BOOK REVIEW: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This novel is set in Italy during World War I. The protagonist, Frederic Henry (like Hemingway, himself) volunteered to drive an ambulance in Italy during the war. The story is informed by, if not based upon, Hemingway’s personal experiences. Central to the story is a romance between Henry and a British nurse named Catherine Barkley. Their tentative flirtations deepen when Henry is wounded and spends a considerable amount of time at the hospital while recuperating. Barkley becomes pregnant with Henry’s child in the middle of the war. Henry returns to service for only a short time before he finds himself in the midst of a chaotic retreat from the swift advance of the Austrians and Germans. This retreat continues to go sour for Henry, leading to a flight for his life as he attempts to get back to Catherine so that he can get them both (plus the unborn child) to safety.

There’s a [variously-attributed] quote about war being: “long periods of interminable boredom punctuated by sheer terror.” This book captures that feel, but even during the moments of quiet from the opening through Henry’s rehab to the weeks hiding out in the Swiss mountains, Hemingway keeps the story engaging by shining a light into the protagonist’s psychology – and, occasionally, through wit. Then there are the thrilling moments like the shelling that wounds Henry or his various narrow escapes.

I found this book to be highly engaging. It has some beautiful language, exemplified by the famously well-composed opening paragraph, mixed with the taut suspense of life in a war zone. If you’re interested in war stories or classic American literature, it’s a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operation by Paul Marer

I Participated in Wallenberg's Rescue OperationsI Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operations by Paul Marer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inquiries about purchasing the book can be made here.


In 1944, the Nazis were working to eradicate the European Jews. Among the last major Jewish populations accessible to Hitler that had yet to be shipped to the death camps were those from Budapest. Among the most effective forces arrayed against the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascists) in the days before the Red Army arrived were neutral nation diplomats who issued protective documentation, offering at least a thin shield of legal protection that saved thousands of lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of such diplomats is that of the Swedish envoy, Raoul Wallenberg – not because his operation was bigger or riskier than those of the others, but because his story didn’t end with the war. Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets at the end of the Siege of Budapest for reasons that remain speculative, and he died in a Soviet prison. This book draws on the experience of Marianne Bach, a young member of Wallenberg’s team. Given the loss of Wallenberg, and the fact that the other members of his operation are now deceased, Bach’s story is an important last chance to learn more detail about what happened in Budapest during those dark days.

The book is chronologically arranged. The first two and the last three chapters discuss Marianne Bach’s life before and after, respectively, her days working as part of Wallenberg’s team. A reader might dismiss such chapters as humdrum, if necessary, background information, and starkly contrast them with the more high-octane, life-and-death, fascist-fighting core of the book. However, Marer fixes his sights on an intriguing focal point throughout these chapters, identity (and crises, thereof.) Both before and after the war, Bach was challenged by questions of identity – religious, cultural, and national identity. Living abroad, she was a foreigner, but at “home” in Hungary there’d been a great effort to eliminate her people. It was smart to focus on events and questions at the crux of identity. It makes these chapters engaging to a degree that a broad biographical sketch would be hard-pressed to achieve.

The core of the book (ch. 3 – 8) doesn’t just tell Bach’s story – in fact, it doesn’t just tell the Wallenberg story, it delves into the broader question of the fate of the Budapest Jews and all those who intervened to save whomever they could. This isn’t to say that the closeup story is absent. Readers get a detailed view of the operations that Bach was involved in and an overview of the Wallenberg story – including discussion of his fate as a secret Soviet prisoner. It’s just that those closeup stories are embedded within a broader context that includes activities like Carl Lutz’s Glass House operation, Hitler’s order to take over of Hungary before it could defect from the Axis, and the Danube executions by Arrow Cross Militiamen that followed that takeover.

This book provides a gripping examination of a disturbing time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The End of Killing by Rick Smith

The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest ProblemThe End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before one dismisses this book based on its seemingly pollyanna title, I’d suggest one think of it as an opening volley in what promises to be a series of crucial debates that will play out — one way or another — in the years to come. I believe Smith, founder and CEO of TASER and Axon, did a great job of presenting an argument for the pursuit of a range of technologies and policies intended to curb violence, as well as anticipating, presenting, and debating many of the opposing arguments. The book’s tone is more pragmatic than its bold and controversial title might suggest. That said, I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions by any means; though I do agree these questions need to be thoughtfully considered and debated.

I’d put the technologies and policies Smith advocates for into three basic categories. First, those that are nearly inevitable given societal winds of change and the nature of technological development (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary weapons of the law enforcement community, automated systems being deployed to curb violence in schools, and ending the war on drugs.) Second, those which may be laudable, but which are hard to imagine coming to fruition in the world we live in [or are likely to see in the foreseeable future] (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary [or exclusive] weapons of the military.) Third, those which are so full of the peril of unintended consequences as to be, frankly, terrifying – if not dystopian (i.e. the use of surveillance and profiling technologies to ACTIVELY attempt to prevent crimes that haven’t yet happened.)

Instead of describing the contents of the book chapter by chapter, I’ll discuss its ideas through the lens presented in the preceding paragraph – starting with the seemingly inevitable technologies. The central thrust of this book is that nonlethal technology needs to be developed / improved such that nonlethals can take up a progressively greater portion of weapons deployment and usage, with the aim of ultimately replacing firearms (and other lethal weapons) with nonlethal weapons. It’s important to note that Smith doesn’t suggest such a replacement could happen at present. He acknowledges that nonlethals are currently not as effective and reliable at incapacitating a threat as are firearms, and he isn’t advocating that people be put at risk by having to defend themselves with an inferior weapon. However, it seems reasonable, given the tremendous technological advances that have occurred, that nonlethal weaponry could become as or more effective than firearms.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, I would remind one that firearms aren’t – as a rule — as instantaneously and definitively incapacitating as Hollywood portrays. One can find numerous cases of individuals still moving with a magazine’s worth of bullets in — or having passed through — them. (And that’s not to mention the lack of precision that tends to come with throwing a projectile via a controlled explosion.) The point being, one isn’t competing with perfection – so one doesn’t need to be perfect, only better than an existing [flawed] system.

Smith addresses the many dividends of nonlethal weapon usage over that of the lethal counterparts, and there are many. For one thing, killing isn’t easy on anyone (anyone who’s right in the head any way.) Even when a killing is legally justifiable and morally defensible (or even state-sanctioned) it often still results in traumatic stress. For another, there is the reduced cost of getting it wrong, and the adverse societal impacts (e.g. revenge killings) that result from wrongful deaths. Long story short, if one can produce a nonlethal that’s consistently as effective at incapacitating threat, it’s hard to make a rational argument for not fielding said weapon. The example of an automated system to respond to school shootings is an extension of the nonlethal weapons argument, as it’s ultimately based on nonlethals deployed by drone (or robotic system.) The chapter on the war on drugs (ch. 15) bears little discussion as it’s no news that that “war” has been a failure and a phenomenally ineffective way of addressing a societal problem.

That brings us to the laudable but unlikely category in which I put military use of nonlethals as primary (or exclusive) weapons. I’m not saying that military nonlethal weapon systems won’t continue to be developed, improved, and deployed. Given the degree to which war of late features non-state actors and unconventional warfare, it’s possible to imagine such weapons playing a dominant role in specific operations. After all, military members aren’t exempt from the psychological costs of killing. However, military forces deploying into a war zone with nonlethals as their primary weapons is almost impossible to imagine, especially considering the diversity of conditions and opponents for which a military needs to be ready.

In warfare, there is something called the “force multiplier” effect of wounding an enemy over killing an enemy. That is, if you wound someone, it takes two people to carry him or her, plus a chunk of a medic’s time. So, one can imagine four people being out of the fight because one person is severely wounded, versus the one person who would be out of commission (the dead person) if the individual were wounded. To be fair, Smith imagines technology (drones and robots) doing the heavy lifting. Still, it’s hard to imagine how one side in a conflict wins if they have to transport, warehouse, feed, and care for every enemy that is incapacitated while the other side is just killing away. Even if that one side is much more automated, it seems tremendously expensive – even for a relatively small-scale war.

That brings to me chapter five, which I found chilling. That chapter considers how artificial intelligence and surveillance programs (albeit with judicial oversight and other protections) could be used to anticipate crimes so that law enforcement could actively go forth to try to prevent them. (If this sounds a lot like the Tom Cruise movie loosely based on a PKD story, “Minority Report,” it’s because it essentially replaces the three pasty precognitives with computers and offers a bit more oversight. While Smith cautions against taking fictional stories too seriously, he employs some fictional scenarios that I believe might be as a pollyanna as the Spielberg film is dark.) At any rate, the word “actively” is crucial to my concern. I’m all in favor of what has historically been known as “preventive law enforcement” — activities such as putting more patrols in high crime areas, youth mentoring programs, and programs that inform people and businesses about how to be harder targets. However, the idea of police going out and engaging people as though a crime has been committed when none has been conjures images of cities on fire.

First, such an approach is predicated on watching everybody – at least everybody’s online activity – all the time. Which seems both dystopian and of limited effectiveness. [What percentage of people who post on FB that they want to shoot someone are likely to do so?] What about the judicial oversight and related protections? When is a warrant issued to surveil or arrest a person? The warrant is issued based on something an artificial intelligence system already flagged, meaning a government entity is watching everybody’s behavior on a constant fishing expedition. I’m not fond of that idea at all.

Second, we aren’t nearly as good at forecasting the future as we think. Violent crimes are rare and often spontaneous events, and that puts them in classes of behavior we are particularly bad at making predictions about. And, we haven’t eliminated the trade-off between type I and type II error. Imagine there is a question about whether individual X is to be detained based on what the AI spit out. X either was or wasn’t going to commit a crime. We can imagine a four-way matrix in which two of the solutions are correct (i.e. 1.) X was detained and was going to commit a crime; 2.) X wasn’t detained and he wasn’t going to commit a crime.) However, since we can’t know the future [like, at all] the potential remains for mis-estimating whether X was going to commit a crime. So, we have two potential errors (i.e. 1.) X wasn’t detained but he was going to commit a crime [and thus did]; 2.) X was detained but he wasn’t going to commit a crime [wrongful detention].) So, we want to minimize the first error because any violent crime is unacceptable? We go out and shake down more high risk individuals. While we succeed in preventing crimes, we also end up with more wrongful detention. Our legal system’s requirements with regards evidence suggest that as a society we are averse to wrongful disruption of a person’s freedom. Hence, while a “preponderance of evidence” is sufficient for cases where one might lose money in a civil case, if one might be imprisoned, the standard becomes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongfully detaining an individual when a crime was committed may be sad, but doing it when there is only a suspicion that a crime might likely be committed is tragic.

Of course, under present standards one can’t detain a person for very long. So you let them go, and maybe they do the crime – whether or not they intended to in the first place (ever heard someone say, “if you’re going to treat me like _______, I’m going to act like _______?” I’ll admit that it’s a bit far-fetched but if the system spurs one crime in a million subjects detained that wasn’t going to happen, is that acceptable?) Alternatively, one could place surveillance on the individual. In which case, one is essentially living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Congratulations. It seems to me this approach offers either huge costs for a marginal gain, or you go full dystopia and knock out crime at a horrifying cost. Neither way seems appealing, but – then again – I am not willing to pay any price to keep anything bad from ever happening to anyone.

I found this book to have some fascinating ideas and to spur my thinking on subjects I might not otherwise have considered. While there was a significant bit that I found unsavory, I also discovered some ideas that were intriguing and worth pursuing. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in issues of technology and policy.

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BOOK REVIEW: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This review will be short because, JUST READ IT.


“But, historical fiction isn’t my bag,” he said.


This isn’t that kind of historical fiction—i.e. the kind that binds one in a web of cultural minutiae and reads like a history book writ purple. This book will make you enrapt.


“But, I don’t like war stories. Too violent,” she said.


I bet you’ll like this one. Yes, it’s set during World War II, and war’s ugly face peeks around the corner from time to time, but one also sees how ordinary people do extraordinary things when exposed to the crucible of war. War doesn’t just bring out the worst; it also forces people to be better than they’ve ever had cause to be. The book is largely about a girl living under occupation and isn’t so much about life on the front lines.


How can I so boldly assert that one should read this particular book? (I normally lay out the facts first and only at the end make a recommendation.) Because this is one of the best crafted novels I’ve read. It’s extremely readable and engaging. The characters are superbly developed and one feels one knows them. Even the closest thing to a villain (if you don’t count war as the villain) is a complex and nuanced character who one wants to understand better.


I will tell you something substantive about the novel. It interweaves the stories of two teenage characters whose lives are fated to become entwined through the fortunes (and misfortunes) of war. The first is a blind girl who lives with her father in Paris. Father and daughter flee when the Nazis occupy France and end up living on the coast at Saint Malo with her great-uncle who is a shut-in owing to his experience in the last Great War. Of course, the move to the coast only delays the occupation and the point at which the war comes to them.


The other lead character is a German orphan boy with a gift for science who gets prematurely drawn into the war because of his great intellect and skill with radios. Not only are these characters both people who readers are drawn to, they both experience great growth over the course of the story. Imagine being blind in a war zone–or even just being a young nerd drafted into the war–and you can taste some of the emotional tension that resonates throughout this book. I won’t say that it’s all happy endings. It never is in war.


I’d highly recommend this book for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thirst by Andrey Gelasimov

ThirstThirst by Andrey Gelasimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novel (novella) is translated from Russian, and is the story of a soldier, Kostya, who fought in Chechnya and was badly burned while trapped inside an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC.) Owing to his severe disfigurement, Kostya becomes a heavy-drinking homebody. This changes when one of his team members from the war, Seryoga, goes missing and a couple surviving team members come to recruit Kostya to the search party.

Kostya struggles with an internal conflict common in war stories. On the one hand, Kostya both rationally recognizes the logic of why his friend and teammate, Seryoga, didn’t pull him from the burning APC (i.e. Seryoga believed Kostya was dead) and he loves Seryoga like a brother. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel that if Seryoga had pulled him out sooner he wouldn’t be so hideously disfigured and his life—as he sees it–wouldn’t have been ruined. Kostya battles those feelings, even defending Seryoga’s decision based on the reasonable conclusion that Kostya was already dead. A flashback sequence interwoven into the contemporary timeline shows us the events of the APC attack, including—ominously—a discussion of what should happen in case grenade breaches the vehicle for the benefit of the FNG (F@#%ing New Guy.)

The story is short and sparse, and that complements the somber tone of the book. One reason for dragging Kostya into the search is that his father is a Lieutenant Colonel with the pull to access records. This forces Kostya to open up the estranged relationship with his father and his father’s new wife. One gets the feeling that Kostya blames his father more for his plight than he does Seryoga, adding to any pre-war problems in the relationship. There are several factors that combine to move Kostya toward a better place over the course of the story. One is the thaw in relations with his father, and–perhaps even more so—the burgeoning relationship with his step-mom, Marian, who he discovers to be a genuinely good person. A second factor is reconnecting with his military buddies. Finally, his art (Kostya has a talent for drawing) becomes more therapeutic as his friends and family begin to see it.

This is a classic brothers-in-arms story. The universality of that bond comes through in translation. With tweaks in details (and choice of liquor) this story could be about American soldiers in Vietnam or Iraq. What makes the book a worthwhile read, if nothing else, is its display of that commonality of human experience. The ways of soldiers who have a stake in each other, even if they feel little personal stake in the grand strategy that has put them where they are.

I found this story to be moving and thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book—particularly for readers of literary fiction—and it’s definitely literary fiction. The story is character driven, and not plot or action driven. The tension derives from the interaction of characters and not (except for the APC fire) outside events. Many will find the ending abrupt and anti-climactic, but it’s the story of Kostya’s journey and not of any particular destination.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Country With No Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali

The Country Without a Post OfficeThe Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 27 poems about life in conflict-riddled Kashmir. Kashmir is a territory in the Himalayas that’s governed by India, but claimed by both India and Pakistan—and, it should be noted, has a significant population of residents that want to be part of neither country. In other words, there are some who’d like to see an independent Kashmir. However, at the moment Kashmir is one portion of one of India’s 29 states, Jammu and Kashmir—a state which is, itself, tripartite (Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh.)

It’s a telling quote from Tacitus with which the author begins the collection. Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant. I won’t claim that I didn’t have to look this up, but it means: “They make a desert, and call it peace.” The first poem echoes variations on that quote.

There are a range of poetry styles within this collection, including: rhyming verse, free verse, poetic prose, and ghazal. A ghazal is a Middle Eastern style of lyric poem which has a pattern of rhyme and is metered to be set to music; there are several in this collection. Some of the poems are sparse and some are wordy, and variety is the order of the day.

The 27 poems of this collection are divided among five parts. The book is brief (under 100 pages), and it contains only a prologue and notes (some of which are interesting) with respect to ancillary matter.

This collection paints a portrait of war and life in a war-torn locale. It’s as much the latter as the former. The title poem, “The Country With No Post Office,” suggests the sapping nature of life where the institutions of governance and civil society have broken down.

I’d recommend this collection for those who enjoy poetry, but also for those interested in the conflict in Kashmir.

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DAILY PHOTO: Credentials Presentation Room, or Swanky Gold Room

Taken on December 20, 2015 in Saigon

Taken on December 20, 2015 in Saigon


This room, featuring lacquered furniture and  artwork, is located in the Independence Palace (a.k.a. Reunification Palace) in Saigon (i.e. Ho Chi Minh City.) The palace had been the home of the leader of South Vietnam during the war years, and its fall to the North Vietnamese Army in April of 1975 signaled the unambiguous end of the war. This room was used for meetings with high level dignitaries, Ambassadors, and the like. It’s arguably the most impressive room in the Palace.

Reflections on Vietnam

IMG_0122I was five when Saigon fell. So I can’t say that I remember the war as breaking news. However, by the time I was coming into adulthood, Vietnam remained front and center in the American psyche. Many of the most prominent movies on the war came out when I was in high school or shortly thereafter (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Bat 21 (1988), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).) Even films that weren’t explicitly or solely about the war often featured characters transformed by its crucible (e.g. Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.)


It wasn’t just cinema. While many of the most prominent books on the war came out in the 70’s and early 80’s, bestsellers were still coming out during my early adult life (e.g. The Things They Carried (1990) and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992).) Even once the war wasn’t news anymore, discussion of the aftershocks continued to grace news and talk shows. I do remember my father watching an episode of 60 Minutes  which showed footage of helicopters being pushed off of aircraft carriers into the sea as American forces steamed back home. I have no idea what that story was about (perhaps the ecological and environmental effects of the war,) I just thought it was too bad that they were destroying perfectly good whirly-gigs.


Terms like “the fall of Saigon” were etched into my consciousness before I had any capacity to understand them. It fell from what? To what? I didn’t know. It’s a city, right? How can a city fall? Balls fall. People fall. Dinner plates, unfortunately, fall. Of course, I’d eventually be taught what it meant, and would mistakenly think I knew what it meant for many years. I thought it meant the defeat of those forces that would keep Vietnam from becoming a totalitarian dystopia akin to the Soviet Union or, even more apropos, Kim dynasty North Korea. Sure enough, one side–the side that America had supported–had been defeated, but otherwise this “fall” was false.


IMG_0411As one walks around Saigon today, passing a few Starbucks, a Carl’s Jr, and innumerable Circle-Ks, it’s difficult to imagine how a victory by the other side would have resulted in a more entrepreneurial or vibrant Vietnam. The college kids at the dinner, largely ignoring the friends around them in favor of texting someone else on their iPhones, seem strikingly like their counterparts in Bangalore and Atlanta. They seem mirthful and exuberant. A tour guide lets fly little criticisms about the bureaucracy, and nobody sweeps in and throws a black hood over his head. People just don’t seem scared, brainwashed, or crazy, and–believe me–everybody who survives in North Korea fits one of those criteria. (While I’ve been impressed by cool, gregarious, and well-spoken North Korean diplomats; they’re always accompanied by a sinewy, mirthless “assistant” who I’m pretty sure has a syringe of strychnine in his pocket to silence the diplomat if he goes off script.)


I’m aware that it’s difficult to see the dysfunctions of a nation as a traveler or tourist. I also realize that–to twist Tolstoy– “All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.” However, what Tolstoy’s quote doesn’t convey is that all families are unhappy in some measure–and the same is true of nations. However, it’s easy enough to see extremes of dysfunction. That’s why the Kims mostly keep foreigners out of the DPRK and carefully select and manage the experience of those they do let in. It’s difficult to imagine a degree to which things could be better in Vietnam that would have made the cost of that war worth it.


I also know that hindsight is 20/20, but where fear runs rampant foresight is 20/100 with a nasty astigmatism. In my International Affairs graduate program, I specialized in asymmetric warfare, writing a thesis entitled, “Playing a Poor Hand Well.” While my thesis didn’t focus on Vietnam, one can’t study asymmetric warfare without learning a thing or two about the Vietnam war. One learns that the mathematical, attrition rate-based formulas that analysts love are worthless in deciding a victor when one side is fighting in their backyard and the other is fighting in a place of marginal importance to a population who mostly couldn’t point said country out on a map. Will matters. What made America take on such a burden on the other side of the world?  Many feared a domino effect. If Vietnam was lost to the forces of communism, soon we’d be surrounded by tyrannical totalitarian states blaring “one of us, one of us…” through loudspeakers until we relented–or something like that. In retrospect, it seems like an astounding lack of faith in the appeal of democracy and rule of law, but that’s what happens when one stews in one’s fears.


What worries me is that I still see a desire to make mountainous threats out of mere ant hills.





BOOK REVIEW: The Good Soldier Ŝvejk by Jaroslav Haŝek

The Good Soldier ŠvejkThe Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Haŝek’s novel is a satire of war and the absurdities that arise therein. It’s a novel in the vein of Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It predates those novels, and is set around World War I–rather than those other novels’ World War II bases.

The novel begins at the outset of the First World War, and revolves around the title character, Ŝvejk (also spelled Schweik). Ŝvejk is an enigma. Believing that no man can be so stupid, authority figures are constantly suspecting him of being a saboteur or a goldbrick. It’s never made clear whether Ŝvejk is a brilliant con artist or the complete dolt he appears to be.

The story follows Ŝvejk from some ill-considered statements about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that get him in trouble through to his unit’s advance on the front lines of the war. He leaves behind his job selling mangy dogs with forged pedigrees when he’s drawn back into the military (he’d previously served and been released as feeble-minded.) Along the way, he spends time as a chaplain’s assistant and a batman (a military officer’s servant, not the superhero)—that is, after he gets released from a lunatic asylum.

Ŝvejk is, at once, the best and worst of soldiers. He is honest to a fault, except when lying in the service of others—at which point his lies are inevitably humorously transparent. He isn’t a free-thinker and will follow orders—as best he can remember or understand them—to their, often absurd, bitter end. Of course, the flip side of this is that he doesn’t know how or when to speak, and while he’s not a free-thinker, nor is he much of a thinker–period.

The following quote sums up why Ŝvejk is the best and worst of soldiers: “Beg to report, sir. I don’t think because soldiers ain’t allowed to. Years and years ago, when I was in the Ninety-first Regiment, the captain always used to tell us: ‘Soldiers must’nt think. Their superior officers do all their thinking for them. As soon as a soldier begins to think, he’s no longer a soldier, but a lousy civilian.’” This is the mantra Ŝvejk lives by, and it serves no one well in the volatile and mercurial world of war.

Ŝvejk isn’t the only comedic character in the book. There’s a drunkard Catholic priest of Jewish ancestry for whom Ŝvejk serves as an assistant until the priest lost him in a card game. There’s another batman who’s constantly hungry, and eats anything he can get his hands on–even if it’s the private stock of the officer for whom he works. There’s a reserve officer, Lieutenant Dub, who is always trying to show how tough he is but is constantly foiled by Ŝvejk’s frankness and naiveté.

There’re also straight men such as Lieutenant Lukas—the man who wins Ŝvejk’s services from the chaplain, and who comes to rue the day he did. Lukas is a competent military officer with a good head on his shoulders. But Ŝvejk’s bumbling antics are constantly getting the Lieutenant in hot water, and he finds Ŝvejk to be the proverbial bad penny. A prime example of Lukas’s regret comes when Ŝvejk gets the Lieutenant a dog that he knows is stolen, but that turns out to be rightfully owned by a Colonel.

Another straight man is the Quartermaster who knows enough to ignore the first order to draw rations because the military never moves as quickly as the officers think it will. (Incidentally, the best piece of advice I ever got when working with bureaucratic organizations was to always ignore new directives that seemed asinine because eventually most will die on the vine.)

This book is humorous, if not hilarious. One of the funniest episodes is when Ŝvejk is cast in with the malingerers and has no idea what they are talking about as they discuss their strategies for staying out of the war. Another is when the officers devise a code based on an obscure book only to discover that it’s a two volume set and they’ve dispatched the wrong volume as the key.

Much of the humor comes in the form of Ŝvejk’s dialogue. He’s a gregarious chap who rambles on at the most inopportune times. Some classic Ŝvejk quotes include:
-“I’m feeble-minded, fair and square.” (when accused of being a cunning malingerer)
-“I’ve been cross-examined once and they chucked me out. And what I’m afraid of is that these other gentlemen who are here along with me are going to have a grudge against me because I’ve been called for cross-examination twice running and they’ve not been there at all yet this evening.” (upon being called back for a second round of interrogation)
-“Pigs might fly if they had wings.” (when accused of being a spy, and asked whether he’d have taken pictures if he’d had a camera)
-“I used to serve under a Colonel Flieder von Boomerang, or something like that, and he was just about half your height. He had a long beard, and it made him look like a monkey, and when he got ratty he used to jump so high that we called him India-rubber Daddy. Well, one day—“ (upon being accused of having no respect for his superiors)

One of the weaknesses of this novel is its rather abrupt ending. This is because Haŝek was only two-thirds of the way through with the novel when he died of tuberculosis. It’s not that there is no ending, but it reads like just another turn of events that Ŝvejk would eventually bumble his way out of. Of course, that’s likely because that’s what the author intended it to be.

As with Heller and Vonnegut, Haŝek’s novel benefits from his personal experience. He was drafted into the military and spent five years as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Russians. (A situation that somewhat mirrors the experience of his protagonist.)

If you like war satire, you should pick up The Good Soldier Ŝvejk.

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BOOK REVIEW: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marlantes gives one insight into what it was like to be a soldier, in particular a young officer, during the Vietnam War. For those confused by the name, “Matterhorn” is the name of a fictional encampment in central Vietnam in the book.

In Matterhorn, war is as it has famously been defined, “long periods of intense boredom punctuated by brief instants of sheer terror.” The author builds his characters such that the periods of intense boredom are informative. We see how the tension of the war boils over into fresh hell that interrupts the boredom.

Racial issues play a major part in the drama of the book. The main character, Waino Mellas, is white and of the variety who are almost apologetic in the presence of blacks. However, within the unit there are both black-power movement types as well as good ole boys, making for one powder kegs that erupts during the course of the book.

Race is not the only fault line we see in Matterhorn. There is also a tension between “lifers” and draftees. However, the bigger tension is between the front line troops and those who direct them from afar. The most intense section of the book involves a raid on a hill for which the men are undernourished and under-supplied.

The author was a Marine in Vietnam, and this experience no doubt contributed to the book’s authenticity.

I highly recommend this book as a powerful examination of the role that valor and vice play in war.

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