Great book! It takes great knowledge and considerable talent to tell an old story so that it sounds new. Thomas Childers is such a writer. When he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he taught an excellent course on Nazi Germany that I keep on my iPhone and never tire of hearing, as a reminder of how swiftly a country can go wrong. Here, in The Third Reich, he goes back to that always fascinating story of how a vagrant from Austria, whose "National Socialist" party never got as much as a third of the popular vote in Germany, turned himself into absolute dictator in a very few months. There are few heroes in the tale to resist the monstrous outcome, for Germany and the world. Yet the Gestapo was never as large as people imagined (smaller the postwar East German Stasi, for example); the government was a mess, with conflicting and ad hoc bureaus competing for the Leader's attention; and the war effort depended upon slave labor because Hitler thought women should tend to their families instead of working in factories as British, Russian, and American women did. What a tribute to the German military! It went to war against three great empires -- the British Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- and staved off defeat for nearly five years.
12 Strong was originally published nine years ago as Horse Soldiers, and you can still buy it under that title if you value accuracy in your book titles. The new title comes from the movie version and refers to the twelve-man Special Forces "A Team," though there were many more than twelve in our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan -- I think the author at one point says they numbered 350. Still, it was a remarkable accomplishment, that a few hundred men with radios and laser pointers could rally the Northern Alliance and run roughshod over the Taliban who had terrorized the country (and provided haven for Osama bin Laden). Mr Stanton writes at a gallop, with little attention to the personalities he's writing about, just throwing out surnames without even a rank to help me remember who's on first, with the exception of the man with smelly feet; I did remember him. And I doubt that Mr Stanton ever served in the US Army, given the odd misunderstandings that crop up: he thinks, for example, that a mortar is the projectile rather than the tube that sends it into the air, which startled me the first time "a mortar exploded" nearby. Afghan weaponry wasn't that untrustworthy.
Somehow my image of gas attacks in the First World War always involved the Brits, French, and Yanks going over the top and being gassed by the nasty Germans. But action begets counter-action, of course, and the Allies after their initial surprise heaved gas shells and opened gas cannisters along with the Hun. Hellfire Boys tells the story of how the US Bureau of Mines (really!) set up the country's first poison-gas establishment on the campus of American University (really!) about four miles northwest of the White House. For my taste, there's a bit too much detail in Mr Emery's book, but it's all there -- the brash American confidence that they could do better than their Allies, only to have their first production gas mask deemed useless. Production quickly ramped up, though the first "gas regiment" was slow to reach the front. The main takeaway is how carelessly the scientists and soldiers of 1918 handled those lethal substances, a conclusion hardly dented by learning that, when the war was over, we simply loaded tons of artillery shells, grenades, and cannisters onto ships and dumped them at sea. I wonder what the Sierra Club would have said to that? Blue skies! — Dan Ford
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