Thursday, April 29, 2010

Signs of Spring.

I saw the first dead baby bird on the sidewalk of spring.

Mercy from Nazis.

In November of 2004, author and historian Iris Chang shot herself in the head. Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking, one of the most complete and important books about the Japanese invasion of Nanking during World War II.

Chang's book was instrumental in tearing the veil of an atrocity that Japan was eager to cover up (and the United States and even the People's Republic of China's government was willing to try to forget). But the buried don't always stay that way, and Chang and a small group of determined historians and researchers deserve a great deal of the credit for wresting a (grudging, insincere, and unaccompanied by any monetary reparation for the survivors of the massacre) apology from the Japanese government.

The phrase must-read gets bandied about too easily, but Rape is one of them, a book essential to trying to wrap your head around hell on earth.

What makes Rape even more unusual is Chang's inclusion of a chapter about the Germans and Americans in Nanking who tried to protect the civilians from torture and murder by the Japanese soldiers. Two members of the Nazi party, Christian Kroeger and John Rabe, established a safe zone and worked tirelessly to shield those inside it from the Japanese.

Mercy. From Nazis.

Rabe wrote to Adolf Hitler and members of the Nazi party, including photos and footage shot of the destruction, begging Hitler to respond and try to influence the Japanese military to show mercy to the Chinese civilians.

Mercy. From a Nazi.

Rabe, having spent the entirety of World War II in China, returned to Germany and was promptly arrested by Nazi officials. He was released, World War II ended, Hitler ate the barrel of his gun, and Rabe was arrested again, this time by the British. And again, by the Soviets.

Starving in the British section of Berlin, Rabe and his family were unable to get work or ration cards because of Rabe's status as a former Nazi officer. When survivors of the massacre heard about his plight, they sent money and packages of food to Rabe and his family, for the man who had used his swastika armband to convince Japanese soldiers to spare the civilians in Nanking.

History is funny like that. Not funny-funny, but sad-funny. The Merciful Nazi of Nanking.

Monday, April 26, 2010


If you read enough about one subject, you start seeing these little overlapping circles, and running in between the circles will be these little red threads of ideas that connect them. It's like viewing a picture that you can't make sense of until your eyes do that little click and it suddenly comes into focus, and then you can't not see it. Pretty soon that little thread starts running through everything you see.

From today's Washington Post, about Ramzan Kadyrov:

I just finished reading A Dirty War, by Anna Politkovskaya, one of the people who criticized Kadyrov and ended up dead. Anna was forced into a car outside of her apartment building and found on the side of the road, shot in the head. Her death wasn't particularly surprising; she worked for Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper whose reporters have the life spans of gnats.

That Politkovskaya's death was engineered by Kadyrov (and if you disagree, I have a bridge over the Bering I'd like to show you) is particularly ironic, given that Politkovskaya was one of the few Russian reporters willing to expose the Kremlin-ordered human rights abuses in Chechnya.

I read these four books:

Combined with a lot of other random research on Chechnya, the Russian Federation, and the slow roil and eruptions of that region, I started seeing little threads connecting all the various circles - theories put forth by Russian and Chechen writers alike.

I started reading about the Bosnian conflict because it was personal. My father was a peacekeeper, although how much peace was actually kept is debatable. I knew very little about what he did (I still know very little) but reading about it gave me the little current of connection, of recognizing the names of towns where he had been, of seeing the bigger picture of a conflict that a child's mind isn't built to understand.

Chechnya: Conflict in the Caucasus sets up the historical underpinnings of the region's volatility, although it's textbook-like prose drags in the final third. Carlotta Gail and Thomas de Waal (who wrote the introduction for Politkovskaya's book) do the reader a great service in explaining the disastrous military strategy of the invading Russian forces, so incompetent as to be almost funny (or actually funny, if wading through body parts comedy makes).

Khassan Baiev, a Chechen plastic surgeon-turn-triage-surgeon, wrote The Oath (with help from Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff). Baiev, who was educated in Russia, stayed in Chechnya as the bombs fell and the bodies rolled in, with a staff of nurses and a jury-rigged hospital. Baiev remained in Chechnya while others fled, and it was not the Russians that forced him out, it was the Chechen fighters, who kidnapped him for operating on Russian soldiers brought to his hospital and threatened to kill him.

Apparently the stupidity of shooting the one surgeon remaining in your region was lost on them, even though Baiev had saved many of the fighters from injuries. (Actually, that may encapsulate the conflict in a nutshell- it's dumb, but we're doing it anyway!) Baiev eventually made it to the United States and (relative, as long as you're not in Chicago) safety, although much of his family remains in Chechnya.

It's obvious where Baiev's sympathies lie, and eventually his proclamations of the saintliness of the Chechens get grating, especially when he finds himself on the wrong end of the Kalashnikov wielded by his countrymen, but the book captures the tide of death that rolls through his hospital in vivid, 3-d Gore-O-Rama.

Like Baiev, Politkovskaya has picked sides. A Dirty War is a disjointed book, but that's to be expected - the book is really more a collection of essays and article bits than a narrative. Sort of like a travelogue through Hell. Politkovskaya also includes the transcripts of several of her interviews, including the one with Kadyrov that sealed her fate.

Finally, Asne Seierstad's Angel of Grozny gives a worm's-eye and invaluable look into life in Chechnya. She spends some time living with Hadijat, who takes in the traumatized and orphaned children of Chechnya (well, some of them, since there are thousands). Traveling to and from Chechnya and Russia, Seierstad, no doubt aided by her Nordic good looks, even gets an up close encounter with Kadyrov and the surreal circus that surrounds him.

It is perhaps Seierstad's book, more than any of the others, that convinced me that there will never be an end to this war. The books inscribe an endless loop, a circle worn down by all the boots of whoever came before you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Virgin Bore

Dear Novelists,

If you are thinking of writing a novel with a character who moves to a country she has a) a distant familial connection to b) feels inexplicably drawn to or c) is involved in an archeological dig in and a) she starts having disturbing dreams or b) seeing weird visions or c) babbling in a foreign language or d) feeling a strange attraction to places such as a) old churches b) old manor houses or c) ruins and then she a) meets a stranger who she is powerfully drawn too b) meets someone who seems to know more about her than they should while a) her husband is being really difficult or b) somehow seemed wrong for her from the start, and it turns out she is the reincarnation of a) a distant relative b) someone totally random or d) an historical figure, do us all a favor and burn the manuscript, bury it, and salt the earth.

Because it's been done a zillion times, and the zillionth-and-one iteration, Tracy Chevalier's The Virgin Blue has only one new twist on the plot: main character Ella Turner has psoriasis, just like her ancestor Isabelle du Moulin! Two women, linked inexplicably by the same rash!

I liked Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures so much that I thought I'd give Virgin Blue a shot, but it's pretty bad. It nails all of the expected cliches- Ella moves with her architect husband to southern France, where her family has some history, starts digging around in genealogical trees to while away the time, and boom - meets mysterious yet compelling Jean-Paul, having weird visions and disturbing dreams, and remembering snatches of French even though she barely speaks the language. Et voila, soon Ella is tearing through local libraries and wandering through ruins trying to find out more about Isabella, chucks her husband (who never really understood her), and is having convenient flashbacks.

If you're, say, trapped in an airport desperate for a quick read and the only other options are the latest political ghost-written tripe and Going Rogue, you could do worse- but Virgin Blue is neither unique, strongly written, or compelling enough to give it sticking power.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

War Babies.

P.W. Singer's Children of War charges that the introduction of child soldiers to modern warfare represents a paradigmatic shift in combat. He points to the exponential increase in civilian fatalities from World War I to more recent conflicts as a direct result of this change, and that the targeting of civilians in combat is both a cause and an effect of the exploitation of child soldiers.

Although I agree that the organized, purposeful use of child soldiers represents a horrifying change in combat and a fundamental schism in the fabric of the communities in which it occurs, I would disagree that civilians have historically been spared in previous wars - one only has to look at the massacres of civilian populations in the land wars of Europe and Asia prior to World War I to understand that civilians, while absent from the battlefield, suffer tremendously during wartime.

That aside, P.W. Singer's book offers tremendous insight into the various countries that have seen the highest exploitation of child soldiers. Although the first country that springs to mind is Africa, he gives countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Thailand due consideration, which is very helpful in reminding readers that child soldiers are exploited worldwide. Singer has done his homework, and he takes the reader inside the organization of groups like the Tamil Tigers, LTTE, Lord's Resistance Army, and other 'rebel' groups. His research makes it clear that these groups recruit children purposefully and have organized brigades made up of child soldiers.

The reasons are clear- children are easier to control than adults, cost less to feed, are considered more expendable, have an easier time making it past enemy defenses (especially against forces that are reluctant to engage child soldiers), and are easier to manipulate psychologically than adults.

In the earlier chapters, Singer's writing has an almost textbook-like rhythm to it. He provides plenty of statistics, and although his writing is arguably the weakest when it comes to the sociological aspects of child soldiers, he does a workmanlike job of explaining how child soldiers rupture the skeins of a community and engender a cycle of violence that, as of yet, has not been broken. The later chapters of his book, dealing with reintegration of the child soldier and the inadequate efforts of local and international groups to offer therapy and reintegration support to former child fighters, present a more personal side- Singer is obviously furious at the lack of support dedicated to these programs, and the UN resolutions, while noble, have clearly had little effect on the ground. Even those groups who have made showy 'releases' of child soldiers have witnesses scammed.

Singer's book helps tie the threads of child soldiers, modern warfare, social and economic instability, and the sluggish realization of the global community that unrest in Sierra Leone may translate into a bombing in North America. Hopefully, others will take note.

A Russian Apology

From Deutsche Welle, Prime Minister Putin attended a ceremony to honor the 22,000 victims of the Soviets in the forests of Katyn, Poland, in 1940.

Until 1992, Russia's official stance had attributed responsibility of the massacre of Polish soldiers and officers to the Nazis. But it was Stalin, intent on creating a leadership vacuum in Poland to pave the way for Soviet domination, who ordered the killing, and Soviets who carried it out.

This is reminiscient of the recent Polish apology for the massacre at Jedwabne of over a thousand Jewish civilians. Jedwabne, a majority Jewish village, was wiped from the earth by its Polish neighbors. Like the Russians, Poland blamed the Nazis for instigating and overseeing the massacre. It wasn't until the publication of an explosive book, Jan Gross's Neighbors, that Poland acknowledged its culpability and removed a memorial at the site of the murders that claimed Nazi responsibility for the Jedwabne massacre.

The matter of Jedwabne is hardly settled; the Jedwabne that exists now is next to the original town, which was destroyed, and most of its inhabitants are recent arrivals. Since barely 100 of Jedwabne's inhabitants survived, Jedwabne as it was died with them.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Killing Game: The Massacre will be Televised

Two excellent books about the Balkan conflict and the fall of Srebrenica.

David Rohde's Endgame focuses on the invasion of the much-touted UN "protected" safe area of Srebrenica and the massacre of Muslim citizens after Serbian General Ratko Mladic and his troops overran the area, pushing past the unarmed, outmanned, and disorganized Dutch contingent of peacekeepers. Rohde's book dissects reams of information from the UN and reveals the organizational apathy, infighting, political maneuvering, and in some cases, outright deception that led to the deaths of thousands of Srebrenica's population and refugees and the destruction of the town.

Endgame is enraging. The UN turned the lives of thousands of men, women, and children into a political football, and, when the town needed protection the most, failed to deliver on the promises they had made in return for the earlier disarming of the Muslim civilians. Ringed by Mladic's troops, facing starvation and disease, Srebrenica's trapped population believed that the UN would provide air strikes in the event of a Serbian attack.

Unlike most books about the fall of Srebrenica, Rohde doesn't focus on the Srebrenican civilians, but tails the Dutch peacekeepers, who were trapped between the heavy artillery of the Serbs and the desperate inhabitants of the devastated town. Without the promise of air strikes to back them up, the Dutch were literally walked over by the Serbs, and watched as Muslim men were loaded onto buses and driven from Srebrenica for execution in the fields and forests outside of the town.

Rohde also picks apart the skeins of incompetence and cowardice in the UN. The UN appointed two officials, General Janvier of the French army and a Japanese diplomat, Yashusi Akashi, who delayed and dithered while Srebrenica suffered. General Janvier's strategy seemed to include refusing to answer his phone when asked to make a decision. The UN officials who were committed to saving the town, General Morillon and General Smith, were swiftly removed from their positions, and reports of atrocities in the surrounding area were deliberately obscured to prevent calls for action on the part of the UN.

Rohde's writing is clear and precise, with a journalistic detachment. He doesn't examine the lives of the civilians too closely; rather, he focuses on the inner workings of the UN and activities of the peacekeepers deployed on a fool's mission without the firepower or authority to protect anyone. Rohde's book is a must-read for clarifying the role of the UN in the Balkans and why the combined might of several Western nations proved useless against a much smaller but exponentially more brutal foe.

In contrast to Rohde's even, measured prose, Chuck Sudetic's Blood and Vengeance radiates so much fury the book seems incandescent. Sudetic, a journalist with personal ties to the Balkans, found himself returning again and again to the grittiest, most deadly areas in Bosnia and Serbia. Returning after the eruption of the Balkan conflict, Sudetic is also tasked with finding out about the fate of the Celik family, relatives of his wife and inhabitants of a multiethnic, rural mountain village miles away from Srebrenica.

Sudetic's book traces the lineage of the Celik family and their Muslim and Serb neighbors (the Celiks are Muslim). The town, built on the side of a mountain constructed by a legendary queen, Jerina, serves as a sort of microcosm of the greater conflict. Although the town's families live in peace, for the most part, and have forged multi-generational ties of friendship, the conflicts between the Serbs and Muslims spill into the town's life, and grudges against real or imagined slights are held for more than a lifetime. Old hatreds reappear at the most desperate times. Reading Sudetic's book gives one the sense that the crisis in the Balkans was inevitable, and the question is not how it could have happened but why it happened when it did.

Members of the Celik family end up in Srebrenica with thousands of other desperate refugees, and Sudetic is masterful in capturing the aura of a stagnant, apathetic, and desperate city. Sudetic's Srebrenica is a town of stifling garbage, starvation, and bored, trapped people who turn against each other and the hapless Dutch, waiting in their observation post with their silly white helmets and useless weapons.

Sudetic is not interested in the machinations of the UN and the global community, except for an occasional reminder that the massacres and shellings were being televised the rest of the world. Instead, he focuses a microscopic and laser-like view on the Celik family and their struggle for survival (a struggle that would end, like so many others, with members of their family unaccounted for, executed and hastily buried by the Serbs). To his credit, Sudetic does not allow either side to escape culpability. His work is essential for understanding the tangled and jagged lines of loyalty and hatred that divide the Balkans, and particularly timely in the light of the continuing roil of the Southern Caucasus.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The funny thing about islands

Is that they are actually attached to the ocean's floor. Yes, attached. They don't bob about like rubber duckies, which would make sending mail to an island-dweller sort of difficult, and I imagine lead to all sorts of seasickness and other problems.

But don't tell that to Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia.

Rep. Johnson is concerned that the sudden influx of Marines and their dependents on Guam may cause the island to capsize. He does, however, know the exact dimensions of Guam, WHICH HE WILL TELL YOU TWICE VERY SLOWLY.

Props to Admiral Robert Willard, who was probably contemplating strangling himself with the microphone cord to escape the agony of listening to Rep. Johnson slowly and torturously describe THE EXACT DIMENSIONS OF THE ISLAND WE GET IT IT'S SMALL.

Moving on.

In 1996, barely two years after the genocide in Rwanda, Clea Koff and a team of anthropologists and forensic pathologists operating under the auspices of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal went to Africa to begin excavating mass graves to try to tally the dead, and if possible, identify the bodies and return them to their relatives for reburial. Koff and her colleagues began their excavation at a church in Rwanda that was the site of a mass execution. Roughly 500 bodies were buried around the church, mostly women and children who had been hacked or bludgeoned to death.

Later, Koff and some of her colleagues would return to other mass grave sites in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia, including the exhumation of the graves of the Muslim men and boys executed after the fall of Srebrenica, which would finally lay to rest the Serbian government's claims that those executed were soldiers (most of the bodies were teenagers, children, or old men, and Koff and her colleagues reported finding many skeletons still blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. Most had been shot in the back at close range.).

Koff's account is gripping, especially considering that she was only 23 and freshly graduated when she left for Rwanda. She and her colleagues, many of whom would later work together in the killing fields of Eastern Europe, developed close relationships that would later be tested by the harsh conditions and grueling emotional toll their work would take on them.

Koff herself, despite her passion for forensics, commitment to returning the bodies to their relatives, and remarkable ability for detachment, experiences emotional upheaval during the excavation process, including disturbing dreams and post-traumatic stress disorder after a particularly harrowing experience when she and her coworkers are nearly shot by members of Rwanda's police. But despite this experience, she agrees to return to Eastern Europe in the hopes of collecting evidence to try the leaders of the Balkan conflict on war crimes charges.

Koff isn't a writer, and her prose has a breathless, almost rushed feeling to it, but her metaphors are all the more striking and original for their lack of artifice. In one paragraph she compares the toe bones of a body to carrot and liquorice pieces, and her descriptions of the gradual unearthing of a massive puzzle of bodies and body parts is riveting.

The dynamic of her working group is also fascinating, and although it's apparent that Koff is trying to remain diplomatic in her descriptions of her colleagues, it's apparent that the difficult conditions and the behavior of the group's leaders was especially trying for the cohesion of the group, who were not only performing an exhausting and emotional task, but struggling to deal with inadequate supplies, an often hostile press, and disruptive visits by government figures.

One particularly heartbreaking detail of Koff's book is her account of the attempts of the Mothers of Vukovar, a group of women who had lost husbands and sons in the various massacres, to stop the excavation attempt. The women believed that their family members were being held in hidden camps in Serbia and that the excavations were a smokescreen by the government. Eventually, with the realization that many of the men and boys the Mothers of Vukovar were hoping to find were being disinterred from mass grave sites, the Mothers of Vukovar abandoned their attempts to force the Serbian government to disclose the whereabouts of their relatives.