Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

In the Read Pile: Guns, War, & Survival

wile_e_coyote and bookEach of these is either underway (yeah, we have a lot of books lying around spine-up), has recently been read, or is in the queue to be read. These are de minimus capsule reviews; if time permits, we’ll link the titles to their Amazon pages later today

Gun books first, in alphabetical order by title; then war books, the same way, OK? We also have one survival-related book that’s neither a gun nor a war volume.

Gun Books

Accuracy and Precision for Long Range Shooting, by Bryan Litz. This is on order, not here yet. We also sprang for a number of Litz’s short articles on Kindle.

The Gun Digest Book of Firearms Fakes and Reproductions, by Rick Sapp. We thought this would be rather better than it is, but it’s pretty disjointed — almost as if someone assembled a pile of essays into a book. Above all, it lacks any kind of a simple checklist for buyers, and while there’s a lot of advice for sellers that might help them keep ethical, it’s scattered here and there. An Appendix called “Data on commonly faked firearms” includes data on Winchesters, Colt percussion and single-action revolvers, and Sharps firearms — period.

War Books

15 Minutes: Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, by L. Douglas Keeney. As the title suggests, this is a somewhat maidenly, overwrought, handwringing look back at the Cold War war plans. It is somewhat knecapped by the author’s credulous attitude towards claimed nuclear weapons effects, and definitely crippled by a weak index and an utter absence of footnotes. There is a list of sources, but it’s anyone’s guess where any specific facts were found.

Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5, by Sterling Mace and Nick Allen. We want to extract some of Mace’s experience as a BAR man and squad leader into a post of its own soon, but in the meantime, would recommend this searing and well-written combat memoir. Looking back at his time in combat from old age, Mace’s memories are still crisp; the writing is sometimes poetic, which we’re inclined to credit to hired-pen Allen. Some gormless New York publishing house sank a fortune into this book, and then sabotaged it by putting a stock photo on the cover, and worse, one that has adorned a plenitude of other covers. The win for you in that is that the hardcover has been widely remaindered (ours set us back all of $3.97 at Walmart), and the publisher did push many copies to libraries.

Bright Light: Untold Stories of the Top Secret War in Vietnam, by Stephen Perry. We recommend this SOG memoir highly. It’s not as polished or professional a book qua book as, for example, John “Tilt” Meyer’s books or John Plaster’s are, but that makes it more immediate and personal. Steve was the boy next door who went to do his Army service and was screened as a candidate by the then-usual method, the SF Screening Battery. He volunteered for and completed SF medic training, which he describes briefly, and then was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group, then at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He volunteered for Vietnam the way it was done in those days, by calling Mrs Billye Alexander, who got him what he wanted. In Vietnam, he and his best friend were assigned to FOB-1, where he was given a choice: dispensary medic, or volunteer to run recon. Steve ran with several Spike Teams including Idaho, Oregon and New Jersey. Some of these stories are truly untold, and it’s good to have them.

No Need to Die: American Flyers in RAF Bomber Command, by Gordon Thorburn. The title refers to the fact that these Yanks weren’t called up, and generally, when they joined up, their country wasn’t even at war. Instead, they joined the Royal Air Force and flew with Bomber Command. While the Yanks who flew — and mostly, died in — fighters for the RAF have received a lot of attention, we’re not aware of any other book about Americans in Bomber Command. They served throughout the command, including in the 617 Squadron “dam busters,” and hit most of the famous RAF night-raid targets. If you haven’t read much about Bomber Command, the scale of the losses are staggering, and Thorburn’s detailed, moving portraits of the men who fought, and, in most cases, died, in RAF blue bring home the human aspect to that loss.

Sniper Elite: The World of a Top Special Forces Marksman, by Rob Maylor with Robert Macklin. Just started this story of a Briton who served in the Royal Marines and later in the Australian SAS. (So this is “Special Forces” in the rest-of-Anglophere sense, not in its more particular US meaning). Despite the off-putting title, it seems like a solid story so far.

Survival Related

The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments, by Claude A. Piantadosi. This is a serious, academic tome that’s also quite interesting: Piantadosi asks questions that interest all of us: what about extreme environments kills people? Altitude, depth, g-force, heat, cold, toxicity, you name it. Can the lethal aspect or degree of environmental conditions that is fatal be quantified with confidence? What do the case studies say? And, what measures might be undertaken to secure survival in those hostile environments? If these questions interest you, this book will, too.

This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

So, Miguel at GunFreeZone posted video of the “Band of Brothers” speech from the excellent cinema version with the talented and committed Kenneth Branagh (then, about the age Henry V would have been). It’s our favorite version, but it’s far from the only one.

Here’s the traditional way of doing it. Mark Rylance, a great stage actor with a shelf full of Tony and Olivier best-actor awards, on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, in 1997.

Rylance’s Henry leaves us cold; the quintessential English hero ought to have an English accent, and this rings to us as nearly a Scots one (Rylance is as English as a bowler hat, but grew up partly in America). He’s got a different sort of the common touch from the one Branagh delivers. Maybe you will like it — horses for courses, to quote another great Briton.

The classic performance pre-Branagh was, of course, the 1944 one by Sir Laurence Olivier, then in his late thirties. It clearly was inspirational to Branagh. Olivier (who was, like most of these actors, of quite common origins) perhaps takes the accent too far in the direction of “plummy.”

A recent TV version had a heartfelt delivery by Tom Hiddleston, complete with a suitably 2013 black York among his anachronistically diverse followings. This video is only the second half of the speech, but Hiddleston does well enough, and his accent strikes us as just about right:

Every military unit seems to have someone who can do the St Crispian speech — even fictional ones, like Private Donnie Benitez from the forgotten Danny DeVito vehicle (directed by Penny Marshall), Renaissance Man. In the movie, DeVito has to teach remedial English to a class of the sort of hollow-braincase losers that Hollywood imagines soldiers to be. Shakespeare turns out to be what engages them:

There’s a whole raft of parodies and ironic uses of the speech, but note that that was not the intent of the Renaissance Man version. Instead, it shows the development of the Benitez character, and bedamned if the drill sergeant character doesn’t undergo the very elevation of station that Henry V promises to his loyal few in the speech. It was a nice touch we didn’t notice on first viewing the film.

And, for comparison’s sake, here is Branagh, although you can go over to Miguel’s and see him there (and Miguel always has something to read).

For an idea of how The Speech has changed war itself, here’s an older and experienced Branagh reciting, word for word, the pre-war speech of Col. Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment on 19 March 03, the evening before the Royal Irish went in.

Collins seemed to have taken Branagh’s performance as Henry on board — and now, here’s Branagh playing him. How recursive can one military tradition get?

Whilst most of the focus has always been on “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” this speech abounds in phrases that resound through the centuries, especially in the hearts of men who have faced combat.

“This story shall a good man teach his sons….” Yes. But our favorite must be, “All things be ready if our minds be so.” Amen.

Hat tip, Miguel, mi hermano.

The Narkomovsky Delivery — TV, Russian, 2011

russian_soldiers_from_tvEverybody loves a good war movie or TV show, and every nation in the world has wars in its history to draw upon, some controversial and others unifying. For Russians, the controversial wars include the Civil War and the “socialist internationalism” intervention in Afghanistan; the non-controversial ones include the Napoleonic Wars and what Russians know as the Great Patriotic War and we call World War II. In recent years, there’s been a flowering of creativity in the Russian motion picture and TV arts (which have always been strong, even under the dead hand of Communism). This has produced some interesting and rare (in the Anglosphere) war films.

Because the TV shows aren’t available with English subtitles, you need to know at least some Russian (which would fairly describe our lack of mastery of the language of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn: “some Russian”). Hence, this is a capsule rather than an in-depth review.

Narkomovskiy Oboz — “The Narkomovsky Delivery” — was a 2011 TV drama miniseries set in 1941. It begins with a zoom through a rainy window into a solitary worker at a desk: Josef Stalin. Stalin is reviewing a decree about the necessity of, and high priority for, a delivery of vodka to the boys at the front. Stalin signs the order with a flourish, and the mission is set in motion. The order is disseminated by teletype.

russian_rangerettesCasks of superior Narkomovsky vodka are loaded onto horse-carts and entrusted to a strange military unit for delivery: one tough senior sergeant (starshina) Filippov, played by Sergei Makhovikov; four Red Army women soldiers (of varying levels of martial skill and ardor), and a horse-cart driving old man and his grandson. They also have an woman doctor, shaken by the death of her doctor father in a Nazi air raid, and bound for a frontline field hospital.

They encounter streams of refugees, strafing Stukas, a corrupt KGB guy who wants to commandeer their carts so he can get on with the business of shooting suspected deserters, a political officer who’s conveying those deserters to their final destination, peasants who want to steal the vodka, and German forward reconnaissance patrols. And that’s just in the first episode. Later they’ll shoot it out with Germans and with Russian bandits, meet more refugees, and because it’s Russia, everybody endures lots of suffering.

politruk_with_tt-33While the autumn of 1941 is a bit early for the PPSh the lead actor carries, the other weapons and equipment seem correct, and the uniforms at least plausible. The other arms include lots of Mosin-Nagants, including rifles and M38 carbines (no M44s), and Nagant revolvers and TT-33s. The TTs are more likely to turn up in the hands of political officers than combat soldiers.

german_mg_teamsThe “Germans” have MG34s on their motorbikes, but the bikes are Russian ones… not that big a deal, as the Russian motorcycle is a copy of a wartime BMW. Other Germans have Mauser K98ks and MP38s and 40s, and they speak German to one another. (Where it’s needed for exposition, the Germans get Russian-language subtitles; where they’re in contact with Russian elements, which is shown mostly from a Russian POV, they are not subtitled — a subtle and effective decision by the producers and director).  That they made a real effort for accuracy shows in details like the rare camo uniforms of two reconnaissance soldiers who show up in the third episode, accurate Russian Ford trucks and Russian cars, and a period AT gun (which appears to be a Russian 45mm, a Krupp unit built under license, mocked up with solid wheels to look like a German Krupp 37mm).

Make sure you catch the Bolo Mauser 1896 in the hands of one particularly bloodless Red officer in a chilling flashback.

thrown_bayonetThe weapons sounds are fairly accurate, to include the fast rate of fire of the Russian submachine guns, and the even faster ROF of the German MGs. Also, the weapons tend to have the right amount of wear on them, unusual in a movie — the guys you’d expect to have used their firearms little have shiny, new-looking firearms, and the grunts have worn ones. Of course, there has to be some horrid Hollywood inaccuracy, and it comes when our hero takes out a German — with a thrown knife. Not just any knife — a thrown Mauser bayonet. You can throw Mauser bayonets from now to the recreation of the Soviet Union, and you’re not going to kill anybody with one. Unless you’re an actor!

Twice they use a flashback to bring you backstory on a character, and both times it’s very effective in explaining otherwise inexplicable character actions.

more_russian_rangerettesThe actors are unknown to us, but apparently they include some big names in Russia, and they’re all very competent. The women soldiers are dressed in the shapeless uniforms of wartime Russian women soldiers, not like the Hollywood version, or Lara Croft or something. (Lack of make-up doesn’t stop a couple of them from being noticeably pretty, and just like real life, they get prettier the longer you’re exposed to them). The women are not Amazon warriors, but they’re not afraid to fight for their country and their friends, even if they’re at a disadvantage. That makes them very believable, even as the idea that all these adventures befall one small element seems far-fetched.

another_politruk_with_tt-33Some things that may help you: Russian military ranks and courtesies are much like other nations’, but they don’t stand on formalities. In the service uniforms worn by some of the Russians, the collar tab color (and hat band color) denotes branch. Blue is intelligence organs, Red is political officers (who get treated with notable contempt), green is infantry.

One of the best things about this, to us, was that the bad guys were always human and understandable. Nobody was a mustache-twirling Bond villain, not even the most repulsive of the Germans, or the craven political officer. (Indeed, his character weakness is a foil for the contrast of his behavior in the last act, and before that, for comparison with the selfless sacrifice of another politruk. 

Maybe if our Russian was good, we’d hate this. Maybe Russian historians laugh at it. We found it entertaining — four episodes, about 50 minutes each. We thought it would make a heck of a 90 minute to 2 hour movie, if edited mercilessly and dubbed into English. If you can’t follow the story, at least you can enjoy the guns on the screen.

Episode 1: (Remember, these are all in Russian language, no subtitles). From the creation of the mission to imminent contact with Germans.

Episode 2: The first encounter with niemtsy — Germans. The first casualties. The mission continues.

Episode 3: Among other adventures, a showdown with ruthless armed robbers.

Episode 4: the pretty tough-to-take climax comes quite a bit before the end. But in the end, the mission is complete.

We enjoyed watching this previously unknown-to-us miniseries. We fear the limitations of language will keep many of you from enjoying it as we did, but we put it out there for those of you that are still interested.

Empties back in pocket in gunfight? Urban Legend?

Bill Jordan, US Border Patrol, circa 1965.

Bill Jordan, US Border Patrol, circa 1965.

This is one of those stories that will never die, because every instructor (us, too, they said sheepishly) has found it useful as a way to hammer home the importance of training as you will fight. (We’ll quibble with some parts of that on another day: for instance, nobody should do 100% of range fires with hemmet and bodammoor, and any military unit that requires that is commanded by Simple Jack). Here’s the story, as recounted by one of our mo’ entertaining commenters:

But at a certain point, too much bad practice will get you killed.
There were always field reports of cops back in the day trained to shoot on square ranges, found dead after a gunfight as they were trying to put their ejected brass in their pockets, just like the penny-pinching departments had drilled into them at the range year after year.

It’s such a great story, that everybody who doesn’t know where it came from thinks it’s an urban legend. Massad Ayoob thought it came from cop talk about the Newhall Incident (multiple CHP killed in the 1970s). In this link Caleb mentions self-promoting assclown Dave Grossman, who is an Old Faithful of bad information, and Caleb, being a smart guy, discounts Grossman’s typically unsourced bullshit. Then, though, he paraphrases Mas citing Bill Jordan as a possible source of what he calls “anecdotal evidence from 2nd and 3rd hand parties”.

In his Handgunner article, Ayoob mentions that former Border Patrol officer Bill Jordan wrote in the 1960s of officers finding spent brass in their pockets after a gunfight with no recollection of picking it up. Unfortunately, that information is anecdotal at best, and as we’ve seen with the Newhall incident, anecdotal evidence from 2nd and 3rd hand parties isn’t reliable.

Apparently Caleb hasn’t checked the reference, which is easy enough to do. Jordan does indeed include the story in his book, No Second Place Winner, but it’s not, as Caleb seems to think, an apocryphal story. Jordan names a name and refers to a single, specific incident. So for Urban Legend hunters everywhere, here’s your chance to bag that trophy. I give you, Bill Jordan, US Border Patrol, circa 1965. We have added some paragraph breaks to introduce some desperately needed white space:

A question often asked of themselves by young officers is, “How will I comport myself in the face of fire? Will I stand up or will I break?” On the surface this would appear to be a question which can be answered only if it becomes an actuality. As a matter of fact the answer can be given with very little chance of error. Almost invariably a man, provided he does not have too much time to think, will automatically do what he has been trained to do. Again provided that his training has been thorough and intensive.

An example in support of this statement comes to my mind: A few years back a Border Patrol team became involved in a discussion with some contrabandistas in which they were considerably embarrassed by one of the smugglers holed up in some brush about 200 yards away. His presence unduly complicated the proceedings in that he was armed with a .30-30 rifle with which he was enthusiastically underscoring points in the argument made by the main group of his compatriots. The Border Patrolmen were armed only with .38 Special revolvers which put them at somewhat of a disadvantage under the circumstances. However, two of the three men applied themselves to the task of routing the nearby enemy while the senior officer, Sam McKone, took up the question of the rifleman in the brush.

They tell of a western epitaph which reads, “Here lies Tom Jones. Committed suicide by betting his pistol against a rifle at 200 yards.” This could be a normal result of such a contest, but Sam McKone is not one of the Jones boys. Among his other marksmanship awards is a gold medal declaring him to be a Distinguished Pistol Shot.

Additionally, being shot at was not a matter to distress Sam unduly, since it was not exactly a novel occurrence in his life. To make a long story short, by applying a little Kentucky windage and an educated trigger squeeze, Sam scored three hits which made the rifle shooter lose all interest in the fate of his companions and start thinking solely of his own welfare, here and hereafter.

What has all this to do with the statement that a man will do unconsciously as he was trained, provided the training was thorough and extensive? Well, after the fight someone noted that McKone’s pocket was bulging and politely inquired as to what might be spoiling the drape of his trousers. Puzzled, Sam thrust in an exploring hand. The pocket was full of fired cases. During the fight, without realizing he was doing so, McKone, an old reloader, had saved every empty!

And there you have it — the probable ur-instance of the story of the guy who saved his brass in a gunfight. And no, he didn’t wind up dead. Jordan’s book was a huge success for a shooting book, and generations of shooters have read it, and, as you can see by the excerpt, it’s entertaining to read. A lot of his ideas on revolvers and leather have fallen obsolete in the last 50 years, but a great deal of good info is in there, and it’s one of the classic books of pistol shooting.

You can find it online here, and download it in .epub (iBooks), .mobi (Kindle), or scanned, OCR’d .pdf file and a handful of other formats. The scan is of the 1977 printing of the 1965 original. It’s a very worthwhile book, even back in the seventies when we bought it for the first time.

Incidentally, in the Massad Ayoob article referenced by Caleb in the quote above, he references a “forthcoming book” on the Newhall murders by Mike Wood, which did indeed come forth, in 2013. The book is called Newhall Shooting – A Tactical Analysis: Survival Lessons from One of Law Enforcement’s Deadliest Shootings, and despite the cringe-inducing “tactical” in the title, it’s a fantastic book — and germane to this discussion.

On pages 56 and 57 of that book there is an extensive footnote about the facts of Officer Pence’s brass (which he ejected onto the ground, it was not in his pocket) and some informed speculation about how the brass-in-pocket story got started: at the same time as many Newhall-driven changes in training, CHP also changed training to eject empties onto the ground, not to save them. Here’s a tiny excerpt of a very long footnote:

In the wake of Newhall, the CHP made an intensive study of training practices and made many corrections to ensure that bad habits that would jeopardize officer safety on the street were not taught during training. One of these corrections was a requirement to eject brass onto the ground during training and to clean it up later, rather than eject it neatly into the hand and drop it into a can or a bucket, as has been the practice before. It is believed that instructors and cadets of the era may have mistakenly believed that this change in policy was due to a specific error made by Officer Pence during the fight. The myth began, and it was innocently perpetuated throughout generations of officers in the CHP and allied agencies.

Wood’s book, like Jordan’s, is outstanding, but we can’t give you a link to a free one — you’ll have to buy it like we did.

The Court of Last Resort

the court of last resortBefore that was an Innocence Project, long before, there was The Court of Last Resort. Erroneous and false convictions have always been anathema to lovers of justice, and one of those justice lovers was a man named Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who had two highly successful careers.

If you remember the name Erle Stanley Gardner today (a lot of people remember him erroneously as Earl), it’s probably because of his second career: as a writer of legal and detective dramas. He was a hugely prolific writer, turning in 66,000 words a week, ever since he began writing for pulp magazines for 1¢ a word. (Later, his stories would run in the solidly respectable Saturday Evening Post, and he’d be paid much better). His best-remembered legal dramas featured his most famous creation, crusading defense attorney Perry Mason, who invariably got the real murderer to confess on the stand, setting his innocent client free. Gardner’s first career was as a defense attorney, so there might have been some wish fulfillment in his writing.

Even people who have never read a word of Gardner’s writing know Perry Mason, from the black-and-white TV series of that name, featuring Raymond Burr in the title role, that ran for a decade, 1957-66, and closely followed the Gardner/Mason formula. Impossible defense case, innocent client, courtroom confession, roll credits. Gardner was credited and paid as creator of the series; we don’t know how much writing he did.

(The show was successful to the end; it only ended because Burr was tired of playing Perry Mason, and the next season he was back as a detective in a wheelchair in a series named Ironside, also a long-running hit, this time in color).

But what has all this to do with The Court of Last Resort? Patience. We’re getting there. Before we return to Gardner, and Mason, we will say that in law, the Court of Last Resort is the highest authority on a given case. It is where you appeal to just before you’re all out of appeals. For a criminal defendant, it’s the last legal hope before “toothbrush day” (or before, in Gardner’s era, having your execution scheduled). Hold that thought while we discuss Mason some more.

We haven’t read the whole canon, but doubt that Perry Mason ever had a guilty client, unlike, well, every other defense attorney there ever was. Gardner had been one of these attorneys, one of the old-school guys who learned as an apprentice to a lawyer, and never attended a day of law school. He had seen guilty men walk and innocent men clapped in irons, and as a true son of the Constitution, the latter case bothered him far more than the former. But for most of his life, he could do nothing about it. It was only when his writing, originally done simply to supplement the uneven pay of a trial lawyer, made him wealthy and famous that he could do something about it. Let’s let his bio at IMDB take the story from here [brackets denote our edits]:

As a lawyer, Gardner became the bane of the legal establishment when he helped co-founding The Case Review Committee (colloquially known as the Court of Last Resort), a professional association of concerned lawyers who sought to investigate and reopen cases wherein a person might have been wrongly convicted [of a] serious crime. Beside Gardner, other founders included LeMoyne Snyder, a physician and lawyer who write well-regarded homicide investigation text books; Dr. Leonorde Keeler, a pioneer and authority in the use of the polygraph in criminal proceedings; former American Academy of Scientific Investigators President Alex Gregory (another polygraph expert who replaced Dr. Keeler after his death) [and] renowned handwriting expert Clark Sellers; and former Walla Walla Penitentiary warden Tom Smith. The Mystery Writers of America bestowed its prestigious Fact Crime Edgar Award on Gardner in 1952, for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort (1957), which detailed one of the Court’s first investigations.

That anachronism is in the IMDB bio. Our copy is a paperback version, dated 1954. Along with the book, The Court of Last Resort generated a short-lived TV show, sort of a reality show before reality shows were cool. The show began with a reenactment of the crime at issue.

The most prominent case the Court was involved with was the murder conviction of Dr. Samuel Sheppard, who staunchly proclaimed his innocence of the murder of his wife. The Sheppard case provided the basis for the fictional The Fugitive (1963) TV show.) During the initial phases of the Sheppard appeal, Gardner polygraphed members of the Sheppard family. He had hoped if the results were favorable, he would then administer the lie detector test to Sam Sheppard himself. However, when Sheppard family members were tested, the polygraph results indicated guilty knowledge. Consequently Gardner declined to test Sam Sheppard, and the Court of Last Resort withdrew from the case, even though Gardner believed in Sheppard’s innocence. Sheppard was later freed by a Supreme Court decision that held that Sheppard had not gotten a fair trial due to pre-trial publicity that tainted the juror pool. The Supreme Court case was won by F. Lee Bailey, who also won acquittal for Sheppard during the subsequent retrial. Polygraph tests have never been allowed into evidence in a U.S. court due to their unreliability. Gardner ended his active membership in the Court of Last Resort in 1960. The Court – which conducted preliminary investigations of at least 8,000 cases — eventually disbanded.

Some time ago we came across a copy of a possibly never-read paperback of The Court of Last Resort. Its covers were stiff and is pages brown and brittle, but we had to read it. It is striking just how closely the efforts of the Court of Last Resort in the early 1950s parallels the efforts of the Innocence Project and other civil rights efforts today.

So that was Gardner, then: a California liberal who never wanted to jail anybody, and who probably blamed the guns? No, that wasn’t Gardner. He was as keen on seeing the guilty punished as he was on seeing the innocent exonerated. And far from blaming guns, he was an enthusiastic sportsman himself, and an early activist against nascent anti-gun efforts of the 1950s and 60s.

The Law that LeakedOne example of this activism was a short story, The Law that Leaked, that ran in the outdoor magazine Sports Afield in three consecutive issues beginning in September, 1950. Almost as long ago (2007), Random Nuclear Strikes (what a name for a blog!) scanned the appropriate pages of Sports Afield and made it available to 21st century outdoorsmen. RNS has an introduction to the series, and a post that collects links to all the posts. The story is a good one — imagine a slightly more believable Red Dawn, thirty-plus years ahead of time. (In fact, if you do read the story, you’ll wonder if it wasn’t in the back of John Milius’s mind).

It’s amazing to think that 64 years ago, Erle Stanley Gardner was fighting the malevolent forces of registration and confiscation, and 64 years later we’re still fighting a new generation of the bastards. (Note that the Dave Kopel post on his recommended ten 2nd Amendment books has been nuked from volokh.com, but you can find it in .pdf facsimile of its America’s 1st Freedom print version on Dave’s website).

Erle Stanley Gardner became rich and successful and admired — and he was a college dropout. He shaped a generation’s view of the law, and he never spent an hour in a law-school class. He shaped many an American’s view of the courts and the law, and generally in a positive way.

Finally, Gardner thought that civil rights were important — all civil rights. We know this not because of what he said, but because of what he did. He’s been gone now for decades, but deserves to be remembered — and for more than just Perry Mason.

American Sniper Trailer

Video first. Then, impressions.

Visually, Bradley Cooper — yeah, that’s Bradley Cooper — does a pretty amazing Chris Kyle. He also manages to radiate Chris’s good-guy decency in the scene. It looks like Clint Eastwood has directed another very intense film, perhaps as intense as Letters from Iwo Jima. But we’re a little troubled by the cut between the here-and-now of combat and memories of home. It’s a Hollywood device to suggest the warrior’s stress, but it’s overdone: our military puts a lot of effort into ensuring that the guys in combat will focus in combat.

You’ll have plenty of downtime to second-guess yourself, and have flashbacks of Herself and the Posterity, later.

On the gripping hand, however, it’s a rare sniper movie that shows the overwatch, observational, and intelligence-gathering aspects of the sniper’s job. The real sniper team is not Murder Incorporated; it’s the commander’s very best set of eyes and ears forward.

That happens to be pretty handy when some individual needs killin’, true enough.

We don’t suppose that Hollywood will ever get everything right, but we’re pathetically grateful as a neglected puppy when they get something right.

Fox News had an interview with the mom of Kyle’s good friend, Marc Lee, whose death is depicted in the movie. Debbie Lee say’s Marc’s last letter home will have a place in the movie.

[W]hat I do over here is only a small percent of what keeps our country great. I think the truth to our greatness is each other. Purity, morals and kindness, passed down to each generation through example. So to all my family and friends, do me a favor and pass on the kindness, the love, the precious gift of human life to each other so that when your children come into contact with a great conflict that we are now faced with here in Iraq, that they are people of humanity, of pure motives, of compassion.

We mentioned Kyle’s fundamental decency; that whole letter is a window into Lee’s. Small wonder that the two of them were friends. What a pity that they both have been taken from us. And what a challenge it is, to take their place. As the poem of a century ago said:

To you, from failing hands, we pass
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
Should you break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, although we lie
In Flanders Fields.

 

“Book” Link: the Rhodesian African Rifles

Most of the writing about the Rhodesian Army concentrates on three specific units: the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the SAS, and the Selous Scouts. One of the most effective regiments in the Rhodesian army was the Rhodesian African Rifles, a unit in which other ranks were all black natives, and which led, or tried to, anyway, in developing black African officers. The RLI was a white unit, as was the SAS; the Scouts were a mixed-race unit, like the RAR.

Commander and sergeants major of the RAR (identified by name in the book).

Commander and sergeants major of the RAR (identified by name in the book).

All of these units, and the overall strategy and tactics of the Rhodesian UDI government, were significantly more effective than a simple comparison of available forces would suggest. Why was that?

While the other three units participated in the high-profile cross-border operations, the RAR most we operated inside the country. There were reasons for this, and they come out in the volume we’re currently reading, thanks to DTIC. It also answers some of the questions about why the Rhodesians were so effective, and most interesting of all, it suggests why the RAR was effective, even though its officers and men were came from three different, and sometimes politically opposed, ethnic groups: white Englishmen, black Ndebele (relatives of the Zulus) and black Shona (the ethnic majority in Rhodesia and today’s Zimbabwe).

The Rhodesian African Rifles: The Growth and Adaptation of a Multicultural Regiment through the Rhodesian Bush War, 1965-1980 is actually a thesis, written by MAJ Michael P. Stewart as a Command and General Staff College graduation requirement, and it’s over 160 pages of deep dive into RAR history and sociology. Stewart notes the cultural differences between the RAR’s battalions, as well as the cultural “secret sauce” that made the unit not only one of Rhodesia’s most effective, but the only one the Zimbabwe government could count on when faced with a coup threat by the Matabele minority ZAPU party and its well-armed ZIPRA wing in the first year of majority rule. The abstract tells you what Stewart thought that “secret sauce” is: regimental tradition and spirit:

The Rhodesian African Rifles overcame profoundly divisive racial and tribal differences among its members because a transcendent “regimental culture” superseded the disparate cultures of its individual soldiers and officers. The RAR’s culture grew around the traditions of the British regimental system, after which the RAR was patterned. The soldiers of the RAR, regardless of racial or tribal background, identified themselves first as soldiers and members of the regiment, before their individual race and tribe. Regimental history and traditions, as well as shared hardships on deployments and training were mechanisms that forced officers and soldiers to see past differences. The RAR is remarkable because these bonds stayed true through to the end of the war, through incredible pressure on black Rhodesians to succumb to the black nationalist groups and cast off a government that was portrayed to them as oppressive, racist and hateful. Through the end of the Bush War, 1965-1980, RAR soldiers remained loyal and steadfast to their regiment, and that must be their legacy. In the end, the values of the government were irrelevant. It was the regiment that drew these men in, and their loyalty was more to their comrades and their heritage than to any particular government or cause.

While Stewart depends heavily on previously published works, and on Rhodesian historian Dr JRT (Richard) Wood, he also conducted 30-odd interviews with former RAR officers and warrant officers. He came away with a great admiration for them and their “worthy and noble regiment.”

As early as World War II, the RAR distinguished itself, against the Japanese in Burma. Stewart quotes an excerpt from Japanese officer’s diary, initially published in Christopher Owen’s 1970 The Rhodesian African Rifles.

[t]he enemy soldiers are not from Britain, but are from Africa. Because of their beliefs they are not afraid to die, so, even if their comrades have fallen, they keep on advancing as if nothing had happened. They have excellent physique and are very brave, so fighting against these soldiers is somewhat troublesome.

When officers of the Imperial Japanese Army take note of your fearlessness, you’ve arrived.

The unit heritage, history, culture and traditions provided something to unify everyone; the badge combined Ndebele and Shona symbology, but the basic trust was man-to-man and mutual leader-subordinate respect.

There were also informal traditions, one of the most amusing being the African soldiers’ secret nicknames for their white officers:

African soldiers had a name for every officer in the regiment. It was a sign of acceptance for a white officer to be given a name by his soldiers, from Lt Col F.J. Wane (named Msoro-we-gomo, or “the top of the mountain”), who served with the Rhodesia Native Regiment in World War I and then rebuilt the RAR in 1940, to a young subaltern (named “Mr. Vice” after his father’s position in the Rhodesian Air Force), or Captain (later Brigadier in the Australian Army) John Essex-Clark (named Mopane, after the tall, slender hardwood found in the Rhodesian bush). The names were not always particularly flattering or exalting, but the existence of a nickname demonstrated acceptance of an officer among the ranks of his soldiers, and were shared with the officers only occasionally by the NCOs of his platoon.

The best traditions, in our experience, are organic and spontaneous. The naming of officers is a perfect example.

There was also a uniquely RAR adaptation on the TO&E, the Platoon Warrant Officer, in effect a platoon-level sergeant major — something a bit grander than the American platoon sergeant, and a bit more dedicated to the propagation of unit culture.

He knew, taught, and exemplified the history and values of the regiment. Without exception, every former officer interviewed spoke with special respect and reverence for this class of leaders in the regiment.

Coming in to this multitribal, multiracial environment, the successful officer was the one who best learnt his men’s language and culture, and who led by example.

RAR troops with FALs and MAG-58.

RAR troops with FALs and MAG-58.

Finally, Stewart notes that the lessons of the RAR, the African soldiers who fought like lions against African nationalism, are exactly on point to those, native and foreign, trying to build multicultural armies today, in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.

The Rhodesian African Rifles: The Growth and Adaptation of a Multicultural Regiment through the Rhodesian Bush War, 1965-1980 is not the last word on the RAR — Stewart admits it’s too dependent on the views of former officers, and the enlisted men’s viewpoint is largely missing and left to a future researcher. But it’s an excellent work that you ought to enjoy reading, if the Rhodesian bush war interests you, or if you might be charged with unifying disparate groups under a single command.

You can download the .pdf or read it online from DTIC, and if DTIC reorganizes their files again and breaks that link, you can pull a copy from WeaponsMan.com: Rhodesian African Rifles – a556553.pdf

Saturday Matinee 2014 037: Lilyhammer (2012-14, TV)

Lillyhammer S1We’re hesitant to review a TV show that’s still running, as a positive review from this site has been the kiss of death before. Still, we’re not Judas on a mission… more like Hardy expressing his great regard for the dying Admiral. So we will send a kiss the way of Lilyhammer, the consequences be damned.

Lilyhammer is a Netflix production for which two seasons are available online; the first is also available on DVD in the USA. It stars musician and actor Steven Van Zandt as “Frankie the Fixer,” a New York mobster placed in the Witness Protection Program, and, at his own request, in the city he calls “Lilyhammer,” which he took a shine to while watching the Winter Olympics in 1994: Lillehammer, Norway. The constant theme of the show is old-school conservative mobster Frankie, in his new identity as half-Norwegian, half-Sicilian-American Giovanni “Johnny” Hendricksen, clashing with the liberal, touchy-feely culture of modern Norway.

For anyone, it should be fun. For an old Norway hand like all us 11th Group remnants (the group was disbanded 20 years ago last month, which we were remiss in not mentioning. The human sacrifice was part of a Clinton-era jihad against SOF, tucked inside that perennial Washington sacramental rite, defense budget cuts), well, for us it’s must-see TV. It’s the biggest hit ever in Norway, where it’s produced; Van Zandt shares writing duties with Norwegian creatives, and the beautiful winter scenery of Lillehammer and environs is practically a character in the show.

LillyhammerIf you’re a mobster trying to scare people, a nearby Olympic city with all the winter-sports installations has its charms. Being taken for a ride is bad enough, but “a ride” on the luge track is a whole new level of intimidation.

In Norway, things are a little different across the board, but enough like the USA that a visit to Norway — especially an extended visit, or a period as an expatriate — trips Yanks into a cognitive Uncanny Valley. Scandinavia had a huge impact on the USA, on the structure of towns across the country, on accents and culture in a region. The fabled upper-midwest civic engagement we know today as “Wisconsin (or Minnesota) nice” has its roots in Scandinavia (many of the emigrants from Sweden and Norway alike carried Swedish passports, as the two nations did not separate until 1905. Naturally, they did it bloodlessly and amicably — very Scandinavian). In any event, the producers of the show are keenly aware of this Uncanny Valley effect and they manage to inflict it both on the characters (for the USA is as foreign-but-familiar to the Norwegian characters as Lillehammer is to Americans) and the audience.

As Johnny applies Mob Way techniques to solve Norwegian problems (waitlisted at kindergarten!), trouble in the form of brutal British mobsters, his old compatriots from La Cosa Nostra, or incorruptible cops, continues to find him.

Acting and Production

Van Zandt took a risk in this show of being typecast as a mobster, after his star turn as Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s right-hand consigliere. Another Soprano alumnus, Tony Sirico, shows up in Season 2, playing Frankie/Johnny’s brother the priest. But the real strength of the show is in its Norwegian cast, playing characters who range from a homey police chief turned crime novelist, to two hard-of-thinking brothers, to a dirty old welfare bureaucrat.

This illustrates some of the ensemble cast -- and the fondness for visual quotes, here from McHale's Navy.

This illustrates some of the ensemble cast — and the fondness for visual quotes, here from McHale’s Navy.

The producers and directors have a lot of fun with the show, and no doubt we miss some of the snarky little quotes they insert from classic films. In Season 2, for example, we’ve seen The Godfather crop up, and a hilarious homage to Saving Private Ryan. These scenes aren’t wedged it — they advance the plot, but they’re also the crew’s way of having a little fun, and inviting the audience into an in-joke with them.

Since much of the dialogue is in Nynorsk, you’re going to need the subtitles.

Accuracy and Weapons

The film is art, not current events, and weapons are a sideline to the characters and story. There are only a few howlers. (For example, in one Season 2 episode, “Johnny” is teaching his infants to shoot a revolver… when a Norwegian friend appears shocked, he says not to worry, the safety’s on. Er, yeah. What’s next, a suppressed Model 29?

British and American criminals are shown having no qualms about violating Norwegian gun laws. At one point early in the first season, Johnny shows how he has smuggled a revolver into the country. (Pro tip: that will not work in real life. You will wind up in Norwegian prison, which, on the upside, is not all that bad).

The bottom line

Key characters include Johnny Henriksen and Torgeir Roar.

Key characters include Johnny Henriksen and Torgeir Roar.

Lillehammer is good TV — maybe great TV. Van Zandt would be entertaining doing almost anything on screen, but he’s ably supported by a brilliant cast of mostly Norwegian players. Wry fun is poked at both the ignorance of a typically insular American — at one point, Johnny describes a lefty Norwegian character as “redder than a baboon’s ass,” and on learning he studied in Prague, says it’s no wonder he got that way, hanging out in Russia with the commies. (What he says on being informed that Prague is not in Russia is even funnier). But there are also plentiful jokes made at the expense of Norwegian immigration do-gooders and integration-resistant immigrants, hard-of-thinking criminals, and bumbling cops.

For an interview with Van Zandt about the show, see this link at Rolling Stone. They’re hopeless when they write about national security or international affairs these days, but pop culture for the boomer generation is their sweet spot.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Lilyhammer-Season-Steven-Van-Zandt/dp/B00ECL7ZGA/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1958961/

  • IMFDB page: ikke (none).
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: none.
  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilyhammer

Today Only: Tales from the Teamhouse Volume III, Free Download

tales from the teamhouse IIIForget whether this one has a Hognose story or two in it, think they’re in earlier ones. That means this one’s probably better. These were collected back in the 1990s and published under the auspices of the late Ben “The Plunderer” Roberts, a Vietnam SF soldier turned real-estate entrepreneur.

These are a series of books of stories and reminisces of SF soldiers from the 1950s to today. Normally they’re available in paperback, but the Kindle format is new. A great many of the original authors are now no longer with us, including SGM Reg Manning, CSM Rudy Cooper (a three-war vet), and many others.

Today only, Kindle download of Volume III is free at this link. (As long as the price shows as $0.00, click the “Buy Now” button).

Tales from the Teamhouse Volume II is also available on Kindle, but they cost actual money. Some grifter thinks he’s going to get $350 for the paperback of Volume II… good luck with that. Volume I is only available in hard copy at the moment.

There’s always some rumors about a Volume IV. For that to happen, I think Old Mountain Press (run by Tom Davis, a Navy and Army SF vet) needs to see that Volumes I-III have a following.

Two Adventure Novels by Old Favorites

At a bookstore recently, we scarfed up a few novels to use as intellectual breaks from work and time-killers, not that time-killing is really a thing around here. Two of them are of interest because they’re from authors we’ve been reading for 40 years, and who are still writing. Having finished the books, we found them both flawed, but we liked one much more than the other, and found they had some things in common.

The authors are Wilbur Smith, whom we came to like for his great stories of Africa, his own native ground; and Frederick Forsyth, who grabbed us by the stacking swivel with the same novel that put his name on the map, The Day of the Jackal, back in the 1970s. 

The Vicious Circle. Wilbur Smith

smith_vicious_circleIn the Smith entry, Vicious Circle, his protagonist, the head of a small, professional Private Military Corporation staffed largely by fellow SAS vets must deal with an attack that has personal as well as global implications, and is thrust into a situation where men are not what they seem, at first. The plot is complicated and intricate; Smith has not lost his knack for pacing or for exotic locations, and his action scenes are stirring and cinematic.

Where the book failed was in characterization. The good characters are so good, so decent, so loyal that they make an e-type silhouette look deep and complex. And they are deep and complex, compared to the villains, who are so bad, so evil and so corrupt that they seem to have been crossed with crocodiles, simply bringing higher human logic to the primitive violence of the saurian eating machines.

The paper thin characters meant that, when Smith dangled a character who was not what he seemed, Helen Keller would have seen the tells before Smith could spring his reveal. So instead of, “Holy crap! That guy was really a good man, not a terrorist!” you are more likely to think, “About time, I saw this coming two chapters ago.”

And the violence was so graphically described that it passed beyond realism into some kind of sadistic prurience. In our view, it is enough to know that Character X was the subject of a brutal homosexual gang-rape. We do not need to know the injury by injury, thrust by thrust details of the crime. If some bestial form of death is visited upon an innocent character (and it surely is), we do not see the narrative advanced by page after page of gruesome detail. Then, the characters’ reactions to this violence are not always realistic. (The rape victim establishes a permanent relationship with his principal rapist. Sure, that happens all the time, right?)

While the story is set in the world of today, and the villains initially appear to be some of the usual bad guys, there’s a predictable TV Movie twist, and the true villain turns out to be — a corporate guy, corrupted by the blood of the Nazi that flows in his veins.  This is less a spoiler than Smith evidently thought it would be, thanks to his never using a hint of foreshadowing when a billboard with lights and motion is potentially at hand.

If you want to read Smith at his best, we’re going to have to send you to his back list. Look for copyright dates pre-1990 for his very best stuff.

The Kill List. Frederick Forsyth.

forsyth_kill_listThe Kill List is, likewise, a story that could be next week’s headlines. A mysterious propagandist has been making videos, inciting young Mohammedans to leaderless, isolated acts of terrorism. In Britain, the USA, and elsewhere, previously unnoticed singletons are whacking second-, third-, and fourth-tier political and national-security figures, inspired to acts of suicidal martyrdom. The only things that tie the disparate cases together are fundamentalist Islam, and video incitement.

The List of the title is not kept by the terrorists. They do not have to hit specific targets, they can do what they want to do — destabilize their enemies, and perhaps provoke overreaction — by hitting any targets. No, the List is the list prepared and approved by the American President.

The book explores some serious concepts, like the limits of droning identified leaders, both as national policy and CT operational art. But it does that in the context of a cracking good adventure yarn.

Forsyth’s characters, including his terrorists, are more complete constructs than those of many novelists. They do things for reasons; they have internally-consistent or at least -reconcilable belief systems. They’re not, most of them, superhuman in abilities, talents or perfection.

A true test of a novelist’s art is the reader’s emotional state as the book draws to a close. In the last 100 pages, are you looking forward to what comes next? Or are you dreading the last page, the one that tells you your time with these characters is at an end? We were relatively sorry to see Forsyth’s characters off. This may not be his greatest book, but after Vicious Circle we were asking only to be entertained by one of our own favorites, and bedamned if we weren’t.

One Problem with Both Books

Both books do a poor job of describing firearms and their operation, and contain small and grating errors. Nobody’s errors rise to the level of “he screwed his silencer onto the revolver” or “gripping the grenade pin in his teeth” or “he recognized the assassin’s gun instantly as a .380 Bulgarian Magnum.” But they get close, and for a gun guy, it’s jarring.

There are a lot of other small errors. A small Forsyth explanatory paragraph deftly describes the Lockheed C-130 Hercules with poetic economy:

The most frills-free airliner cannot compare with the rear of a C-130. No soundproofing, no heating, no pressurization and certainly no beverage service. The tracker knew it would never get quieter, but it would become savagely cold as the air thinned. Nor is the rear leakproof. Despite the oxygen-delivering mask on his face, the place was by now redolent with the odors of kerosene and oil.

In fact, the cargo compartment of the C-130 is pressurized, and has been since the first one flew in 1955. Forsyth actually missed a trick here: he is describing a HALO insertion, but one of the most remarkable details of such an operation is that the plane is pressurized until shortly before reaching the drop zone. As the plane bears down on the release point, the jumpers breathe oxygen from an onboard console and the plane is depressurized and the tailgate opened. The jumpers switch to bailout bottles and test their oxygen rigs as part of their prejump checks. As soon as the jumpers are clear (unless there is reason to monitor them from the tailgate), the gate is closed and the plane repressurized. Getting this right would have kept Forsyth from wasting the talent and effort he clearly applied to that small excerpt above, at least with knowledgable readers.

In another gaffe, a real-life figure, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is described as being “from the Jordanian village of Zarqa.” Zarqa is actually Jordan’s second city, the historical home of the Arab Legion. It’s a few miles from Amman and has a population of some half-million souls. Some village!

These kinds of small errors are only distracting, of course, if you know they’re errors. Most of you probably haven’t been to Zarqa this year, unlike us. And there are fewer of them in The Kill List than there are in Vicious Circle; we just happened to use examples from The Kill List because that’s the book nearest at hand when writing the review.