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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 5, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Hudson, Elephants, Military History

I don't actually like the kind of music that Jennifer Hudson sings on her album No One Gonna Love You. I hear the heavy slam-slam-slam of the bass line from passing cars with more amplification than your average arena, and I don't understand why anybody listens to it.

Well, then Jennifer Hudson sang "Where You At" on American Idol and instead of hating the song, her performance absolutely convinced me. She wasn't even interesting back when she was a contestant on the show -- it was Fantasia's year -- but between then and now she learned how to act, and that's what sells her songs. Acting.

Of course she has a voice -- it has matured greatly over the years -- but it's the righteous anger underlying these anthems that makes them work. Some of the songs on the album are actually kind of lousy, but Hudson's performance is always so good that the flaws in the song are pretty well disguised.

And the good songs -- like "Where You At," "Still Here," and her cover of the diva anthem "Feeling Good" -- soar.

*

I was never interested in the novel Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. First, the flap copy told us it was an adultery story. Maybe it's because I'm old, but the fact is that adultery stories never made much sense to me, from Lancelot and Guinevere on forward.

What's romantic about a married person who "falls in love" with somebody else? If your spouse is a nightmare, get divorced and then fall in love; otherwise, you have no business being in a situation where falling in love is possible. Of course it happens, but never quite accidentally. Somebody always knows what's going on and consents to it.

The second reason I didn't read Water for Elephants was that it was about the circus. I don't like the circus. I don't like books about the circus. I don't like movies about the circus. Maybe it's because everybody assumes there's something magical and romantic about the circus, but I never have. To me, it was smelly, the animals looked mistreated and sad, the clowns were somewhere between embarrassing and scary, and the sheer existence of the sideshows was appalling.

The only performers I was ever impressed with were the acrobats, and as an acrophobe, I could hardly bear to watch them.

The third reason I didn't read Water for Elephants was that it seemed, from a cursory glance at a few randomly chosen pages, to be the kind of pretentious, faux edgy writing that bad literature and writing classes encourage semi-talented writers to pursue.

Since the movie came out, a couple of friends have attempted to read the novel and they assure me that my initial impression was spot on -- the book is a waste of time, they say.

But the movie isn't. A waste of time, that is. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese knows how to create characters and build a world of relationships (the very thing that is so utterly lacking in, say, HBO's Game of Thrones). LaGravenese has experience turning deeply stupid books into good movies (The Bridges of Madison County; The Horse Whisperer), and this may be his best work in that weird but well-paying genre.

We went to this show (we were choosing between this and Jane Eyre) because our skeptical 17-year-old wanted to see if Robert Pattinson could actually act -- there is no way to tell from the Twilight series, in which most of the actors perform as if their characters are dead.

But right from the start, as Jacob (Pattinson) is pulled out of his final exam at Cornell's school of veterinary medicine and has his life taken away from him, I was sucked into the story -- and into Pattinson's fine, subtle performance in a difficult role.

Quite by accident, Jacob finds himself aboard a circus train -- he was just boarding the first open boxcar that came along. His knowledge as a veterinarian helps him with horses, but doesn't really prepare him to deal with the elephant that becomes his responsibility.

Nor is he prepared to deal with the sick marriage of the brutal, troubled circus owner, August (Christoph Waltz) and his star performer, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). All three actors give strong performances with plenty of chemistry.

But the real magic of the movie is the creation of the dark life of the circus on the road. I've never seen a circus movie that shows so much of what life was like on the train -- but since that's where they actually lived, moving from town to town, it felt revelatory. Where the novel works at making many of the characters repulsive, the movie makes them real. Love and loyalty amid the squalor and fear are as redemptive in the movie as they are in real life.

Is this a great movie? Absolutely not. Fundamentally, the story is silly and predictable -- most faux edgy novels are. If any of the characters had the tiniest bit of intelligence there'd be no story. But the screenwriting, acting, and gorgeous design and cinematography allow it to transcend its shallowness and give the illusion of depth.

The result is a pretty good movie, one worth getting out of the house to see. In a year when Hop is one of the big winners at the box office, it's good to keep your expectations low. Except in the design categories, don't bother putting Water for Elephants on your Oscar-watch list.

*

Donald Stoker's The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War is an unusual bit of military history. His purpose is to analyze the war, not on a tactical level, but at the level of grand strategy and planning.

The outcomes of battles often depend on training and esprit of the soldiers, and the intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness of the leaders. Plans must be in place, but soldiers and officers must adapt constantly to the actions of the enemy.

Grand strategy, on the other hand, controls where the armies are and what objectives they're pursuing; the "grand design" of the Civil War also includes which generals are put in charge of which armies.

You'd think that the best generals would be given responsibility wherever possible, but that's because you've never run a war. There are political considerations; in the Civil War, there was a constant need to play to the people of individual states by keeping their homeboys in places of high visibility, and popular generals became virtually unfirable (Truman's firing of MacArthur in the Korean War was a shocking move precisely because it's so hard to do).

The main problem, though, was human nature. It's one thing to give an army to a general and tell him what he's supposed to accomplish; it's quite another thing to get him to move. Most of the generals spent most of their time gathering supplies and writing letters and telegrams explaining why they couldn't do anything until they had more troops or materiel.

Time after time, opportunities were missed that could have ended the war; and the generals who did move were often disastrously reckless (Joseph Hooker) or incapable of adapting to changing circumstances (Burnside at Fredericksburg). Most of the time, though, the generals did nothing at all, if they could help it.

Most of Robert E. Lee's "genius" consisted of facing really timid or stupid opponents; he proved himself to be as flawed as anybody when he was out of his comfort zone (i.e., invading the north or facing a determined, intelligent opponent).

There were only two truly brilliant generals in the war -- Stonewall Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman -- and when they were under the command of bold-and-adequate generals like Lee and Grant, they did outstanding work.

But the truth is that the grand strategy that ended up winning the war for the North was in place almost from the start -- and notably timid General George McClellan articulated it as clearly as anyone. The problem was finding the generals capable of -- or even interested in -- executing it.

The southern strategy was always to prolong the war until the loss of southern cotton brought European powers into the war on the South's side. It was obvious that the South had neither the resources nor the manpower to win a slugging match.

Even Lee's invasions were designed to function as Saratoga did in the Revolutionary War -- not to "win," but to show a foreign power that the rebellion deserved to be taken seriously. But since both of Lee's invasions failed -- against not-very-good generals both times -- that goal was never achieved.

In fact, it was the failure of Lee's first invasion that gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which made the war be about slavery -- the result of which was to make European intervention on behalf of the South absolutely impossible, politically.

This was also an element of grand strategy. Because the pro-slavery fanatics had done such a brilliant job of smearing Abolitionists (you know, the way pro-abortionists have smeared pro-life advocates), there was no way at first for Lincoln to gather support for an anti-slavery war. It had to be about unifying the country.

Likewise, the South had to pretend the war wasn't about slavery (though it always was), because otherwise they couldn't gather support in the anti-slavery mountain country of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The Emancipation Proclamation took off the camouflage, and it was Lee who handed that opportunity to Lincoln.

Eventually Lincoln found his generals; he had already framed the war politically in such a way as to leave the South friendless. The Navy had also been doing its job of gradually making the blockade credible and effective.

The Grand Design is fascinating as an overview; it's easier to read it if you already have a fairly good knowledge of the major battles of the war, but it isn't necessary. This is an angle of vision that is relatively rare in military histories, and I wish I could read similar treatments of other wars.

In a way, the incompetence of northern generals early on did one thing: It made northern victory impossible until the entire South had been so ground down in defeat that few had the heart to maintain a guerrilla war; we have seen the opposite in Iraq, where a swift and brilliant military victory left our enemies with a feeling that they had never actually been defeated, allowing insurrection to have support for far too long.

Thus the bloody cost of incompetence can lead to a more thorough victory than strong leadership and swift action. Such are the ironies of history. However, this book makes it clear, once again, that because of incompetence and delay, Lincoln came perilously close to losing the public support that he required in order to achieve his goal of a unified nation without slavery in any form.

In the long run, politics led to a restoration of a long, painful near-slavery during the Jim Crow years, and the Democratic Party's reliance on the racist South as its primary power base made American politics sick to the heart for generations; it was little improved when the Republican Party welcomed the last gasps of that racist South after 1960.

One can make the case that only Obama's election in 2008 brought the aftermath of the Civil War to an end by proving that racism and ur-slavery as a political force were dead. Just as with the War on Jihadist Islam, victory on the field is only possible or useful if there is a Grand Design that is relentlessly pursued until total victory is achieved.

Lincoln was killed and politics eventually undid some of his work -- the Republican Party broke faith for the sake of a transient election victory (Hayes vs. Tilden) and let Jim Crow become the new slavery.

But democracy is no worse than monarchy or dictatorship at sticking to the grand design. One would be hard-pressed to find any government in history that stuck relentlessly to a good plan for more than a generation, and usually the grand design, if there is one at all, is abandoned the first time it seems not to be working.

For instance, the death of Osama Bin Laden this week may very well cause most Americans to think that we won and lose any remaining will to pursue the grand design until victory. The result will be a much longer and bloodier war than would have been necessary if we had retained our determination. Once again, a seeming victory may actually lead to defeat ...

*

Holger H. Herwig's The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World is the opposite kind of military history. Herwig relentlessly focuses on tactics on the battlefield, the decisions of generals and the movements of armies.

And yet, because of the nature of the Battle of the Marne and its disruption of the grand strategy that Germany was pursuing, this book gives as vivid a portrayal of how grand strategies break down and wars can be lost years before they actually end.

The Marne is a tough read if, like me, you aren't all that familiar with the names of generals on both sides. Germany and France both used similar systems of military organization, so you can have one side's Third Army or Seventh Corps facing a Fifth Army or a Sixth Corps; the nomenclature can make your head spin.

Worse, the maps are extraordinarily useless. I have never seen such bad mapwork in a military history -- especially because the text frequently refers to locations that are not shown on the map that purports to illustrate the action.

Despite these painful shortcomings, Herwig tells the main story well. The German grand strategy was to achieve a quick victory over France, like the one achieved in the Franco-Prussian War forty years earlier, so that German forces then could be shipped east to destroy Russia's military. If that western victory were not achieved, then Germany's eventual defeat was all but certain, especially if Britain entered the war and imposed a blockade on German trade and resupply.

The Germans caught themselves in a catch-22: To achieve their quick victory in the west, they planned to violate Belgian neutrality by passing through Belgium and avoiding all the natural barriers to troop movements farther south. The trouble was that violating Belgian neutrality was the most certain way of ensuring Britain would enter the war. So it became all the more vital that Germany win quickly in the west and get both France and Britain out of the war.

At first Germany seemed to be charmed by fate: The French commander, Joffre, was so certain that Germany would invade through the Ardennes or Alsace-Lorraine that he continued to treat the German invasion of Belgium as a feint until it was almost too late.

But almost too late also means "just in time." Once Joffre realized his mistake (and it is almost unbelievable now that it took him so long to see it), he quickly transferred troops from the south to the real battlefield. Even then, it seemed all they could do was retreat again and again in order to avoid encirclement and capture, falling back against the German advance until, just as the Germans wanted, they were near the outskirts of Paris.

Joffre's real achievement, and the source of his eventual victory in this crucial battle, was that he ruthlessly removed useless generals from command and put them in makework assignments far behind the lines, replacing them with younger, better men. That he sometimes removed good commanders, too, was an unfortunate side effect.

The importance of Joffre's weeding of the French command structure should not be overlooked. Peacetime military organizations generally promote by seniority and patronage -- ours today is no exception -- and the result can be absolutely debilitating when real combat beings. "Organization" generals are rarely good combat commanders, and it usually takes some crushing defeats before deadwood is identified and eliminated.

The British, amusingly under a general named French, were worse than useless. French seemed determined to retreat even farther and earlier than the French armies, and they were never where they needed to be. Fortunately, the Germans didn't catch on to how useless General French's army was, and kept responding as if it were actually where it was supposed to be.

It was German mistakes, ultimately, that led to their own defeat and the destruction of their strategy. First, in Belgium they had the almost insane attitude that any resistance to their armies by Belgian civilians was criminal. It was as if they thought that because Belgium was neutral, they were not entitled to resist an invader.

That violation of Belgian neutrality made every German soldier a war criminal -- but the Germans committed even more war crimes by carrying out mass executions of civilians with little regard to who had actually fired on their troops. This only stiffened Belgian resistance, and tied up German troops that were needed at the front.

The second German mistake was that as they neared Paris, their westernmost troops inexplicably turned south -- perhaps to meet the "threat" from the useless British army.

Third, the German commander, von Moltke, stayed far from the front and had very poor communication with his generals. He never knew what was going on, and even when he did, his orders were more like advice, and his generals had a hard time guessing what they were required to do. Worse yet, he was in no position to identify the useless German generals who needed to be weeded out.

Then, in one of the weirdest events I've seen in all of the military history I've read, a mere lieutenant colonel named Hentsch was sent to each of the German generals by von Moltke -- without written orders, so it is impossible to know just how much authority he was given or what von Moltke intended. After the fact, everybody was revising everything in order to avoid blame; we will never know the truth, though recent document discoveries from the former East Germany have clarified things a little.

Whatever von Moltke planned, Hentsch's mission resulted in a decision by certain key German generals to abandon their offensive and pull back toward Belgium. Once any German army started to retreat, they all had to withdraw or they would risk encirclement and capture.

In fact, the German retreat was ragged enough, and there were enough gaps in their lines, that the French might have been able to end the war by cutting into a gap and isolating one or more German armies. But by then the forces in a position to do this were so exhausted (or their generals were so lacking in vision) that the opportunities were lost.

The Germans established a defensive line; both sides extended their lines westward to the English Channel; and Europe settled in for four years of bloody trench warfare that accomplished nothing but the destruction of a generation of French, German, and British men.

Just as with the American Civil War, so many issues are determined by incompetence or lack of information that one might conclude that wars are decided by which army happens to have the least-incompetent commanders at the crucial moment.

And incompetence almost always takes the form of timidity. The fear of losing trumps bold action almost every time. Generals have apparently caught on that proceeding at a glacial pace (called "caution") doesn't wreck your career and reputation like proceeding boldly and getting surrounded and captured. Unfortunately, proceeding cautiously rarely defeats the enemy, and bold action often does.

Today, in open combat American troops almost always have nearly perfect information about enemy troop dispositions; which is why the only way to fight Americans is by either destroying our satellite communications (which only China and Russia are potentially equipped to do) or by fighting asymmetrically, never committing large groups of soldiers in the open air.

But the incompetence-of-leadership issue remains. American officers advance by a combination of seniority and patronage -- so that sucking up to senior officers is a highly rewarding career strategy. Some officers work hard to identify and promote the very finest military leaders; but most of the time, the generals making promotion decisions are utterly blind to leadership quality, having none themselves, and instead promote for favoritism alone.

The resistance in the military to any change in this system is astonishingly solid. Almost all of the resistance to Donald Rumsfeld's reforms of the American military came over this issue -- key generals were opposed to Special Ops, and when Rumsfeld, with Bush's support, forced an expansion and elevation of those forces and their capabilities, it caused enmity that surfaced in congressional attempts to destroy Rumsfeld's reforms (the senior military generally controls key congressional leadership, through misinformation or sycophancy).

America has the best soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in the world, but as with most military organizations in history, they can never accomplish more than their leadership makes possible -- and our system of military promotions is far more likely to elevate incompetence than excellence. What saves us (so far) is the occasional civilian intervention (like Rumsfeld's and Lincoln's) and the fact that enemies are just as likely to be incompetently led as we are.


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