Saturday, January 2, 2010

Russian Winters

A Train to Potevka Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949

I had a wonderful opportunity to see Mike Ramsdell speak at a fireside in our stake where he made frequent references to his book A Train to Potevka. He was very engaging and his stories were fascinating! As soon as I left the building, I asked my mom if she could pick me up a copy of his book from the place that she works. It turned out that she had one on hand, so I borrowed it to read during our visit out to Oregon.
The book is the authors account of a time when he was a spy working for the United States Government in the last days of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately something went terribly wrong with the mission, so he was forced to evacuate to a safe house in the middle of nowhere, where he eventually found safety and a miracle that saved his life.
In the process of telling this story the author does a fantastic job of weaving in narratives of the rest of his life by using flashbacks and making observations.  It is easy to read and totally enthralling- I finished it in a couple days.Altogether this is a very compelling and interesting read, and I highly recommend it!
The other book for today, Soldat, is very different and is only really similar to the other one because much of both of them are set against the harsh backdrop of the Russian Winter. Soldat is an autobiography of Siegfried Knappe, a officer in the German Army during the Second World War. The books is divided into three parts: The Siege of Berlin and his being taken prisoner by the Soviet Army, an account of the author’s early life and military career throughout the war, and finally his years in captivity in the Soviet Union and his eventual return to East Germany and then his escape to the United States.
It is a very interesting account and it brings home the fact that there were so many ordinary people involved in such extraordinary events throughout history. I won’t spoil too much of the book for your, but I will say that I’ve you’ve seen the movie Valkiere and liked it, then you’d love this book (it has a little bit less intrigue, but a lot more happy ending). I recommend the book, but only if you’re in the mood to be melancholy and only if you have some patience (it does drag a bit, and is pretty long).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Warrior and the Tao

Tao Te Ching (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Lao Tzu: Book CoverArt of War (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) by Sun Tzu: Book Cover

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu & The Art of War by Sun Tzu

When I decided to read these two books I somehow imagined that they would be polar opposites. One a contemplative, passive book, the other a manual describing the active and aggressive world of medieval Chinese warfare. However, after reading them I found that they are actually very much drawing on the same view of the world.

Of the two The Art of War was different then I thought it would be. It is really a discussion about how to win without fighting rather than about how to fight. Indeed, Sun Tzu seems to draw upon the philosophical concepts of Taoism for much of his work. One verse from the Tao Te Ching in particular ties in with the Art of War:

The best warrior is never aggressive. The best fighter is never angry. The best tactician does not engage the enemy. The best utilizer of people’s talents places himself below them.

The focus of The Art of War is on strategy and preparation, and in that sense it is a book which is applicable to a wide range of topics, not just war. In fact shortly after finishing the book I wrote a long e-mail to a friend outlining the application of these military strategies to his dating struggles.

There were two particular passages from The Art of War that I found particularly profound:

The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat; how much more no calculation at all!

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

The Tao Te Ching is a deeply philosophical book that I don’t think that I will ever fully grasp (the only book in my experience that I can compare it to is Isaiah). However, the things which I did understand were very profound, and I would highly recommend that anybody who has the inclination to contemplation and reflection should try and read this book. I have to admit that there are quite a few notes referring to passages in 1st and 2nd Nephi!

There is much wisdom to be found in this book. The most important them that I picked up from the Tao Te Ching was the emphasis on humility.

Standing on tiptoe, you are unsteady. Straddle-legged, you cannot go. If you show yourself, you will not be seen. If you affirm yourself, you will not shine. If you boast, you will have no merit. If you promote yourself, you will have no success.

I don’t think that everybody would enjoy these books as much as I did, but I am pretty sure that anybody who read them would benefit from doing so.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The British Empire

Death of the Imperial Dream Rule Britiania

The Death of the Imperial Dream by Edward Gireson & Rule Britannia by Dauphne du Maurier

I had really hoped to get this post done in time for Canada Day in honor of our neighbors to the north. Unfortunately I was not quite ready, so I hurried up and finished these books so I could post this morning.

I have always had a rather romantic view of the British Empire, in part due to these two books which I encountered for the first time at my local library as a teenager. However, now that I have re-read these books I realize how unromantic both of them are!

The Death of the Imperial Dream by Edward Gireson is a book written in the late sixties detailing the history of the so called “Second British Empire” (the first Empire having been lost in the American Revolution). Although not very scholarly it is a good introduction into the history of British Imperialism from Yorktown to Suez. The author is writing for a British audience and uses the 2nd person quite a bit (our this, we that) in what seems to be an attempt to make sense out of the UK’s sudden fall from preeminence after WWII. One of the major strengths of the book is the extensive use of primary source newspapers in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth to come to terms with what the people were really thinking and feeling about the events he describes.

I once heard a History professor describe history as either a sword or a mirror, depending on how we use it. In other words we either try and use precedents to make arguments against others or to examine our own ideas. If I have ever read a book that qualifies as a “mirror” this is it! The main things that I seemed to get out of the book were:

  • “Imperialism” and “Anti-Imperialism” are modern terms that don’t apply to Victorian or earlier times. In fact they often coexisted in the same movements and even in the same individuals.
  • The British Empire had Commercial, Ideological, Political and Practical aspects that cannot be readily separated from each other.
  • Britain was forced to renter Europe after the Victorian age; first militarily, then economically and even politically after the Imperial Project started to unravel around the beginning of the 20th century. Imagine what would have happened had Britain and her colonies remained aloof during WWI!
  • The real trend setters in the Empire were Canada and Ireland, who acted like the cool kids in a class and had their imitators to one degree or another in the rest of the Commonwealth. Indeed both of their examples (one gradual and commercially motivated, the other revolutionary and politically motivated) are clear throughout the independence movements within the empire during the 20th century.

Rule Britannia is an entirely different take on what it means to be a part of an Empire. It is a fictional story from the point of view of a young woman who lives in Cornwall with her grandmother, a retired actress nicknamed Mad (short for Madam), and her grandmother’s six adopted sons. Their peaceful, if eccentric, existence is shattered one morning by the sudden appearance of a large American military force which had been invited to Britain to pave the way for a political union between the US and UK. Apparently the UK had gotten itself kicked out of Europe and was on the verge of financial collapse and so turned to a post-Vietnam USA which was eager to regain some international prestige.

Things go sour between the locals and the occupying forces, and increasingly restrictive measures are put in place. Mad leads a local rebellion of sorts and eventually the who country follows suite and the Americans are forced to move on.

I really enjoyed this book, and aside from a couple of disturbing parts (a 10 year old boy ends up killing a Marine officer with a bow and arrow) I would recommend it to most readers. Of course it is kind of strange to see ones own countrymen as the villains, but that is part of the appeal of the book.

Only after reading both of these books did I realize that Maurier has masterfully transplanted the experience of the British Raj in India to her own homeland, and condensed it into a timeline of a few short weeks. I think that there are two points that the author is trying to make here: 1) Imperialism is bad for the governed, but even worse on those who try and govern, and 2)Britain herself needs to rediscover her National identity after having lost it in the Imperial Project. I think that the prominence of Mr. Willis, a Welsh Nationalist, underscores the latter point.

After all is said and done I am left with the mixed feelings towards the British Empire that I started with. One the one hand few political entities have done so much for the advancement of humanity. On the other, though, such advancement came at such as high cost to both rulers and ruled and came in such an indirect manner that I can’t be overly positive about it. I suppose I will have to leave judging it up to people who are far more experienced and much more mature than I am.