Long Live Death

Some thoughts on the The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Given the age and popularity of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I don' think there is a lot to add other than an angle I'm pretty sure most people aren't aware of: the influence of the Spanish Civil War on the film.

Yes, it is well known that the climactic three-way duel was filmed in cemetery set aside for war dead, but there are enough features that - knowing more about the conflict than I did when I last watched the film - influence is very clear.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the way the war it portrayed.  The armies on both sides in what was at the time the Far West were little more than volunteer bands, not well-equipped and disciplined armies.  Artillery was scarce, and the war was waged as a series of raids.  Static, attritional combat was simply impossible to sustain.

By contrast, Spain did have sectors of the front that were located in the wilderness but that nevertheless saw continuous low-grade fighting.  The bridge sequence in particular is instructive.  The Union fortifications are extensive and rely extensively on sandbags - unknown in the American Civil War, but common in Spain. 

When Tuco and Blondie tell The Captain they wish to volunteer, his incredulous reaction is also instructive.  Apart from the early months of the war, when volunteers flocked to Anarchist battalions or joined the Falange, both armies in Spain rapidly settled into conscription as the primary means of recruitment.

By contrast, conscripts made up only a tiny portion of the respective armies in the American Civil War, and certainly none would have been sent to a place where desertion would be so easy.

Though they represented the government, the Union troops are clearly modeled on the Nationalists, with strict discipline in dress and movement and it's not much of a stretch that the "blue coats" were seen as Blue Shirts (Falange) to the Spanish crew, who portrayed them accordingly. 

Probably the most obvious example is the backstory given to Tuco when he meets his brother.  It is imply not credible that someone growing up in the west would have no options other than banditry or the priesthood.  This was an era of tremendous population movement, and new settlements were emerging all along the frontier.  Sergio Leone's imagining of the American west as dilapidated and forlorn is iconic, but also inaccurate.

It is, however, what was going on in rural Spain during that time period.  Deprived of opportunity, young people flocked to the cities to find factory work, and many were radicalized by Anarchism and Communism.  That simply was not true in America.

There are other tidbits of course, such as random indirect-fire shelling (unknown in the US, common in Spain) and of course the rope-wrapped wine bottles in place of whiskey or beer.

It's still a great film, and seeing the American Civil War through Spanish lenses provides an interesting take on the conflict.

And the music is outstanding.


Many ratings, no reviews

Over the last couple of weeks I've notice that a bunch of my books are getting more ratings on Amazon.  Some are good, others not so much.  Indeed, I've been surprised to see the Man of Destiny series pick up a bunch of ratings, but some are the lowest they've ever gotten.

Conversely, both Long Live Death and Walls of Men seem to be improving in their reception.

Perhaps this is the result of me taking on a higher profile at Dakka as well as Bleedingfool.com.  The more people who read my stuff, the more there are who may not appreciate it.  It comes with the territory.

The curious part is the lack of reviews.  The early versions of Long Live Death got punished because of the typos and editing errors.  I think Walls of Men has been spared this because the much more exacting editing process.

I'm aware that the Man of Destiny books are not as clean as they could be.  One of my goals it to release a second edition (perhaps an all-in-one with new cover art and some extra content). 

However, I don't think people are throwing out two- or three-star ratings because of that.  And since there are no reviews, I'm not sure what they could be objecting to.


Unreliable sources

The research for writing Long Live Death was quite challenging.  I quickly learned that there was lots of information on the Spanish Civil War, but much of it was false.  It is one thing to be biased, and portray various actions in the most negative way possible, but it another thing entirely to simply state things that are not true.

For example, Hugh Thomas has a clear bias in favor of the Republic, but his information is meticulously documented and generally reliable (though I did catch a couple of errors in his very complicated narrative).

Antony Beevor, on the other hand, is a total hack.  If he told me the sun was shining I would assume it wasn't until proven otherwise.  His bigotry and deception by omission renders everything else has written suspect.

The Romans recognized this the logic of this, enshrining the phrase: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything) in the Western legal tradition. 

I'm sad to say that when working on Walls of Men, this same principle destroyed my trust in a web site I had visited and enjoyed for years: strategypage.com.

I'm not entirely sure of who posts there now, but back in the day it was product of the longstanding collaboration of Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay, two old-school wargamers who had collaborated in the best-selling A Quick and Dirty Guide to War.

During the Global War on Terror, the site had been very useful in providing updates on Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots typically ignored by the mainstream media.  However, over time I noticed that the site was often irrationally optimistic about American operations. 

To be fair, it was possible that their sources were simply lying to them.  After all, we know that a great deal of internal communication within the US military was fabricated to justify ongoing operations and conceal the magnitude of failure from the American public.

However, when I began to dig into the inner workings of the Chinese military, the errors were too glaring to ignore.  The breaking point for me was a post which described the Peoples' Liberation Army as being "all-volunteer" since the 1980s.  This is absolutely not true.  (I can't find the specific post because the site's organization is abysmal.)

Multiple published sources (which I used in my book) confirm this, and reputable web sites also state that conscription still happens, though no one is sure exactly what percentage of the PLA is recruited using it.  Either way, it's just plain wrong, and that kind of error casts doubt over everything on the site.  I now have to wonder how much else they go wrong, and while there may be some value to determining whether it was due to bias or ignorance, the inescapable fact is that they simply cannot be trusted.

 

 

 


To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

It's only a week since Walls of Men went live, but already my mind is turning to the next writing project.  This is because writing is what I do to unwind, and without it I get really bored.  I'm trying to fill the empty hours with chores and watching vintage TV and movies, but that's only a stopgap.

Sooner or later, I'll take on a new project.

I'm thinking it will be fiction.  Long Live Death was actually very easy to write (took 6 weeks or so) and while post-publication corrections were a headache, they were also a function of my desire to see it in print ASAP because of its applicability to the political situation.

Walls of Men, on the other hand, was really complicated and stressful.  Add in the fact that both books didn't really provide the escape from reality that fiction writing does.

On the plus side, non-fiction doesn't take the same creative energy - you set your thesis, do research and write what you find.  No dead-end plots or unconvincing characters.  You have to describe a world rather than create one.

Inspiration is also important.  This is why have never written a "fantasy" book in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien - I don't know what I would say that needs saying.  I've got at least half a dozen story ideas in the genre, but none rise above the level of Dungeons and Dragons-grade fan fiction.

I'm sure in time, this will work itself out and in the meantime I'll see what I can draw from my viewing.


Coming down the home stretch - Walls of Men update

The proof copy arrived yesterday and - as expected - there were a few things that needed to be fixed.  The maps seemed grainy, so I both lightened them up (they are monochrome) and I re-rendered them to a higher resolution.  This should result in crisper images.  Certainly they look better in the electronic format.

Other tasks included listing the maps and completing the table of contents.  I made a few final edits to the introduction and the went through making sure the formatting was optimal.  The final step will be completing the final version of the index.  At that point, it will be ready to publish, but I will wait for a second proof to arrive before taking that step.

I've learned the hard way that patience pays off, particularly in the non-fiction genre.  That make sense, because who is going to trust a history book riddled with formatting errors?  There's also the value for money aspect.  I'm going to charge a decent amount of money for Walls of Men because I've put a great deal of time in on it.  It's also more than 360 pages long - the longest book I've ever written.  All of which is to say it is going to be priced accordingly.

One thing I want to avoid is the mad scramble to correct errors that marred the launch of Long Live Death.  For that reason, I'm going to be extra cautious.

That being said, this is a self-published book, and I hope people won't nit-pick it to death.  Anyhow, it will be out soon enough and then I can take a break for a bit.

 

 


Henry VIII and Edward VIII: Two disastrous reigns

In my previous post I examined Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a television series which provided (as far as I can tell) a pretty accurate picture of the disastrously short reign of Edward VIII.

One of Edward's recurring arguments in trying to make a twice-divorced woman his Queen Empress was "a king should be able to marry whom he likes."  A quick survey of British history reveals this to be an argument without merit or precedent. 

Indeed, one of the reason why it was socially acceptable for kings and princes to have mistresses was the fact that they often had little control over who would be their spouse.  Dynastic marriages were sometimes happy, but that was besides the point.  The goal was to unite royal houses (and their attendant lands) and hopefully produce an heir.  To do this often required elaborate arrangements depending on the laws of succession.

Perhaps because of the English Kingdom's muddled origins, these laws were fairly fluid.  For example, there was no Salic Law regarding male rulership, nor was there a requirement that heirs be of noble blood on both sides.  English kings could (and did) marry commoners (the current Prince of Wales has done so).

While some accounts of the crisis emphasize Wallis Simpson's American citizenship, that was a secondary concern.  Far more serious was the fact that she had two living ex-husbands, which was a violation of the Church of England's teachings regarding marriage.  As the titular head of the English Church, Edward was bound to abide by its rules. 

Some accounts of the crisis have to offer an explainer on this, noting that at the time this was indeed taken seriously.  Obviously, that is no longer the case, and I've seen citations claiming that in 1982 the C of E said "yeah, never mind about that bit."  Indeed, the last half-century has seen the various Archbishops of Canterbury pretty much rewrite scripture to legitimize all forms of sexual license, most recently deciding that "trans" individuals can have a form of re-baptism.

This is of course deeply ironic, given the number of people killed to create and then solidify its place in English society five centuries ago.  There are countless plays, movies and television adaptations that recreate the life and times of Henry VIII, most of them implicitly taking the position that Rome was wrong and his creation of the Church of England was an act of intellectual independence.

The truth is, it wasn't.  Contemporary events prove that by every measure, the English Reformation was an unmitigated disaster, unleashing centuries of persecution and war.  Henry's serial marriages did not produce a healthy, long-lived heir.  His intrigues bankrupted England, his confiscation of the monasteries undermined the social safety net and severing ties with Rome exacerbated divisions within English society that have yet to fully heal.  It's funny, but even at this late date, one still sees casual bigotry on the part of the English against Catholics.

I wrote at length about how "historian" Anthony Beevor included gratuitous and nonsensical anti-Catholic tropes in his book on the Spanish Civil War, outright saying that Spanish clergy were somehow intellectually incapable of any other occupation.  English period films with Catholics almost always have a scene showing self-flagellation.

American culture has incorporated a certain level of anti-Catholicism, no doubt because of its Puritan roots.  It's amusing to see people claim that the separation between church and state in the Constitution was somehow motivated by fear of the Catholic Church.  In fact, it was caused by the persecutions the Puritans suffered at the hands of the Church of England. 

What made the union of crown and altar so dangerous (and often deadly) was that it turned religious dissent into a form of treason.  Movies about Henry (and especially Elizabeth I) tend to downplay this, but both monarchs put their subjects to exquisite tortures in order to compel absolute obedience.  The Tudors didn't want intellectual freedom, they wanted control.

One could argue that all of this was part of God's plan, and that the martyrs created by Henry have in turn brought about many miracles and ultimately strengthened the faith.  That may be so, but I think it is still essential to fully dismantle the myth that the English Reformation was anything other than a naked power grab of breathtaking scope that brought ruin and war.

And lots of drama, which is why people still recreate it on stage and screen.


The Great Wall of Edits

The test readers have finally finished their labors, and we're now coming down the home stretch of Walls of Men.

This project really got out of hand developed beyond what I expected.  Based on my experience with Long Live Death, I figured I could hammer out a concise military history of China in little over twice the time it took me to write about Spain.  I was wrong.

Badly wrong.

Target completion dates kept slipping backward, from March to May to July to September.  I'm now reasonably confident that I will at least have a proof copy printed in November.

On the plus side, the feedback is very positive, which is great.  On the other hand, I've got a bit of work ahead in terms of cleaning things up.  I'm not really bothered by that because almost every one of my books has required a post-publication update as new typos and mistakes are brought to light.  Given the scope of this particular work, I'm willing to delay final publication until it's as clean as can be reasonably expected.

What next?  I'm not sure, but I need a break from the non-fiction realm.  Things are too stressful and disappearing into a world of my own creation will do me some good.  Both Vampires of Michigan and Battle Officer Wolf are long overdue for sequels, and I've been thinking about both of them.

I'm also looking at a revised one-volume version of Man of Destiny with some new content added to it (along with improved cover art).

To put it another way, I've still got stories to tell and things to say and with my impending retirement from military service, I'll have a lot more time to do it.

 


Walls of Men - my book on China - is finished

Today I completed the first hard-copy edit of Walls of Men: The Chinese Way of War 2500 BC - 2020 AD.

The next step is to send it to the test readers and to get to work on maps, the blurb and design a cover.   I think a mid-September publication date is within reach.

This this is big - the biggest book I've yet written.  I'm interested to see what people think.

It's kind of overwhelming and I'm glad that the heavy lifting on it is done.

I really want do some fiction now.  Two histories is enough for a while.


China project update

I've blown past my original deadline, but the end is at last somewhat in sight.

I've set aside time this weekend to push through World War II and get into Korea.  For those keeping score at home, the current word count is more than 64,000, quite a bit more than Long Live Death.

In fact, this is currently the second-longest book I've written.  (The current record-holder is Fall of the Commonwealth.)

The biggest challenge is knowing when to stop.  In earlier areas, there simply wasn't much information out there, so I wasn't tempted to go into great detail.  Sources are much more plentiful about modern conflicts.  Not only do I risk going into an unnecessary amount of detail, I also am tempted to do more research than necessary, which is far more time consuming.

Ironically, I think the work I've done on the warlord period and now WW II will make my discussion of the Chinese Civil War go much faster since the legacy of those conflicts clearly shaped the later one.

Once one understands that the Nationalists had effectively spent an entire generation at war, it is understandable that their forces were generally exhausted by 1946.

Of course the first draft is just that - a starting point, and I'll certainly have to go back and shore up various concepts and points during revision.  I am looking forward to finishing, though.  Hopefully that's only a few weeks away.

 


The Road Warrior: fun, but also stupid

The Mad Max series gave a big boost to the genre of "post-apocalyptic" fiction.  Foremost among them was The Road Warrior, which veered away from the Death Wish style social commentary of the first movie and dove straight into life after civilizational collapse.

I'll be honest: this is a pretty stupid movie.  It has plot holes the size of semi trucks and all sorts of hand-waving to push things forward, but it has had a huge impact on the public imagination. 

Which is funny, because the story makes no sense.  For example, there is no reason the protagonists and Lord Humongous can't simple do some sort of barter trade.  Even the most violent barbarian peoples - the Mongols, the Huns, the Vandals, the Goths - were wiling to trade when it was profitable.

Also: where are the firearms?  No, I don't expect craft weapons, but they clearly have the metallurgy to soup up engines - machining barrels and bolts to make crude firearms is no great stretch.  In fact, we know these things exist in places like the Khyber Pass - which is a pretty anarchic place.

All that aside, the movie's distinct look has become part of popular culture, which means that even though it's deeply silly, it can't be classified as anything other than a smashing success.

Truth be told, the whole point of the film is to do a bunch of violent car wrecks.  That's what we really want to see and that's what we get.

There is also a lesson insofar as the people who work to overthrow the existing order often have no clear notion of what comes next.  In that sense, the plague of ultraviolent punk rocker biker dudes serve as a cautionary tale for our present age.