Saturday, September 24, 2016

Atlas Obscura Shrugged

Review by Bill Doughty

When it comes to strange and wonderful places or things in our Universe, it's not about the who or what or where or when or even why; according to authors of "Atlas Obscura," it's the "how"––specifically, how we choose to see our world and everything around us.

The opportunities to discover, see and catalogue new wonders are "infinite," according to Dylan Thuras, "if you're willing to sort of slow down, look around, listen and start asking questions."

Thuras, Joshua Foer and Ella Morton bring us this book packed with question-asking strangeness, subtitled a Freakonomics-esque "An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders" (2016, Workman Publishing).

Mary Roach enjoys a different perspective including "Atlas"
It goes on sale today.

Once a person chooses to see the world differently, they can discover places in their own neighborhood––or aboard their ship––or in places admittedly farther afield that are strangely fascinating.

That's the approach the authors take as they journey into the world in what Mary Roach, author of "Gulp" and "Grunt," describes as “a joyful antidote to the creeping suspicion that travel these days is little more than a homogenized corporate shopping opportunity. Here are hundreds of surprising, perplexing, mind-blowing, inspiring reasons to travel a day longer and farther off the path."

Some places and things in this book to see in a new light: "Cargo Cults of Tanna" in Vanuatu archipelago, "Slab City" and the "East Jesus" community on a former U.S. Marine Corps training base near Niland, California, "Yamamoto's Bomber" wreckage still in the jungle north of Buin, Papua New Guinea,  "Ghost Fleet of Truck Lagoon" in Chuuk, and the not-to-be-missed (?) "Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum" in Pyongyang (mural at right).

Website Wonders

The wonders of the "Atlas Obscura" spring from the popular website of the same name.

Foer and Thuras are cofounders of the Atlas Obscura phenomenon, who see there work as "never complete" and who are always ready to credit legions of fans who provide tips, photos and edits as "co-authors."

In the introduction to the new book they proclaim, "Though Atlas Obscura may have the trappings of a travel guide, it is in truth something else. The site, and this book, are a kind of wunderkammer of places, a cabinet of curiosities that is meant to inspire wanderlust as much as wanderlust."

Here are just a few of the wonders to be found on their website, on the internationally themed #navalhistory section:

John Paul Jones tomb: 

"Today, Jones rests in a extravagant sarcophagus below the chapel of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The incredible coffin is covered in sculpted barnacles and is held up by legs in the shape of stylized dolphins. The whole thing is sculpted out of a black and white marble that makes it look as though it has been weathered by untold ages beneath the waves."

NOAA's Discovery of USS Conestoga:

"In September 2014, a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was on an expedition in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, looking for shipwrecks, when they found the wreck ... a seagoing tugboat. It had a metal hull, and though the upper deck had collapsed, the boilers, the anchor and the engine were all still there. They determined that it had been powered by coal, which dated it to the late 19th century or early 20th ... When the Conestoga disappeared, it was the last U.S. Navy ship to be lost, without explanation, during peacetime. Planes and ships were sent out to find it, in the largest air and sea search in Navy history until the hunt for Amelia Earhardt. But for almost 100 years, it remained lost."

USS Constitution

"Commissioned by the first US president, George Washington, the USS Constitution is probably most famous for defeating numerous British warships in the War of 1812. It was during this war, in the battle against the HMS Guerriere, the ship earned the nickname “Old Ironsides,” when her crew noticed shots from the British ship simply bounced off. The USS Constitution is America's Ship of State ... Today the ship is berthed neatly at Pier 1 of the former Charlestown Navy Yard, at the end of the Freedom Trail in Boston, where she stands the oldest commissioned and fully functioning warship in the United States. The wooden-hulled, 3-mast heavy frigate of the US Navy was launched in 1797 ... Today, the ship keeps a crew of 60 officers and sailors to aid in its mission to promote the understanding of the US Navy's role in war and peace, as part of the Naval History & Heritage Command. The crew are all active-duty Navy sailors––an honorable special duty assignment ... Until current restoration work is complete, the ship is in Dry Dock. The USS Constitution is still open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis during their operating hours."

Mare Island Cemetery

"Hidden away on Mare Island in Vallejo is the Bay Area's oldest Naval cemetery, the final resting place of sailors and soldiers and loved ones--and one convicted killer ... Burials began at this hillside cemetery in 1856 and continued until 1921. Although it's not noted for big-name interments, there are some memorable stories among the headstones. Among the approximately 900 buried here are the daughter of Francis Scott Key, murderess Lucy Lawson, and six Russian sailors who were laid to rest near the middle during the Civil War era."

Treasure Island Naval History Mural

"Within the lobby of Treasure Island’s former administration building of the 1939 World’s Fair is a mural that stretches 251 feet long and 26 feet high. Designed by New York artist Lowell Nesbitt and executed by a team of a dozen Bay Area painters, the enormous artwork depicts naval history in the Pacific since 1813, featuring a total of eleven Navy and Marine Corps events. The mural was completed in 1976 to align with the opening of the Navy-Marine Corps Museum, which included artifacts from Treasure Island’s World's Fair, Pan Am Clipper flights and American military operations in the Pacific ... Today, the building is occupied by the Treasure Island Development Authority. The museum artifacts have come and gone, but the impressive mural continues to glow on the lobby’s East wall."

Granted, there is not much from the Navy-Marine Corps team in Atlas Obscura, especially in the new book. But, before you shrug: For anyone interested in "how" to look at world differently, this book––and of course the Atlas Obscura website––is a treasure trove of weirdness and enlightenment.

Mary Roach calls this "...Bestest travel guide ever.”

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Underground Railroad – to DC

Review by Bill Doughty

(Art courtesy National Park Service)
It's on the Commander-in-Chief's summer reading list, was chosen by Oprah for her book club, and gives insights to our nation's original sin in the lead-up to the opening later this week of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

All good reasons to read this fantasy fiction by a gifted writer.

Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" (2016 Doubleday, Penguin Random House) takes liberty in his storytelling of the sacrifices of slaves and abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War. Fantasy comes into play when he envisions an extended, actual, literal underground railroad.

Reading this novel, one can imagine a movie version produced by directors who blend the real with the unreal: Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and, especially because of the graphic violence the jumps out unexpectedly, Quentin Tarantino.

Strong characters include both resilient and resigned slaves, sadistic plantation owners, a patronizing widow, conflicted and committed railroad operators, and weird slave-catchers. Settings involve slave quarters, saloons, various hiding places, an "anatomy house," the Museum of Natural Wonders and a barn filled with shackles.
"She saw the chains first. Thousands of them dangled off the wall on nails in a morbid inventory of manacles and fetters, of shackles for ankles and wrists and necks in all variety and combinations. Shackles to prevent a person from absconding, from moving their hands, or to suspend a body in the air for a beating. One row was devoted to children's chains and the tiny manacles and links connecting them. Another row showcased iron cuffs so thin that only the thought of punishment prevented their wearer from splitting them. A line of ornate muzzles commanded their own section, and there was a pile of ball and chains in the corner. The balls were arranged in a pyramid, the chains trailing off in S-shapes. Some of the shackles were rusted, some were broken, and others seemed as if they had been forged that very morning. Cora moved to one part of the collection and touched a metal loop with spikes radiating toward its center. She decided it was intended for wear around the neck."

A display of slave shackles will be featured in the Smithsonian's new museum. For his part, Whitehead in "Underground" imagines a Museum of Natural Wonders with live-action scenes of American History acted out by people. One scene involves a sanitized look at life on a slave ship:
"The soothing blue walls of Life on the The Slave Ship evoked the Atlantic sky. Here Cora stalked a section of a frigate deck, around the mast, various small barrels, and coils of rope. Her African costume was a colorful wrap; her sailor outfit made her look like a street rascal, with a tunic, trousers, and leather boots. The story of the African boy went that after he came aboard, he helped out on deck with various small tasks, a kind of apprentice. Cora tucked her hair under the red cap. A statue of a sailor leaned against the gunwale, spyglass pointed. The eyes, mouth, and skin color were painted on its wax head in disturbing hues."
Slavery is described by the slave catchers and by the antebellum South, in general, as an "American Imperative," part of the economy, the normal way of life, based on an authoritarian patriarchal attitude where intolerance, hatred and violence were acceptable, especially when directed to "the other." Through the hundreds of years of slavery in North America we can perhaps come to grips with its legacy––segregation, racism, bigotry and Civil Rights––in the decades since it ended.

In the deep South nearly two centuries ago, Cotton is king, and cotton becomes a symbol, both in the first time our hero Cora wears soft cotton clothes and in the pivotal role a cottonmouth snake plays deep in the narrative.

And aboard slave ships, atop auction blocks (such as the one pictured at left above, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)  and on plantations people are "cargo":
"List upon list crowded the ledger of slavery. The names gathered first on the African coast in tens of thousands of manifests. That human cargo. The names of the dead were as important as the names of the living, as every loss from disease and suicide––and the other mishaps labeled as such for accounting purposes––needed to be justified to employers. At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh."
From Frederick Douglass's autobiography.
But freedom is the "ultimate currency" in life. 

This book is both an indictment and an inspiration.

Whitehead gives us a poetically worded insight from a slave's perspective: "Men start off good and the world makes them mean. The world is mean from the start."

As good as this book is, could it have been better story without the fantasy of an actual railroad underground? What is blurred in strong metaphor and mythology? What is considered reality and historical truth?

For strong, passionate and contemporaneous nonfiction on this important topic, I recommend reading the works of Frederick Douglass, whose writing is strong and whose stories are powerful but true.

And, beginning Sept. 24, we can visit the Smithsonian's new wing to see why some of our national polity is still shackled to sins of the past.

World War II Sailors. 
The Second World War began just 76 years after the official end of slavery. And this year marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of WWII in the Pacific. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Words of Inspiration on 9/11 + 15

Review by Bill Doughty

William Safire's compilation of great speeches brings together Western-centric wisdom and inspiration in the 1,157-page tome, "Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History" (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002). Here are just a few excerpts:

Former Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt (prior to becoming President), April 10, 1899:

"The army and the navy are the sword and the shield which this nation must carry if she is to do her duty among the nations of the earth."

President John F. Kennedy at Amherst College, Oct. 27, 1963:

"I look forward to a great future for America––a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose ...  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well."

Gen. MacArthur at West Point, May 12, 1962
Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point, May 12, 1962:

"'Duty,' 'honor,' 'country'––those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you want to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn."

President Franklin D. Rooselvelt at his first inauguration, March 4, 1933:

"This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself––nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968:

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Women's Suffrage Convention of 1868:

"With violence and disturbance in the natural world, we see a constant effort to maintain an equilibrium of forces. Nature, like a loving mother, is ever trying to keep land and sea, mountain and valley, each in its place, to hush the angry winds and waves, balance the extremes of heat and cold, of rain and drought, that peace, harmony, and beauty may reign supreme. There is a striking analogy between matter and mind, and the present disorganization of society warns us that in the dethronement of woman we have let loose the elements of violence and ruin that she only has the power to curb. If the civilization of the age calls for an extension of the suffrage, surely a government of the most virtuous educated men and women would better represent the whole and protect the interests of all than could the representation of either sex alone."

President Thomas Jefferson at his first inauguration, March 4, 1801:

"Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind; let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little, if we countenance a political intolerance, as despotic, as wicked, and as capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions."

President Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration, March 4, 1861:

President Woodrow Wilson
"We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

President Woodrow Wilson addressing Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, June 2, 1916:

"I congratulate you that you are going to live your lives under the most stimulating compulsion that any man can feel, the sense, not of private duty merely, but of public duty also. And then if you perform that duty, there is a reward awaiting you which is superior to any other reward in the world. That is the affectionate remembrance of your fellow men––their honor, their affection. No man could wish for more than that or find anything higher than that to strive for."

Gen. Colin Powell
Gen. Colin Powell presenting the commencement address at Howard University, May 14, 1994:

"Racism is a disease you can help cure by standing up for your rights and by your commitment to excellence and to performance. By being ready to take advantage of your rights and opportunities that will come from those rights. Never let the dying hand of racism rest on your shoulder, weighing you down. Let racism always be someone else's burden to carry. As you seek your way in the world, never fail to find a way to serve your community. Use your education and your success in life to help those still trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. Above all, never lose faith in America. Its faults are yours to fix, not to curse. America is a family. There may be differences and disputes in the family, but we must not allow the family to be broken into warring factions."

Daniel Webster
U.S. Representative Daniel Webster at the Bunker Hill Monument, June 17, 1825:

"We may hope that the growing influence of enlightened sentiments will promote the permanent peace of the world ... Our proper business is improvement. Let our age be the age of improvement. In a day of peace let us advance the arts of peace and works of peace ... Let us cultivate a true spirit of union and harmony."

The themes here are courage over fear, unity over disharmony, human rights as universal ideal, service as sacred duty, and permanent peace as our collective ultimate goal.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Tensions Rising, Lessons from 75 Years Ago

Review by Bill Doughty
Pearl Harbor in October 1941.

How did the attack on Pearl Harbor happen? What was the Imperial Japanese Navy's role under a totalitarian xenophobic government? What were Hitler's intentions with Japan? When did Japan align itself with Germany and Italy and coordinate with France to take over parts of Indochina, and how did the U.S. Navy respond?

One of America's greatest military historians, the late Samuel Eliot Morison, answers these big global questions in "The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931-April 1942" (1948, Naval Institute Press), volume 3 in 9-volume series, "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II."

In the 1930s, under a military-controlled government supported by state-sponsored nationalist propaganda, Imperial Japan rejected international laws and treaties, annexed parts of China and invaded countries and territories in Southeast Asia. The invasion in Indochina––with heavy numbers of troops and aircraft––occurred 75 years ago in September 1941.

Japan, dependent on oil and iron ore imports, put the United States in a conundrum: (1) take the moral high ground, refuse to condone aggression/annexation and impose an embargo, or (2)  continue to honor commerce treaties and continue exports, which might could prevent Japanese citizens from fully supporting the militarists.

"The United States government was faced with the dilemma of conniving at Japanese aggression by allowing oil exports to continue, or risking war if it cut them off. The Japanese government was faced with a similar dilemma: it must have oil for conquest, or conquer more territory to obtain oil," Morison notes.

Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison
H.P. Willmott pens the introduction in this version of Morison's contemporaneous history, putting the recounting itself in context. Willmott notes that this volume "concerns itself with the first phase of this war and the nineteen weeks between the Japanese attack and the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942." The following volume describes battles including Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions in the summer of 1942 as the United States military turned the tide including in Guadalcanal and the Solomons.
"This third volume, thus, is concerned primarily with something that is unusual in American history: defeats. The book is notable for another important reason: it is written by December 1947, published in September 1948, and reprinted no fewer than eleven times before December 1959. Therefore, it is one of the earliest accounts of these proceedings, one that by definition commanded widespread attention with a book-reading public. As such, 'The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-April 1942,' has clearly shaped perspectives, and thoughtful readers should consider properly the strengths and weaknesses of its well-written, eminently readable, account of events."
Acknowledging that the initial months of the war did not go well for the Navy (until the Battle of Midway), Morison reports on the biggest black mark: the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nimitz himself was against commemorating "Pearl Harbor Day," because of the day of infamy was felt to be a day of failure and defeat at the time.

But, Willmott writes in the introduction: "The strength of Morison's account lies in its underlying capture of (the) ethic and spirit of the times, the assurance of America's righteousness, the confidence and the certainty born of victory. No less important, one of the book's strengths is its studious avoidance of involvement in the Pearl Harbor controversy over responsibilities and blame."

Hitler arranged a pact between Axis powers Japan, Germany and Italy.
According to Morison, "strong forces pulled Japan into Hitler's orbit. There was an ideological affinity between Nazi doctrine and Japanese polity." Militarists in Japan thought a strong law-and-order profile and authoritarian alliance with Germany and Italy would "frighten America and Britain into keeping hands off East Asia," leaving "rich pickings for Japan."

Hitler saw an alliance with war-hungry Imperial Japan as good for Germany, too.
"In April 1939, six months before war broke out, Hitler went fishing for an unconditional military pact between Germany, Italy and Japan, which would bring all three into any war that one of them started. General Itagaki, War Minister in the Hiranuma cabinet, and the Kodo men in general were all for it; but the Imperial court, Big Business, Navy Minister Yonai and Admiral Yamamoto, were against it. They foresaw that any such pact might involve Japan in war with Great Britain and the United States, and they succeeded in stalling the negotiations. Hitler and Ribbentrop, exceedingly annoyed at this outcome, threatened to find another ally; and Hitler's nonaggression pact of August 1939 with Stalin was, in part, his 'answer' to Japan."
America's response was girded in International norms, laws, treaties and ethos.

Hitler declares war on the United States, Dec. 11, 1941.
Within four days after Imperial Japan's sneak attack on Oahu, Hitler declared war on the United States. The U.S. Navy led the response in the Pacific as the U.S. military joined Allies in Europe to confront and defeat Hitler, who double-crossed the Soviet Union and ultimately had a falling out with Japan after the Japanese were unable to support Germany against the Soviets.

Failure to predict the intentions of the enemy (and allied militaries), misplaced assumptions and apparent strategic oversight of a totalitarian government––these Morison leaves to other historians to debate. But the book opens with this thought-provoking epigram, a quote from Sophocles:

All hidden things the endless flowing years
Bring forth, and bury that which all men knew.
Falters the firm resolve and plighted word;
And none may say "It cannot happen here."

As for other lessons, Morison shares a CNO perspective:
"In August 1939, when Admiral Leahy was relieved as Chief of Naval Operations by Admiral Stark, he could look back with some satisfaction at the increase of naval strength during the two and a half years of his incumbency. But, as he wrote in his last report, 'the Navy must be sufficiently strong in every essential element, and it must be adequately trained,' in order to take the offensive in the event of war and 'defeat the enemy Fleet wherever it can be brought to action.'"
Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR (1887-1976), is the author of "The Two Ocean War" and many other books on maritime history and the U.S. Navy. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards and honors.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson, a former WWII naval officer, presented Morison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom––along with a group of other "humanists" that included John Steinbeck, Walt Disney, T.S. Eliot, Helen Keller and Carl Sandburg, among others.