Sunday, January 31, 2016

'Salt-Sea Mastodon' Masterpiece, Navy Legacy

By Bill Doughty

Herman Melville's genius was not recognized widely during his lifetime. Today, his novel "Moby-Dick" about one man's obsession with a great white whale – and the call of the sea to sailors – is considered universally as one of the greatest novels of all time. What makes it so great?

Herman Melville
"A gripping adventure, rich allegory, and technical tour de force, the novel draws on Melville's own seafaring experience," including in the South Pacific, according to Caroline Kennedy.

One hundred and seventy five years ago this month Melville set sail aboard the whaler Acushnet, sailing from Massachusetts around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. (He said his life began when his ship sailed in January 1841.)

Melville's real-life adventure included living in the Marquesas Islands with Typee natives, purported cannibals. He served on other whalers and traveled through Polynesia/Tahiti, ending up in Honolulu before signing on as an "ordinary seaman" to work on the frigate USS United States, which returned to Boston, Massachusetts in the fall of 1844.

To appreciate Melville's literary skills at painting pictures with words, read his somewhat fanciful description of the insulated island culture that was Nantucket in the 1800s. Nantucketers – owners of the sea – more comfortable aboard ship that on land. For a time, Nantucket was America's center for hunting the "salt-sea mastodon" nearly two centuries ago:

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it - a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket, – the poor little Indian's skeleton.

What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it; peeped in at Behring's Straits; and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!

And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a noah's flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.

The preceding excerpt from Chapter XIV of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" is published in Ambassador Caroline Kennedy's "A Patriot's Handbook," reviewed Jan. 24. Melville's description of Nantucket is a nice companion piece to a Navy Reads review last month of Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea."

Melville had a lasting legacy on the Navy.

He achieved his greatest success with his novel "Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life." In addition to "Moby-Dick," he wrote "Billy Budd, Sailor" and "White Jacket" or, "The World in a Man-of-War." The latter was read by members of the U.S. Congress and is considered by historians to be instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy.

From Naval History and Heritage Command's "Brief History of Punishment by Flogging in the U.S. Navy":

"Meanwhile in March 1850 Herman Melville's novel, White-Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War was published. It contained a chapter on flogging and others on its evil effects and unlawful use. He called for its abolition. Some naval officers took exception to Melville's remarks and wrote rebuttals, a few of which were published in newspapers or pamphlets. The document reproduced above, A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Flogging in the Navy, may have been inspired by Melville's novel, by the action of Congress, or by the campaign of some officers and civilians to restore the practice of flogging. This effort was decisively defeated after a speech in the Senate in 1851 by Senator Robert F. Stockton of New Jersey, a former Navy captain. Naval officers had to adjust to new conditions, and there was increased pressure on Congress to enact new regulations. In March 1855 Congress passed a law for the more efficient discipline in the Navy. This established a system of summary courts martial for minor offences. It could sentence guilty men to a solitary confinement, with or without single or double irons, and/or a diet of bread and water for a limited time. It could also give bad conduct discharges. In 1862 Congress gave the force of law to a major revision of all Navy regulations that reflected a more progressive view of discipline."

Melville's work had a lasting influence on the Navy, literature and history. But unfortunately, according to Ambassador Kennedy, "Melville died in poverty; 'Moby-Dick' was not recognized as a literary masterpiece until the 1920s."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Heritage and Patriotism: Start the Conversation

Review by Bill Doughty

What do these people have in common: John McCain, Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Betty Frieden, Langston Hughes, Henry David Thoreau, Sojourner Truth, Mark Twain, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead? Patriots all, according to Caroline Kennedy, editor of "A Patriot's Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories, and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love" (Hyperion 2003).

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy is the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. At the time this book was written she was vice chair of the Fund for Public Schools in New York City and president of of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. 

"The best part of putting it together..."
"Ultimately, this is a personal selection, but one that I hope will encourage others to create similar collections of their own. The best part of putting it together was researching the myriad possibilities; the difficult part was deciding what to leave out. I read new works, as well as old favorites ... focused on the ideal of America ... In the process I rediscovered how many gifts we are given as Americans. Among the most precious are the freedoms we cherish yet sometimes take for granted, the diversity of heritage and experience that strengthens us, a society that celebrates tolerance and community, and a belief in the power of words to change the world. This country was founded on ideas – freedom, equality, the pursuit of happiness – and the fact that we have the oldest written Constitution in the world is proof of the enduring power of these principles. Those words and ideas have drawn millions to this country in search of the American dream. In order for our democracy to thrive, each of us must give something back. We must make a commitment not just to vote, but to be engaged, to understand the sources of our rights and freedoms and the struggles of those who fought and died to preserve them. Our nation celebrates the individual, and just as it provides for us, so it expects of us. America has given us her best. Now it is our turn."
Kennedy presents McCain with Profile in Courage Award.
One of the first essays is by Sen. John McCain. He tells the story of the importance of Old Glory and what the flag meant for a Prisoner of War during Vietnam in "The Mike Christian Story" from McCain's "Flags of Our Fathers." McCain concludes: "Duty, Honor, Country. We must never forget those thousands of Americans who, with their courage, with their sacrifice, and with their lives, made those words live for all of us."

In another excerpt, "On the Rainy River," from the masterful "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien shows an individual at war with himself over how to respond to a draft notice in the summer of 1968. Was Vietnam a righteous war? What constitutes courage? "The only certainty that summer was moral confusion."

President Richard M. Nixon, who initially escalated then ended the Vietnam War, will likely be best known in history for rapprochement with China in early 1972. Returning from the People's Republic of China and reporting on the agreements reached, including opening of trade, Nixon said, "peace means more than the mere absence of war."
"Most important, we have agreed on some rules of international conduct which will reduce the risk of confrontation and war in Asia and the Pacific. We agreed that we are opposed to domination of the Pacific area by any one power. We agreed that international disputes should be settled without the use of the threat of force and we agreed that we are prepared to apply this principle to our mutual relations."
Kennedy's compilation is filled with song lyrics, poems, photos, snippets from novels, essays, court decisions and speeches.

She reprints Judge Learned Hand's address "The Spirit of Liberty," delivered at "I Am an American" Day in Central Park, New York during World War II, May 21, 1944. Judge Hand expressing the devotion of a nation of immigrants: "We sought liberty; freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves."

President Harry S. Truman addressed the nation on April 11, 1951 about U.S. and UN involvement in South Korea and an effort to repel North Korean invaders without starting another world war with communist nations at the peak of the Cold War.
"If history has taught us anything, it is that aggression anywhere in the world is a threat to the peace everywhere in the world. When that aggression is supported by the cruel and selfish rulers of a powerful nation who are bent on conquest, it becomes a clear and present danger to the security and independence of every free nation. This is a lesson that most people in this country have learned thoroughly. This is the basic reason why we have joined in creating the United Nations. And, since the end of World War II, we have been putting that lesson into practice."
On September 20, 2001, President George H. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress to condemn al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on American soil, reminding Americans of the terrorist network's attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and the bombing of USS Cole.
"The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them ... They hate our freedoms ... These terrorists kill not merely to end lives but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way."
Diverse voices in this nearly 700-page book include James Baldwin, Cesar Chavez, Amy Tan, Harper Lee, Huang Zunxian, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan.

From 1887 comes this simple but beautiful Navajo verse from the "Twelfth Song of the Thunder," part of the ancient Navajo Mountain Chant:

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of the thunder
Within the dark cloud
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper
Among the plants
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

Writing styles range from the poetic to the pedantic. In 1971 a "pioneering women's rights attorney," Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who would become the second female Supreme Court justice in 1993), wrote a decision upholding a claim of gender discrimination in Frontiero v. Richardson, on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharon Frontiero, awarding spousal support benefits to married women serving in the military. Ginsburg wrote:
"...we can only conclude that classifications based upon sex, like classifications based upon race, alienage, or national origin, are inherently suspect, and must therefore be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny. Applying the analysis mandated by that stricter standard of review, it is clear that the statutory scheme now before us is constitutionally invalid."
Plenty of conversation starters. Here's a nugget from Thomas Alva Edison, written in 1921:
"Grouches are nearly always pinheads, small men who have never made any effort to improve their mental capacity. The brain can be developed just the same as the muscles can be developed, if one will only take the pains to train the mind to think ... The man who doesn't make up his mind to cultivate the habit of thinking misses the greatest pleasure in life. He not only misses the greatest pleasure, but he cannot make the most of himself. All progress, all success, springs from thinking."
The book closes with Katharine Lee Bates's "America the Beautiful" (1893) and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" (1940). Caroline Kennedy's compilation encourages readers to consider the patchwork quilt of America and contemplate the meaning of patriotism.

" a nation, there is more that unites than divides us."
"Understanding and renewing our commitment to our fundamental civic values is a process of turning and returning to the words that defined the challenges of the past, inspired generations before us, and offer renewed insight for our own time. The words and images in this book are for sharing, as a conversation helps make the ideals our own. As I researched the selections, I was struck by the fact that we often talk with friends about movies, sports, or TV, but less often about patriotism, although being an American is one of the most profound experiences that we share. I hope that making these documents more accessible will make it easier for these conversations to occur. Of course, there are many varied realities within our society, but as a nation, there is more that unites than divides us. One of the ways we come to understand something is to compose our own narrative. Each person's story may be different, but in the process of assembling it, we can discover themes that connect us. As this books is intended for families, I have tried to include selections for all ages, songs and poems that appeal to children, speeches that helped turn the tide of history, judicial opinions that transformed our society, images that capture American's sense of self at a particular time, and expressions of personal yet universal truths.
Today, Caroline Kennedy serves as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

150611-N-EC644-103 MISAWA, Japan (June 11, 2015) U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy speaks with Sailors during a tour of one of the Navy's newest maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, attached to the Pelicans of Patrol Squadron (VP) 45. Kennedy spoke with U.S. military members and their families and took tours of U.S. Navy aircraft while visiting Misawa Air Base. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan C. Delcore/Released)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Ron Garan Saw in Space

Review by Bill Doughty

Former Air Force pilot Col. Ron Garan was one of the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery as former Navy aviator Capt. Mark Kelly maneuvered and docked the craft with the International Space Station (ISS) in the spring of 2008.

A few days later Garan stepped into the "vacuum of space" after listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

What Garan found and what it means for the rest of us is revealed in "The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015)
"As I looked back at our Earth from the orbital perspective, I saw a world where natural and human-defined boundaries shrank. I saw a world becoming more and more interconnected and collaborative – a world where the exponential increase in technology is making the "impossible" possible on a daily basis. Thinking about the next fifty years, I imagined a world where people and organizations set aside their differences and their destructive competitive inclinations – such as striving to maximize economic growth at all cost, or pillaging society for the personal gain of a few – and instead work together toward common goals. After all, we are all riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth. We are all interconnected, we are all in this together, and we are all family."
For most of history, people generally thought that stepping onto the moon was impossible. But Navy veteran President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans in September 1962 to "look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond."

Under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon (both also former naval officers), JFK's challenge was achieved within seven years. As to who "won" the space race, Garan makes a case that the world won and is still winning.

The International Space Station. NASA.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have worked closely in space: Apollo/Soyuz, Mir/Freedom/Atlantis and now the International Space Station.

Fifteen nations collaborated to build and support the ISS, which is as big as a football field and surely one of the great human-built wonders of the world. ISS became a reality because of an agreement in June 1992 signed by President George H.W. Bush (another Navy veteran) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

How did cooperation overtake competition in space?

Both sides replaced attitudes of superiority, condescension and belligerence with humility, respect and understanding. Trust, openness and a willingness to learn led to "extended empathy" and "effective collaboration" – ideals Garan examines in this book.
"Collaboration begins with mutual understanding and respect ... One major problem in the early U.S.-Soviet/Russian collaboration was misunderstanding on both sides. Whether it was a language barrier, an unfamiliar way of doing things, or an underestimation of the other side's abilities, overcoming such misunderstandings required both sides to move outside their comfort zones and to really absorb another culture. There was a need on both sides to understand a style of communication that sometimes was very different, in addition to the language itself, and to respect others' limitations in these areas."
Photo by Col. Ron Garan, NASA.
Different, he says, does not mean inferior.

Does Garan's optimism sound naive? Not if you've seen the world from his "orbital perspective."
"To say the view was breathtaking would be an understatement. The first thing that struck me was how thin the atmosphere appeared, as if the entire planet were wrapped in a paper-thin blanket. And in that moment, I was hit with the realization that this delicate layer of atmosphere is all that protects every living thing on Earth from perishing in the harshness of space. So, although this was an incredibly overwhelming visual experience, it also was much, much more than just a visual experience. For me, it was a profound feeling of detachment, with a simultaneous connectedness. I felt a visceral, physical separation from the only world I had known since birth, while at the same time i was able to see that world with my own eyes."
Years later, Garan's friend Wasfia Nazreen climbed Mount Everest as a part of a campaign to raise awareness of women's rights issues. Her perspective – an overriding feeling of gratitude – was one Garan shares: "immense gratitude" that leads to a sense of responsibility to act responsibly as part of a collaborative community: "a community of trust working together with a shared purpose – and a philosophy of contribution."

The goals are tangible and interrelated: clean water, renewable energy and elimination of poverty, which in turn reduces regional conflicts. The tools include innovation, communication, education and empowerment.

Garan, an avid photographer, caught a Perseid meteor shower from above. NASA.
Garan gives examples of how people can work together to achieve a common goal, including in crises. Orbital perspective can be achieved from above, on or beneath the Earth.

When 33 Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days in 2010, the world focused on a common goal: rescue. Campo Esperanza ("hope") was set up, and NASA and the international community responded. The Chilean navy – with help from NASA – designed the extraction device.
"In all cases, people rallied around the common cause. The overarching goal united people from around the world into a community with a shared purpose and motivated diverse groups to work together systematically and selflessly toward the rescue of the men. In short, the effort represented collaboration from an orbital perspective."
Garan's experience with ISS inspired him to start Impact CoLab to help "propel the good that others are doing."

Astronauts Scott Kelly, Ron Garan and Mark Kelly.
"The Orbital Perspective" follows in the path of works by Buckminster Fuller and Carl Sagan, both of whom are quoted by Garan. Can we see the "big picture," work together and find hope for the future of our planet? Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus (who received the prize with Malala Yousafzai) writes the preface of the book and challenges readers to use the perspective and commit to solving seemingly impossible problems.

At one time it seemed impossible to go to the moon or to prevent another World War. Today it may seem impossible to prevent the effects global climate change, deal with terrorism by radical extremists, or colonize Mars.

But as JFK said in September 1962 – speaking of space: "... we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Reading China's Big Changes in 'Little Rice'

Review by Bill Doughty

Shanghai at night.
Like his landmark "Here Comes Everybody" (Penguin Press, 2008), Clay Shirky begins "Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream" (Columbia Global Reports, 2015) with a story about searching for a phone.

This time Professor Shirky is the one looking. What he finds in a Shanghai subway station mall – and the discoveries it reveals – are captured in this slim book about China, a country "open to business but closed to criticism."

Xiaomi (pronounced "show" as in "shower" and mi as in "me") makes smartphones and is compared by some as the Apple of China. How do smartphones, social media and access to information mesh in the "Middle (Central) Kingdom"?

Using Xiaomi and the phone as a platform, Shirky writes about China's evolution especially since the passing of communism and rise of autocratic capitalism. "Beijing wants a country whose citizens enjoy a high degree of economic freedom, a high degree of personal freedom, and a low degree of political freedom."

Using the market, Deng Xiaoping led China away from the devastating policies of Mao Zedong, in which tens of millions of Chinese died from famine. Poverty "plummeted in a single generation, from 84 percent in 1981 to 13 percent by 2008," from "bare subsistence to broad comfort."

President Xi Jingling during a summit visit to Washington D.C. in September 2015.
In the face of growing wealth and income inequality President Xi Jinping oversees the current Chinese Dream, Shirky writes. The dream is tied to better communication, transportation and housing, "very much like the American one," where "if you work hard, your life will improve, and that improvement will include material comfort of a home and a car."
"This market-supported bargain has worked better than almost anyone expected, but the days when the rising tide really did lift all boats, and where the economic tide was rising consistently quickly, are now ending. The Chinese Dream is Xi's attempt to deal with the end of the easy growth. The moderately prosperous society he is proposing to (comprehensively) build is a way of trying to deflate the rising expectations of the middle class for both marked economic and political improvement. These are all entries in his longer-term goal of bringing China's single-party system into some sort of self-governing norm, while at the same time convincing the Chinese masses to accept a slowing economy and significant income inequality."
Clay Shirky at a TED Talks presentation.
Shirky's "Little Rice" (the literal definition of Xiaomi), follows insights he revealed in "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity In a Connected Age" (Penguin Press, 2010) about collaboration, innovation, intrinsic motivation and civic engagement.

Shirky riffs on human nature, a new drive for quality and innovation in China, and the role of smartphones in society.
"Xiaomi also means something for how the world will get connected. Mobile phones are the most broadly desired category of complex goods in the world, beating out their only rivals, cars and televisions, by a country kilometer. The mobile phone is also becoming the universal source of connectivity for most of the world's population, increasingly the gateway to every form of content other than paintings, and to every form of commerce other than haggling. Thanks to the mobile phone, the developing world, and therefore a majority of the human population, has gotten connected in the last twenty years. In the next ten, a majority of them will move from simple phones to real networked computers. Though Apple invented the smartphone, and Samsung spread it, it is Xiaomi who showed the world how to create a defensible market between luxurious and crappy, and to scale up to meet the rising demand of the rapidly expanding and increasingly global middle class."
New York University library in Shanghai.
Shirky, who teaches at New York University, Shanghai, says we are experiencing a "golden age of writing about China." He provides a list of "further readings" at the end of "Little Rice."

Evan Osno's "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China" (FSG, 2014). "This is simply the best book on China today."

Peter Hessler's "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" (Harper, 2006) and "Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory."

James Fallows's "Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China" (Vintage, 2008) and "China Airborne" (Pantheon, 2012).

Ezra Vogel's "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" (Belknap Press, 2011).

Jonathan Spence's "The Search for Modern China" (Norton, 1990).

Harvard University's ten-part online class by professors Peter Bol and William Kirby, and narrated by Christopher Lydon, "China" available at

Shaun Rein's "The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia" (Wiley, 2014).

Edward Tse's "China's Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business" (Portfolio, 2015).

Susan Shirk's "Changing Media, Changing China" (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Monday, December 28, 2015

Nantucket 'Slay Ride' – 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Review by Bill Doughty

From the Warner Bros. film by producer-director Ron Howard.
Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" (2000, Viking Press) plumbs the depths and dimensions of race and religion, survival and sustainability, and leadership and life in the 1800s, where insular thinking could lead to death.

Essex was captained by steady (and ultimately resilient) 28-year-old George Pollard. His first mate was "cocksure" and ambitious Owen Chase, 22. Seven of the crew were free black men in the North during an era of slavery in the South. The cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, was 15.

"Heart" is a true story about whaling, but it's also about understanding our place in the natural world.

The ill-fated whaling ship Essex (not USS Essex) sailed from Nantucket in 1819, just a few years after the end of the War of 1812 and within a generation of the American Civil War – a time of wooden sailing ships and Old World ways. More people lived off the land – and the sea.

Then, as now, people depended on burning oil for energy, and in the United States in the 1700s and 1800s, whale oil was often used for lighting streets and homes. Whales were harpooned, hauled, butchered and rendered at sea. Whalers collected their oil in barrels. They also collected ambergris, a fatty substance found in the intestinal tract.

Philbrick describes the terrible violence, danger and back-breaking work – and stink.
"The repetitious nature of the work – a whaler was, after all, a factory ship – tended to desensitize the men to the awesome wonder of the whale ... Whales were described by the amount of oil they would produce (as in a fifty-barrel whale), and although the whalemen took careful note of the mammal's habits, they made no attempt to regard it as anything more than a commodity whose constituent parts (head, blubber, ambergris, etc.) were of value to them. The rest of it – the tons of meat, bone, and guts – was simply thrown away, creating festering rafts of offal that attracted birds, fish, and, of course, sharks. Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century."
Sperm whales. (photo courtesy NOAA)
Philbrick reports that American whalers killed nearly a quarter million sperm whales between 1804 and 1876. "As a disturbing point of comparison, in 1964, the peak year for modern whaling, 29,255 sperm whales were killed." (But the whales made a comeback. "Today there are between one-and-a-half to two million sperm whales.")

After wiping out the whales near their island, the people of Nantucket ventured throughout the Atlantic by the time of the Revolutionary War. Then, in bigger ships equipped with whaleboats and processing equipment, they sailed around Cape Horn, South America and into the Pacific.

Whalers also devastated the environment in the Galapagos Islands, where hundreds of tortoises were taken for meat. They even temporarily wiped out sea birds on Henderson Island. That happened exactly 195 years ago this month.

Philbrick shows parallels of sperm whale pods with Nantucket whalers' families – where males were separated from females and offspring for years at a time.

We see how whaling ships were outfitted and how whaleboats were maneuvered during the chase. We learn the language of whaling; the term "Nantucket sleigh ride" comes from the rough ride whaleboats would take after whales were harpooned. We feel the brutal life, separation and consequences of whaling, where one quarter of the women in Nantucket over 23 were "widowed by the sea."

Like other Americans of their time, the people of Nantucket relied on letters and word of mouth for most of their communication. Traditions were revered. People on Nantucket Island lived in a "protective bubble," as Philbrick calls it, that helped them know their place in a complicated class pecking order and shape their decision-making. The bubble, he shows, blocked their ability to be innovative.
"Nantucketers were suspicious of anything beyond their immediate experience. Their far-reaching success in whaling was founded not on radical technological advances or bold gambles but on a profound conservatism. Gradually building on the achievements of the generations before them, they had expanded their whaling empire in a most deliberate and painstaking manner. If new information didn't come to them from the lips of another Nantucketer, it was suspect."
An African American whaler
Insulated thinking would have life-and-death consequences for the crew of Essex after their ship was destroyed.

In a story that inspired Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," an enraged 85-foot-long bull sperm whale with "fury and vengeance" attacked and fatally damaged the Essex. And in a sense that's when the suspense "In the Heart of the Sea" begins.

Some people die while others survive, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. Who lives, who dies, and how it all happens is worth the read.

The story goes deep into the nature of racism, humanity and redemption.

Most of those who survived were brought back from South America by the U.S. Navy aboard the frigate USS Constellation. The U.S. Navy schooner Waterwitch and brig Pearl had roles in verifying the story for historians and writers, including Melville and Philbrick himself.

In a fascinating denoument, Philbrick shows what happened to key characters in the years after the sinking of the Essex. He reveals how Nantucket changed, then and now. Downtown Nantucket "has become a thriving summer resort" where there was once a "decrepit fishing village." 

"Wishbone" jaw and "fingerlike bones from the fins" on display in Nantucket.
Today, the Nantucket Historical Association and whaling museum showcases the skeleton of a sperm whale on display for study and appreciation.

"In the Heart of the Sea" opens our eyes to how much the world has evolved, where we now have more understanding of our place in the environment and our responsibility for conserving resources and protecting the world's oceans and species.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

AHA Moment: 'Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now'

Review by Bill Doughty

"Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2015 HarperCollins).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (AHA) says there is a war going on within Islam: "a war between those who wish to reform ... and those who wish to turn back to the time of the Prophet."

Those who wish for reform, while not uniform in their thinking, reject a culture of fatalism and death. Reformers want a culture where blasphemy, heresy and apostasy are not punishable by death – where anti-modernity, martyrdom and murder are not celebrated – where belief in an afterlife does not conflict with being alive here on earth. Where freedom is sacred.

Martyrdom is a common thread in radical jihadists' attacks against the United States and U.S. military – from the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon to the USS Cole terrorist attack in Aden, Yemen; from attacks in Africa and Europe to suicide bombings in the Middle East and on U.S. soil on 9/11.

Two believers in a cult of death, with apparent influence of ISIL, massacred innocent Americans earlier this month in San Bernardino, California.

In the wake of that horrific act of violence, Commander in Chief President Barack Obama addressed the nation. He spoke of ongoing airstrikes and taking the fight to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as IS, ISIS and Daesh – without starting another extended ground war. He also offered perspective and advice similar to that of the reformers.

In part, the president said:

"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want.  ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world – including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate. 

"That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity."

Obama's words and ideas in support of moderates are reflected by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Power of Reason

True reform must come from within, says Ali.
AHA: "I believe that each human being possesses the power of reason as well as a conscience. That includes all Muslims as individuals. At present, some Muslims ignore their consciences, and join groups such as Boko Haram or IS, obeying textual prescriptions and religious dogma. But their crimes against human reason and against human conscience committed in the name of Islam and sharia are already forcing a reexamination of Islamic scripture, doctrine, and law. This process cannot be stopped, no matter how much violence is used against would be reformers. Ultimately, I believe it is human reason and human conscience that will prevail."
She identifies three types of dissident-reformers: those in the West, those within the Islamic world, and a growing number of Muslim clergymen.

Dissidents in the West: "These individuals are not clergymen but 'ordinary' Muslims, generally educated, well read, and preoccupied with the crisis of Islam." For example, Zuhdi Jasser of American Islamic Forum for Democracy in Phoenix, Arizona, launched "Jefferson project" calling for "the separation of mosque and state."

Citizen reformers and dissidents in the Islamic world: Taslima Nasrin, for one, calls for a "uniform civil code of laws that is not based on religious dogmas, and that is equally applicable to men and women." AHA: "The rule of civil law rather than sharia law will ensure all citizens are treated as equals, regardless of their private religious affiliation."

Clerical reformers: AHA differentiates between true reformers and those who condemn the violence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda while working behind the scenes to nevertheless impose sharia. She writes: "Independent thinking, outside of the shackles of orthodoxy, is necessary for a civilization to flourish."

Like Fighting the Cold War

Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls for using Cold War strategies to counter radical extremist ideologies, attacking the ideas as was done against Communism decades ago. " ignoring the ideas that give rise to Islamist violence we continue to ignore the root of the problem."

"Just as critics of communism during the Cold War came from a variety of backgrounds and disagreed on much, today's critics of Islam unreformed are not in agreement on all issues."

AHA calls for assistance and "where necessary, security" for those calling for a reformation of Islam.

"The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion," AHA writes.

She says Islam needs a Voltaire, the French historian and philosopher who witnessed the birth of freedom in the West and saw it take root in a secular democratic nation: the United States.

She also calls for a John Locke – someone like the English scholar who will call for truth and knowledge over blind belief.

"In Locke's formulation, protection against persecution is one of the highest responsibilities of any government or ruler."

Voices and Rights of Women

Reformation ought to begin with "half of humanity," AHA says. "Today, more than two hundred years after Voltaire and three hundred years after John Locke, the rights of women are in retreat throughout the Muslim world." In some corners of the world people still tolerate and practice female genital mutilation, death sentences for rape victims, forced marriages for girls before the age of ten, and torture and death for women adulterers.

She sees civil rights as "a beacon" into the 21st century. Reformers question ideas that are considered by some to be unquestionable.

Should we tolerate intolerance? Should we live in fear? Should we accommodate hate? Should we accept political correctness over freedom of speech?

AHA says that we must not bend to fundamentalist sensitivities or demands; instead, reformation calls for accommodation to Western ideals of freedom.

Ten years ago Asra Q. Nomani called for the equal rights of women, including equality in mosques. ("Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," 2005, HarperCollins. "While we challenge the status quo, we are busy creating a new reality," Nomani writes.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, bestselling author of Infidel.
For her part in the new reality, AHA compares the internet in this century to the printing press 500 years ago. Books helped bring about the Reformation in Europe.

While terrorists are using new technology, the communication network across the Muslim world is reaching millions of more peace-loving people and helping turn the tide through freedom of expression. Among the peace-lovers, she includes Malala Yousafza, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning student; "here, surely, is the authentic voice of a Muslim Reformation."
AHA: "The Muslim Reformation is not fiction. It is fact. Over the past few years, dozens if not hundreds of developments have convinced me that, while Islam's problems are indeed deep and structural, Muslim people are like everyone else in one important respect: most want a better life for themselves and their children."
Reading Reasoning Reforming

Ali and Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman in February 2015.
Reading is at the root of reformation, rationality and reason. Education leads to freedom of thought. The first step in resolving a problem is studying and understanding it – in other words, being well read.

The last voice in "Heretic" is from reformer and dissident Iyad Jamal al-Din, a cleric from Iraq who says the choice is fundamentalism as represented by radical jihadists like ISIS or "man-made, civil enlightened law."
AHA concludes: "To repeat the words of al-Din: 'We must not embellish things and say that Islam is a religion of compassion, peace and rose water, and that everything is fine.' It is not. But the fact that such words can be uttered at all is one of the reasons I believe the Muslim Reformation has begun."
As for those who have declared war on the West:

USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) launches Tomahawk cruise missiles in strikes against ISIL in 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Carlos M. Vazquez II/Released)
The U.S. military, with ally partners, is engaged in Operation Inherent Resolve to attack and defeat the Islamic State In the Levant.  Even those of us on the sidelines can be part of the battle against radical fundamentalist ideology, albeit indirectly.

President Obama's weekly radio message yesterday focused on combatting ISIL, as reported by Jim Garamone on

"American service members are doing their parts to root out and kill the ideology. 'Our men and women in uniform are stepping up our campaign to destroy ISIL,' the president said. 'Our airstrikes are hitting ISIL harder than ever, in Iraq and Syria. We’re taking out more of their fighters and leaders, their weapons, their oil tankers. Our special operations forces are on the ground — because we’re going to hunt down these terrorists wherever they try to hide.'

"It is not limited to Iraq and Syria. 'In recent weeks, our strikes have taken out the ISIL finance chief, a terrorist leader in Somalia and the ISIL leader in Libya. Our message to these killers is simple — we will find you, and justice will be done,' Obama said.

"But the most important thing Americans can do is 'stay true to who we are as Americans,' he said. 'Terrorists like ISIL are trying to divide us along lines of religion and background. That’s how they stoke fear. That’s how they recruit.'"

If defeating radical jihadists relies on turning away from fear and hate and embracing our commonality, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says we can begin by rejecting fatalism, martyrdom and a cult of death:

"The next step in dismantling the ideological foundation of Islamist violence will be to persuade Muslims raised on an alluring vision of the afterlife to embrace life in this world, rather than actively seeking death as a path to the next."

A U.S. seaman directs an E/A-18G Growler to the catapult on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the U.S. 5th fleet area of operations, May 28, 2015. The Theodore Roosevelt is supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, which includes strike operations in Iraq and Syria as directed.
(U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Petrosino)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Heartfelt 'Destiny and Power' of Bush 41

Review by Bill Doughty

The future President George H. W. Bush was 17 years old, attending Phillips Academy Andover, when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. When he turned 18 he went off to war. When he was 20 he was a naval aviator with VT-51 in the Pacific, flying from the deck of USS San Jacinto.

On September 2, 1944 Bush was shot down in action over Chichi-Jima, an island heavily defended communications/supply island 700 miles south of Tokyo. His squadron's mission was to take out a radio tower atop Mount Yoake.

Author Jon Meacham recounts the terror Bush felt before, during and after his plane was hit by enemy fire.
Bush was in range of the tower. The Japanese guns filled the air with flak. Flying at a thirty-five-degree angle to the surface, Bush zeroed in on the target and went straight for it. Racing ever closer to the island, the plane was hit. As the Avenger jolted forward, Bush was able to keep it on target. Smoke filled the cockpit. Flames raced along the wings.
Bush stayed the course and dropped his bombs, damaging the radio tower, according to Meacham, before accelerating back out to sea. He knew his plane was losing altitude due to the severity of the fire. "Hit the Silk" he remembers telling his two crewmen.

"Buffeted by the wind ... Bobbing on the surface ...stung my a Portuguese man-of-war ..." Bush was a target for the Japanese as he paddled with his arms and waited for help. He was rescued by the submarine USS Finback. His first concern was for his aircrew. Two were lost and never found.

Meacham's account comes in Part II of "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush" (Random House, 2015). Part II is titled "War and Marriage."

The crucible event in the western Pacific galvanized Bush's character, which had first been shaped, according to Meacham, by Bush's mother to be "courageous, competitive, caring, and tireless."  Yet a complicated amalgam of guilt and appreciation for being alive continued throughout his life:
There was no logic to the costs of combat. Bush realized, no real rhyme or reason. All you could do was your best, and take what came ... "I'll always wonder, 'Why me? Why was I spared?'" Bush recalled. He spent the rest of his life striving to prove that he was worthy of being saved when others were doomed.
Undoubtedly his wisdom gained in combat and service in the Navy at such a young age helped inform his decision-making decades later as commander-in-chief.

Meacham's masterwork biography includes a generational perspective of Bush's family, including with his partner First Lady Barbara Bush; his time at Yale; his achievements in business; life in Texas; diplomacy in China; the "Age of Reagan;" the winning of the Cold War; his Presidency; and the "Twilight" years since.

While most of the book understandably focuses on politics, Meacham makes it personal; he takes us into the mind of the former president, thanks to extensive interviews, access to Bush's recorded diary and well-documented research.

Our only complaint is that there could have been more space devoted to Bush Sr.'s service in the Navy. There's a brief but warm mention of the commissioning of USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77). Still, there's more here than in other biographies of our 41st president.

Former Chief of Staff John Sununu, for example, devoted barely one page out of nearly 400 to his former Boss's naval career in "The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush" (Broadside Books, 2015).

Sununu writes:
"Underneath his kinder and gentler exterior are a bona fide toughness and a commitment to complete his missions. After he was shot down – he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism – he arrived in Hawaii for reassignment. He was offered a choice of returning to the United States or rejoining his old squadron, which was still battling in the Pacific. Bush elected to return to his squadron."
Nearly all of the rest of Sununu's book is a subjective behind-the-scenes look at the Bush 41 administration. Nearly all political. Meacham's work is much more objective, more insightful and, ironically, more heartfelt.

Read a review of "Flyboys of WWII" on Navy Reads.