” the sixth chapter begins with the ship’s doctor on land thinking about how men age.   ...