Book Review: God’s Shadow

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World
Alan Mikhail
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2020 by the author

Mikhail opens with a note of curiosity. On the Mexican side of the mouth of the Rio Grande, there’s a town called Matamoros. In Spanish, that means “Slayer of Moors”. What is this reference to the Reconquista doing in the New World?

He goes on to explain that Spain’s system of colonizing the Americas involved land grants to that war’s veterans, and that encomendia system was a direct carryover from how Moslem lands were distributed back in Spain. He also notes that the major driver for Spain’s exploration was to find a way to outflank Moslem domination of the eastern Mediterranean, which had monopolized control of the trade routes to the Orient.

That’s his launching point for a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire – and the sultan responsible.

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A Close Run Thing

When thinking on the American Revolution, it’s generally a matter of national pride to see that the outcome was inevitable. A plucky militia, with Right on its side, handily defeated an Evil Empire who couldn’t be bothered to listen to the concerns of the rebels.

It’s always nice to have a happy origin story – or at least one that couldn’t have gone any other way.

Too bad that’s nowhere close to the reality of the American Revolution. It was one close call after another.

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Book Review: The World Beneath Their Feet

The World Beneath Their Feet:
Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas
Scott Ellsworth
Little, Brown, and Company
2020

While the English language steals words from other languages, the German language makes its own words when it needs something new. As a result, it pretty much has a word for everything. The one we’re interested in here is “achttausender”, which literally translates as “eight thousander”. It refers to those fourteen mountains that are over eight thousand meters in height. All of them happen to be in the Himalayas, and pretty much all of them were the targets of European climbing expeditions in the 1930s.

As Ellsworth recounts them here, it became a race between nations. The major contestants were the Germans (with the Alps in their backyard, mountaineering was pretty much in their blood) and the English (they controlled India, and therefore essentially controlled access to the Himalayas). Individual derring-do got combined with national pride as teams risked lives to set altitude records in a strange version of King of the Hill.

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The Hiroshima Decision

Every August, you start seeing essays from professional and amateur journalists on the usage of the atomic bombs to end WWII. This month marks the 75th anniversary of that occasion, so you know there are going to be plenty more. And if this year is like all others, some of those essays will contain (or will have comments that contain) much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how we didn’t have to drop the bombs.

At least some of their reasoning involves post facto arguments, in that they use information that wasn’t available at the time. Or they rehash old, tired arguments that have been acknowledged and dismissed with justification.

What if we went back to the summer of 1945, and looked at the matter using only that information which was available at the time?

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BOOK REVIEW: Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Hanover Square Press
Copyright 2019 by the authors

Even after his failed campaign to retake the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was not one to retire quietly like other former presidents. Even when age kept him from the “strenuous life” that he had long championed, he was still writing and speaking out against corruption in government.

In 1914, Roosevelt came out in support of Harvey D. Hinman, a progressive Republican, for the governorship of New York. Party boss William Barnes Jr. supported his opponent, Charles Seymour Whitman. In July, Roosevelt published a screed where he accused – in no uncertain terms – Barnes and Tammany Hall boss Charles Francis Murphy of corruption and conspiring to thwart the will of the people.

Murphy let the attack go – either he was used to such criticism, or perhaps he felt discretion was the better part of valor given his opponent. Barnes, however, took the attack seriously. He sued Roosevelt for libel.

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Book Review: World War II (Series)

The World War II Series
Robert T. Elson, Roebrt Wernick, Leonard Mosley, et al.
Time-Life Books
1976-1983

Back in the late 50s, there were a couple of things every home just had to have to show off the status and erudition of the residents. A television set (presumably a nice 27″ console), a big hi-fi stereo, and a set of books.

Normally, the books would be a basic encyclopedia. In the days before the Internet, that’s where you went for quick information on any topic. Or you might have something like the Harvard Classics set of important works in the Western Canon (The Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Great Books” set if you wanted something more current), or even Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. Not that anyone would actually read all of them all the way through; they just looked neat on your bookshelves and let your guests think you were smarter than you really were.

In 1959, Time Inc., who published both Time and Life magazines, decided they should get in on this. They had access to top writers and editors around the world, and a truly humongous photo library. Time Life Books was born.

They’d publish dozens of book series over the next two decades or so, covering topics from folklore and home repair to the Civil War and world history. Quality varied, as should be expected. One of the more highly regarded series covered World War II.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tango War

The Tango War
The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds, and Riches of Latin American During World War II
Mary Jo McConahay
St. Martin’s Press
(c) 2018 by the author

I like to think of myself as something of a WWII buff. I’m not one of those people who can argue the finer points of the various tanks used in the European Theater, but I know enough about the war to be embarrassingly wrong about some aspects. However, I do know that it was a truly World War, with battles raging from Spitzbergen to Madagascar, troops being pulled in from all over the world by their colonial masters, and a vast network of military and transport bases linking everything together.

If one is so inclined, one can take out a world map and mark it with all the places that were somehow affected by combat. One might soon spot a large gap on the map, where nothing much seemed to be happening.

What was going on in South and Central America?

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Overrated – Underrated

Way back in the mists of time (well, about 20 years ago, which is ancient history as far as the Internet is concerned), American Heritage magazine had an annual feature they called “Overrated, Underrated”. Historians and other experts contributed short essays on things in their field that they believed needed a reappraisal. They had to pair something that they felt was overrated with one that was underrated (e.g. Aviatrix: Overrated – Amelia Earhart, Underrated: Harriet Quimby). The series gave fascinating historical and cultural insights, and spread a little to other magazines. I recall Sports Illustrated did their own version….

Anyway, the idea is always a good discussion starter. Provided you can pen a short essay explaining your choices. Anyone can say Shakespeare is overrated; not everyone can explain why, as well as offer an example of an underrated English playwright.

Here’s my favorite example:

American Historical Document

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It Was So Hot

Where I live, we’ve just been through the first “heat wave” of the summer. Three days where the temperature was in the mid 90s. Needless to say, people are already whining about how unbearably hot it’s been. Wusses….

My personal approaches to “beating the heat” involve sitting around the house in my underwear (who’s going to see me?), listening to Christmas music (to distract me), and remember that it can be a hell of a lot worse.

It could be as hot as it was in the summer of 1936….

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