The Battle of Kursk, by Glantz and House

A couple of weeks past I blogged a book, When Titans Clashed, by one of the co-authors here, David Glantz,. With that overview of the Eastern Conflict of WWII in my hip pocket, I eagerly sat down with this near-500 page work. (Actually, almost half is appendices and ancillary info Glantz and House gathered in compiling this book.)
Of interest here is that the Soviets didn’t release any information regarding this conflict until after the fall of the USSR, believing their ongoing insights regarding how
Stalin defeated Hitler may have compromised Soviet military planning during the Cold War.
But not to worry. The Soviet military doctrine developed from their success in this war may be the basis of their Cold War strategy – and beyond – but I saw no hint of anything that might be construed as compromising in contemporary times. Glantz and House apparently had access to Soviet records as no one else has since WWII in tracking the lead-up and development of this war, and their scholarship paid off in The Battle of Kursk.
Besides tracking almost every moment of the battle – from both sides – the authors did themselves proud in forging a new perspective on the Eastern War. Most scholars, the authors point out, have drawn almost exclusively from the writings of the Generals and Field Marshals of Germany, and since little was available from Russia for decades, the German Staff’s views were accepted carte blanche. Glantz and House, however, beg to differ: they see Hitler as a gifted strategist who paid attention both to his military staff and to political expedience. From my research on this war, it’s hard to dispute their facts, but Hitler was deranged regarding many things, and his stubbornness and overreaching were fatal for Germany.
We all know Hitler and Stalin were terrible, flawed men. But the authors make the case for clear planning by both in this conflict, especially in the battle of Kursk. This battle followed Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad, and must be seen now as the pivotal showdown of that conflict. Russian casualties were over a million, Germany suffered less than half of that, but both sides severely crippled the other in what is generally regarded as the greatest armored battle in history. The tanks, armored vehicles, air forces and artillery of both sides suffered greatly. Germany’s grand mistake here was in underestimating the manpower and materiel Russia seemed able to summon into the breach constantly. As an example, the Russian defensive tiers extended east from the Kursk bulge some 200 kilometers – something the Germans couldn’t have seen in their wildest fancies.
One of the most significant issues that Kursk represented is that from then to the end of WWII, the Germans no longer owned air superiority, a vital concern in such an armored war. Glantz and House imply that, while Stalingrad held great symbolic value for both sides, it was Kursk that depleted the German military at the time the Western Allies made their moves into Sicily and Italy and planned the Normandy invasion.
For my money, the detail in this book was a bit overdone. My interest is more as background for a planned fictional manuscript concerning the war, not the historian or the aspiring military strategist. But that’s small quibbles. The authors managed to satisfy the detail-geeks among us while portraying the grimness and determination, the panorama, of this terrible but significant battle of WWII.

Poet’s Corner

This has been a tough week – I had to orchestrate road repairs in our neighborhood – thanks to my big mouth and my previous career as a transportation engineer. Poetry usually comes to the fore in such periods of aggravation to inspire me, and it has again. Which leads me to offer some “best of” tips from my poetry workshop of this past spring.
If you’re an aspiring poet, it’s easy enough to publish poetry – there are journals and web site a-plenty, and all one needs to gain an editor’s eye is a gift for eloquence and persistence in shopping your writing around. But this isn’t enough to gain prominence in the field. Some critical pieces of advice, beyond the exhilaration of being poetically inspired:
1. Know when to overstate and understate. This has to do largely with knowing how to dramatize your poetry for the reader.
2. Any kind of diction will work if well done. So listen to different dictions in use. They’re all around you.
3. Allow meter to help express the meaning and imagery of your poem. It’s very much like allowing the music of a song to help express its lyrics.
4. Look for fresh way to say things. Also, look for fresh uses for old words. Above all avoid the cliché. I hesitate here to say “like the plague.”
5. Before writing a poem, try to visualize it in a whole sense. By this I mean to reduce the poem’s sensibility, its feel or substance to a metaphor. This will help ground the poem, rather than letting it escape into abstraction.
There are more things to consider in mastering poetry, of course, but these are a start. Try each as an exercise, and if it doesn’t work, try, try again. Sigh.

Considering Atonement

It’s not my intent to turn this into an Ian McEwen blog, but after reading On Chesil Beach, I felt I had to re-read the book that is generally considered his best (to date): Atonement. In keeping with my criteria on book reviews, a second read is invaluable in assessing the book’s literary merit as well as what the writer may have tried to accomplish in the writing.
First, a brief look at the plot of Atonement:
The book begins with commoner Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis, member of a landed English family, in the throes of an embryonic romance. Cecilia’s younger sister Briony has developed a crush on Robbie and experiences her first (possibly last) tingles of romantic jealousy on seeing Robbie and Cecilia in sexually compromising situations.
Confused to the point of rage, Briony seizes an opportunity to accuse Robbie of raping her young cousin, Lola.
Here, I risk ruining the read by saying more, but near the end, the reader will discover that the Atonement text purports to be a novel Briony wrote to expunge her guilt at the accusation.
What is of more importance than the sort of back-and-forths one can expect to hear at a book club discussion of this reading is what McEwen seems to accomplish with the writing of Atonement.
First, he makes no bones about Briony’s urge to write at an early age. As the book opens, she has, as a small girl, written a play called The Trials of Arabella, to be performed for the adults by children of her family. McEwen narrates regarding the manner in which imagination leads to such creations, and also how imagination can lead to serious corporeal consequences – as it did for Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia.
McEwen may have been commenting (very indirectly, of course) on the manner in which western society has allowed imagination (possibly though media, but also through normal human wanderings of the mind) to make life less physically real than we might realize, thus allowing an effete society to flower into decay. I may be reaching too far with this supposition, so I won’t press it.
But McEwen does make clear what he sees as the role of a novelist in the read-write interaction. In section three of the book, Briony receives a very long letter from an emissary of a book publisher to whom Briony has submitted a “fictional” book on the subject of her role in ruining the lives of Cecilia and Robbie. She is complimented for her intriguing manuscript, but as the letter wears on, the letter writer begins to pan the “reality” of her story. She has apparently chosen to construct the novel in a manner similar to Virginia Woolf, i.e. she has amped up the interactive perceptions of her three main characters, to the detriment of plot and characterization. The letter writer urges Briony to consider that readers are child-like, in that they wish imagination to be allowed full rein in reading (or hearing) a fully-fleshed story.
At this point McEwen elbows his way into the modernism/postmodernism dilemma: Is Briony the true author of the story, or does Robbie and Cecilia participate in it (as does McEwen)? Is a well-fleshed story now passé in human consciousness; i.e., does the desire to hear an imaginative story really set the potential reader off as child-like? Is literature now to revert to such stories, with modernism’s sophistications of time-sprung plots and psychologically complex characters, or is it to develop into something yet un-verbalized that may allow a melding of individual consciousness with that of the collective?
Enroll in an MFA program if you want to grapple with these questions, and possibly with McEwen’s tacit take on them. Whatever the final answers, McEwen does justice to his literary forbears in causing these questions to burble to the surface in a manner that even the most childish – and most sophisticated – of us can enjoy at any depth we desire.

When Titans Clashed – A Better Case of Wartime Scholarship

There have been sporadic mentions in my posts of a writing project involving WWII’s Eastern Front conflict between Germany and Russia. In researching this project, I’ve discovered – or been pointed toward many pertinent books. My research now wound down to fill-in-the-blanks minutiae, I will have to say that one book stands head and shoulders above the rest.
First, it’s important to recognize that little has been written about this aspect of WWII because Russia’s records and documents were secreted during the cold war. With the advent of Glasnost, this information on the Russian experience began to appear, and much of it has been committed to a growing accumulation of books and scholarly studies. Hopefully that accumulation will soon include mine.
But back to my original point: the best book I’ve read so far on this experience is entitled When Titans Clashed, or How The Red Army Stopped Hitler. It’s a collaboration between David M. Glantz and Jonathan House. Besides the difficulties in translating from Russian and “old” German, accessing these documents at some Russian source house, and attempting to glean fact from opinion and justification, there is the problem of perspective. That is, Where does the author begin with the tale? How does one attend to detail without losing the big picture? In what form should this tale be told?
Some will make it a Gobi-dry tome of facts and supporting information, completely losing the essence of story buried within any wartime conflict, the story from which others might learn history’s lessons. Others will focus on a big name, such as Stalin or Hitler, perhaps Albert Speer, Hermann Goering, Georgi Zhukov, or Nikita Khruschev. In the latter case, the author will be able to situate such personalities in the conflict in a way so the reader might understand how that person came to react to the war. Of course, these efforts can be aggrandizing or judgmentally skewed, based on the author’s preconceptions. I could go on, but you get the point.
In Titans, the authors chose instead to focus on what I call the middle ground of such a conflict. They do tend to personalities when necessary, and they provide detail (in this case maps, appendices filled with sizes of armies in conflict, human and equipment losses). But the genius here is that the authors provide operational details of the Eastern campaigns with sufficient commentary on the major players and their decisions to allow the reader to understand why many decisions were made and what history has made of these – good and bad – decisions.
Glantz and House begin with a prelude, giving some essential history beginning in 1918 and leading into the 1930s and how Hitler and Stalin came to consolidate power, the manner in which they viewed geopolitics and why.
Then the conflict was broken into three periods of the war: June 1941 to November 1942, the second period to December 1943, the third to May 1945. Broken up in this way invites easier digestion by the reader or scholar, and I found the complexities of this conflict much easier to retain than in similar books.
And Glantz and House didn’t shy away from commentary that cuts across the historical grain. Perhaps the most memorable example comes in their conclusion, and I can do nothing better here than to quote them:
“On the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion of 1944, a U.S. news magazine featured a cover photo of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was labeled the man who defeated Hitler. If any one man deserved that label, it was not Eisenhower but Zhukov, Vasikevsky, or possibly Stalin himself.”
The authors had made their case in spades by this time, and their declaration stood more than obvious, simply by way of their taut examination of the war’s operational records.
Such is the stuff of untainted history and scholarly writing. I would hope many historical scholars read this book, simply to understand how such a conflict should best be reported, with a maximum of factual accounting in their constructions, and a minimum of scholarly agenda and bias.