Category: War (Page 1 of 3)

North Vietnamese soldier’s story is complex, compelling

By Lisa Newman

sorrow of war 2Bao Ninh features prominently in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s series on the Vietnam War. Ninh is a Vietnamese writer and former North Vietnamese soldier. Ninh’s novel, The Sorrow of War, is one of the only pieces of Vietnam War literature to make it out of Vietnam.

Published in Vietnam in 1991, the novel stands out for its descriptions and lack of sentimentality. Most of the Vietnamese war literature was heavy with patriotism, stories of slaughter and bravery. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War literature of the United States could not move beyond the North Vietnamese soldier as a faceless “gook” or northing more than the “NVA” or “VC.”

Ninh weaves a complex story, told in stream-of-consciousness style. The work is a descriptive account of a solider’s experience of war, but also a love story–one not lost in the original Vietnamese title, Thân Phân Cûa Tinh Yêu, or The Destiny of Love.

The novel was controversial for the Vietnamese government–as it presented the first individual human perspective on the experience of war, the loss of human life and love, as well as life after the war–while it won great respect from Vietnamese and American veterans. American critics have compared the novel to Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

sorrow of war UPFirst published in Vietnam in a low-budget format by the Writers Association Publishing House of Hanoi in 1991, the book was translated into raw English by Phan Thanh Hao and rewritten by Australian war journalist and author Frank Palmos. At this point, the English translation was given the title “The Sorrow of War” and was published in Great Britain by Secker and Warburg in 1993 and in the United States by Pantheon in 1995.

Ninh has never published another book, but he reports editing a weekly literary publication in Hanoi for many years. In a 2006 interview, Ninh remarks on the changing political climate of Vietnam and the lessening of government propaganda. Despite the relaxing of tensions, he explains that writing has been difficult since the publication of The Sorrow of War.

“I became famous, so people know about me and other writers respect me…but it also affected me badly because I became self-conscious.”

As Vietnamese and Americans talk more about the war and its aftermath, perhaps it will be easier for Ninh and other Vietnamese writers to share their stories.

Collecting First Editions: ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes

By Lisa Newman

Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam war, spent thirty years writing Matterhorn: A Novel. While writing the book was its own lonely struggle, getting it published was another beast. This story is about the power of independent presses and bookselling.

matterhorn EL LEONKarl Marlantes found a publisher in El Léon Literary Arts, a small press privately funded through donations. Led by author Thomas Farber, the operation is known to run on a $200 a year travel and entertainment budget and publishes literary works that might not seem commercially viable by mainstream publishers. By the time the 700-page Matterhorn was printed in softcover and review copies were sent out, a group of booksellers got the attention of El Léon by submitting Matterhorn to a first-novel contest. Soon Farber began getting calls from larger publishers. Eventually, a deal with the independent press Grove Atlantic was made and Matterhorn was released in hardback in 2010. Behind the scenes, Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin championed Matterhorn to booksellers across the country. The success of Matterhorn is due to the perseverance of its author, small presses, and the diligence of booksellers. It is a story of authenticity as opposed to overblown media hype.

matterhorn FESThis authenticity leads to a collectible book. The copies of Matterhorn printed in softcover at El Léon became advanced copies for Grove Atlantic’s hardcover edition. For collectors, that softcover is the true first edition. Matterhorn follows in the tradition of other great war novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line.

Sebastian Junger, noted author, filmmaker, and journalist, reviewed Matterhorn for The New York Times:

Karl Marlantes’s first novel, Matterhorn, is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes—a highly decorated Vietnam vet—spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does.

Karl Marlantes followed Matterhorn with a nonfiction book on Vietnam called What It Is Like to Go to War. His reflections on Vietnam are featured prominently in “The Vietnam War,” a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Marlantes is at work on his second novel.

Author Q & A with Mark Bowden

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 13).

hue 1968Author and journalist Mark Bowden challenges a new generation of readers to question America’s involvement in Vietnam as he examines, with laser precision, the bloody battle for the city of Hue (pronounced “whey”) in his newest release Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Grove Atlantic).

Nearly 50 years later, the man who is perhaps best known for his blockbuster Black Hawk Downexposes in detail the sense of betrayal Americans felt when the war they had been told the country was handily winning suddenly became the war they could, at best, withdraw from “with honor.”

The author of 13 books, Bowden now writes for The Atlanticand Vanity Fair, among other magazines. He was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years. A native of St. Louis, he now lives in Pennsylvania.

Bowden will participate in the History Makers panel during the Mississippi Book Festival August 19 in Jackson. The event will be at noon in the Old Supreme Court Room of the Mississippi State Capitol Building.

What spurred your interest in writing this detailed historical account of the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam conflict?

Vietnam has been for me a subject of tremendous interest throughout my life. I was 16 years old when Tet, this battle, happened. Myd ad and I battled about Vietnam then, with me against (the war), him for it, with neither of us having a whole lot of knowledge about it.

So, at a fairly young age, I started reading the newspaper; and, on my own, I subscribed to Time magazine. I would go the library and grab books (about it) at random off the shelf. I started reading sytematically in order to bone up for arguments with my dad about Vietnam. These habits I developed of researching and writing led me to becoming a journalist and writer.

I had never written about Vietnam before. In the epilogue, I talk about how this battle for Hue in the Tet Offensive was a turning point for the American battle in Vietnam–and (Gen. William Westmoreland’s) refusal to fact facts about this, the single most important event in the war.

The more I thought about it, this battle was the sort of dramatic episode that, if I could dig deep into this moment, it could become a lens into the war itself. Hue had all the features of the war–heroism and fears of both the American and Vietnamese soldiers, and politics in Washington that shaped military strategies. It gives a pretty good glimpse of the bigger war.

Explain the historical significance of this event.

The U.S. began investing really heavily in Vietnam in 1964-65. There had been advisers before that who had been helping the Vietnamese government, but it was then that LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) made the decision to send large numbers of troops.

In 1967, there were half a million American soldiers in Vietnam. The president and Westmoreland were assuring the American people this would be an easy war in this rag-tag little country. Westie had come back to Washington and he gave a speech to the National Press Corps (in November 1967) saying that the war was well in hand and that they were entering the “third phase,” where troops would start returning home.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched surprise attacks and took Hue, the third largest city in South Vietnam–hardly an offensive by a depleted foe. Hue was a tremendously significant place, as Vietnam’s ancient capital and center of culture and religion.

Clearly, Hue had a n impact on the U.S. and South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese people were caught between communists and the Viet Cong of North Vietnam. Their government and their lives depended on how this war went. And at home, Americans lost confidence in what their leaders were telling them, as their assurance in their own government officials was seriously eroded.

After Tet, (CBS Evening News anchorman) Walter Cronkite, who was called “the most trusted man in America,” at that time, told his viewers, “We’re not going to be able to win,” and that our best hope would be to “negotiate our way out.”

Shortly after, LBJ announced on TV that he would not seek re-election for the Presidency.

Cronkite’s comment was a remarkable thing, but he felt betrayed, like he had been used by American officials. He had been a war correspondent during World War II. He went to Vietnam and came back with his own opinion. His statement (of those opinions on air) was a real departure for a journalist back then, but he felt compelled.

The U.S. had fought in World War II and Korea, but Vietnam was a real blow to that essentially naïve belief that our sheer military strength would prevail, no matter what. Sometimes we go tto war for really bad reasons, and we’re told lies. We’re betrayed by our own government.

Westie continued to have this fixed idea, and did not waiver, in his belief that Hue was not a serious setback.

Hue 1968 is described as your “most ambitious work yet,” and the research you’ve done is amazing. How long did it take to put this book together, and how did you trace all of this history, and in such detail?

It was a very ambitious undertaking. Throughout my career, I’ve always looked for projects with bigger, harder challenges. The nature of journalism is plunging into subject about which you know nothing.

Because of the internet, I learned about finding American soldiers who had fought in Vietnam. Once I could find one or two, I would get an “interview tree” to branch out on. Finding soldiers from the Vietnamese side was different. I realized I needed to hire people who were really good at finding people, and work with them and through them…to find Vietnamese veterans…then I followed up.

I did the traditional things you have to do to be a serious historian. But I am not an academic historian and don’t pretend to be. I visited the LBJ (Presidential) Library in Austin, Texas. I studied Westmoreland’s papers.

My book is based on interviews and memories of people who were there. There are advantages and disadvantages to that–memories are not perfect, but I feel justified in relying on memory. I’ve received unsolicited e-mails of thank from people, for capturing what others did not in this story. A sweet spot for me in the timing of the book is that people are still alive who lived it.

The book took six years. The first steps toward working on this book took place years ago. I began ordering books on the subject, thinking how to go about it. The process is 99% research and reporting in the beginning, then 50/50 reporting/writing, and then 99% writing.

Who should read this book? How can young people today relate to this event, and why is it important for today’s generation to know about this?

It goes to the question of “Why study history?” It has a lot to tell us about successes and failures and how things happen they way they do. I can’t imagine anything more important. It delves into motivation–and mistakes made. As a society, not as individuals, we see how Vietnam has reverberations still today, in its effects on society. It’s a way to continue that good hard look at how we fit in that coherent flow of history.

I would hope that everyone should read this book. It’s not just for a military audience or academic historians. And for all those reasons, it’s a compelling story.

Do you have family or other connections to Vietnam and to this war?

No connections. None of my brothers served in Vietnam. I had some uncles who served in Korea and World War II. No cousins. I knew people in high school and college and throughout my life who served in Vietnam. I grew up living with the Vietnam war in my house and arguing with my dad about it.

Is it true that Hue 1968 will be produced as a television mini-series?

It’s already in the works. It’s set to be a 10-part mini-series on FX, with Michael Mann as the producer/director. That work is just beginning. I’m excited about it!

Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden

What’s your next writing project/book?

I have the cover story on The Atlantic this month (on what to do about North Korea). A Vanity Fair story. I kind of deliberately don’t have a book project now. I like to have time in between books. But ask me again at the end of the year!

Hue 1968 is Lemuria’s August selection for its First Editions Club. Mark Bowden will appear at the Mississippi Book Festival first at 12:00 in the Old Supreme Court Room with Howard Bahr, author and Vietnam veteran. He will also be interviewed with U.S. Representative Trent Kelly at 4:00 in State Capitol Room 201H about the Vietnam War.

ms book fest

‘Rocky Boyer’s War’ is among great eye-level accounts about WWII

By Howard Bahr. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 23).

Among the finer memoirs of World War II are those by enlisted soldiers, sailors and Marines at the sharp end of combat. They dispel the romantic aura that too often surrounds our collective memory of that conflict. They offer no “greatest generation” nonsense: only loss, violence, and the anguish of young souls tried almost beyond endurance. rocky boyers warThese qualities lie at the heart of an outstanding new work, Rocky Boyer’s War: An Unvarnished History of the Air Blitz that Won the War in the Southwest Pacific(Naval Institute Press, 2017), by Allen Boyer. Roscoe Boyer, Allen Boyer’s father, was not an enlisted man, and the book is but partially a memoir. Nevertheless, this work will find its place among the great eye-level accounts of World War II.

In his long and productive life (1919-2008), Roscoe Boyer would become an inventor, an early student of computers, a senior professor in the University of Mississippi School of Education, and an advocate for public schools in Mississippi. Of course, this was all in the future when he was caught in the draft after Pearl Harbor.

Rocky Boyer was commissioned a lieutenant in the Fifth Air Force and served in the Southwest Pacific from November 1943 to November 1945–not so long in civilian life, but an eternity at the sharp end. While in the service, he kept a diary, which was, and continues to be, against regulations. Lucky for us, Boyer was not much troubled by regulations–one of his many virtues–nor did he allow them to interfere with his duty. In addition, his junior rank recommends him. The recollections of those above the rank of captain should be eyed with suspicion.

Those who have served will recognize the hardship, the annoyances, the petty squabbles and unearned privileges of colonels and generals, tension between officers and enlisted men, homesickness, sweethearts sorely missed, and the loss of friends in combat. Those who have not served will be usefully entertained. All readers will shake their heads at the folly and come to understand why, later in life, Boyer’s favorite novel was Catch-22.

While Rocky Boyer’s War has universal appeal, the book is important for its historical specificity. In a unique synthesis of personal remembrance and history, Allen Boyer locates excerpts from his father’s diary within the broader context of the campaigns in the Southwest Pacific. The result is a concise, yet comprehensive, narrative of operations crucial to victory  over Japan, but largely forgotten today.

Howard Bahr of Jackson is a veteran of the Navy’s amphibious war in Vietnam.

Allen Boyer signs Rocky Boyer’s War on Thursday, July 25 at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m.

Candice Millard’s ‘Hero of the Empire’ sheds light on forgotten Churchill history

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger.

Embedded in America’s consciousness is the picture of a rotund, cigar-chomping Winston Churchill, grimly resolving to fight the Nazis on land, sea and air during the darkest days of World War II.

hero-of-the-empireWith Candice Millard’s latest biography Hero of the Empire, Churchill’s image could well be shattered to superimpose a portrait of him as a young and daring adventurer.

Subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” Millard’s biography zeroes in on Churchill when he was 24. Itching to go to war, the descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough and privileged friend to the Prince of Wales was desperate to prove himself on the battlefield.

No stranger to bloodshed even at this young age, the young aristocrat already had taken part in wars on three continents — Cuba, British India and the Sudan. But the Boer War in South Africa would thrust him on the world stage.

“Hero” chronicles his fighting as a supposed noncombatant journalist, his capture as a prisoner of war, and his grueling escape from behind enemy lines that captivated a nation.

Churchill, as “Hero” reveals, was larger than life and a study in contrasts. Impulsive, opinionated, an “opportunist, braggart and blowhard,” he also proved fearless, brave, heroic and forgiving of others, including former foes.

Churchill is known for his oratory, but few may recall that he first made his mark as a writer. Indeed, contemporary author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, called Churchill “the greatest living master of English prose.”

Hero is punctuated by fascinating details. For example, Churchill’s American mother was of Native American descent and of such dazzling beauty that literally thousands would attend any event where they could catch a glimpse of her. Churchill, the book relates, sought to hide a speech impediment (difficulty with the letter s) his entire life.

Situated in 1899, the Boer War does not meet much historical attention, stuck as it is between the American Civil War and the World Wars. But “Hero” deftly explains its importance to the past, present and future.

The Boers were farmers and didn’t fight in orderly fashion, but hid behind every rock and shrub. Before them was amassed the greatest fighting force the world had ever known — the mighty British Empire. The fighting scenes are enthralling as the immovable object of hidden and entrenched Boers fighting for their adopted homeland meet the irresistible force of the British Army.

But, again in contrast, Churchill’s escape is aided in part by the fact that the white Boers despised the black native majority they ruled, which sided with the British who had helped ban slavery on the continent. The parallels between the Civil War, the fortunes of empires, and the rise of mechanistic death over previously accepted rules of war as would rend the globe in years to come are absorbing.

Within the grand sweep of this bloody milieu, the harrowing tale of a young journalist hiding in ditches and boarding boxcars under cover of night, provides a saga of such magnitude as to be astounding in its scope. Major motion picture material here!

Meticulously documented with nearly 40 pages of notes, Hero is a gripping read, rivaling the finest fiction. Except, if it were fiction, no one would believe it — or that its improbable hero would come to be known as Britain’s iconic leader.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, now in bookstores.

Candice Millard will be here on Tuesday, October 11 at 5:00 to sign the October 2016 First Edition Club selection, Hero of the Empire.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War By Susan Southard

This year marks many anniversaries of note. The battle of Waterloo happened 200 years ago, Hurricane Katrina was 10 years ago, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were 70 years ago. It’s strange to think about. The bombings are not so recent that most of us remember them, nor are they so long ago that they feel ancient. So why do we need another history lesson to remember them? Trust me, this book has the answer.

JacketOne thing that really pulled me into Susan Southard’s book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, is that it reads more like a story with 5 main characters, who were all teenagers at the time of the bombing. The book bounces back and forth through these people and what happened August 9, 1945 and in the days and years afterward. Since most of us have read and watched many war survival stories, and witnessed the incredible hardship and injustice people have faced, I’ll try not to focus on that; because this story is about much more.

For one thing, this book is about how different atomic warfare is from other types of destruction. Nuclear bombs carry strange and long-lasting effects. To get a general idea of their impact, consider this: it would only take about 10 megatons of nuclear bombs to severely cripple the US and about 50-100 to wipe us out almost completely. Besides the raw firepower, radiation poisoning has appeared to last at least 30 years and cause genetic and cancerous diseases. Because of this, the people who were exposed became known as hibakusha or “bomb affected people”. This name became like a warning to others, who would ostracize the hibakusha because they feared catching radiation from them. Reading about these things was almost surreal; I wanted to think that something like this could only happen in movies. It was just plain scary.

But this book is also about five individual people. They grow, they change, they survive, and like I said, the story reads like a novel. One part of the book I think about a lot was when Masahiro Sasaki said that he and other hibakusha must not be called “victims,” for that traps all thinking on the subject in the past. He said, when a child once asked him which nation dropped the atomic bombs, “I can’t remember. God has allowed me to forget. Only the future matters.”

I was pretty surprised when I read that quote. How can someone just forget something so horrible? I’m still not sure I agree with it. But at the same time, I can’t forget that this book is not an apology from the US but simply factual accounts of what happened. I think that’s another reason I like this book so much. I’m not being told what to believe, I’m just hearing the truth and being allowed to think about it myself.

So as you can guess, I really like reading history. The stories of people’s lives in a time and place I’ve never been have always fascinated me. And while there are plenty of history books I want other people to read, there are a few I think everyone should read. I think this would be a great book to teach in schools, and a great book that will fascinate you and may teach you a whole new perspective on things.

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

Surah CIX

The Disbelievers

As Revealed at Mecca

1: Say: O disbelievers!

2: I worship not that which ye worship;

3: Nor worship ye that I worship.

4: And I shall not worship that which ye worship.

5: Nor will ye worship that which I worship

6: Unto you your religion, and unto me my Religion

Are you a history buff interested in accounts of War—specifically moments like Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Gulf of Tonkin incident? If you are, you must know the potent, practical knowledge of studying instances in which the USA has been forced to abandon ideals of isolation to wage war in foreign lands.
those-who-cannot-remember-the-past-are-condemned-to-repeat-it-george-santayanaI have met professional and amateur historians that rattle off facts and stories about D-Day, Pearl Harbor, or the A-bombing of Japan as if they stood there with omniscience on each of those days—but I have met very few people that are receptive to the same, vivid discussion concerning what happened on 9/11.

This is understandable; the wounds of 9/11 have hardly scabbed over. We still feel an emotional connection to the event and there is a collective seething just beneath the surface of our skins that makes objectivity an arduous pursuit. Alas, in order to channel our emotions toward greater resolution we must ready ourselves to have discussions with our peers without the fear of sounding “Un-American” or resorting to branded key words that numb our tongues and blind our vision.

As for many of the most difficult dilemmas, the Shelves of Lemuria may hold the answer.

 

I had only begun to realize what happened on 9/11, and so six years after the towers fell I decided to buy a first edition copy of The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright from Lemuria. Previously, it had been impressed upon me that the reason we were attacked was the product of an animosity driven by jealousy, silently brooding over seas, seething in envy of American ideals and freedoms.


Jacket (4)The Looming Tower
by Lawrence Wright exposed frailty and incongruence in my own perception of what happened on 9/11, 2001. The pages of this work armed me with a powerful weapon—understanding. Besides my own heartfelt praise, The Looming Tower has been internationally lauded as a must read by a myriad of authorities, and won the Pulitzer Prize. After finishing The Looming Tower I feel it is my civic duty to encourage you to read this book.

Within the book, Wright makes poignant elaborations concerning the atmosphere that propelled the atrocities of 9/11. Much of The Looming Tower is spent analyzing Osama Bin Laden’s complex relationship with the West and with Saudi Arabia. An effort is spent to humanize Bin Laden and understand the importance of his exile from Saudi Arabia and the dual issuance of Fatwas against Saudi Arabia and the United States concerning the presence of an American military base on Islamic ground.

The Looming Tower makes the claim that Bin Laden’s expulsion from Saudi Arabia, where he was gaining traction as a populist mobilizer, led to his formation as an internationally sought financier and organizer of several grass roots extremist organizations. Bin Laden allowed the hunger for retribution corrupt his high levels of education and pervert his ideology towards gruesome ends. His thirst for vengeance upon the religious and political elites of Saudi Arabia catalyzed his momentum towards the violent culmination of 9/11.

Bin Laden’s motive as shown in The Looming Tower for organizing the hijackings of 9/11 was a strategic maneuver of wicked guile. He wished to strike the Saudi government, but found his organizations’ numbers too small to carry out such an audacious move—so he did the one thing that would become the legacy of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: improvisation.

The lesson applied to The Looming Tower explains to me why Bin Laden attacked America in the first place. The thousands in the Towers, on the planes, and working in the pentagon were doves—completely innocent to motives and intentions of Bin Laden. The American Air Force, being the metaphoric red-tailed hawks theoretically would have become hungry for large meals of the religious and political elite of Saudi Arabia (being the metaphoric timber rattlers).

The stratagem was quite simple: attack Saudi Arabia by proxy. Al-Qaeda casted the 9/11 hijackers nearly exclusively from Saudi Arabia in order to illicit a violent response toward Saudi Arabia from the US. The intent of this design was to make it appear that the attack originated from Salafist and Wahhabi communities within Saudi Arabia, which (in thought) would propel America to employ their tools of war upon the political and religious infrastructure of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, this could’ve happened if it weren’t for the hard work of our intelligence officers, who understood that the Taliban was housing Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

If you haven’t read a well researched, objective account on Al-Qaeda or extremism in general, The Looming Tower is the best place to start. Come to Lemuria, put the book in your hands and feel the historical proximity of yourself to Wright’s work. Open it, let your emotions flow as the pages turn and you will connect to this book immediately. Then the next step should come naturally: tell others how you feel and what you think should be the next step in “The War on Terror.”

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Photo Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Author of the Robert E. Lee Biography: “I expect to die with a pen in my hand”

“R. E. Lee” by Douglas Southall Freeman. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.

Douglas Southall Freeman’s feet hit the floor at 2:30 a.m. Crisp in his three-piece suit and horned-rimmed glasses, he pulls out of the drive way of his Richmond, Virginia home at 3:10.
douglas southall freeman_writingcopy_inhisofficeAs editor of the Richmond News Leader, Freeman spends the next few hours organizing, composing letters and World War I editorials. By 8:00, it is time for his daily radio broadcast, then the daily conference with the newspaper staff. At noon, a nap. By 2:30, he turns his attention to his life’s work: writing the multi-volume biography of Robert E. Lee. Freeman settles to bed at 8:30 to begin the next day with the same intensity. With these details meticulously documented in David Johnson’s biography of Freeman, it’s not surprising that Freeman wrote late in life that he expected “to die with a pen in [his] hand.”

Born in the former Confederate Capital of Richmond in 1886, Freeman was immersed in southern history. While already working at the Richmond News Leader, an acquaintance turned over a cache of communications between Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Freeman published “Lee’s Dispatches” in 1915 and became a celebrity among Confederate historians. This notoriety led to an invitation from Charles Scribner’s Sons to write the biography on Robert E. Lee.
robert e leeSpending nearly twenty years researching Lee, Freeman’s biography focuses on Lee’s campaign with less emphasis on social and political history. Freeman illustrated the “fog of war” throughout the biography by giving readers the same information Lee had at any moment during the war, immersing the reader in the action as it happened.
robert e lee spines

Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1935, and seventy years later the biography is regarded by many as the authoritative study on the Confederate general. To commemorate Freeman’s accomplishment, Scribner’s published a limited, four-volume Pulitzer Prize set of “R. E. Lee” in 1936 with gilt lettering and decoration, foldout maps and illustrations. Remarkably, Freeman also won a second (posthumous) Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his biography of George Washington.

Written by Lisa Newman,  A version of this column was published in The Clarion-Ledger’s Sunday Mississippi Books page.

Here I Am: Tim Hetherington

Here I AmA couple of years ago a friend of mine recommended that I watch a war documentary called Restrepo. My friend had been an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division and mentioned to me that the film held particular importance for him as his old Battalion had taken a lot of casualties in the Korengal Valley. The documentary follows the 2nd Platoon of the Battle Company (2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team) as they are deployed to the Korengal Valley, first to the Korengal outpost and then later as they construct the Restrepo outpost.

It’s a stunning film. Too often war movies are praised for giving the viewer a realistic depiction of war. Reviews abound with phrases like “a gritty, raw first-hand view” or “exposes the violent and absurd nature of war.” Besides being seldom true, these phrases reveal something about what we expect (want?) from these films. The “realism” is restricted only to battle scenes. What struck me most about Restrepo was not that it caught the constant and overwhelming violence of war; on the contrary, it’s the lack of action that is unsettling. In the middle of the Korengal Valley, the “most dangerous place on earth”, the soldiers go about their daily tasks. The ever-present danger that surrounds the outpost becomes part of normal life. The moments of violence break into the mundane routine and the contrast makes them that much more powerful.

After watching the film I took note of the names of the two codirectors: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Junger I was familiar with; he visited Lemuria for his book A Death in Belmont and I had enjoyed A Perfect Storm as well. But I wasn’t familiar with Hetherington before Restrepo. I looked him up and found incredible photographs from various conflicts and battlefields around the world. And then I learned that he had been killed a few months prior while on assignment in Libya, observing and recording the Arab Spring. Alan Huffman’s book Here I Am tells Tim Hetherington’s story. I was happy to see news of a book about Hetherington; I was even happier that Huffman was writing it. The man can write. Chapter 7 of Here I am opens:

When Staff Sergeant Kevin Rice saw the Taliban fighter taking aim at him with an RPG, he was on his hands and knees on a remote mountainside in Afghanistan, bleeding from his stomach and shoulder onto the ground. At that moment, Rice thought, “Wow, this is the last thing I’m going to see.”

Alan Huffman could have written a fine book about war, but in Here I Am he’s done something a little more complicated — he’s captured and communicated how Tim Hetherington saw war. At the end of Chapter 7 Huffman quotes from Hetherington’s book Infidel:

As anyone who has experienced it will know, war is many contradictory things. […] There is brutality and heroism, comedy and tragedy, friendship, hate, love, and boredom. War is absurd yet fundamental, despicable yet beguiling, unfair yet with its own strange logic. Rarely are people “back home” exposed to these contradictions — society tends only to highlight those qualities it needs, to construct its own particular narrative. Rather than attempt to describe the war in Afghanistan, I have sought to convey some of those contradictions.

If Hetherington sought to convey the contradictions in war, Huffman has the task of conveying the contradictions of Hetherington: a noncombatant seeking out every conflict and war, an artist looking for truth and beauty on the battlefield. Huffman writes:

Hetherington had felt a need to prove himself to the soldiers from early on. He was a journalist, a British guy, approaching middle age, among a group of rowdy, young, tattoed soldiers from California, Florida, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. He had a tendency to view war intellectually, with an artist’s eye, and in some ways he stood out as much as he had when he was the white guy on the motorcycle in Monrovia.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to finishing Here I Am and hearing Alan Huffman speak. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Restrepo. Look at some of Tim Hetherington’s war photos. Read Here I Am, and join us on Thursday, March 28 at 5 PM for Alan Huffman.

Fiction and Lies in The Yellow Birds

I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.

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