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American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

February 18, 2017


For most people, the Patty Hearst story is summed up in a single photo. Patty, standing in the lobby of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a machine gun.


That iconic image shocked the world. Hearst, the wealthy granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, had been kidnapped from her Berkeley home in February of 1974 by a radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

When Patty showed up in the bank heist photo two months later, some speculated that she had been brainwashed. This was five years after the Manson trial, so the notion of brainwashing was fresh in the cultural psyche. In fact, when she was finally captured and tried for her part in the robbery, the foundation of the defense was that Hearst had been brainwashed by her captors.

Toobin is clearly skeptical of the brainwashing defense. Hearst comes off as a privileged, confused, pliable mind. The theory I walked away with was that she had everything she could ever need except a purpose. And when the SLA came along, as confused as their ethos was, at least they believed in something. Hearst bought into it. Enough to rob a bank. Enough to spray bullets across a street in broad daylight outside of Mel’s Sporting Goods. Enough to open herself emotionally and physically to members of the group.

Toobin painstakingly recounts the Hearst story almost moment by moment. I kept thinking that it seemed like a Coen Brothers movie. The would-be revolutionaries were hapless and inept, but filled with dangerous ideas and a willingness to kill and die for their ill-conceived cause. In fact, several key members of the group did die for the cause in a shootout with the LAPD’s newly-formed SWAT unit in May of 1974.

The SLA was of the moment—the Bay Area in the early 1970s was a tumultuous and violent place. Toobin makes the point of the country: “America at this moment combined international turmoil, economic collapse and high-level depravity. The historian Rick Perlstein wrote of this period, ‘America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history.’”

The Hearst story is interesting as a bit of sensational trivia, and Toobin’s account of the story is thorough and engaging, but the most interesting aspect of the story is how it captures the bizarre spirit of that particular era. The country still reeling from Viet Nam, the revolutionary upheaval of 1968 splintering into its various micro-movements, the disillusionment and absurdity and San Francisco’s particular flavor of crazy—there is a confluence of all of this in the Hearst story. Jim Jones makes a couple of appearances, as does the Nation of Islam. F. Lee Bailey, here at the beginning of the “celebrity lawyer” era, was the defense attorney who would make the case for brainwashing.

I would recommend this book along with Helter Skelter (Charles Manson) and A Thousand Lives (Jim Jones) to anyone interested in this peculiar decade in history. They capture a desperate search for purpose, for change and for belonging. They are of California and of the moment. They each show idealistic notions perverted in the most macabre ways. And though it may be a stretch to generalize beyond the central characters, these stories all seem to point to a time when, maybe, the American Dream went a little crazy.

All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor by Donald Stratton (with Ken Gire)

January 16, 2017


In late November, 1941, the USS Arizona was scheduled to travel to Washington state for some upgrades. The spirits of the crew were high since this meant they would be home for Christmas. But on a foggy day in October, during exercises near Hawaii, the ship was struck by the USS Oklahoma. Damages were relatively minor, but it kept the Arizona in Hawaii for repairs.

This little twist of fate, among many others, is something Stratton openly grapples with in this memoir of Pearl Harbor. How did the world conspire to place him on the deck of the Arizona on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked? And when he thinks of all the men who were killed in that attack, the haunting question: “Why me and not those who fought beside me?”

This book is a fast read, but big in scope. Stratton recalls life growing up in Nebraska during the depression, his decision to enlist in the Navy, life aboard the Arizona and the events of December 7. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor as the date that the Japanese executed a surprise attack on the US Navy, ultimately pulling the US into the second World War. Stratton’s account gives it historical context, but it also makes it personal. He humanizes the story, giving us a deck-level account of the terror and heroism on the Arizona. And he traces the scars—physical, mental and spiritual—seventy-five years later.

Donald Stratton’s story is a swirl of complicated emotions. Stratton recounts reconciliation ceremonies in which Japanese pilots met American sailors, lamenting that he still can’t find forgiveness in his Christian heart. He discusses his lingering anger at US command, who had several warnings—including the sinking of a Japanese sub near Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7—that an attack could be imminent. And he draws hard-earned lessons from the attack—lack of foresight, poor communication and overconfidence—giving them the added context of the September 11 attacks sixty years later.


Donald Stratton. USS Arizona survivor, American hero.

But the most significant purpose of this book, and the one for which everyone should read it, is the simple fact that it remembers. It remembers December 7, 1941 with all its lessons, and it also remembers the men who died, the men and women who came to the aid of the wounded, and the lives of men like Stratton himself. The Japanese dropped a specially-designed armor-piercing bomb on the Arizona. It penetrated four levels to the ship’s forward magazine (ammo storage). The explosion killed hundreds of sailors instantly. 1,177 Arizona officers and crewmen died that day. Stratton suffered burns on two-thirds of his body. He spent many months of excruciating recovery, years with painful emotional scars. Then, in 1944, he re-enlisted. He shipped out once again to serve his country. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

This book was a surprise Christmas gift from my mom. A great book to start the new year.

My 2016 Book List

December 31, 2016

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At the end of every year, a group of friends and I share lists of the books we’ve read and what we thought of them. It is one of my favorite annual traditions. Over the years, my “reviews” have gotten longer, sometimes more personal. Sometimes they wander. Books are a lens through which I try to understand the world. So these reviews are sometimes just me thinking out loud. And sometimes they’re just about the book.

It seems like forever ago that I kicked off 2016 with some random reads: books on method acting, Japanese artistic philosophy and prison life. None too notable.

But then I hit a string of excellent books: a re-read of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and Helen MacDonald’s amazing H is for Hawk.

For crime fiction, I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane. Live By Night (soon to be released as a film) didn’t disappoint.

In other books-to-screen, The Revenant book holds its own. And I re-read No Country for Old Men, the awesome source material of my all-time favorite film.

I read a few novels set during wartime. David Benioff’s City of Thieves rose to the top, though Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is captivating too.

Two novels about the Underground Railroad this year: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. Both deserve the hype they received.

I started reading stage plays this year and was blown away by Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Like nothing else I’ve ever read.

I was inspired by the ambition of Elon Musk, and the broad scope of Will Durant’s Heroes of History.

In understanding American culture at the moment, Hillbilly Elegy is a must read (paired with last year’s Between the World and Me, it should be required). But Gun Guys was also enlightening and entertaining. And Rise of the Warrior Cop leaves one dumbfounded and angry.

Looking overseas, Black Flags provides a good understanding of how ISIS came to be.

On the lighter side, Mary Roach is always an entertaining read. Grunt is funny and interesting, and Dan Lyons’s tales of start-up life are hilarious in Disrupted.

One book on writing this year, but it was a good one: How to Write Short.

And I like to end my years with a weighty, reflective book. When Breath Becomes Air is crushing. I’m still trying to digest it.

I write about books throughout the year on my blog, but here’s the full 2016 Book List.

As for my short list of recommended books…



A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead



H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko


Thanks to my friend Greg for convincing me to start this tradition 17 years ago. And to my mom who reads every review and makes astute editing suggestions.

What did you read? What did you love? Let me know. Happy reading in 2017!



When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

December 31, 2016


“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.”

When Breath Becomes Air is the bestselling memoir of a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer. He has a studied death. He has seen it in person, had patients and friends die, saw the agony in the faces of families who have suddenly lost a loved one. He knew cerebrally and philosophically that death is a part of life. But he grapples for understanding now that he knows he will know it personally. This is his search for meaning.

“As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know.”

Kalanithi was an obviously brilliant man. A neurosurgeon and writer, highly educated in not just medicine but in literature and philosophy. A man who considered his role as a doctor to be much more than a talented hand with a scalpel. He saw it his duty to understand his patients beyond the treatments and procedures. Before operating on a patient’s brain, he wanted to know what they held in their minds. What they loved. What they valued.

His memoir is an open and personal wrestling with what we all know at some level—that everything we believe about life is a product of cells and chemicals in our body. But he knows this at a deeper level than most of us. He has seen life at its barest, most literal, yet he contemplates its significance on the highest plane.

Kalanithi is humble, likable, vulnerable. He dives into literature, searching for insights on mortality. “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again.” He remains positive while accepting his fate, but there is no ultimate answer, only peace.

This is a heart-wrenching book, particularly as death arrives. Kalanithi and his wife chose to have a child while they could, and the final words he wrote are for her. He had imagined a series of letters that she might read when she was older, but he realizes he has no idea what she will be like when she is fifteen. So he leaves her with a simple message:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.

This is an emotionally tolling read, but well worth it. Summed up well in one of the epigraphs, a quote from Michel de Montaigne: “He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.”

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko

December 30, 2016


In the introduction of this book, Radley Balko states that this is not an anti-cop book. Even though a good portion of this book is dedicated to stories in which police make egregious errors or use excessive force, this book is really about the misguided policy that puts officers in those situations. Stupid policy, based on old-school, narrow-minded blunt-force tactics. Stupid policy that has, over the past half century, contributed to a deterioration in the relationship between communities and the police that supposedly protect them. We see evidence of this deterioration regularly in the news. And once police lose the trust of the community they serve, they have also lost their authority. That puts the police at risk. So contrary to the presumed knee-jerk reaction, this book is really a pro-cop book. It’s about smarter policing. And it’s about questioning the policies that continually, stupidly, put our police in harm’s way.

The militarization of police is a broad topic, and Balko covers it broadly. He delves into the history of how and why the police came to adopt more militaristic tactics, tracing it back to the Red Scare days of 1919-1920, when anarchists and leftists were sending bombs to government officials through the mail. This was followed by the Prohibition Era and the need for more militaristic tactics to fight organized crime. When Prohibition ended, the police apparatus, rather than being disbanded, was taken over by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Johann Hari writes extensively about this in his excellent 2015 book, Chasing the Scream).

But according to Balko, the modern age of police militarization began with a confluence of events in the 1960s. The Watts riots in 1965 had instilled fear of a rising (and angry) black class, but the sense was that this was still just “urban toughs fighting amongst themselves.” The suburbs remained the secure bubble they’d promised to be. But then in 1966, two events—the Richard Speck case, in which Speck raped and tortured eight nurses in a Chicago hospital, and the Charles Whitman shooting at the University of Texas—popped that sense of security. With the Whitman shooting in particular, Austin police were completely unprepared. It set off a ripple of fear through the already agitated public, and police forces across the country sought to ensure they would never be so caught off guard.

Enter SWAT. In 1950, William Parker, a man with a background in military public relations, had become chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, a notoriously corrupt department. He’d taken on that corruption and instilled a rigid, militaristic hierarchy. He also instilled in his force the belief that they were all that stood between order and anarchy. He saw citizens as “at best ‘the other,’ at worst ‘the enemy.’” Parker loathed community policing, the notion that individual officers should have a stake in the communities they served. Stemming from the legacy of corruption in his department, he wanted a wall between his cops and the community (he was also oblivious to the disdain for his department in L.A.’s Black and Latino communities).

Coming up under Parker, and in the right place at the right time, was Daryl Gates (the name will ring a bell with anyone who remembers the Rodney King beating and ensuing riots). Gates shared Parker’s mindset of what police should be, and he had an idea for a military-style, tactical attack force to counter violent criminals (e.g. Charles Whitman), deal with hostage situations (e.g. Richard Speck) and put down riots (e.g. Watts). He proposed the name SWAT, for “Special Weapons Attack Team.” He was told he was crazy—there was no way they were going to introduce a police unit with “attack” in the name. So Gates went away and returned with “Special Weapons and Tactics.” Sold.

Gates eventually served as LAPD Chief (from 1978-1992). He would see the SWAT teams he’d conceived to counter snipers and rioters spread across the country. Their purpose would expand as well. In 2005, SWAT teams were deployed nearly 50,000 times; 80% of those deployments were to serve warrants, mostly drug-related. One study finds that between the 1980s and 2000 (the last year reliable evidence is available), SWAT team call-outs increased 1400%.

A few years after the LAPD introduced SWAT, the second driving force behind the militarization of police kicked in. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” The shiny new hammer now had some nails.

At the time, Don Santarelli was Director of Nixon’s Law Assistance Administration, the department in charge of distributing equipment and funding to local police departments. And thanks to the new federal crime bill, he had a lot more to go around; the budget for his office had jumped from $75 million to $500 million. Santarelli noticed many of the police chiefs had been adopting more gung-ho attitudes, and it showed in their requests. “They didn’t value education or training. They valued hardware.” Birmingham requested an armored personnel carrier. Other chiefs wanted tanks. Los Angeles asked for a submarine.

Despite this new hard-knocks approach to crime fighting, under Nixon, the national violent crime rate increased 40% and property crime increased 24%. Which, one could rightly say, proves little. A lot of factors influence crime statistics. Except that during roughly the same time period (1969-1974), Jerry Wilson was running his own little experiment as Washington, DC Chief of Police. Wilson believed in community policing—the exact opposite of William Parker. He wanted his officers invested in the community they served. And he outright refused to employ many of the new police tactics like stop-and-frisk, preventive detention, and no-knock raids (cornerstones of Nixon’s crime bill). While crime across the U.S. was increasing, DC crime was declining under Wilson. Violent crime in DC dropped 25%. Property crime decreased 28%.

The abject failure of the War on Drugs is well documented. I recommend Johann Hari’s excellent 2015 book, Chasing the Scream. Balko covers how the War on Drugs allowed local police forces, supported by the government, to justify increased spending and more militaristic tactics. But the part of this book that will make your blood boil is the litany of stories about one tactic in particular: “No-knock raids.” No-knocks raids are arguably a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and it’s worth a moment to consider the Fourth Amendment and why it exists.

The American founders were scholars of the first Roman Republic. As such, they drew much from Roman thinking, including the concept that a person’s home should be inviolable. That notion, known as the “castle doctrine,” (from the 17th-century English judge and politician Sir Edward Coke’s statement that “a man’s home is his castle”) usually surfaces in the U.S. during gun debates. But it has a broader purpose and historical significance. In fact, it was partly King George’s violation of colonists’ right to a protected home that incited them to a little insurgency we now call the American Revolution. It was also the inspiration for the Fourth Amendment, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

No-knock warrants are issued by a judge to law enforcement officers, typically for SWAT raids, in which there is reason to believe that suspects might destroy evidence. In other words, they allow SWAT teams to knock down the door, detain suspects and search the premises before the suspect can flush any drugs down the toilet. No-knock warrants are a tool of the War on Drugs, but the scope of their application has expanded over the years.

Balko tells story after story of no-knock raids gone wrong. In one, Herbert Giglotto of Collinsville, IL, was sleeping in bed when he heard a crash. It was a little after 9:30.

I got out of bed; I took about three steps, looked down the hall and [saw] armed men running up the hall dressed like hippies with pistols, yelling and screeching.” Giglotto turned to his wife, who was still in bed and said, “God, honey, we’re dead.”

“That’s right, you motherfucker!” one of the men screamed. The men—fifteen of them—then stormed the bedroom. One of them threw Giglotto to the bed, bound his hands behind his back, and put a gun to his head.

“Move and you’re dead,” the man said. “Who is that bitch lying there?”

“That’s my wife.”

A few moments later, after pleading with the intruders, telling them he knew they must have the wrong house, telling them he didn’t know anything about any drugs and offering to show them his ID, Giglotto heard one of the men call from outside, “We’ve made a mistake.”

Indeed they had. Giglotto’s wife was concerned about their pets, which the men had tossed outside. But in the end, the Giglottos got off relatively easy. They were merely terrorized. Other stories end with pets shot in front of children (any dog showing any sign of aggression toward a SWAT team—and what dog wouldn’t?—gets a bullet).

There are other stories of failed no-knock drug raids. Wrong addresses, mistaken identities. Addresses obtained from another druggie that turn out—shocker—to be inaccurate. Sometimes the suspect isn’t home or doesn’t actually live there. Still, knocking down doors persists, though there is ample evidence to suggest that waiting to take the suspect when they leave their home, are checking the mail or running out for milk, is safer and more accurate.

Over the years, the application of no-knock raids has expanded from drug cases to pretty much whatever the police want to use them for. In 2006, Sal Culosi was shot dead in a SWAT raid. His crime was betting on a college football game. SWAT raids of poker games—from small unofficial clubs to $20 buy-in neighborhood games—were frequent in the mid 2000s. In 2007, Cary, North Carolina cops, along with ATF agents and National Guard troops used a helicopter to raid a poker game, guns drawn. When all was said and done, they had served forty-one citations, all misdemeanors. In 2010, a SWAT team began knocking down the door of a man hosting a poker game in Greenville, South Carolina. With no idea who was trying to kick in his door, and having previously been the victim of a robbery, the homeowner grabbed his handgun and fired shots through the door. He was gunned down and killed.

People at poker games, parties, even barbershops have found themselves having fun one moment, and face down, tied up with guns pointed at them the next.

This is idiotic. I was furious after reading these stories. I imagined what my response would be if a bunch of dudes, cops or not, broke in, and one of them shot my dog in front of my kids and pointed guns at my family. If I had a gun myself—I don’t, but if I did—I would shoot them in the face. I would. And I don’t think I’d have any qualms about it. Then they’d shoot me and that would be the end of that. And I’m a peace-loving person. I have friends who are cops. I don’t want to shoot anyone. I definitely don’t want to be shot in my own home.

I was so disturbed by this thought. It all seemed so unbelievable, so Orwellian. I began to question the veracity of this whole book. So I emailed a good friend who has been on both sides of this, has seen it as a legal professional as well as a law enforcement officer. I said I’d been reading this book, that it seemed over-the-top, that I wanted to get his take on it. He made three very clear points in response:

  1. He confirmed that the War on Drugs is a “ridiculous failure” and said it’s all tied to pumping up police budget and politicians trying to prove they’re tough on crime.
  2. He agreed the militarization is out of control and said SWAT teams should be reserved for barricaded violent offenders and protection of large events/riot suppression.
  3. The third point he made, which Balko touches on too, is that police come out of training fearful for their lives. They have the “don’t let this day be your last” mentality drilled into them again and again. This mentality is responsible for the majority of police shootings. Hesitation means you might not make it home. So don’t hesitate.

I have a lot of sympathy for police officers. I really do. Even in the cases where they make a mistake and shoot an innocent person, I try to put myself in their shoes. I would not want to have to decide in a millisecond if someone is reaching for a gun or a wallet, running in fear or to flush the evidence, trying to attack me to push me away from their children. And if I’m all pumped up with adrenaline and fear, I’d probably get it wrong sometimes too. Which is why the burden needs to be on policy, not on the cops. It’s not fair to place cops in that situation.

Add on top of all this our Second Amendment. The assumption is usually that the police wouldn’t be breaking down your door unless you did something wrong. This has been proven an incorrect assumption time and again. But beyond that, with our Second Amendment situation, who knows what’s on the other side of that door? It could be a bad guy with a gun. It could be a good guy with a gun. It doesn’t matter. We’re putting our cops needlessly in danger because of some outdated, macho, bullshit ideas about what policing should be.

Here’s a news story I just saw recently that bears this out. In 2015, police in Corpus Christi, Texas were executing a no-knock raid. In the early morning, they broke into the home. They tossed a flash bang grenade into the bedroom. The man in the bedroom opened fire and hit three of the officers. At his trial, after two years in jail, he was found not guilty. As he should have been. Some might say the police got what they deserved. I think we all got lucky. Nobody was killed.

There are other aspects to this book—the financial incentives for departments, asset forfeiture, etc. But what I will always remember is my reaction when I imagined myself a victim of one of these raids. We regularly hear on the news about the breakdown in trust between communities and their police. If anyone needs a case study of what these kinds of raids do to a populace, they should read up on Fallujah circa 2003. These are military-style raids, and they will turn a population against you.

How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark

December 29, 2016


“I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” This quote and similar variations have been credited to Pascal, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau, among others. It’s popular because it’s clever, surprising and exemplifies the power of short writing. It’s also true—writing short takes more time.

Writing short should be the aim of any writing. Good writing is efficient writing—not necessarily short in length, but no longer than it needs to be. When I taught, I would tell my writing students that their first task is to figure out what they want to say—no more, no less—and say it in the simplest way possible. In the world of product development, there is a thing called the MVP—the minimum viable product. What is the simplest thing we can make as a basic prototype of our idea? In writing, there should be the SVP—the shortest viable passage. The shortest passage required to convey your idea. Anything beyond that must add something new to the text—either in meaning or style. If it isn’t additive, it doesn’t belong. As Clark notes, “How, what, and when to cut in the interest of brevity, focus and precision must preoccupy the mind of every good short [my edit] writer.”

But this book isn’t just about editing. Short writing requires elegance too. It requires craft. The ability to find the one evocative word that does the work of four lazy words. An “ear” for writing and an understanding of the interconnected parts, the machinery of the sentence. So while Roy Peter Clark has titled his book How to Write Short, it’s really about how to write well.

The first part of the book is about seeing and understanding short writing. Each section has relevant, often entertaining examples and ends with challenges to drive the subject home. The second part of the book is about putting those lessons to work both in writing and editing. Here’s my favorite advice from How to Write Short (some of it paraphrased):

Collect short writing samples. Billboards, tweets, lyrics, poetry, fortune cookies, street signs—short writing, good and bad, is all around us. Start a collection. Study why the good writing works (and why the bad writing doesn’t).

Be an active reader. Read with a pen. Write in the margins. Ask why the writer made the choices she did. Would you make the same choices?

Learn how to manipulate the elements.  Balance, pace, rhythm, surprise, word choice, implication. These are the levers you can pull to take your reader exactly where you want them to go.

Understand how tension works. The best writing—even a single sentence—has tension. A little rub, a push pull. I talk about this a lot in my writing class, that there must be a sense of conflict/resolution. It can be as simple as a question/answer, a word play or an internal allusion, but the human brain likes the sense that a connection has been made, a problem solved, a loop closed.

Stick the landing. “Always try to put the funniest word at the end of your sentence underpants,” Clark jokes. But it is such an important point. Emphasis naturally wants to be at the end, so craft your sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books to stick the landing.

Know the easy edits. Fluff words, redundant words, cumbersome phrases, inactive verbs, adverbs, intensifiers. Locate them, annihilate them.

Be able to kill your darlings. Writing teacher Donald Murray makes this salient point about editing: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.” You must be able to identify the core of what you’re saying and be willing to kill the rest.

Use evocative, visual language.

 This is a very good book on writing, worth a spot on the shelf. While it may not measure up to some of the classics, it has the advantage of being of the moment. Examples of great short writing from Twitter, current comedians and recent ads, for example, make it very relevant. And, not surprisingly, it is very well written. Any writer or teacher of writing will pick up at least a thing or two from How to Write Short.

August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month The Changed the World Forever by Bruno Cabanes

December 28, 2016


It would be hard to top Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer-winning The Guns of August, for an account of the start of World War I. But that is told from the grand perspective, at times with a distinctly American bent. What interested me with this book is that it’s a ground-level perspective from one of the first countries to face Germany’s assault: France.

It may be dumbing it down, but to explain the opening aggression of World War I, I’ve always liked the metaphor of three men standing at a bar. On the left is France. On the right, Russia. In the middle, Germany. Germany knew that Russia and France were buds, so if a fight broke out, it would be in trouble. So Germany had developed a plan—the Schlieffen Plan—in the event of trouble. It would turn, cold-cock France immediately, knocking them out of the fight, then turn around and face Russia head-on. This way, Germany figured, it could make it a fair fight.

France knew of the Schlieffen plan, so it wasn’t completely unprepared. Plus, part of the plan required Germany to cross through neutral Belgium, kind of throw a hook punch around Belgium’s head, to keep to the bar fight analogy. Which slowed Germany’s assault somewhat (Belgium was not amenable to the entire German army just “passing through”).

So this all was the run-up to war. And what Cabanes gives us is a look at several aspects of life in France as this big German fist was headed their way. Tensions had been building in Europe for years, and there was an obvious tangle of treaties that could potentially drag country after country into the conflict like an intercontinental Rube Goldberg machine. Still, many people lacked the imagination to believe that the continent would go to war on such a large scale.


Before, we spoke of peace and war, but (at least, those of us in the generations born after 1870) we didn’t know what we were talking about; peace was something we were used to, it was the air that everyone breathed without thinking about it; war was a word, a purely theoretical concept. When we suddenly realized that this concept could change into reality, we felt in our entire being a shock whose memory cannot be erased.


When the war did come, there was the naïve belief that it would be swift and short, certainly wrapping up by year’s end. This, of course, was not to be. Cabanes recounts stories of soldiers shipping off from all over France, of tearful goodbyes, of trains shuttling thousands of men north and east. Deserters were few, as anyone shirking their soldierly duties faced the firing squad. And, it seemed, there were few who would turn away from service anyway. As is often the case, the war was a unifying force on the French populace. The country had been on the verge of revolution (again) leading up to the war, but even the revolutionaries supported the war effort, for the greater good.

The War existed at a pivotal point in the history of warfare, and like the American Civil War, the first few months would be a bloody demonstration of what happens when outmoded tactics and training meet new technologies on the battlefield. In this case, the potential of industrialized killing was on full display, and the French army, still a 19th-century army in weapons, tactics, and attitude, was on the receiving end of the demonstration.

French commanders, in fact much of French society, still believed in the “good death,” the honorable death of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country. They would see plenty of it. French soldiers shipped out in their signature red pants (making them an easy target), led by commanders who still believed in the “heroic ideal” of the cavalry charge. They had drilled outmoded tactics that would quickly and obviously fail them on the battlefield. Everything about the French military was ill-suited for industrial warfare, and they would pay dearly. Across eastern France and southern Belgium, young French soldiers were cut to pieces by the German war machine. On August 22 alone, during the Battle of the Frontiers, over 27,000 Frenchmen were killed. It remains to this day the bloodiest day in French history.

The news of the dead came home—oftentimes with no body to follow. The families of these fallen soldiers demanded that their bodies be returned, but they did not understand the damage done to a body by artillery fire.

As the Germans pushed across the French countryside, the war was brutal. They often took out their frustrations on the town they passed, in both Belgium and France. Estimates put the number of homes and other buildings burned by the Germans at between fifteen and twenty thousand. “Crimes of desecration” became common as German soldiers targeted the most sacred and meaningful possessions of the French—their photos, their family heirlooms, the artifacts that gave them a sense of place and community. Germans executed over 900 French and 5,500 Belgians in their invasion.

As the Germans marched on, rumors of their brutality preceded them. Sometimes the rumors were false, such as the widespread story that Germans were hacking off the hands of children in the towns they took (there is no evidence of this taking place), but it didn’t matter. Masses of French citizens fled ahead of the invasion. A half million people evacuated from Paris, and masterpieces were evacuated from the Louvre. There was real fear that Paris would never be the same.

German soldiers marched with anger and bitterness, for the swift punch intended to knock France out quickly had been more of a fight than they’d anticipated. Toward Paris, they carried the motto “Paris will pay for France.” But the Germans would not make it (not until 1940, at least). A couple critical losses and a redistribution of forces would find the Germans coming up short of the French capital, eventually bogged down at the famously brutal trench line known as The Western Front.

One of the fascinating aspects of Cabanes’s account is the ground-level reaction of the French to the pressures of war. Paranoia swept French towns, and the government and citizens alike began rooting out anyone with suspected German ties, particularly those of German heritage. German Jews were targeted, as were many of the refugees fleeing from the east. Strangers were met with suspicion, if not outright violence. Stores hung signs declaring their French allegiance. People posted their French voting cards in their windows. It is a situation eerily resonant, over a century later.

The outcome of the war has been well documented, as has the way the war changed the world. But I would have liked to have read about how the war changed French society. What this book brings to life so vividly is the unease, the panic, the confusion and the chaos that rippled through France, even in the towns never directly attacked during the war. I’d be interested in a ground-level examination of the aftermath. How does a society so wracked with fear, with citizens who have demonstrated their ability to turn against one another in the face of Armageddon, go back to being “normal” when Armageddon is turned away at the gate? What is the new normal?

For anyone interested in World War I, this is a unique perspective, certainly different than those told from a global or American viewpoint. It will, I imagine, be an interesting pair with Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, told from the POV of a German soldier. I plan to read that one in the new year. There is so much to read on World War I, but these “ground level” accounts start to help one imagine what is ultimately an unimaginable tragedy. It reverses the typical trend as historical events grow more distant, which is to get a wider, more grand perspective, and it forces us to consider the statistics of death and devastation for what they are—a collection of individual lives. People with families, homes, daily routines and dreams that existed outside of war, before the war, disrupted, destroyed.