I”m just back from Burning Man (photos to come) and did some reading on the way out and back.
In this 100th anniversary year of World War I, I read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which got excellent reviews but is deadly boring for the non-specialist. Do you want to know the name of every European diplomat and high government official circa 1900-1914? The take-away seems to be that the wise folks whom we entrust with half of our money and our safety as a society are not very good at predicting the future or the consequences of their actions.
Hoping that World War II would be more exciting, I read a book recommended by a Dutch friend, The Forgotten Soldier: The Classic WWII Autobiography. This is a reminder that the coherent view offered by war histories is not available to the soldier on the ground, for whom war is bewildering. Why read about the experience of a soldier in the German army? Sajer, an Alsatian, notes “By that time I belonged to the Victorious Allies, who were all heroes, like every French soldier I met after the war. Only victors have stories to tell. We, the vanquished, were all cowards and weaklings by then, whose memories, fears, and enthusiasms should not be remembered.”
Sajer writes about withholding the real stories from a girl whom he met on leave: “I did my best to embroider what I said. I described heroic deeds the like of which I’d never seen. I couldn’t believe that the filth of the steppe was what this girl wanted to hear about, and I was afraid of speaking too frankly. I didn’t want her to understand what our experiences had really been like. I didn’t want her to catch the stench of mud and blood through anything I said, or to see the huge gray horizon still stamped across my vision. I was afraid of infecting her with my terror and disgust, and afraid that if I did she’d resent it. My descriptions of heroism came straight from Hollywood, but at least we were able to laugh, and I could go on talking to her.”
Oddly, Sajer also tells us that we shouldn’t read his book or any book like it: “Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual. One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquillity of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary.”
I’m halfway through The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, which seems relevant because our cities are once again nearing a point of collapse from traffic congestion. It is interesting that just as the subways were being built there was genuine confusion about whether it made more sense to move cars via steam engine, vacuum, a cable, or electric motors. The author dug up a lot of detail but some of the simple stuff seems to have eluded him, e.g.,
A young man from Michigan was putting the finishing touches on an idea for a horseless carriage powered by gasoline. He called his five-hundred-pound invention the quadricycle, because it was no more than a bicycle with four wheels and a place to sit and steer. With its two-cylinder engine powered by ethanol, it motored along all by itself, and Henry Ford was so eager to show it off that in the summer of 1896 he traveled to New York to attend a convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies. When the thirty-three-year-old Ford met the world-famous Edison and described his gas-powered car, Edison was instantly intrigued and fired questions at the young inventor. Hearing the answers, Edison supposedly banged his fist on the table. “Young man, that’s the thing. You have it! The self-contained unit carrying its own fuel with it! Keep at it!” Ford would keep at it.
A casual glance at Wikipedia reveals that “Karl Benz built his first automobile in 1885 in Mannheim” (i.e., 11 years before the events described above in which Henry Ford was an “inventor” of the automobile).
If you’re looking for something compelling to read I recommend starting with The Forgotten Soldier.