Stalingrad, a review


I’ve been chewing through Vasily Grossman‘s “Stalingrad”. From the first pages one can see that this book, recently published as an English translation, was a product of Stalin’s Soviet Union. When it first saw the light of day, in 1952, its name had been changed to “A Just Cause.” The new English version was given its first name back, and material was added from the original manuscript.

The heavy hand of the censor and the pervasive reach of Soviet doctrine is all-too-clear in this work. As such, this alone makes the book an interesting read; we can see into the mind of a man born into the Soviet Union, see the thought processes of the children of the Russian Revolution. Mr. Grossman speaks of “entire classes” swept from history, he paints portraits of ideal New Soviet Men. There is a “shock” coal miner, a selfless collective farm worker, scientists, industrial leaders, exemplary political officers, doctors and legions of brave Red Army soldiers. The Gulag, the secret police, the many repressive organs of the State are only obliquely referred to.

I can’t hold this against Grossman. If he was to have any chance at all of his work being published, he had to toe the party line. That there was even a passing mention of the dark underbelly of the Soviet state was almost foolishly bold in Stalin’s time. Grossman was a brave man and an excellent, analytical writer. His subsequent books were repressed for political reasons, and he died forgotten in 1964 of stomach cancer.

But what a legacy he left behind. As a reporter for the “Red Star,” he covered much of the major action on the Eastern Front in WW2. The Frontier battles and the fight for Moscow in 1941. Stalingrad. Kursk. The drive to Berlin, the liberation of death camps. Grossman was there; no wonder that his portrayal of the enemy in “Stalingrad” is damning, vitriolic, and tinged with raw hatred. After all, his own mother was killed in the war. He wanted to write his novels while the memory of the war was still fresh, and he did.

“Stalingrad” is quite a book. It starts slowly, and it takes some patience on the part of the reader to persist. There are a bewildering range of characters, I found myself getting lost in how they were all related to one another; one almost needs a flow-chart to keep them unentangled. From time to time I found myself getting thrown out of the story by statements Grossman made about the self-explanatory goodness of the Revolution and the benefits of life under the Soviet state.

Every time this happened I reminded myself of the circumstances in which he wrote this book, the frigid Cold War with a living Josef Stalin in the Kremlin. Grossman was literally one phone call away from a stretch in the camps or a bullet in the neck. He speaks repeatedly of “freedom loving Soviet men” in the book, all the while knowing, living, the lie behind the phrase.

But I digress. The book picks up the pace like a steam locomotive, we watch as the city of Stalingrad transforms from a place where kids play in the streets to a city under siege, to the worst sort of maelstrom; the deadliest place on Earth in 1942-43. All the threads come together into a city transformed into hell, a place where a soldier’s life expectancy was reduced to hours, minutes.

One passage toward the end of the book really stuck with me. Grossman describes a mortar and artillery attack in terms I’ve heard or read nowhere else; he was either a first-hand, very experienced connoisseur of death by explosives or a damn good reporter of those who had such knowledge. Me? I think he was both, and he must have written down exactly what it’s like to be “blown up” immediately after the fact. His description of the different sounds varying types of shrapnel make is accurate, harrowing.

And all too often the shrapnel found its intended target. No-one is spared in Grossman’s merciless work.

Unlike a lot of his readers, I didn’t read the follow-on novel “Life and Fate” first (it was translated and published into English earlier). I’m glad this wasn’t the case because now I can flow into book two without an issue.

At the beginning of “Stalingrad” I wasn’t sure I wanted to read “Life and Fate.”

Grossman, however, convinced me otherwise.

“Stalingrad” is essential reading for those who want to make some sense of the human condition’s unique madness- war.

A recommended reward for the patient reader.



After the fight

after the fight

A bit of a personal post, today. Part of my subjective writer’s journey.

Why did I post the photo above, me wearing a pakhul at some lousy firebase?

Well, it’s because that was me at the height of my competency, before everything went downhill. Before I took a hit. Before the hospitals, the boards. Long before I got the idea to write. That’s me when I led men in combat, when I could still point at something and say, “this is what I do.”

On many days it still feels as if I am stuck there, in 2011, up in the mountains. As if I can’t escape. As if everything that’s happened since isn’t real.

I thought I would die there, and then it didn’t happen.

As if by magic, I came home and wrote. In the Valley, the first book of my trilogy, was the result.

Why am I talking about this today.

Well, a few things have happened, some of which I’m not going to touch in a public forum. What I will say is that I recently attended a gathering of soldiers, I struck up a conversation with some of them. One of them asked “what are you doing these days,” a pretty innocuous question. A pretty uncomfortable question, frankly.

How do I answer that? I’m medically retired, still relatively young. Looking at me, I seem to be able bodied. I stood there tongue-tied, unsure of what to say. Did I spill my guts and tell this soldier that I spend a lot of time at the VA? Did I mention that I tried regular employment and it didn’t work out? Did I say that I’m trying to atone for all the years gone, the pain, the loss?

Nope. I blurted out “I write books.” The statement felt lame, stupid, as it crossed my lips. Even though it’s the God’s truth.

The soldier changed the subject, we stopped speaking soon after.

Looking back on the conversation, I’m a little pissed about it. First, I know I did good time for God and country. Second, there’s nothing wrong with a medical retirement. It’s not as if the Army gave me a choice. They didn’t. I’m lucky to be alive. Finally, what the hell is wrong with being an author? Not a damn thing, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve written a decent little trilogy. I’m up to my ears in collaborations. Just finished the rough draft of my fourth novel. I run this website, and it’s rewarding and fun.

So maybe the problem isn’t with the question, “what do you do these days,” but with my own perception. I’m not a soldier anymore. I’ll probably never face the enemy again. I no longer carry the sword.

It’s over. I write books.

If people want to give me funny looks about it, that’s their problem.

This is what I do.



Not-so-peaceful palms


Usually Americans don’t think much about the Pacific rim. In the popular imagination they are a series of idyllic atolls with white sand beaches and swaying palm trees. For an older generation, they were the scene of vicious struggles. Misery and death beneath the merciless sun, facing an enemy that didn’t know when to quit. My uncle Russell fought in those tiny islands with the 37th Infantry, it was bad news.

So my eye was caught by an article about the current effort by both Australia and China to win friends and influence people among the rash of islands between the two nations. This is a deep extension of the earlier effort to wrest control of these island nations from the Japanese once they had been lost in the dark days of 1941-42.

Since that time all powers in the Pacific have been painfully aware of the strategic importance of these tropical idylls, those green jewels almost lost in the blue vastness of the ocean. The island nations could serve as power projection nodes as they have done in the past; an open question is whether China will seek to build an overt military base in the region, using its loans as leverage.

The Chinese say they have no such plans.

Maybe not. But the islands are certainly a temptation for them, and an opportunity in case they wish to expand their military reach in the area. My layman’s take is that the Aussies and the Yanks are probably right to be concerned. And any old Pacific veteran will tell you it’s better to hold the islands than to have to re-take them at some future date.

This is a modern-day version of the Great Game, and we get to watch it in realtime. I do wonder if the Western leadership is capable of facing the Chinese. The Confederate General Forrest, for all his flaws, said it best with “get there first with the most men.”

He was right.

So who will “get there first with the most men?” And what consequences will that have?

We’ll see. It’s happening before our eyes.



Going electric


I came across an article on the internet today about an exciting new electric bike from Harley-Davidson, of all companies. This is cool, and I think it’s the wave of the future; a wave that right now is coming in dribs and drabs.

Within the following decades the gasoline engine is going to go down the same path as the horse and buggy. The combustion engine has hit a wall in terms of efficiency, there’s only so much performance that can be squeezed from its century plus old design. As we speak the transition to electric vehicles is underway.

On my last road trip I saw probably about seven Teslas pass us by in our stodgy Subaru, I smiled each time I saw one.

My turn to buy an electric will come when they are competitively priced, reliable, and the recharging infrastructure matches or is comparable to diesel fuel. What does this look like?

I need (and probably millions of consumers like me) a car that will go about four hundred miles in a charge. The car must recharge in about a half hour on the road, with the capability to trickle charge at my residence. It must cost no more than 25k in 2019 dollars. The vehicle must be reliable, with a service life of about ten years.

All the other stuff, like “seats four,” “large cargo capacity,” “attractive appearance,” etc., are all old hat for the engineering and marketing folks. The other stuff in the paragraph above is close to attainable now.

Some would say that you should be willing to spend a 10k premium on an electric car. My response is that 7/8 of consumers would strongly disagree. In order for the electric to break out into mass usage, its price and performance must be on par with gasoline products or the ordinary Joe or Jill will not lay down hard-earned cash to buy them. Period.

I bought an amazingly efficient truck in 2013, a 1500 Chevy Silverado. Great truck, does everything I ask it to do. Hauls, pulls, good off-road capability. Twenty-one miles to the gallon with a 5.7 liter engine, this is an almost miraculous level of fuel efficiency. But it’s not good enough. Ideally its fuel usage would be zero.

In this household, there is a different standard for trucks. A car must last five to seven years. A truck must last for twenty.

It’s not unreasonable that by 2033, when the grey Chevy is scheduled to be retired, that we can replace it with what will probably be my final truck- hopefully a tough, four-wheel drive electric beast.

This would be the ideal world. No more gas burners parked in my driveway by this century’s third decade.

If Harley can make a cool electric bike now, then Chevy can make a tough, economical, no-nonsense electric truck by 2033.

Tesla is leading the way.

The others are following suit.

Mr. Musk demonstrates conclusively that we don’t need a government plan to forge into the future, whether that be here on Earth or in space. What we need is true leaders with a vision; these leaders need to be backed by science, engineering, and a great marketing team. We have these people. They are making a better future happen right now.

Ignore the static. Feel the groundswell. Avoid the pitfalls.

The future rides a Harley.





Quebec street

Every now and then everyone needs a break. This year the break took place in Quebec, which is a long way from where I hang my hat. It was a different world in a lot of respects. First, it was in another country. Second, the landscape was different. Finally, English was a second language up there.

It was very nice. Canada is an excellent place for summer vacations. The boreal forest is something everyone should see at least once. The dark pine and mixed hardwood has a spicy, earthy smell. The call of the loon is mysterious, mournful. There are many freshwater lakes and streams, the forest thickens as you go northward.

In the past we’ve gone camping for real, with a tent in the middle of nowhere. This time we took the civilized approach and rented a series of cabins in some national parks, first at Mont Tremblant and then at Jacques Cartier. From these perches we ventured forth to various destinations.

The most remarkable was old Quebec.

What a neat place. For North America it’s pretty old, I believe the oldest structures dated from 1608 or so. It’s a taste of Europe in Canada, with cobblestone streets and profligate shops set in typical 18th Century (mostly) sturdy stone structures. The city was busy, there were crowds of tourists and locals. It was definitely worth seeing, probably my favorite moment was sitting in the D’Orsay restaurant.

We were seated by an open window, there was a pleasant breeze. The staff was professional and bilingual, the food was top-notch. Me? I had to sample a local specialty, Quebecois Poutine chased with a fresh-poured pint of Guinness. It was amazing.

A regret? That I speak no French. Now, it was never a serious hinder. Most people there in the province were bilingual; however, I think it’s polite to speak at least some of the local tongue. I’ve spent a lot of time overseas and I’ve always felt that way. Maybe it’s just me. If I ever return to Quebec, and I may, I’ll be sure to Rosetta Stone some French first. Seventh-grade French doesn’t cut it.

This segues into the locals. They were friendly, helpful. Yeah, OK, some of them had no English or very limited English. So what? Quebec’s first language is French- their land, their rules. A traveler has to adapt to local norms and customs, not the other way around. We were grateful that those who could speak English did so. Once again, very helpful and nice people.

And the food! I had one of the best steaks of my life in a restaurant called Baton Rouge in Terrebonne, north of Montreal. The everyday produce in the stores was of excellent quality as well. The French, whether in Canada or in France, know how to eat in style. The food was awesome, and it formed a formidable barrier to my weight loss goals.

Speaking of which. The rough forest and hills lent themselves to exercise in the great outdoors. We went on hikes, I got to do some rough compass work on some trails.

lake view quebec

Really worked up a sweat on those well-marked, rugged trails. It was awesome, very enjoyable.

Of course there were some minuses. For many, the northern insects can be a barrier. The biting flies. The mosquitoes. These are the prices that must be paid for such natural beauty. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Plus, some might be off-put by the remoteness of these locations, although Park Jacques Cartier was within easy reach of Quebec City.

In short, this was an excellent trip. I can recommend Quebec to anyone.

Much thanks goes to the people of Quebec, and the helpful staff of Sepaq, the people who made our visit to the national parks so pleasant.

Quebec, highly recommend!


Reading before the fire

Woman reads book near fireplace

I just finished John Birmingham’s Zero Day Code on audiobook, the thing was some twelve hours long. If I had read it, it would have taken four or five hours of my time. Now that I’m done I have to say that the audio experience was pretty darn excellent, like having your favorite uncle tell you a story before the stove on a cold winter’s day.

OK, maybe this is not a revelation for a lot of you, but it was for me. I’ve always devoured the written word, books have been my friends since I was a little kid. Don’t know how many I’ve read, but it’s been one hell of a lot.

Zero Day Code left me little choice but to listen. It’s been released as an Audible exclusive, so outside of Patreon you’re out of luck if you want to read. It’s also the case that the final draft isn’t available on Patreon either, so the final polished product is only available as an audio book.

Well, I really wanted to check out Zero Day Code, so I bought the audio book. A friend has loaned me a number of audio books in the past, but those were all documentaries. Listening to a novel was a very different experience.

It was amazing, excellent. The narrator (Degas) did a fine job. He did women’s voices, different accents, everything. Birmingham’s prose came to life as never before, the effect was cinematic.

Really, I can’t heap much more praise on this effort. How can you top a five-star, which this was?

The best part of it was that me and a couple of hundred others were involved in the project from the start through Patreon, and it was super-cool to listen to the culmination.

By all means, take some time out of your busy day and relax with Mr. Degas’s voice.

It’s like sitting in front of the fire.

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”


…Which of course is a line from the poem by Shelley, “Ozymandias.”

The lines that follow are haunting.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This poem is a dirge for civilizations past, and it leads into today’s subject, the worldwide launch of John Birmingham’s Zero Day Code. You should buy this immediately if you’re a post-apocalyptic junkie. His novel (can you call an audio book a novel? Probably.) checks all the blocks.
Violence. Check.
Action. Check.
Chilling realism. Check.
Plausibility. Check.
Strong characters. Check.
I’m not going to bust out a full scale review, I’ll just give this book a strong “recommend.” This novel and the creative process that surrounded it has been talked about in these pages enough. Click on the link above and check it out for yourself.
It’s totally worth it.