Take Me to the River…

October 17, 2017

USS Ling BBBack again to the Hackensack River, which divides Teaneck from Hackensack, and where the ghosts of 20th century industry and war yet live.  I tried again (0.3mm aperture – 5-inch focal length) to capture the USS Ling, a rusting hulk of a WWII submarine, but in the bright morning, it appears only as a white “shadow.”  In addition, I came too early in the day to catch it at low tide when the mudflats are impressive, and the rotted portion of the lower hull is revealed.

The image below was taken with my modified Stenoflex (0.2mm – 0.9-inch focal length):  the USS Ling is just visible at the far left of the image.  A thread from the tape used to put together the camera pieces got in the way…

Hackensack River

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The Trains Did Not Run On Time

May 18, 2015

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I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini:  A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words:  shock and astonishment.  How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions?  I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right?  Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.

I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region.  Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came.  Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true:  at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.

Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear:  What is fascism?  Or what was it?  Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power.  Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself:  he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles.  Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.

The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:

  • Use violence to extort, intimidate, and sow chaos among enemies and neutral parties.  Use it without stint, and keep an eye out for the opportunity to extract advantage.  He did not deny his penchant for violence, he celebrated it as a central principle of fascism.
  • Control the news completely:  Mussolini started his political life as a journalist and newspaper operator, and to a great extent, his reign resembled that of a ruthless media tycoon who also happened to control an army of violent thugs willing to do his bidding.
  • Divide and rule without reserve:  Eventually, the Fascist party Mussolini himself created became a potential threat to his own power.  He had no compunction at setting its members against one another to keep it as weak as he needed it.
  • Abandon consistency:  Perhaps this is the most truly astonishing part of Mussolini’s rule.  The freedom with which he would contradict himself, often within a day, was incredible.  He started as a revolutionary socialist, then he advocated corporate industrial control of society, later he went back to the socialist stance.  It all depended on who he was trying to outmaneuver at the time, and since he controlled all the press, each contradictory expression would be reconciled with his other statements by judicious “erasures” within the archives.

With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie.  Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)

His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts.  Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway.  Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful terms in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack.  It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.

How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state?  The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes:  Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power.  He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty.  He was a demagogue, in other words.  And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story.  Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence.  But he was willing to live with that…  Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him.  They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor.  They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.

Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos.  As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important;  to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.

Benito-Mussolini


Sochi-Malaparte

February 6, 2014

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In the paper today, there was an article about the race to save stray dogs in Sochi, before the opening of the Winter Olympics. “Get the strays off the streets, or we will shoot them,” is the word from the officials.  This follows articles during the past week about security concerns for the games:  they are being held near a war zone, and terrorism in the region is common.  Putin, Chechnya, mega-waste-projects…a great day for sport!

The article brought to mind a passage in, Kaputt, the harrowing account of WWII on the eastern front written by Curzio Malaparte.  He is with German SS troops somewhere near the Soviet border, deep in winter snow.  The Germans are preparing for a battle in a location favorable to them when suddenly the place is filled with the sound of barking dogs.  The Germans go crazy with fear, the officers ordering the men to shoot every dog immediately as they run towards their lines.

The Russians have starved the dogs so that when released, they will run furiously towards the German soldiers, looking for food.  Some of them have explosives strapped to their backs with wires attached that stick straight up.  When the dogs with explosives run beneath a tank or truck, the wire brushes the metal, triggering the bomb.  Vehicles start exploding all over the place.


Target London – Where’s the damn map?

January 15, 2014

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Target London, by Christy Campbell, tells the story of the second London blitz of 1944 by unmanned flying bombs and supersonic rockets.  The story is told in detail – great detail.  In fact, the first half of the 400 pages, before the first V-1/buzzbomb/doodlebug hits England, is at the same time extraordinarily tedious and gripping, narrating as it does the years of intelligence work that preceded the first attacks.  We have a front seat on the bureaucratic infighting, brilliant and difficult personalities, blunders and  intellectual coups transpiring as the British sifted through mountains of intercepted messages, once they had cracked the Enigma codes, of course.

All of this was done before the digital age had dawned, although they did have the essential help of the earliest of computers, which they called “bombes.” All very, very, Ultra secret.  Only a select few were allowed to be “in the picture.

Part of the British intelligence game was not letting the Germans know how much they knew about what the Germans were doing. Giving that game away would prompt the Germans to change methods, tighten up security, adopt different covers, which would then have to be blown again.  There was a lot of deception, misinformation, cover stories, hoaxes, some of which seems to have amused the directors greatly.

When the Germans finally got their V-1 (V for victory and revenge, revenge for the British terror bombings of civilian urban centers) buzzbombs flying into London, the engineers needed accurate information on where they struck. This was essential for evaluating and improving their performance.  Juan Pujol, a London-based Spanish  double-agent under British control was tapped by the Germans to report. They wanted information on bomb strikes plotted on a London map, ruled into squares, a grid.  As Campbell relates:

Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, still had to get the right map on which to plot where the Maikäfer [Maybugs – the German nickname for the V-1] were falling. It was proving a problem. Garbo radioed his control, and bought the Baedeker guide to London from a second-hand bookshop. But Control insisted on the Pharus version. Garbo’s research took him to the British Museum Library, where he found “the only copy in existence. I learn that the German map was edited in 1907 and therefore is very antique indeed. It seems to me very strange that the war plans are worked out in Berlin on such antique maps.”

But now, at least, everyone was working from the same grid.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, made the idea of gridded London famous.  In the first part of the story, exactly that type of map – it probably was not a Pharus! – is tacked to the wall of the flat where Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, and other servicemen are living during the V-2 assault.  The map shows a strange convergence of data:  Slothrop’s female conquests and the rocket strikes seem oddly congruent.

Ah, yes, if you are not all using the same set of coordinates, your data will be meaningless.  I know about that personally.  Here is the map that the German rocket masters wanted to use – German, of course – and very nice indeed.

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Well, it’s not just German commanders who have some problems with maps:

HOTSPUR: Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, Will you sit down? And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!

I have forgot the map.

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

William Shakespeare Henry IV (Part 1)

The British were able to defend against the V-1 to some extent.  Fighters and anti-aircraft guns could shoot some of them down, and their noise and relatively low-speed provided warning to civilians.  The V-2 was a different story.  Here is another peek at a stamp issued late in 1944, I think, that celebrates the launching of the ultimate revenge weapon, the V-2 rocket, against which there was no defense possible.  The image is pure propaganda: rockets ascended vertically and were never launched in such salvos.  Just as British intelligence confused and conflated the flying bomb and the true rocket for a long time, this stamp combines the powerful launch of the V-2 with the slanting trajectory of the V-1, which was shot from a ramp.

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Here is a reconstructed V-1 on a launch ramp.  As you can see, the ramp is light, and easily transported.  The Germans developed portable pre-fab ramps after the Allies started bombing their hardened launch sites.

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The bombing wasn’t all that effective, but it did disrupt testing and perfecting the V-1.  Precision bombing isn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, or today.

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The work of building the flying bombs and rockets was moved to a fantastic underground system of factories excavated and manned by slave labor overseen by civilian engineers and managers. Wernher von Braun, later the leader of the American rocket development effort for war and peace, was as undisturbed by these facts as are the suited civilians in second photo below.  These incredible color photos were taken by Walter Frentz, a colleague of  Leni Riefenstahl, apparently as part of propaganda/selling job for the project.  Notice how nicely groomed the slaves are.  Of course, those needed for skilled technical labor stood the best chance of surviving.  More photos and history at this excellent site.

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“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.   

Tom Lehr

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Ballet Russe, Zionism, and Terror

March 22, 2012

In my recent post of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of two short tales from Scheherazade’s 1001, I included a picture of Ida Rubenstein, a figure from fin de sièclela Belle Époque history who was new to me.  She was born to a wealthy family of Russian Jews, came to dance late, for a ballerina, that is, and made a big splash with Leon Bakst and Nijinsky.  Her début was a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which she danced through the seven veils to the nude.  She was denounced by the Archbishop of Paris for dancing as Saint Sebastian in a ballet scored by Debussy, with costumes by Bakst.  Sacrilege!  A Jew and a woman depicting the martyred saint!

During WWII, she fled France for England, where she helped escaped Resistance members, and was intimate with Walter Guinness, her sponsor and sometime lover.  He was assassinated in 1944 by members of the Stern Gang, a terrorist organization of Zionist Jews trying to dislodge Britain from Palestine.

Stern Gang is what the Brits called them, but they referred to themselves as Lehi, but also as ‘terrorists’ and, according to Wikipedia,  may have been one of the last organizations to do so:

An article titled “Terror” in the Lehi underground newspaper He Khazit (The Front ) argued as follows:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah,whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

There we have it.  Infatuation with The Cause, with Violence, with The Nation.  Sound familiar?  On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Lehi made overtures to Nazi Germany, offering to assist in its war against the British in exchange for allowing the free emigration of Jews to Palestine to join the nation-building cause.

The more I learn about the history of Zionism, and its role as a foundation of Israeli society, the more disgusted I become.  Former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was a member in good standing of the gang.


Engineer Hero addendum

March 15, 2012

In my post regarding engineers as heroes in popular entertainment, I neglected one movie that might not come up on everyone’s list.  I missed it!

Steve McQueen plays a chemical engineer in The Great Escape.  The sequences of him on his motorcycle, especially at the end, jumping the border wire into Switzerland, contain many iconic images, to use a much abused and overused word.  The fact that he is an engineer is not important to the plot as in the other films – it’s only mentioned in passing, but it is a piece of his characterization, emphasizing his no-nonsense, individualist, American practicality, in contrast to the smooth, worldly Brits who want to run the escape operation.  He just keeps trying to bust out on his own, until he finally joins the group effort.  A classic meme from Westerns; the loner and the community.

The moment when the camera zooms in on him, gunning the engine at the crest of a hill, as he says…”Switzerland!” is, well, iconic of heroic male individualism.  Best part of a movie that has its share of schmaltz.


Engineer Stars!

March 13, 2012

Engineers grouse a lot about how they “don’t get no respect.”  They aren’t paid as highly as lawyers and doctors, and no one makes them the heroes of TV shows and movies.  T’was not always so!

While studying civil engineering, I did some research on the role of the engineer in American literature, and found that we of this profession were indeed seen as heroic in a bygone day.  At the turn of the century, stories often featured engineers, the effect of nearly a century of ‘heroic’ achievement that markedly improved the quality of life:  I speak of the lengthened life span of inhabitants of great cities due to improved sanitation and water supply.  Thus, I was lured to my present slot in the International Work Machine.  I’m not complaining.

Looking at some web forums that addressed the question, “What TV shows or movies show engineers as heroes?”, probably emanating from some undergraduate technical school, I found that most respondents noted only a smattering of recent sci-fi films.  It seems to me, however, that older films, particularly British ones, have a different history.

The Dam Busters (1955) is an excellent example of the British engineer-as-hero doing his part for the war effort.  Michael Redgrave plays Wallace, a man with a good idea about how to destroy the dams that supply electric power to the Nazi industrial region of the Ruhr Valley.  Breaking the dams would cripple their production effort and sow chaos in the regions – good stuff!  Problem is that the bombs must fall just up against the dam and must burst at the proper depth under water.  They cannot be delivered as air-launched torpedoes because the dams have floating protections against such missiles.

Wallace gets the idea for a bomb that will bounce across the water’s surface (from reading Admiral Nelson’s account of the Battle of the Nile), hit the dam face, sink, and then explode.  It requires a specially engineered bomb carried by a squadron of highly trained airmen who can fly very low over water with great precision.  The animated GIF below shows how the bomb was delivered.

The movie is very good at building suspense and excitement, although the enemy is never seen, and the actual combat sortie happens at the end.  The airmen are coolly professional in the face of  death, but the terrible losses attendant on the effort are not glossed over.  Of course, they all act with that chipper can-do attitude we associate with the Brits and WWII movies, but Wallace expresses regret:  If I’d known it would cost fifty men…

The relationships between the various groups involved are interesting:  the officers and the men: the officer and his dog, the death of which evinces more outward emotion than the inevitable deaths of his comrades; the bureaucrats and the engineer; the officer and the engineer.  Redgrave plays a bit of an odd duck,  the commanding officer comes to deeply respect the man with the idea that is sending him on this dangerous mission.  Even Bomber Harris, who rarely saw a bombing plan he didn’t like, tells Wallace after the successful run, “At first I didn’t believe you, but now you could sell me a pink elephant!”

I love those planes!

Celebrating after a successful prototype test – the aftermath of the real thing.

According to Wikipedia, the operation, known as Operation Clandestine, was not as strategically significant as Wallace had hoped.  The Germans were able to repair the dam and resume power generation quickly because the Brits did not follow up with conventional bombing raids.

In the film, one of the military refers to the “Back Room Boys,” meaning the engineers who come up with new weapons or related technology.  These people are the focus of a fine dark tale I learned of at Film Noir of the Week, The Small Back Room.  It’s about one engineer who comes up with ways to defuse German anti-personnel bombs dropped on the UK.  Here too, the technical guys are the heroes, and they are presented as complex human beings, with the lead being a struggling alcoholic with an artificial foot that humiliates him, and a pretty girlfriend who tries to help him come to terms with his situation.  The suspense generated by his attempts to defuse the German booby-trap bomb is strong, and he is clearly a hero to the uniformed servicemen.

Another Brit movie, this time pre-war, that has an engineer-as-hero is Transatlantic Tunnel, about which I have posted earlier.  This film casts the engineer as a hero in the classic mode.  He is capitalist, technical master, and mover of men’s souls all in one.  Almost Ayn Randian.

No Highway in the Sky  pairs Jimmy Stuart, who flew those bombers in WWII, with Marlene Dietrich as passengers on a plane designed by Stuart.  He’s convinced it’s going to crash because of a design flaw, but he can’t get them to stop the flight.  Marlene takes to him because he’s attractive and has real character, but he’s a tortured hero, beset by doubts.