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.