September Booklogging
By Dwip September 30, 2013, 4:47 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

September was a surprisingly busy month, as it happens. You’ll notice that I’ve been plowing through a lot of World War II topics the past few months, as it’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at it in any detail. Thus, there are a couple of topics I’m going to blather on that I’ve been meaning to discuss for about 15 years now, and a couple of other things that date back even longer than that.

Nostalgia’s fun.

In other news, for a program that I’m using to generate blog posts that barely anybody reads, I’m becoming happier and happier with Booklogger, which I gave a fairly major rewrite earlier in the month. It’s really saving me a lot of time in the creation of these posts, and it’s teaching more code. Exciting stuff, I assure you.

YTD stats:

January: 3 total; 3 fiction (1,712 pages)
February: 3 total; 3 non-fiction (1,098 pages)
March: 13 total; 10 graphic (2,432 pages); 2 fiction (1,462 pages); 1 non-fiction (290 pages)
April: 7 total; 2 graphic (1,200 pages); 2 fiction (1,776 pages); 3 non-fiction (1,244 pages)
May: 1 total; 1 fiction (1,040 pages)
June: 5 total; 5 fiction (2,480 pages)
July: 5 total; 5 fiction (1,934 pages)
August: 4 total; 1 fiction (608 pages); 3 non-fiction (776 pages)
September: 8 total; 2 graphic (1,408 pages); 1 fiction (320 pages); 5 non-fiction (1,416 pages)

Year to Date: 49 total; 14 graphic (5,040 pages); 20 fiction (11,332 pages); 15 non-fiction (4,824 pages)

Details for September after the jump.

09/03/2013 Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead: Vol. 18 (2013 Image Comics paperback, 136 pages – Corvallis Public Library)

Yeah, I got nuthin’. Carl’s a badass, Kirkman apparently really misses the Governor, and honestly chasing the evil dude around is one of the least interesting parts of this series. Wake me for the next volume.

09/06/2013 Barrett Tillman, Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942-1945 (2010 Simon & Schuster hardcover, 336 pages – Corvallis Public Library)

Although the title fooled me at first, this is, as depicted by its cover, primarily about the strategic bombing campaign by American B-29s against the home islands of Japan, rather than the all-encompassing survey of the entire air war in the Pacific I was expecting.

Judge a book by it’s cover, is what I’m saying here.

That having been said, while the focus is primarily on the B-29 campaign, Tillman also has chapters detailing the contributions of US and Royal Navy carrier air, USAAF land-based fighters, and a curiously brief appendix that does little more than tell the reader that the US bombed the northern parts of Japan from Alaska.

I will confess that, digging through the notes, I find some of the sourcing rather strange and heavily reliant on web forums and secondary sources rather than what one might consider to be primary sources, including sources such as the United States Strategic Bombing Survey reports that I would expect to feature prominently.

Too, Tillman is a fan of Curtis LeMay and I think a rather uncritical one at that (at least in this book – his biography of LeMay may be more nuanced), and while I largely agree with his assessments of the necessity of the firebombing campaign (his chapter on the factual details of this is excellent) and of the atomic bombings (this chapter is much less comprehensive), Tillman tends to be a bit blithely dismissive of the moral aspects of these actions. Again, while I basically agree with Tillman’s conclusions here, there are discussions to be had about firebombing, area bombing, and the atomic bombs versus submarines and the Soviet Union’s enterance to the war that are much better dealt with in more lengthy works.

All of that having been said, however, I found Whirlwind to be a well-written, fast-paced and eminently readable introduction to the B-29 campaigns against Japan. While anyone interested in the subject will be ultimately unsatisfied and will want to move on to more specialzed topics, Whirlwind will at least make you aware of the subjects you need to be looking at.

09/13/2013 Wyatt Blassingame The Navy’s Fliers In World War II (1967 Westminster Press hardcover, 258 pages – Personal collection, 2013)

I first read this book when I was 9 or 10 or so and saw it on the shelf at the Corvallis library (which, allow me to say, has an excellent section on World War 2). Why I picked it up I have no idea, and although I read it five or ten times as a kid, the only thing I really remember twenty years later is guys floating around in life rafts in the Pacific.

I’ve always been kind of curious as to how it holds up, so I picked up an ex-library copy (thanks, Carnegie Public Library of Lawton, OK) and gave it a read.

I should say that this book belongs very much in a sort of unique mid-century genre that I like to call Boy’s Adventure History and what you might also call young adult history. If you ever read a Landmark Book as a kid, The Navy’s Fliers is very much in that same genre – unsurprising, since Blassingame wrote several of the Landmarks. These sorts of books are heavy on the crazy stories “and then the plane ran out of gas and we jumped in a life raft and landed on an island with ex-cannibal natives!” and somewhat glossy on the blood and guts and PTSD angle (though they are mentioned). The writing is easy and engaging and appropriate for young readers, and if you don’t know anything about carrier air in World War 2, well, this is a pretty good primer.

If I were inclined to, I could make some criticisms here, of the Boy’s Adventure writing, or the mid century attitudes somewhat on display, or of the things that got glossed over. But you know, ultimately I like this book. I have fond memories of reading it as a kid, and between this and the Landmark books on the the Flying Tigers, Navy frogmen, and Navy Seabees, I actually learned a lot about things most people don’t know about World War 2, and I greatly enjoyed myself doing it. Would that this were the case for more kids.

09/17/2013 Franklin D’Olier, et al, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Reports (2001 Air University Press hardcover, 126 pages – Personal collection, 2013)

Following the First World War, air power theorists like Billy Mitchell and Giulio Douhet predicted that future wars would be decisively won by air power in general and strategic bombing in particular. The idea was that aerial bombing could easily destroy opposing equipment (witness the SMS Ostfriesland tests), destroy enemy industry, and eradicate civilian morale by use of terror bombing of urban centers.

These basic theories eventually formed the basis of the Allied strategic bombing campaigns during World War II, and the Strategic Bombing Survey sets out to prove if they were right or not. The record, I think it fair to say, is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, the introduction of aircraft and the aircraft carrier into naval war resulted in the absolute eradication of the ideal of World War I-style dreadnought battleship fleets. From Pearl Harbor to Leyte Gulf, new technology dominated the old in one of the most lopsided displays in the history of warfare. The range, flexibility, and hitting power of aircraft completely revolutionized the war, and is still the basis of the US Navy today.

What was also proved true is that loss of air superiority was disastrous for all the Axis powers, and the free movement of Allied aircraft throughout Axis territory and their ability to strike wherever they wished with near impunity was a significant disruption to the Axis and major force multiplier for Allied ground forces. On the tactical and operational level, aircraft were very decisive during the war.

On the other hand, both the strategic level industrial attacks and the terror attacks proved to have mixed records. With the exception of oil refineries and a couple of other extremely vulnerable industries, attacks on German industry were, if not ineffectual, ultimately probably not worth the very high cost paid by Allied aircrews – in most segments of German industry, production actually went up over time. In fact, fuel, food, and aircrews were much harder to come by for the Germans. In either case, while the bombing raids may or may not have diminished German morale, they didn’t do so sufficiently to end the war, thus rendering a verdict on the usefulness of bombing civilian populations.

That having been said, Germany was in many ways more resilient than Japan, where industrial bombing and urban firebombing proved much more effective, ultimately culminating in the dropping of the atomic bombs. While the effects on civilian morale were ineffectual, the industrial effects were roughly the same as in Germany – most production went up, transportation in the island nation of Japan almost totally collapsed, and fuel stocks were almost completely eliminated by V-J day.

Even there, however, results are mixed. While the Survey states that the atomic bombs and the utter obliteration of most Japanese cities were major factors in ending the war, it also notes that fully 28.8% of the Japanese navy and 54.7% of Japanese merchant shipping was destroyed by submarine, not aircraft, and the Survey states, and I quote:

Based on the detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

All of that having been stated, the Survey and I come to differeing conclusions – despite not fulfilling the theories of Douhet, et al, the Survey comes out wholeheartedly in favor of a strong strategic bombing command controlled by an independent air force, whereas I see the whole enterprise as a more or less complete refutation of strategic air in favor of operational and tactical air. The Survey does note that technology hadn’t quite caught up to reality – as evidenced by a bomb accuracy rate that hovered around 20% despite the best bombsights in the world – and in any case the atom bomb changed everything. From the perspective of 2013 I am unconvinced, nor do I suspect that I would convinced from the perspective of 1946.

Be all of that as it may, the Survey, somewhat surprisingly for a collection of statistics put out by the government, is an easily readable document with a clear and concise narrative laying out the salient facts. It’s a very short document that’s easily read within a couple hours, and I could easily compherend it even when I first read it in high school. Anyone with an interest in the subject or in World War Two should give it a read.

09/20/2013 Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey Summary Report (1993 United States Government Printing Office hardcover, 296 pages – Personal collection, 2013)

As I stated in my blurb on the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, I first read that document in high school, and I’ve been meaning to read this one ever since. At the time in the late 90s the Gulf War Air Power Survey was contemporary, and its lessons were being applied at the time in the Balkans. We’re a bunch of years and several wars removed from that now, and I’m a little tardy getting back to the subject, but I think it’s interesting to read this document in light of what has come since and in light of what the World War Two report concluded.

There are a bunch of standout things here. First, it’s interesting that the entire concept of strategic bombing as espoused by Douhet is given extremely short shrift by everyone involved, from the planners to the survey team, and with a couple of exceptions that were predicted 50 years prior in the World War Two survey (bombing of the electrical grid and oil infrastructure being the main two), strategic targets were almost entirely off the table except as necessary to destroy enemy air defenses so Coalition air could focus on operational and tactical targets. This is entirely in contrast to the Vietnam air war, whose planners don’t seem to have gotten the memo on that particular subject, and didn’t do so well because of it.

Second, as rightly noted by the Gulf War survey writers, there were a bunch of things they could do that their predecesors could not even 20 years prior – Coalition air essentially took down every bit of communications in Iraq above the guys-running-around-with-messages level, Iraqi air defenses were almost completely negated by anti-radar weapons (in contrast with the lengthy and often bitter air war over North Vietnam to say nothing of Germany and Japan), and stealth aircraft made deep strikes through air defenses essentially trivial affairs (compared to 25% losses over Schweinfurt in 1943)

Third, while precision laser guided munitions were only available to two aircraft types (F-117 and F-111) and counted for something like 5% of the total munitions dropped, their accuracy was 13 times better than dumb bombs, and when combined with anti-radar missiles, cruise missiles, and other guided missiles like Mavericks and Hellfires, were capable of essentially ludicrious destructive power, to the point where Coalition pilots were dropping single bombs to destroy single tanks, never mind the bombs dropping down air shafts footage we all saw on CNN at the time. Contrast that with the 20% accuracy rate in WW2, and it’s hard not to be impressed. The whole future of ground attack by the US is basically found right here.

Fourth, Coalition efforts seemed to be extremely hampered by their own command and control – the survey describes a daily 70+ page air tasking order that was unable to keep up with the speed of air operations, and that every 1980s-era computer system fielded to help with control, logistics, or whatever was completely useless and replaced by some sort of workaround. Notably, the World War Two survey barely makes mention of any such thing.

Fifth, similarly, Coalition efforts appeared extremely hampered by lack of intelligence – all the precision weapons in the world are ineffective if you don’t know where to drop them. While the survey thought prewar US intelligence quite good, it’s less clear on the effectiveness of wartime efforts, and lack of proper aerial recon was a problem. Contrast with World War Two, where everyone in the strategic side of things basically knew where they were going day after day. Also contrast with the heavy use of drones and other things since 1991.

Lastly, the survey writers conclude that it’s not entirely clear from 1991 if what happened during the Gulf War represents a revolution in military affairs (a debate that has raged since), or put shortly if airpower was in and of itself enough to win the war. From my uneducated vantage point in the 1990s the idea that aircraft might win a war by themselves did not seem entirely true to me, and from 2013 I must agree – while Coalition aircraft were, by themselves, responsible for up to 50% degredation of Iraqi forces, and while the destruction of Iraqi command and control resulted in mass paralysis, ultimately these only proved to be force multipliers to the ground invasion rather than war winning in and of themselves. I think it safe to say that that pattern has held since.

Overall, I’m a little less bullish about this report than I am the older one. It’s 150 pages longer and more comprehensive, but it seemed to me there was a lot of fat that could have been trimmed out, and while the narrative sections might prove to be of more value to people who know less about the air campaign during the Gulf War, this isn’t my first exposure and those bits kind of dragged a little. That said, this is interesting stuff if you’re at all interested in the subject, and I’m only sad it took me 15 years to read the thing.

09/21/2013 Gary Larson The Complete Far Side: 1980-1994 (2003 Andrews McMeel hardcover, 1272 pages – Personal collection, 2004)

I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about this in any real sense before, but I realized while reading through all 14 years of The Far Side how much of my humor is due to the influence of Gary Larson. Random animals? Aliens? Nonsensical situations that are somehow satire? If I’ve ever made the joke, it’s probably here, from cheetah wheelies to the aliens going after the chickens again. It should surprise nobody to learn that The Far Side was by far my favorite comic strip as a teenager, and up until they stopped making them, I got an Off the Wall Calendar every year for Christmas.

So I’m probably biased here, but this is a great book.

It’s also heavy as a rock, almost 10 pounds per book according to my scale, probably the weightiest book I own. It’s also one of the nicest – both volumes are cloth-bound in a heavy duty cloth-bound slipcase, with thick, crisp pages where each comic is brilliantly rendered, often in color even for black and white comics, with particularly notorious comics getting larger-sized treatments. It’s absolutely clear that this book was a labor of love for everyone involved, and of the thousand books I own, these are easily the nicest by leaps and bounds.

Did I mention they’re also almost 1,300 pages of hilarity? That part’s important.

09/24/2013 John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (2004 Tor Books hardcover, 320 pages – Personal collection, 2005)

You’re going to see a lot of Scalzi on here for a while, because I’m doing a reread of the entire Old Man’s War series in preparation for reading through The Human Division, as it’s been a few years.

It should be said that the genre of Starship Troopers-esque books is somewhat full at this late date, and while Old Man’s War isn’t quite Starship Troopers or The Forever War, and has slightly less meat to it, it’s still pretty damn good for a first published novel, with an interesting and unique take on the subject. It’s maybe a little too clever and a little too obvious, but as a counterpoint allow me to offer a couple of rebuttals – A) still pretty good for a then-new novelist; B) well, I’ve read it like 5 times now, haven’t I?; C) everyone I’ve ever loaned it to really liked it.

So yeah, this one’s a keeper.

09/27/2013 Stephen Rodrick, The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life (2013 Harper Collins hardcover, 400 pages – Corvallis Public Library)

Now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this late date and after an entire post of me rambling about military geekery to discover that I listen from time to time to a show called Midrats, which is a Navy/Marine-themed podcast that gets into a whole lot of things most people don’t care about, but which I for some reason am destined to. They had as a guest on the July 14th episode the author of this book, who spent some time talking about it. Sounded interesting, so I picked it up.

On the surface, The Magical Stranger is about Stephen Roderick and his attempts to know his father, who as commander of an EA-6B Prowler squadron crashed and died in 1979. Roderick goes into some detail on his relationship with an often absent father and a mother who often didn’t know how to cope with all the stress she was under. Things end up crazy for just about everyone.

However, that’s all just part of a larger narrative, which is a more holistic look at just about everyone surrounding a Navy squadron – what it’s like to be on deployment with the pilots, their downtime, what their families go through, what it’s like for the retirees, for widows – you name it, it’s probably in here.

Roderick’s pretty good at this whole writing thing, and while The Magical Stranger maybe goes on a bit too long at the end, it is engaging and fascinating throughout. Well worth the time if Navy aviation interests you or if you just like reading interesting books about interesting people.

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