Tag Archives: war

“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller – the book and the play

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I saw Catch 22 last night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. I read the book 50 years ago. This should explain any incoherence in my comments.

The setting is the European theatre of World War II. The characters are members of the Allied military stationed in Italy, and local residents they meet.

Joseph Heller, a WWII Air Force bombardier, published the book in 1962 and the theatrical adaptation in 1971. Catch 22 (either way) is black satire – funny but tragic. It deals with war as hell without actually showing the battlefield, while vividly showing the human toll.

The program note reads “This theatrical adaptation distills a non-linear 450-page book with over 60 characters…down to a mere 89 pages” with 35 characters. And it was performed with SIX actors! Character changes were signaled in many ways, not just through costume but through accents, posture, etc. All the skills of an accomplished actor. Casting ran across gender lines. (Is this becoming a norm?)

Catch 22 struck a chord with my generation as we wrestled with the Vietnam “conflict”, the first of our undeclared wars. World War II was fought by a military that relied on draftees, as was Vietnam. The difference is that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam, after which the United States shifted to an “all volunteer” military.

World War II is widely featured in fiction. I’ve read some post-Vietnam fiction, but only non-fiction from the more recent wars fought in the Middle East. Every war finds its way into literature.

Enough history for now! I was excited and impressed by the Curio Theatre Company. They perform in a renovated church in West Philadelphia, part of a localist movement that goes right down to the street level. (“Localism” is a word. I checked.) The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is a sponsor. The performance space is small and the audience sits on three sides of the stage. Lighting, sets and costumes are entirely professional. It’s an amazing accomplishment!

Catch 22 runs until May 19. You can see it! Tickets are available on line.

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“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

Goodness, I haven’t blogged for many weeks! I’m happy to report that most of this delay resulted from good things happening in my life, like travel. Then there were some troubles, but nothing really far out of the ordinary.

BUT also, I read a book that brought me to a bemused halt! Yes, Cryptonomicon.

First, it’s huge – 900+ pages. Perfect if you are crossing Siberia by train in winter. (I wasn’t.) And it’s written in a style that mixes fact and fiction, cutting back and forth through time.

The mixture of fact and fiction makes me wonder if Stephenson wants his work to be accessible only to cognoscenti. His description of, for example, the Hindenburg explosion might be incomprehensible to many people. (And maybe I misunderstood…)

One message of the book is “war is hell”, to which I reply (as usual) “If so, why wrap it in fiction?” I was somewhat reminded of Catch 22 by  Joseph Heller, but that was more linear in narrative style.

Why did I keep reading this sprawling, often confusing novel? For the characters and their relationships. And because I’m interested in “contemporary” history, the times I (and my parents) lived through.

I have not delved into the reviews of this book. On Amazon.com alone they number 1,685, cumulatively awarding Cryptonomicon 4+ stars out of five.

I read (and blogged about) three other books by Neal Stephenson: Anathem, Snow Crash and Seven Eves. Anathem was my favorite, closely followed by Seven Eves. I will await recommendations from friends before I tackle another.

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“The Bremer Detail – Protecting the Most Threatened Man In the World” by Frank Gallagher and John M. Del Vecchio

Let me make two things clear from the start. I think the Iraq War was a tragic mistake, and I think Presidential Envoy L Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions during his management of the occupation of Iraq.

I read this book because of its scale.

I’ve thought a good deal about scale lately. Some things scale up or down well. I could give technological examples. But sticking to books, some topics are too big (the meaning of life) and some are too small (what I ate for lunch today).

The nature of WAR is something I want to understand, but the topic is too big. This book is about one small aspect of war, one man’s experience in a particular time and place. At this scale, I can learn something.

Gallagher was a bodyguard, responsible for the personal safety of Bremer in Iraq after the invasion and before a new civil government was installed. Iraq was unstable and violent, growing worse as the months passed. Gallagher worked for the now infamous contracting company, Blackwater.

The use of contractors to do “military” tasks is a relatively new wrinkle, presumably a result of the switch to an all volunteer military. It seems unlikely that any money is saved by the use of contractors, but a different labor pool is activated. Contractors are disparaged by many (especially in the military) for being “mercenaries”. Their relationships to military and government are often strained.

Gallagher was hired by Blackwater solely to protect Bremer, originally for a period of just 30 days. He is by no means an apologist for Blackwater. By his standards, the Blackwater managers stateside had no idea what was going on in Iraq or how to protect Bremer. Eventually Gallagher managed a team of three dozen specialists (many formerly in the military) to protect Bremer 24 hours a day.

Any notion that the “private sector” always does things better than government is certainly dispelled by this book. Blackwater had its share of pointy headed bureaucrats and sometimes made very strange decisions.

Bremer was not an easy man to protect. He left the safety of Baghdad’s “green zone” almost every day, meeting with Iraqi leaders in many different settings. His schedule couldn’t be known accurately in advance. Most of the time, he worked 16 hours a day. As his tenure in Iraq progressed, he was targeted for assassination, and the Iraqi insurgents got better and better at making bombs and organizing attacks. As the man closest to Bremer in public, Gallagher was also an identified target.

By dint of very hard work and a certain amount of luck, Gallagher and his team managed to keep Bremer alive, AND avoided any injury or death of civilians.

What did I learn from this book? Some people are adrenaline junkies, and the rest of us should be grateful (in most cases) for the work they do. Armed conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. Our governments policies are implemented in ways that can astonish and sometimes disappoint us as citizens.

War is hell.

“Peace, They Say – A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World” by Jay Nordlinger, in honor of Veteran’s Day

Initially, this book seemed weak, as the author cited other people’s writings so extensively. Gradually, I realized the book was more about peace that about “the Peace Prize”.

What is peace? What is a “good” or “necessary” war? How is peace related to pacifism, and militarism, which Alfred Nobel disliked? What did Nobel mean by “militarism”? Why are pacifists so skeptical about defensive weapons? Is all peace good? Is there such a thing as a “bad peace”?

Nordlinger quotes (whom?): “There is no dispute so small it can’t be used as an excuse to go to war. There is no dispute so large it cannot be mediated if that is what the parties want.” Nordlinger doesn’t explicitly discuss the situation when one party wants war and the other doesn’t.

Consider the end of apartheid. It could have been a bloodbath… Privilege is never surrendered without struggle, but South Africa made the transition to majority rule without warfare. See my review of Playing the Enemy (October 16, 2013) for one view of this amazing transition and the role played by 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Did FW de Klerk, co-winner in 1993, also deserve the prize? Mandela did not think so.

What is the role of the nation/state? Nordlinger criticizes the United Nations, which Nobel considered the world’s greatest hope for peace.

What is the role of the NGO (nongovernmental organization)? (Should Haiti, the “republic of NGOs” be considered a nation at war, or something else? Some call it a “failed state”, not a clearly defined category.)

Published in 2012, this book missed the most appealing Peace Prize winner of all, seventeen year old Malala Yousafzai who was shot in 2012 by Islamic extremists. She is the only citizen of Pakistan to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

This book is so good that I feel I should read it right through again, and take time to investigate and ponder the history that runs through it. It would serve as the backbone for an excellent college course.

(I originally read this book in 2012, just after its publication, and offer my comments here in honor of Veteran’s Day.)

A African novel, an American novel…

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, 2007.

Public debate surrounding immigration is even more heated now than it was in 2007 when this book was published. Mengestu personalizes the immigration “issue”. The narrator is from Ethiopia, and his best friends are from Kenya and Congo. They share a history of violent dislocation.

Stephanos, the narrator, owns a struggling store in a struggling Washington DC neighborhood. A woman moves in and renovates a large, once elegant house, and change imposes itself on the community. Stephanos and the woman are mutually attracted, but somehow keep “missing” each other. Loneliness is the theme of this book.

This is a well written book. I feel like I got to know some people I’m might otherwise not have encountered.

The book seems to also have another title, Children of the Revolution. I found this out from Amazon.com, when I looked to see what else Mengestu wrote. A second book, How to Read the Air, was published in 2010. I hope he keeps writing.