Great Book Alert


The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food 

by Lizzie Collingham

I recently finished The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham. The subject is the role that food played in causing World War II and how the war was conducted. Germany wanted food security and sought to establish an agrarian empire in Russia. The Nazis planned on starving millions in the process. Japan sought a similar empire in China, and millions of Chinese perished because of the disruptions to agriculture brought on by the Japanese invasion.

Britain could get food from its colonies, but German submarines made this a very tenuous way to feed an island nation. The Russians had the dual misfortune of seeing their food plundered by the Germans and then being underfed by Stalin. America came out pretty well. It alone grew more food during the war than it had before it, and Americans were subject to few of the food restrictions that the peoples of other combatant nations endured.

If you prefer your military history suffused with the acrid smell of gunsmoke, this is not that kind of book. There is only a handful of examples of actual warfare in it. Instead, this is a magisterial, big picture work of history that will change – or at least greatly enhance – your understanding of the Second World War.

The Taste of War is available from Amazon here.


MHQ Spring 2012 – Now for Kindle!

MHQ Magazine has been the nation’s foremost journal of scholarly military history for more than two decades.  Its authors are all professionally published, and typically are noted authorities on the topics about which they write.  MHQ has been available for years in a glossy, perfect-bound format, appearing four times a year.  It has always been known for its elegant layout and wonderful artwork, in addition to its top-notch writing.  Now it is available as a download for Amazon’s Kindle family, and I decided to take a look at how the magazine translates to the electronic e-reader format.

Happily, it looks great, especially on the Kindle Fire, which is full color, and so does not lose any of the rich, vibrant hues found in the print magazine.  Navigation is relatively simple – nothing electronic will be so easy as thumbing through a print edition of course, but if you have used an e-reader before, such as the Fire, an older version of the Kindle, or the Nook, for that matter, you will quickly pick up the tricks of moving through the electronic edition.

The articles are the same as those that you would find in the print journal, and have not been abridged in any way.  Each article averages between three and four thousand words, and can be comfortably read in about twenty minutes.  This is important, as I envision that most will read the magazine on their Kindles an article or feature at a time, perhaps while on the train to work, or over a lunch break, not cover to cover.

Features new to the magazine with this issue include Weapons Check, which is a look at an individual weapon of significance in military history.  I enjoyed this very much – an examination of the Danish “Viking” axe of around 950 A.D.  These were devastating weapons, and it is said, a wielder could fell a rider and his horse with one in a single blow.  That sounds pretty potent to me, but these big axes disappeared from European warfare, for the most part, by the end of the eleventh century.  In my previous reading the reason for this was never truly answered.  Was it simply fashion, or was it something more substantive?  The Normans came in for a big shock at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when the Anglo-Danish huscarls of King Harold Godwinson showed up carrying these man-killers.  The author, Chris McNab, helpfully suggests that the introduction of longer swords, poleaxes, and halberds made the use of the axe inadvisable.  It simply lacked the reach to cope.

The old standby, Fighting Words, by Christine Ammer, which examines the development of military terminology, is also in the Kindle edition.  Did you know that “belfry” was originally a movable siege tower with a pivoting ramp at the top?  Later, it became the term for the church tower where bats hang out.  Also, a constable was a high-ranking official who held command of a castle, but when the title was switched to the civilian realm, it received a demotion, and a constable ranked below that of sheriff.  Today, it signifies a policeman in the United Kingdom.

The cover article is “The 27-Day Secret War,” which relates the remarkable achievements of a handful of American special forces who guided precision airstrikes against Taliban targets in late-2001. The rapidity of the fall of the Taliban regime was stunning, and only throws into stark relief the difficulties that allied forces have encountered since then, now that the Taliban have regrouped. The photograph of the commando on the cover, “Cowboy,” true name and rank unknown, is almost worth the price of the issue.

“Payback” is Alistair Horne’s telling of the Doolittle Raid on Japan in April 1942. Seventy years have passed since eighty American airmen in sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the deck of the USS Hornet on a one-way mission. They lacked the fuel to return to the Hornet, and even if they had carried it, they could not have landed their big aircraft on its deck. The actual damage that they inflicted on Japan was minimal, but the psychological impact of their raid was enormous. The Japanese would overreach themselves in trying to plug the gap in their defenses through which the Hornet had slipped, and lose four aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway less than two months later.

“The Fireball at Zonchio” is the story of a Venetian-Ottoman Turkish naval battle of 1499. One of the many things that I enjoy about MHQ is that I learn something new with every issue. At Zonchio, the Turks sailed with two large carracks – think a primitive version of one of Nelson’s ships-of-the-line.  It was armed with cannon, but also, in a nod to the Mediterranean’s fickle winds, could deploy oars for use when the wind failed. I had never read of these Turkish ships before, which must have stood out from the great mass of low-slung war galleys that were the mainstays of Mediterranean naval tactics.  As you probably have guessed, the fireball of Zonchio was caused by the detonation of the gunpowder stored aboard one of these vessels in a truly horrific explosion that, in the fifteenth century, truly was something new under the sun.

But the Venetians had little to cheer after Zonchio. The civic spirit that had made Venice a medieval maritime great power was not in evidence in the battle, and internal rivalries hampered the Venetian battle plan. They failed to capitalize on their initial successes, not least of which was the destruction of the Turkish carrack, and the Turks not only survived the battle, which might otherwise have proved a crushing Venetian victory, but went on to win the war.

Joseph E. Persico has contributed an opinion piece, “Did Roosevelt Doom Us to a Longer War?” in which he takes President Roosevelt to task for unnecessarily delaying the invasion of Europe. Persico makes some valid points, but I think that all second-guessing of Allied military strategy in the Second World War tends to overlook or undervalue the crucial role played by the Soviets in breaking the back of the German Wehrmacht. The German army of June 1944 was powerful, but it was nothing compared to the mighty force that could have, and would have, been deployed to France if the Western Allies had opted to land there in the summer of 1943. Instead, the panzer troops, as well as dozens of crack infantry divisions, were decimated in the brutal 1943 combat at Kursk and elsewhere that eventually saw the Germans thrown back all along the eastern front. About 80% of all German losses occurred in the East. That just about says it all.

MHQ for Kindle is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store by subscription for $2.99 a month, or $11.99 per single issue. The Kindle is a fine way to enjoy the magazine, possessing all of the advantages of portability found in an e-reader, without sacrificing the visual appeal of the print issue.  I recommend the Kindle Fire, on account of its color screen, but the electronic edition looked great on my older e-ink model too.


Game of Thrones – Garden of Bones

On the Legitimacy of Kings

Robb Stark continues to prove his mettle by defeating the Lannisters (again) in battle.  His sister Sansa Stark, engaged to be married to King Joffrey, but as much or more of a hostage in his court, is whipped on account of her brother’s success.  She is rescued from further harm, however, by Tyrion, a man who claims to have no honor but is proving to be the most honorable of all, perhaps in spite of himself.  He asks her quietly is she wishes to put an end to the engagement.  When she demures, and says with consummate tact, that Joffrey is her lord, Tyrion recognizes a kindred diplomat in Sansa.

Littlefinger’s visit to Renly Baratheon’s court is filled with ambivalence.  He offers to open the gates of King’s Landing to Renly.  He also returns Ned Stark’s remains to Catelyn Stark, and says that they – Littlefinger and Catelyn –  can at last be together.  But this is an unrequited love.  Catelyn does not want Littlefinger, and he has allowed himself to fall in love with a woman far above his station.  I am not certain if I can feel any sympathy for Littlefinger.  He betrayed Ned, which was a terrible thing, and he was perhaps motivated to do so by his desire for Catelyn, whom he has loved for so long, without hope.

Catelyn tries to make peace between Stannis Baratheon and Renly, without success.  Stannis by all rights – for what those are worth in Westeros – is the legitimate king, and one would expect that the eldest brother of the prior king would simply accede to the throne without much fuss.  However, at least some do still believe that Joffrey is Robert’s own son, and thus the true king of the realm.  Also, this raises the question of why so many follow Renly instead of Stannis.  Renly is more outgoing, and Stannis is humorless and dour.  Perhaps though it is also a question of legitimacy.  It should be borne in mind that the Baratheon “dynasty” is less than a generation old at the time of the death of Robert Baratheon.  Robert himself deposed the old Targaryen king, and you can make your own decision as to whether he is thereby legitimate.

I admire Martin for creating a political situation in which there are plausible reasons for men to support any one of the contenders vying for the throne, or at least a throne, since Robb Stark at this juncture simply wishes to be King in the North,

Speaking of Targaryens, Dany finally gets to be in a scene with some real dialogue, and not simply be thirsty.  Her Dothraki have arrived at the gates of Qarth, at the edge of the Red Waste, and her entrance is denied by the city’s rulers, the Thirteen.  Their spokesman wishes to see her dragons, but Dany is reluctant to allow them a view.  I am not sure why she would not show them. Could it be that they are so small that they would not impress?  Or does she hear that the Qartheen would try and steal them?

She is at last granted entry when Xaro speaks on her behalf.  The gates open to reveal a vista of a wondrous city within, akin to Babylon in its days of greatness.  But what are Xaro’s motives?

Arya and Gendry are in deep trouble.  The prisoners of the almost comically cruel Lannister soldiers are being tortured by the application of a rat, shoved in a bucket applied to the prisoners chest, which is then heated by fire.  Gendry is saved from this horrible death by the arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister, who puts a stop to this sordid affair.  Lord Tywin, he is the real deal.  One wonders whether the situation in Westeros would be different if he could be everywhere.  He is by no means a good guy.  He is simply a more effective man than the brutes he has working for him.  There was no real point to the torture and murder of the prisoners before Gendry.  The Lannister men were just bored.


Power is Power

Game of Thrones Electric Season Opener

Power is power,” hisses the icy blonde Queen Cersei to the impudent Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Season Two’s premiere episode.  In other words, “Don’t get any ideas about using your ‘hint’ of incest against me or I’ll cut your throat!”  Things are about to get even tougher on Cersei than the wagging tongue of a smart-mouthed courtier.  Her son, King Joffrey, is unstable and cruel, and does not show much filial piety to her.  He is also the product of incest between Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister, who is a prisoner of House Stark.  The whole of the North has risen against Joffrey since he beheaded the honorable Eddard Stark, whose son Robb has taken on the title of ‘King of the North.’

Stannis Baratheon, rightful heir to the throne now that Joffrey’s paternity has been made an issue, has raised his own army to support his claim.  In his train is the ominous Melisandre, a priestess of R’hllor who brings her new religion to the shores of Westeros.  She is also a rare thing thus far in Game of Thrones – a person who wields ‘real’ magic.

North of the Wall, Jon Snow and his brothers in the Night’s Watch patrol to discover what is going on.  Mance Rayder, they learn,  is raising an army of wildings to bring against them.

Across the sea, Danaerys Targaryen now has her dragons, but her Dothraki people have no water, and she needs to find a way across the Red Waste, a hostile desert of little appeal.

The War of the Five Kings has started, and everyone is playing for keeps.  All of the dead King Robert’s bastards are coldly put to death by the Lannisters, even an infant, except for one blacksmith boy who escapes with Arya Stark in a cart at the end of the episode.

There is a reason why many think that Game of Thrones is the best show on television.  From its incredible sets to the density of its dialogue, it is far superior to almost any other.   The hour-long episode flew by.   George R. R. Martin has been called the American Tolkien, but this misses the mark.  Game of Thrones is something of a cross between the War of the Roses and The Godfather.   Political intrigue is the true heart of the series, not magic or the other usual tropes of fantasy.  Game of Thrones could just as well be a historical production on a par with The Tudors or The Borgias but for the presence of very limited elements of the fantastic.  I find that I am enjoying the television series more than the novels on which they are based.