The writer Hampton Sides has a new book out called In the Kingdom of Ice. I have only just started reading it, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but if it is anything like Sides’s other books it will be worth every penny. Sides is one of my favorite history writers. Following in the footsteps of Shelby Foote, Sides knows how to write accurate history with a the eye of a cinematographer and the gift of natural storyteller. Every single one of his books has opened a new world up to me. I can’t even imagine the insane amount of research and work that goes into these books. His other three books, all worth reading, are as follows:
Blood and Thunder: This is the story of Kit Carson and the Indian Wars that take place largely in New Mexico. Along with the equally fascinating Empire of the Summer Moon, written by S.C. Gwynne about the Indian Wars in Texas, this book book is at the top of my list for my favorite history book. If you read both of these books you will have a great idea of what actually happened during our westward expansion. Both of these books are fascinating, intelligent, and page turners.
Ghost Soldiers: This is Sides’s book on the Bantam Death March and the operation that took place to rescue the survivors. It is at times both haunting and exciting. Also, many of the little details that Sides includes are fascinating. It makes you understand why the Japanese Empire was doomed to failure for the way that they treated those that they conquered. Another interesting fact is that the American government introduced speed to our soldiers during World War II. They gave it to the soldiers performing the rescue operation so that they could stay up for several days to complete the operation in the time needed.
Hellhound On HIs Trail: This is a book about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray. The subtitle of this book is The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History. It does deliver all of the details on the manhunt of James Earl Ray, and it is fascinating. I did not know, for instance, that James Earl Ray had actually escaped from prison. But what makes the book really fascinating is the juxtaposition between Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray. King believed in nonviolence to the point that he refused to travel with armed body guards. And although Sides does not shy away from King’s adultery or other human failings, you understand after reading the book about why he was such an inspiring figure. His vision for humanity was one of decency and dignity. Meanwhile Ray is one of life’s losers, a man without any clear goal or passion. He is a hollow man whose small-mindedness brought him to violence. They are figures at the complete opposite ends of the human spectrum.
I was a History Major and eventually an American Studies Major in college. There is no reason that history shouldn’t be fascinating. Occasionally you should challenge yourself with a large sprawling work like William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as these kinds of books can present the big picture in ways that other books can’t. But usually if history is hard to read, and Shirer’s book is not, it just tells a very complex history, it is the fault of the writer. Sides’s work is no less valid for being readable. He is simply a great writer as well as a great historian. If you are interested in our country, all of these books are worth looking into. You will learn a great deal while being entertained.
In honor of Memorial Day I thought I would give a short list of films and books that deal with the subject of war. I am picking things that are not only showing the absurdity of war, but are also thematically and morally complex. There will be no mindless flag waving here. The best way to support our troops is to not send them into harms way unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes – Matterhorn is one of the best books about Vietnam, and the best work of fiction that I have ever read on the subject. In the book Matterhorn is a hill that the soldiers are defending in the beginning. They give it up to pursue another mission only having to absurdly take it back at the end of the book. The first half of the book is more about the terrible conditions the troops had to endure in the Vietnamese jungle while the second half focuses on the truly horrific reality of battle. This book is an absolute masterpiece. A depressing read, but also a very engaging one.
- Dispatches by Michael Herr – This is another Vietnam book, however this is a work of nonfiction. This is also another masterpiece. This book influenced the movie Apocalypse Now and Michael Herr also worked on that screenplay. There are things in this book that could only be described as batshit insane.
- The Thin Red Line – This is a movie directed by Terrence Malick. It takes place in the Pacific theater in World War II. It is a very contemplative film that uses the beauty of the nature as a backdrop to the corruptive influence of war and man. Man is in the Garden of Eden and he is destroying it.
- Why We Fight – This is a film directed by Eugene Jareki. This movie is about the military-industrial complex and how they play a role in sending us to war since World War II. It begins with Eisenhower’s famous farewell address and leads up to our invasion of Iraq. Absolutely essential in understanding why we should be vigilant as citizens in doing our homework before our leaders take us to war.
- The Bothers by Stephen Kinzer – This is a book that talks about John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles. They were Secretary of State and head of the CIA under Eisenhower, respectively. Before they held these positions they were corporate lawyers. There have been times when this country has meddled in the affairs of other countries on behalf of corporate interests. They also started us down the path to our modern day interventionist policy.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut was actually in Dresden when we fire bombed it during World War II. The book follows a soldier named Billy Pilgrim who also is present at this event. This is a satirical novel that, with Vonnegut’s usual intelligence and dark humor, shows war to be the absurdity that it is. Although this is a work of fiction that uses elements of science fiction, many of the events that take place in the book were things that Vonnegut witnessed.
- Starship Troopers – This is a film directed by Paul Verhoeven. This is the one entry that is on the lighter side and some might say it is not serious enough. It can be viewed as just a science fiction action movie. However, there are many satirical elements to this movie, especially the commercials in the movie that that mimic real life propaganda. Though action takes center stage this movie is a critique of fascism. The young and beautiful are sent off into the meat grinder by the older members of society. You don’t need to know anything about history to be entertained, but you do need to know a little to get the subversive elements that Verhoeven puts in. By the end of the movie one of the main protagonists is wearing something that pretty closely resembles a Nazi uniform.
- Apocalypse Now – I thought about not including this on the list because it is so obvious, however it may be my favorite war movie. It parallels Joseph Conrad’s novel down river into the Heart of Darkness. I prefer the four hour long director’s cut. This movie is extremely dark but there are also moments of dark humor as well. This movie shows war’s corrupting influence on man and paints war as nothing short of pure insanity. One example is to watch how the character of Lance, a young all-American surfer boy, becomes a spaced out drug casualty by the end.
- Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – This is another novel about Vietnam. Denis Johnson is a very gifted poetic writer. Tree of Smoke is an expansive novel packed with many ideas. One that I keep returning to is that in the wake of World War II, a “good war”, America believed itself on the right side of history and therefore allowed us to wage more wars still believing we were doing the right thing.
- Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides – This entry is the only entry that is not a war book or movie. It is an account of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray. The book is also largely about the manhunt for James Earl Ray after he killed MLK. The reason why I chose this is it shows the power of King’s nonviolence and contrasts it to James Earl Ray’s pathetic character who uses violence to achieve his aims.
These are just a few of the many entries I could have picked. I believe all of these are worthwhile for one reason or another.
Also take a listen to Billy Paul’s stunningly beautiful song Peace Holy Peace: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4flGGVrWfts