Friday, August 15, 2014

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings

1914 by Max Hastings. 

"The great lords have quarrelled, and we must pay for it with our blood, our wives and children" German POW to Countess Turczynowicz page 410.

Yeah I'm pretty much going to refer to the book as 1914 from here on out.  It's a damn long title.  1914 focuses on the year 1914 as you could have guessed, the first year of World War I.  A glance at the calendar should suffice as to why I've decided to review this book.   World War I was the end of a world order, of the empires and nations that fought that war 5 of them would suffer a collapse of government or utter destruction of the nation itself the entire European system suffered terrible injuries that it would never recover from.  That said, as an American, I've primarily been taught to view WWI as the prologue of World War II.  While in Europe I'm told World War I looms larger, which honestly makes sense given they fought it longer and paid a higher cost for doing so.

"Where a Serb dwells, there is Serbia"
Popular Serbian Catch phrase page 17

Anyways, Hastings starts before the war discussing the radical group the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group whose goal was to drive Austria Hungary out of the Balkans and establish a Greater Serbia or Yugoslavia. The Black Hand was supported by elements within the Serbian government including the head of military intelligence Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic aka Apis.  The Black Hand was a vicious group, responsible for a number of crimes before the war.  He goes into the domestic situation of each of the major combatants, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary.  A note is made of the social unrest simmering (and in Britain outright boiling) in all of these nations.  The German leaders are noted for outright stating that a good victorious war was just the thing to keep the Socialists under heel.  The assassination of Sophie and Franz Ferdinand by Princip is shown as the small match that lit the fuse.  Interestingly enough, Franz Ferdinand is shown to be rather unpopular among the nobility of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, but the fact that the heir to the throne (and his socially embarrassing Czech wife) was murdered by a Serb was too much to be borne.  This is where the gears began to turn.

Here Hasting begins a short examination of who should bear the blame of the war.  It's a matter of some disagreement and interestingly enough Hasting argues (somewhat convincingly) that the blame for the war lays on Austria Hungary and Germany in the main.  Mostly Germany though, as the Germans are shown to be perfectly willing to start a European wide war believing   A lot of the book is devoted to the months of June and July the build up of the war, showing the stances of the men in power a number of whom were rather blase about sending millions of men off to war.  An interesting note is that the President of France Poincare was in Russia or sailing back to France during most of the buildup to war, rendering him out of touch for the most part.

"You soldiers ought to be very please that we have arranged such a nice war for you" Foreign Ministry official to General Knox page 260.

Then the war starts, Hasting covers both the western and eastern front, although I feel he devotes just a bit more time to the western front (given that most of the people reading this would be westerners, I suppose that's forgivable).  I learned the most reading about the Eastern front, which was an appalling exercise of incompetence, beyond what I had even imagined.  The Austrian and Russian lack of a logistic system alone is enough to make a man weep!  Add in their officer corps and being a soldier in that army seems more like a punishment from an angry God, seriously folks this is so bad it would be comedy if it wasn't so damn heart breaking.  The Austrians alone would send half their army into Serbia only to get their asses whupped. The sheer level of idiocy on display should be enough to convert any believer of the superiority of nobility into a die hard Republican for life.  The Austrians would do no better against the Russians, whose army wasn't what I would call expertly lead.  The German army was the best army in the theater but even then it was plagued by over optimistic leadership and greatly inflated expectations.  Which often left them over extended.

"We must wait and see whether it will be such a nice war after all." General Knox's reply.

Over on the western front, we get a examination of the first French offensive and the sheer disaster it entitled. What really shocked me was how in the month of August both armies were willing to use tactics that were used in the American Civil War.  As in men marching in column and line to attack dug in troops with bolt action rifles and machine guns.   Slaughter doesn't begin to cover the results.  Thankfully everyone involved moved pass these tactics quickly but frankly they didn't have much of a choice!  Even has it stands, there are casualties like regiments of 57 officers and 2629 enlisted to 6 officers and 748 enlisted in a single day.  That's more than American forces in Iraq lost in a year.  While Hasting doesn't linger on this, he does call attention to the human cost of the war.  From German troops obsessing over finding francs-tireurs, civilians in occupied France and Belgium who were operating against them and the ruthless measures they took (burning whole villages over a rumor for example or taking thousands of hostages).  This book is very good at showing us just how awful and brutal the war was while not turning it into a show of horrors.

"The gentlemen pass without one car stopping to pick the most exhausted [casualties]. The major mustn't be late for his roast!" Edouard Coeurdevey French soldier page 529

Another subject of note that attracts my attention is the sheer indifference that the upper ranks showed to their men.  In the modern US military being treated in such a fashion by our leaders would seem practically unthinkable.  I didn't see my battalion CO often, but I knew he was up in the front somewhere when we invaded Iraq.  He wasn't chilling out in a hotel in Kuwait City.   I think I prefer our system.

1914 is a very good and informative book.  Easy to understand peppered with quotes like the ones I've been using throughout this review.  It is a thick book at 566 pages (but given the sheer amount of things to cover, I can't blame Hastings for that) but I don't think that's a problem.  Hasting does take positions on the matters of who started the war and whether or not things would have been any better if the Germans had won.  He asserts (although not much proof is given) that a Europe that saw Central Powers victory would be a worse off Europe than the one that saw Allied victory.  While I honestly agree with him, I feel he doesn't present much in the way of evidence for that and that does pull the score down. Additionally the jumping back and forth between the East and Western front is not something I've fond of.  I would have preferred to see each front covered completely before moving on the next one, but that's a personal preference.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hasting gets a B+, it was greatly informative but not as much as Persian Fire. Then again, maybe WWI shouldn't be that much fun.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Lost Fleet: Fearless

The Lost Fleet: Fearless by Jack Campbell.

We continue with the adventures of Captain John Geary and his fleet trapped behind enemy lines.  Which makes this the first review of a sequel!  Yay!

How did I feel about this sequel?  On the whole I enjoyed it, while a friend of mine did warn me that the series got worse as continued, I don't feel this degraded to much... While I did enjoy Dauntless a bit more, I feel Fearless was pretty close to it in quality.  However... I feel this book missed an opportunity.   That the story that Campbell decided to tell was in fact not the best story he could have told.  But I'll get into that.

Fearless, opens with Captain Geary storming another Syndicate star system (this starts to run the risk of becoming routine), we see the fleet is still uneasy under his leadership, with ships breaking formation and running face first into a minefield (thus starting a theme in this book).   They also in the opening chapters find a Syndicate labor camp, filled with Alliance POWs.  Captain Geary of course liberates the prisoners, really he couldn't do anything else both the book he's based on command on and the fleet that's shown itself twitchy with his leadership demand it.  Still there's a ticking bomb coming onboard with those prisoners.  A rival for the loyalty and command of the fleet, Captain Fighting Falco!  When it was revealed that this was a guy that was idolized by the officers of the fleet, dreaded by the political leaders of the Alliance and a man who caused great damage to Syndicate fleets (and Alliance fleets for that matter).  Here's where I feel the missed opportunity, see the big problem is that the various elements of the fleet that don't like Geary have no one to rally around.  Well here's a guy on a silver platter!  And they do!  Kinda.  I'll avoid spoilers, but it's resolved way to quickly and relatively painlessly.  This should have been the centerpiece of the book, as it's the only conflict that Geary could actually lose!  Falco was more interesting as a nemesis then the faceless Syndicate fleet or Geary's inner demons.  I mean yes, we do see Geary wrestling with self doubt and so on but it's a understated conflict in this book. But no, Falco is really more a cameo role in this book, which saddens me deeply. Falco should have been the glorious charismatic warlord contrasted with the professional disciplined officer but I didn't get that.  I got two bloody conservations and no public confrontations, no sneaky maneuvers and counter maneuvers.  I mean come one, I get Captain Geary is suppose to be the lone soldier of civilization amongst the barbarians brought to their lowly state by unending war, but I've seen officers in professional militaries, these fuckers know how to politic!  I almost wish this series had been written by an enlisted man (or woman) then we would get officers as sneaky motherfuckers.

The quarrel with Co-President Roine actually takes up more of the book but honestly isn't all that interesting. Captain Geary has plan that takes the fleet even deeper into enemy space in order to throw the Syndicate into confusion and dismay. It also rest on the fact that Geary understands the older form of FTL he's keeping the fleet reliant on. Roine accuses him of glory hounding and betraying her trust in a screaming match but the fight really doesn't hold my interest.  The stakes are that Roine will stop regarding Geary with any respect and start working against him, but she's smart enough to realize that there isn't much she can actually do without killing everyone else in the fleet so at best all she can do is bide her time (which makes her screaming fight with Geary actually kinda stupid for a politician, but I'll chalk that up to emotion).  They weren't all that close before the fight, being allies with a limited level of trust, so it's not like I'm watching a friendship die. Speaking of emotion, I don't think it's a spoiler to mention that they literally kiss and make up.  This was telegraphed a bit given that it was specifically mentioned to Geary that it was perfectly legal for him to sleep with the Co-President as she wasn't under his command.  The relationship is really... Kinda of lukewarm, they both seem to be sleeping with each other because there's no one else they can sleep with and the tension is getting to them.  While they do seem to get more friendly with each other it's a very restrained friendship where neither side is big on trusting each other.  But neither side dares start sticking knives in each back either so there's no thrill of danger there.  I'm way more interested in the conflict between Roine and Flag Captain Desjani, as that is a fight that we're not allowed to know anything else (as they won't discuss it with Geary our viewpoint character) but this is a fight where the fighters can dare hurt each other and work against other.

That said the fighting does get more exciting, because there is less Geary shouting orders that mean absolutely nothing to me and more descriptions of what is actually going on!  This is much better and it is I think an improvement.  This is partly because Geary is forced to stand on the sidelines and watch a gifted subordinate do the fighting and thus Campbell is forced to tell me what Geary is actually seeing.  Here the mechanics of fighting at a range measured in light minutes without FTL sensors or coms which means by the time Geary sees the fight, it was over hours ago (as this is a detached task force doing it's own thing).  We also see some short ground combat scenes, which are utterly glossed over, but since this is a navy series, I'll let that slide.  I will note that for someone who's suppose to be squeaky clean, Geary's tactics in maintaining troop safety in a city would drive many people into frothing fury and denounce him as a war criminal.  You know, what with leveling entire city blocks to create a safe zone for his Marines looting foot from a city after orbitally bombarding several planets.

I'll be fair, Geary's choices are loot foot and supplies from the Syndicates or have the fleet decay around him as he is trapped behind enemy lines and surrounded.  But he's still looting cities while talking about the rules of war.  I kinda find it funny, course that may be because of my experience in the war, after the invasion I was searched before I was allowed to go home to prevent Marines from looting the Iraqis.  I didn't object to this honestly, the average Iraqi I saw was living in a mud hut, they needed the gold in Saddam's palaces more then I did after all (although a pile of gold the size of toilet sure would have came in handy over the years, all well), although it did bother that it seemed that others higher up the food chain were allowed to loot. In some ways it seems troops aren't allowed to loot anymore because the privilege has been handed off to polite soft voiced men in suits.  I'm not arguing that I should have been allowed to loot, it would have been wrong.  Still at least I would have fought for it, the suits did really little to justify their looting beyond having MBAs. Well that was a weird divergence and I apologize.

Eh anyways, the book ends with Geary's command solidified, which I honest regard as a mistake.  So far there's little drama in the conflict with the Syndicate, they charge in like barbarians and are faceless and characterless.  All the real character conflict comes from the Alliance Fleet trying to buck Geary's leadership.  It was still a good read though and if you can get past losing that, it's fun to read.

Lost Fleet: Fearless gets a B- While full of lost opportunities, the fact that it fixed the problem with combat and expanded several characters and added a new one that I find interesting gets it the grade.

That said it's time for a break from Lost Fleet.  I'm gonna dive back into history.  Next up is Catastrophe: 1914 Europe Goes to War by Max Hasting.