Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Very Fleming Christmas

This week's book recommendations come from United States Naval Academy Professor of English, Bruce Fleming. If you want to know what he wants bouncing around the nogg'n of tomorrow's leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps, well here is your chance.

Prof. Fleming's personal top five book suggestions for leaders and wannabe leaders, and perhaps all alpha types:

l. THE QUIET AMERICAN, by Graham Greene.
This is the novel, published in 1954 (the year of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu) that, if read and taken on board by the right people, could have prevented the American disaster in Vietnam by keeping us home. The narrator is a burned-out British journalist without much going for him except that he sees through the bumptuous, destructive idealism of the young American of the title. This fellow has been sent by Washington to Saigon (probably he's SpecOps, or CIA--it's unclear) to propagate the American illusion of a "middle way" between Communists and traditionalists in French Indochina. The American (played tellingly as a smart-dumb hunk in the movie version by "George of the Jungle"/ "GI Joe" Brendan Fraser) is convinced he's right and the illusions-gone-but-fighting-anyway French are simply just not good enough: his theories are based not on experience, but on books written by a man who spent a few weeks in the country and concocted a theory Washington liked to hear. All in all, this book is a reminder: that the people who have been there before might actually know something (think of Afghanistan), that Americans see through their own filter, and that "All-American" buffed up smart guys aren't necessarily right, though they will always have the tendency to think they are. Sometimes the ones who are right are the broken down opium-addicted journalists who live there, like the narrator. Or the French. Gulp.

The best war novel ever written. It's all here, folks: the carnage of battle, the reduction of the fighting man (or boy, and now perhaps woman or girl) to a kind of bestial state focused only on killing, eating, and defecating, the fact that soldiers fight not for an airy principle but for their buddies, who in turn are fighting for them (NB: this is circular), the fact that the brass are distant and frequently clueless, the fact that soldiers are more like other soldiers (say, on the other side) than they are like anybody else, the fact that soldiers do not "fall on the field of battle," they die from a bayonet or from bleeding to death after their legs are blown off. Think about it the next time you hear politicians getting revved up about "kicking some enemy butt" with our military. The enemy aren't the only ones who die, and even so, all of them are just like us. This is, after all, told from the POV of the bad guys in WWI, the Germans.

3. HEART OF DARKNESS, by Joseph Conrad.
On the surface, an adventure story about Africa, colonialism, and the strange scenarios to which the "white man's burden" can lead. But its relevance for the military is suggested by the fact that Coppola's Vietnam war movie "Apocalypse Now" is based on this book. For military types, HEART OF DARKNESS is most interesting as an admission that, at some level, war is fun. Okay, okay, it's not fun. But at least it's an adventure, and men today still see it that way. It's different, it's not sitting behind a desk, it's (we still say this) the ultimate test of manhood; it's a break from routine. Plus for Westerners, it's frequently far away, which means you get to act out without worrying that somebody is doing a similar number on your wife and kids. (You're doing the number on theirs.) In those far-away places, you can do things they told you not to do when you were in kindergarten. Thus they're frequently things the folks back home don't want to know about, as the too-successful ivory merchant Kurtz, whom the narrator has been sent to find at the bend of the Congo River, seems to be doing (apparently human sacrifices and allowing himself to be worshipped as a god). Still, it works. And it may be the fundamental human desire: to do things that we aren't allowed to do at home. Going beyond the pale is always justified on the ground that it works. The heck with the Geneva Conventions: we have a job to do, many infantry troops want to say to the uncomprehending civilians back home. Let us do it, and say thank you. After all, do the folks back home really want to know? Conrad seems to say they don't, though they say they do.

4. OTHELLO, by William Shakespeare.
Finally, a play. The title character, a mercernary admiral for Venice (all Venetian military figures were from out of town, and worked for money; no shame here), is a "stud" on the battlefield and an absolute zero in society. He's been with the guys since he was seven, he tells the Venetian senators gathered to find out if he's really eloped with the daughter of his drinking buddy: he has. Othello makes the fatal mistake of putting all his trust in the "band of brothers," exemplified by his XO Iago, who tells him his wife is cheating on him. She has to be, says Iago: Othello is old, he's not Venetian, and he's African (if not black by our standards, darker than the Italians: they call him "the thick-lips" when they want to insult him). And besides, it's a his military subordinate telling him: this has to be the truth, Iago insists, and Othello accepts. Othello has absolute faith in his male XO, who's going to "explain" women to him (Iago says all women are whores), and no faith in his wife--he feels absolutely ignorant of the rules of domestic life. As a result he believes Iago and serves as judge, jury, and (literally) executioner for his wife, who turns out to have been innocent. A lesson against putting too much trust in the buddies, in being hot-headed and sure you're right, and in the dangers that come from being too much the career military man. Leave it at the office, men. You have to learn to switch gears.

5. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, by Jane Austen.
This one is my long shot. Male midshipmen hate this book, which is why it's good for them to read, and for all alpha types of whatever age. Still, I admit, it's not promising at first glance: it's about five young women, sisters, who are looking for husbands. Not exactly what a self-respecting stud or even studette would be caught reading, you'd think. But wait. It's really a story about powerlessness: the main characters have to do what they're told, can't contradict those setting the rules, and have to simply eat being misunderstood. Sound familiar? It's the military, or any top-down "you do what I say" organization. Inside they're seething, or at least the main character, Elizabeth Bennett is, caught in the shackles of her position. Of course, she's the best of the lot. The military attracts alpha types--who probably would identify more readily with the men in this book than with the women: men here are free to come and go, have incomes, can look for a wife (or not), while the girls wait for the men to appear and try to catch them. That's the way alphas see themselves, as individualists, Rambos all. But the paradox is, many of the alpha types drawn to the military find that they're more in the position of the women in this book than of the men: forced to hurry up and wait, unable to speak out directly, and the victim of other people's decisions. For many people in the military this is a rude awakening, and the cause of disillusion. If they'd read about it first in Jane Austen, the disillusion might at least be tempered.

Happy Holidays!

In case you missed them; my list is here and Barney's is here.

Editor's note: Yes, there is an extra book in the carousel - you need six to make it work - I added that book by Professor Fleming, and recommend it. You may also wonder what that book is in the upper-right hand corner of the post. Well, that is his next book, due out next year. When you can pre-order it on Amazon, I'll let you know.

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