Long Live Death

A little vacation from China

Writing the last chapter of my book was a real chore.  The period between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the reunification of China under the Sui and then the Tang is pretty complex, and I was moving at a crawl.

I've finally finished and feel the need to get away from it for a few days.

I found Long Live Death very easy to write, but I was also dealing with a much narrower topic.  China's history is a lot broader, and trying to be focused takes a lot more effort.  Not only that, there's the language and name difficulties.

I'm also working on the index as I go which is slowing my down now, but should save me time on the back end because I won't have to go back through the manuscript to build it from scratch.

My timeline for completion is slipping a bit as a result, but since I don't have a firm deadline, it's somewhat irrelevant.  I was hoping to have the draft done by March, but that was when I thought I'd have 20,000 pages by the end of 2021.  I'm still 5,000 pages short of that goal.  I'm thinking April-May might be more realistic.

Next Project: Chinese Military History

Over the past year, I've been all over the place on my next book project.  I looked at a sequel to Battle Officer Wolf, pondered writing The Vampires of Michigan: Pandemic, dabbled in doing a series of essays on spiritual warfare, and even took yet another stab (or two) at writing something in the fantasy genre.

Instead, I've settled on writing a concise, quick-moving military history of China.  I'm not sure how long it will be, but if you know me, you know it will be short.  Long books bore me.

I feel that Long Live Death was the right length for the topic and I'm very happy with it's reception.  It goes into just enough detail to make its point and inform the reader, and also points you to more detailed information in case you want it.

That's what I want to achieve with this new book.  At the moment, it's working title is "Something Something Dragon," because books about China almost always have "dragon" in the title.  You know, something like "The Dragon's Brittle Claws," because one of my themes is that Chinese military track record is uneven at best.

Hey, it took me a while to come up with Long Live Death, so no hurry.

I've not yet put together a deadline, or a projected completion date, but unlike other efforts, there is significant momentum.  I'm starting to get some good writing sessions and acquiring additional sources.  The mania is setting in.

I should note that like the Spanish Civil War, Chinese military history is another area that fascinated me in my late teens.  It was always somewhat obscure, and I found that a challenge.  At one point in college I came up with a Chinese version of Milton Bradley's Shogun game (which has been renamed a bunch, not sure what they call it now).  So a lot of my research is already floating around in my head, it's just a question of organizing it.

Loss of Legitimacy, Spanish Style

One of the crucial failures of the Second Spanish Republic was in maintaining a sense of law and order.  With the victory of the Popular Front, many of the Anarchist and Socialist movements began organized campaigns of theft, intimidation and murder against their political opponents.

The response of the Popular Front was largely to let it happen.  What this did was radicalize the center - not to become fascist, but to see the government as no longer legitimate.

This view spread abroad as well.  By mid-1936, the electoral shenanigans (forced re-votes that brought the Popular Front from a narrow majority to a 2/3rd one), systematic campaigns of church burnings, lynchings and land seizures gave the impression that the rule of law was completely lost in Spain.

The final straw was of course the murder of center-right politician Jose Calvo Sotelo.  It wasn't that a leading legislator was dragged out of his home at night and shot to death - it was that it was done by the police with impunity.

The halting, half-hearted conspiracy led by disgruntled generals was instantly galvanized into concrete action by the deed.  Fence-sitters like Fransisco Franco now realized that it was only a matter of time before they themselves were shot to death.  Better to die fighting.

At this point, the government's legitimacy was gone.  Everyday people who just wanted to get on with their lives and who otherwise took little interest in politics now pined for some relief from the growing fear and disorder.

As I pointed out in Long Live Death, the blow against the government's reputation was so powerful that instead of following established international law and allowing the recognized government to import arms, the League of Nations declared an embargo against both sides.

I mention this because a great many people think that foot-stomping and chanting "rule of law" somehow absolves lawless actors of their deeds.  It doesn't.  Even duly-elected governments are expected to conform to certain standards of justice.  The more these standards are perverted, the less legitimacy remains.

The great mistake of the Republic was not only in abandoning those standards be in flaunting their abandonment.  Calvo Sotelo's murderer wasn't even subjected to a fake trial.  Under the existing constitution (drafted by the left, by the way), sitting legislators had immunity from arrest.  Thus the crime blasted through every theoretical safeguard. 

The message was obvious:  "Even this person, protected with a special degree of legal immunity, can be cut down in cold blood.  No one is safe."

Was it not understandable that some people would then move to use their own extra-judicial means to guarantee their personal security?

It's also worth pointing out that July 19 Rising was originally claimed to be in defense of the Republic, not to overthrow it.  That came later.  This was a solid rhetorical move, because the Popular Front had no easy way to reply.  The Republic was dead, and they had destroyed it.

Historian Stanley G. Payne has repeatedly pointed out that the Popular Front didn't have to do what it did.  There were many opportunities for them to check their actions and these would likely have helped them both consolidate their power and avoid imminent conflict.

However, I think there's something about the rush of power that comes from openly flouting the rules with impunity that quickly becomes addicted.  Add to the fact that unstable people quickly gravitate to a movement that they think will allow them unlimited license and pretty soon all the guardrails will be removed.

Sudden military collapse

If one looks purely at the strategic position and numbers of troops under arms in early 1939, the Republic's fate appeared far from sealed.

True, the Ebro offensive had failed, but the losses for each side were roughly equal.  Economic conditions were deteriorating in the Republic, but the burden of attack remained on Franco and the Nationalists.  Whether they chose to strike at Madrid or Barcelona, the fighting was sure to be slow and costly.

The subsequent Republican collapse took everyone by surprise.  There was tough fighting at first, but then the Republicans fell back in total disorder.  The Nationalists advanced as fast as they could march.

Despite having multiple prepared defensive lines in place, Barcelona was yielded without a fight. 

This once again demonstrates how important - and fragile - morale can be.

My analysis of the war in Long Live Death puts great emphasis on fighting spirit and the factors that sustain it, but the importance of morale is featured to one degree or another in all of my books.  People rarely fight to the death - particularly if they know it won't make a difference in the ultimate outcome.

We tend to think of battle fronts moving gradually and incrementally, but just as often they slip only a little before coming completely apart.  Once that happens, it's very hard to turn things around.

The blow to prestige can also be catastrophic.  Even unengaged troops can be affected by a rout.

That's also what happened in Spain.  Even though the forces on the Madrid front were fully intact, watching their comrades in Catalonia flee to France destroyed their fighting spirit as well.  The Republic lost the will to fight and Franco's victory was complete.

Stanley G. Payne's Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 is a very useful book

Without a doubt, Stanley G. Payne is an invaluable source of information on the Spanish Civil War.  This book (titled, like all the other ones on the topic, The Spanish Civil War) is a badly-needed corrective to the prevailing leftist narrative on that conflict.

Payne's expertise extends beyond Spain, and in his book, he dropped tantalizing hints of his research in other civil conflicts.  His Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949, fleshes out his references and gives the reader a quick and accessible study of war and revolution during the period in question.

With a title like that, one might expect a massive Hugh Thomas-sized doorstop, but in fact it is a slender volume with less than 250 pages.  It is densely-packed with information, however, and Payne peppers his book with footnotes pointing the reader to more detailed accounts of the various topics he touches on.

In a sense, this book serves a similar purpose to Long Live Death, which is to say it serves an accessible bridge to other, more comprehensive sources.  Of course, it's more than just a bibliography or reader's guide to the topic - Payne traces common themes that connect the various revolutions (or attempted rebellions) and does so in a fair-minded way, free of bias.  As with his biography of Franco and The Spanish Civil War, this sometimes makes him appear an apologist for fascism or the right.  He is not.

His is honest.  He doesn't flinch from noting that leftist atrocities are almost always worse than those on the right and he also notes that a great many historians are willing to downplay Communist crimes while highlighting (and often exaggerating) those done by their enemies.

His examination may be brief, but he's thorough, and touches on subject often ignored, such as the religious aspect of the conflicts.  He is one of the only sources to note the feebleness of the Eastern Orthodox Church in resisting Communism, which contrasts sharply with the Catholic response to it, particularly in Spain.

For those who were wondering, Spain does get a detailed treatment in the book, largely because the conflict was a culmination of the other civil wars.  Even if you know quite a bit about that topic, it's useful to see it brought into direct comparison with the other wars.

I have but one minor quibble with Payne's analysis.  In his introduction he notes that the American Civil War wasn't really a 'civil war' at all, but an attempted war of liberation by the South.  Such wars almost always succeed, which makes the conflict unique.

I believe Payne is only partially correct.  Yes, the war was about preventing secession, but this issue of slavery (particularly emancipation) added a moral aspect to the conflict, and that was ultimately what sustained the Union war effort.  I would therefore characterize the US Civil War as a hybrid of the two, mixing religion and liberation and this was why the South was defeated.

Other than that, it's a great book, and worth reading. 

I've noted before that the current situation reminds me of Spain in 1936, but Spain itself hearkened back to earlier crises.  It's good to have them all brought together in a single place.


Geek Guns on hiatus

After 23 consecutive installments, I've decided to take a break from Geek Guns over at Bleedingfool.com.  The decision is based on a thinning of material to work with and also declining feedback.  People used to comment on the articles and now they're not.

I'm not writing this stuff for my health, so I figure I'll take a break, recharge, and maybe write more later.

There's also a sense that in trying to sustain a weekly column, I'm siphoning off creative energy that could be used for bigger projects.   When I was writing Long Live Death, I basically abandoned that site, and I started writing again only after the book was published.

So I'm going to take a break and see what happens.  I've got some ideas for a book and I know I'm being horribly indecisive, vacillating back and forth between projects.  My hope is that if I dam up the creative energy for a bit, it will cut a new channel and I can roll with the flood.

Humphrey Bogart's "Sahara": a loveletter to the M3 Lee/Grant

The M3 Lee/Grant (there were two variants) is a truly strange-looking vehicle.  It's so asymmetrical, utterly impractical and just steampunk overall, that one has a hard time believing such a thing could ever see wartime service.

It was truly an interim design, a placeholder for a better vehicle that would displace it.  It was also the price the Western Allies paid for completely neglecting tank design during the 1930s and then fumbling wartime development.  The British in particular made a botch of their tank forces and by 1942 were still consistently outclassed by better-performing German machines.

By the way, I'm not falling into the traditional trap of assuming that because something looks better on paper, or is more beloved by civilian historians that it is in fact objectively superior.  British tanks had some good points, but they were few and far between.  German tanks tended to be (like everything else they made) overly complex, filled with fiddly gadgets whose breakdowns hampered their reliability.  The British managed to be worse.

The US knew it had a good design with the M4 Sherman, but ramping up production took time, so they cranked out the M3, which was tall, spacious and bizarre.  The Russians (who knew good tanks when they saw them) derided it as a "coffin for seven brothers" (the number being the amount of crew).

Sahara prominently features an M3 because that's what was in use when the film was being made. You see them climb all over one, open up the engine compartment, start it, re-start it.  Lots of detail for the true tread-head.

The movie itself is a wonderful piece of wartime propaganda, chock full of slogans and stereotypes to get the home front fired up.  The setting (as the title implies) is North Africa and the time is 1942.  The prologue tells us that a small detachment of American GIs have been sent to learn the art of desert warfare. 

Almost immediately we begin the classic Assembling The Heroes.  First we have Bogart, a career American soldier and senior NCO.  He's backed up by a Texan and a New Yorker.  His depleted crew is in retreat along with the rest of the British 8th Army, and soon they will add a smattering of Commonwealth troops picked up at a field hospital: English, Australian, Irish, South African.  They also find a Free French soldier and subsequently add a Sudanese sergeant (serving with the British) and his Italian prisoner of war.  Rounding out the core cast is a downed German aviator who plays the Evil Nazi role to the hilt.

With the exception of Luftwaffe pilot (who is a dead ringer for David Bowie), these bedraggled warriors will learn to set aside their differences in the name of fighting the common foe.  There's a nice scene where the Italian explains that Mussolini duped the Italian people, but they still kept their souls.  Nazis have none.  A fight naturally follows.

This sounds all by-the-numbers and cynical, but the performances are really good and done with considerable sensitivity.  The presence of a black man in the Allied cast is noteworthy, and given that the US Army was racially segregated at the time, would have been a bit fraught, so introducing the Sudanese soldier is a wise decision, being both plausible and interesting.  He clearly not only can appeal to American blacks but also British Colonial troops.  He's also a Muslim, and he is (naturally) the most experienced in dealing with desert survival, being a third-generation soldier for the Crown. 

With the war still in its early stages, there aren't a lot of successes to celebrate, and so the story of the film is a stubborn (and seemingly useless) stand against all odds, because that's all the Allies had done to that point.

Lots of ignorant people assume that propaganda movies don't have any friendly casualties, but that's absolutely not the case.  Our team of heroes gets all but wiped out (starting with a very young Lloyd Bridges playing a Brit), but they do so in a noble cause.

The Germans are uniformly portrayed as vicious and treacherous, which may seem cartoonish, but the Nazis earned every bit of it. 

But let's get back to the tank!  Okay, not just the tank, but the equipment.  Because this made in wartime, authentic gear is in short supply, so both Allied and German gear is recycled from World War I.  The Commonwealth troops are using SMLE-pattern rifles, not the Rifle No. 1 Mk IV which was then in current use.  The Germans are likewise using WW I surplus, particularly their helmets, which still sport the lugs for the extra (and rarely worn) front plate used in trench fighting.  

Oh, and the Germans don't have any MG 42s (or even MG34s), but are using Maxim guns.  I wonder if they raided the prop department from All Quiet on the Western Front?

Usually when the gear is wrong, that's a sign of sloppy prop work, but not here.

One final note that I can't leave out: when the Free French soldier comes face to face with the Italian, he wants to kill him because he's been fighting "that type" since 1936.  When asked how that could be (the European war didn't start until 1939) he mentions Spain.

So here's yet another example of Hollywood linking the Republican cause in Spain with the Allies of World War II.

Stanley G. Payne and the Road to Revolution

If you've read my ongoing discussion of the Spanish Civil War, you know one of my favorite authors is Stanley G. Payne.

He now has a article up at First Things which provides an excellent and concise account of Spain's slide into civil war.

It is a serious read, but well worth your time.

It also dovetails with the misgivings I expressed in November, which have not in any way been assuaged. 

In one sense, it is comforting that a historian with Payne's stature seems to share my sense of deja vu, but it is also deeply alarming.  I don't know Payne's politics, but his work has always been scrupulously neutral, carefully noting the excesses of the Spanish Right but also providing appropriate context within the environment and balancing them with the behavior of the Spanish Left.

This isn't false equivalence, but necessary information.  Similarly, his article offers no analogies, draws no modern parallels because it doesn't have to.  The modern left is purposefully using the exact same slogans and tactics.  To merely quote them is to expose this.

Maybe my book was driven by a premonition or subconsciously intended as a warning.  In any event, it's uncomfortably relevant.

Well, let's see how 2021 works out

Happy New Year!  As the song says, it's been a long December but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

Taken as a whole, 2020 has not been without its joys.  The publication of Vampires of Michigan and the subsequent writing of Long Live Death and its success was not something I contemplated a year ago.   The COVID lockdown has put our family under great strain, but we also celebrated the birth of our first grandchild, who has been a source of unceasing wonderment and happiness.

In many ways, how we approach life determines how we perceive it.  What makes a "very good" year versus a bad one?  Folks used to advise people to "count their blessings" and I think it's good advice - though not something sad people want to hear.

That's my other observation this year, something I'd noted before but I've now seen it spread on a far wider basis: misery loves company.  Online places I used to visit have become so unrelentingly negative that I can't even stomach them.  If you bring in good cheer, they boo you right off the network.

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions but I am going to enhance my efforts this winter to push aside complaints and try to hold onto moments of joy that might otherwise have been lost.


Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?