Because other reviews here and elsewhere can provide a good account of this book, I won't try to. But I will offer a suggestion for anyone else who'sBecause other reviews here and elsewhere can provide a good account of this book, I won't try to. But I will offer a suggestion for anyone else who's reading the series.
Though I've had both for a while, having found free copies at my job, I hadn't used them much until I began reading The Surgeon's Mate. Presto! Many details came into focus.
Now I know the difference between a best bower, a small bower, and a kedge (they're different anchors); I know a little more about club-hauling than the novel explained (it's “an emergency method of tacking”); I've seen a historical drawing of a Parisian prison called the Temple, which figures into the story; and I can pinpoint on a map Elsinore, overlooking a narrow strait through which our main characters pass on their way to the Baltic. You can easily lose time wandering around in the lexicon, but I wouldn't say that's much of a loss. ...more
"Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there." That’s on the last page of the book, a review reminds me. It was also used in the rock musical that"Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there." That’s on the last page of the book, a review reminds me. It was also used in the rock musical that was derived from this book. When I saw and reviewed the musical sometime in the 80s, I objected to the line; apparently anticipating current thinking, I was inclined to regard the experience of war for soldiers as personal, private, at least partly inaccessible to others, and even in some way unique. If you don’t know what current thinking I mean, consider how often you’re likely to hear objections such as “You don’t know what it was like” or “You can’t possibly understand how I feel,” or simply recall the widespread tendency to distinguish what happened to The Families (i.e., of 9/11 victims) from anything the rest of us went through.
But that’s a dead-end attitude. There’s not much you can say about an experience that can’t be shared. Besides, as I hope I realized at the time, Herr was right about something important. When he came back to the States, Herr observed that “Out on the street I couldn’t tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock n’ roll veterans.” Pumped up, wigged out, gone electric, the creatures of the rock concerts (Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Altamont) had gone through euphorias and frenzies and nightmares. So had others, which Herr, in his poetic reduction, doesn’t explicitly name: the students who occupied, demonstrated, and sometimes died (Kent State), the rioters (Watts), the political protesters (Chicago ’68). War in the streets? We’d seen it—sometimes anyway, in some of the streets. Vietnam? We had all been there, even if some of us—too young (like me), too old, too otherwise engaged—had been closer to Saigon than to the jungles or anything else.
I probably did get it, back in the 80s, when I wrote about that musical adaptation of Dispatches. (Some personal notes here.) I had read at least some of Herr’s original dispatches in Esquire magazine when they appeared in the late 60s. I bought and read the hardcover edition of Herr’s book when it came out, in 1977. I’d pretty much grown up in the 60s, and in the 70s I had read a cultural history suggesting connections between the war over there and our life back here: in 1966, it pointed out, President Johnson had escalated the bombing in North Vietnam by attacking cities for the first time, and in the same year Bob Dylan, who had been a folkie, used an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, which had been all-acoustic.
America got plugged in and turned on in the 60s. The war was part of it. This book, despite focusing on Vietnam, adds to the bigger picture....more
This is how we often ask questions nowadays: "What's it like [to do physics, to be Lady Gaga]?" We put questions about the past the same way: what wasThis is how we often ask questions nowadays: "What's it like [to do physics, to be Lady Gaga]?" We put questions about the past the same way: what was it like to live near the World Trade Center after the collapse, or to have been in it but escaped?
I'm not sure how far back that goes, but its modern usage appears at the same time as a belief in the isolating qualities of many experiences. Following some expression of sympathy for a loved one lost in war or disaster, for instance, we're apt to hear or to find ourselves saying, "You can't possibly understand what I'm going through [without having lived it]," or "You can't know what it's like." Apparently these situations are not like anything; they resemble only themselves.
This may not be a very meaningful observation. Philosopher Thomas Nagel had no qualms about the expression when he gathered his thoughts about other forms of life under the title "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (Incidentally, his answer was essentially that we can't know.) On the other hand, I'm not alone in noticing that nowadays we often believe we can't convey what something is/was like. French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky remarked on it, in a book that by coincidence I recently wrote about here. Surveying the current state of Western individualism, he notes that many people find it difficult to express themselves and to feel understood.
Whether or not you catch my drift on that point or agree with it, it's noticeable that Jean-Paul Sartre mentions the difficulty more than once in this essay, which he wrote and published in November 1944. The challenge, he says early on, is "how to convey what the occupation was to those who lived in countries that remained free." His immediate next thought: "There is an abyss between us that cannot be overcome by words." Later, he remarks, "It would be difficult to convey the impression that this deserted city made upon us." And a little later still, after describing a "horror" peculiar to the Occupation, in which the Gestapo would make someone disappear at night, while during the day the only Germans they could see appeared to be ordinary people like themselves (note the opening words): "Who would understand me if I said that at the time it was intolerable and that we accommodated ourselves to it quite well?"
Yet despite the declared difficulties, Sartre succeeds remarkably well in conveying the Occupation. He does it not through any abstract analytical means but by accumulation, piling up one concrete report after another. The great city had lost many of its occupants, so the boulevards appeared too big for those who remain. The Louvre lacked its paintings. The former capital now ruled nothing. He touches on the experience of non-Parisians as well. Farmers had to keep growing food so Frenchmen could eat, knowing that some of the food was feeding the Germans. The railways were kept running to serve the French, but they served the Germans as well. Everywhere, the French struggled to remind themselves that the Germans who lived and worked practically alongside them were the enemy, while the British, who for a time were bombing some of their cities, were allies. "We kept quiet when Lorient was razed to the ground, when the center of Nantes was destroyed, when the heart of Rouen was attacked. Perhaps this was what needed to be done."
I'll leave it to historians such as Lisa Lieberman the task of assessing Sartre's purposes, declared and otherwise, and his success in achieving them. Lieberman translated this essay--into conversational but entirely lucid English--and discusses such issues in her introduction. My view is simply that it works: Sartre's essay renders the experiences understandable, tangible, in part by proposing the strangeness of it all--the double uses of food and transport, the apparently friendly enemy, the many ways in which they sensed that things were the same but changed. The country was, at the same time, theirs and not theirs; that also was true of their very lives.
If one lives in a big city, one can easily look around and, having read Sartre's text, wonder "What if…?" One can also get a new grasp on Iraq during the American-led occupation. Sartre has made the situation clear enough that it can be "translated" in these ways. But one need do no more than take "Paris During the Occupation" at face value: this is what it was like. It is possible to share such experiences, if one is a good enough writer....more
It was only by mistake that I read this twice. Though the other volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series that I've read are on my sComments, not a review:
It was only by mistake that I read this twice. Though the other volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series that I've read are on my shelf, this one wasn't. Not until I had bought and read part of it did I have the feeling of having been here before. I didn't mind at all and kept going, glad to be back in the Age of Sail, when life and war were much different, though also much the same.
Every time I finish one, and especially this one, which leaves off somewhat in the middle of things, I'm tempted to do what a friend did, which is to go straight to the next and continue without stopping until reaching the end of the series. So far I've preferred to read them at intervals, always having another voyage ahead of me. This is pointless; my friend has found that by re-reading the full set he, too, always has another voyage ahead. He's given the series six readings so far, and someone else I know has made the circuit more than a dozen times. Maybe they're like the true sailors in these books, such as Captain Jack Aubrey, who feel most at ease when they've got a deck beneath their feet again, and I more resemble Stephen Maturin (apologies for the self-flattery), just as glad, if not more so, to return to the possibilities on land.
Come to think of it, that's not a bad way of saying that more than one type of person can find himself (or maybe herself) in this series....more
The entire 20th century was a period of calamitous mistakes in judgment, which in many ways arose from the errors of the First World War. Many traditiThe entire 20th century was a period of calamitous mistakes in judgment, which in many ways arose from the errors of the First World War. Many traditional views of that war have themselves been mistaken reckonings, according to Niall Ferguson’s sensitive, detailed, and powerfully persuasive reading, the breadth of which ranges from the war’s literature (even his title quotes a poem) to its financing.
As is often the case with The Economist, its review of The Pity of War gives a knowledgeable assessment. The review takes issue with one of Ferguson’s many “iconoclastic answers,” to the question of the war’s inevitability, and though it’s not very evocative it at least praises the book as “a work of grace and feeling.” But those with a serious interest in the Great War would do better simply to read Ferguson....more
Attitudes toward war and weapons are as changeable as other opinions are. We now take for granted the machine gun as just another weapon in mankind’sAttitudes toward war and weapons are as changeable as other opinions are. We now take for granted the machine gun as just another weapon in mankind’s arsenal. To an American inventor named Richard Jordan Gatling during the American Civil War, though, the idea had revolutionary potential. Having observed that war was about men killing other men with rifles, he essentially concluded (though he didn’t put it this way) that if he could make the killing happen faster he could improve war—reduce the size of armies and get the whole thing over with more quickly. Hence the Gatling gun, an early form of machine gun.
Beliefs about atomic weapons may have followed the opposite course, from ordinary to special. We now believe that two of them were used by American forces against Japan during World War II in the expectation that the atomic bomb’s extreme and extraordinary qualities would shock the Japanese into surrendering, and that it did so, thus shortening that war, but historian Michael D. Gordin has marshaled a good deal of evidence to show that this wasn’t the case. He makes and supports a number of arguments to this end, such as: that an attempt to shock the Japanese was a feature of the Allies’ strategy but atomic weapons weren’t the only method considered or used for the purpose; that before it was employed, and even for a while after, The Bomb was regarded by many in the American military and government as in some sense an ordinary weapon; that the firebombing of Japanese cities was already achieving similar results (as General Curtis LeMay later wrote, “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9–10  than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined”); that the military planned to drop more such bombs and was preparing a third when the war ended; that radiation and fallout effects (now one of the distinguishing features in our view of The Bomb) were little appreciated at the time these weapons were used; and that the Japanese surrender, while hoped for, was not expected.
Gordin mentions in his acknowledgments that some scholars disagree with his conclusions, but he has convinced me, and at the very least he must be credited with showing (as is often the case when we look back) that what we now think we know about the past is too simple to be entirely true....more