Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Rite to Bare Arms

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The National Rifle Association has a museum in the bottom floor of their suburban-D.C. office building, a half-hour from my house. I took my dad there a few months ago. He shot competitively in college and I’m a history nut, but neither of us agree with the NRA’s politics of unfettered access to all types of guns including on public property like colleges and airports.

The museum was fascinating. Tons of guns in a small series of rooms, but only loosely organized chronologically, by war and by gun-important periods of U.S. history like the early frontier and the Old West. There were lots of simplified or erroneous conclusions in the caption paragraphs–the discovery of gunpowder was not the key reason for the decline of feudalism in Europe (the rise of the middle class was), and any mention of said discovery should not omit medieval China as its original inventors.

Only about a quarter of the guns in the cases were labeled. The rest were numbered, and there were computer stations to view the full list of labels, but half of those computers were down (thanks Win98). Even still, the captions were threadbare–there were twenty Winchester Model 1873 rifles but nothing telling how they were different.

But they had a lot of gorgeous stuff. Dozens of maple-stocked flintlocks in a display on frontier-era gunsmithing. Stacks of Civil War carbines; the backdrop to the Yankee display case was a factory and to the Confederate one was a sitting room! Over fifty Winchesters and over fifty Colt revolvers. A whole case of Krag rifles like Teddy Rosevelt had in the army for the Spanish-American war. A case each on WWI and WWII and modern weapons, but only a few models of anything deeper than the standard highlights.

They glossed over some of the more subtle historical points. Only a half-case combined on Browning and Thompson and Garand, three great American inventors, and nothing on how the slaughter of WWI made designers of the between-wars era seek increased firepower in shoulder arms to try to break the horrible deadlock of trench warfare. Nothing on how the German mid-cartridge selective fire rifles from the end of WWII were the genesis for modern assault rifles. Nothing on the ’60s move to smaller calibers and cartridges, and nothing on the recent move by many soldiers back to the heavier rounds and cartridges of the 1960s.

So as a museum, it felt a bit amateur. No surprise, given that it’s run by a political organization, not by historians. As a room full of neat guns, it was a fun couple hours if you already knew what you were looking at.

And all through the written bits, there was the standard NRA vitriol equating guns with freedom, as though access to guns guarantees freedom (and restriction of said access guarantees the lack of it). Uh, no–it’s the democratic process that guarantees freedom. For casual shooters like my father used to be or history nuts like me, it’s too bad the NRA has taken their gun-rights crusade to such extremes that there’s no middle ground.

What is it Good For? (Part II)

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

My colleague Jay Ridler has the second installment of his blog at Fearzone about the influence of war on horror fiction.  This segment focuses on WWII. Jay has a thorough knowledge of both horror and war, so it’s definitely worth a read.

What Is It Good For? Horror.

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

My colleague Jay Ridler, with the ink drying on his PhD in War Studies, has started writing a non-fiction column at about horror outside the traditional definitions of that subgenre.  Jay knows a ton about horror, both in the genre and out, so this column should be great.

He also knows a ton about war. His innaugural column, the first of a two-parter, is about the influence that the horrors of 20th-century warfare in the two World Wars had on fiction. If you’re an armchair military historian like me, and you love gritty fiction about characters in horrible circumstances, definitely check it out.

One-Eyed Valkyrie

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

I saw a History Channel documentary a few weeks ago on the July 20th 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler. I knew the basic story as a kid–Claus von Stauffenberg was an aristocratic, combat-wounded army officer who led the plot and was executed when it failed. This program had general documentary and interviews with a few original plotters and a few wives, and lots of plotters’ daughters, sons, and grandsons.

It started with a summary of the Nazis taking over in the depression after WWI, then turning Germany into a police state, including the anti-Jew policies. They showed some excerpts from propaganda films that were freakin’ scary. There were a handful of resistance groups even in that era–politicians, leftist students, elitist aristocrats, army officers–but none ever amounted to much.

Resistance efforts picked up as the war did. One July 20th plotter said his captain overheard two drunk SS men on a train bragging that they’d killed 250,000 Jews in their sector and were coming to cleanse his. I knew the Final Solution was not made public at the time, but I’d always suspected some word had to have gotten out.

The plotters cited that as a secondary motivation, but mostly said they mostly driven by the strain of the war on the country and the general murderousness of the police state. By1943 the different resistance groups started meeting together and agreed that Hitler couldn’t just be arrested; he had to be assassinated. Several attempts by army officers failed because of bad luck with logistics or fuses.

Stauffenberg was an aristocrat, a devout Catholic who’d served on Rommel’s staff in Africa. Motivated by love for his concept of an honorable Germany, he was dead set that Hitler must die but annoyed that the plotting generals hadn’t gotten it done. So he took over as a main instigator. A major part of the plot was using the army reserves to take over after Hitler was dead, code-named Valkyrie, so they could seize other Nazi leaders and overthrow the regime.

Then the program described the failed plot. The army reserve commander had been a lukewarm plotter; after the bomb failed, he arrested Stauffenberg and four others and had them executed immediately. Others were arrested at their estates; many killed themselves. The surviving plotters were tried in a sham trial and hung.

They did not mention Rommel at all. I read as a kid that Rommel was told of the plot but was not involved, and that Hitler forced him to kill himself afterwards. Knowing that Stauffenberg was on Rommel’s staff in Africa would make sense if I have that right.

The program also talked about the descendants of the plotters and reaction in postwar Germany, which still considered the plotters traitors even then. A monument was erected in Berlin in 1952 on the spot where Stauffenberg and the four others were shot, and the attitude toward the plotters warmed in modern times toward regarding them as heroes.

I find the sociology behind the whole thing fascinating–the motivations behind racism, noblesse oblige, duty, betrayal, execution, and the social reaction to all of it. As a writer, I think those kinds of complex motivations are what make great characters.

And of course this documentary had director Bryan Singer pimping the new movie about Stauffenberg, with clips of Tom Cruise in the lead role. He looks to me to have about 1% of the kwan necessary to play a man like that. I’ll stick with the documentary, thanks.