The Best Books I Read This Year: Fiction.

The one thing all these books have in common is they surprised me. They all told me stories I had never encountered before. Also the Fate of The World is (almost) never at stake. FoTW is hack. It is worse than cliché. If your book requires FoTW to make it interesting or gripping then you are doing something wrong.  PS: If you want plot summaries you’ve come to the wrong place.

europe in autumnNot sure how I came across Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson but I am so glad I did. It is a spy/dystopia novel set in a very near future when Europe has dissolved into many city states and even some neighborhood states. This novel has a strangeness akin to the great Slavic and Semitic writers of the fantastic (Kafka, I.B. Singer, Gogol, Bulgakov) combined with Le Carre or Allen Furst and yet it is firmly grounded in a world I understand. This is a book that I have taken to proselytizing for. It is far, far too good to get lost in the tide of speculative fiction books. A sequel, Europe at Midnight, came out earlier in November but only in the UK so far. I ordered a copy from a UK bookseller and gladly paid the shipping charges. It is every bit as good and strange as its predecessor. (Hutchinson is also great fun to follow on Twitter @HutchinsonDave: “The city of Detroit was renamed in his honour, but no one was told about it.”)

city of stairsLike Europe in Autumn, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs has a great unexplained strangeness in it. The book successfully combines noir and fantasy, something which many writers have tried to do but very, very few have succeeded. Stairs is nothing I had read before, original and surprising. Unfortunately the just-published sequel, City of Blades, isn’t nearly as good. Stairs indicates and implies things, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Blades doesn’t. Everything is explained which kills the wonderful strangeness. However, Blades seems to be the exception in Bennett’s writing. This year I also read his horror novel American Elsewhere is every bit as good as Stairs and totally different from it. I don’t read much horror but Bennet has got am looking forward to reading his first novel Mr. Shivers.

tigermanMy friend David Durand tipped me to Nick Harkaway earlier this year and I quickly read all three of his published novels because he is an excellent writer. His first two, The Gone-Away World & Angelmaker, are very good. Angelmaker is a truly funny crime book. However neither prepared me for his latest novel, Tigerman, which is superb. It is set on a fictitious island nation in the Arabian Sea, a former British colony, and the time is roughly now. The setting is so vivid it reminds me of Jan Morris’ great novel, Hav, which also made real a fictitious nation. The story itself is reminiscent of Graham Greene’s novels of life in post-imperial circumstances while still being totally original. I think to say more would spoil it. I urge you to read it.

First 15 livesI never thought I would have any interest in a time travel book again. Then I read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (a pen name of Catherine Webb). This is nothing I have read before. The plot, the ideas and the characters are all smart and unexpected. The only thing that is in any way even slightly similar is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt which is sui generis among his novels. Even there the similarity is more a distant echo than anything else.  I will read anything Ms. North/Webb writes, up to and including a grocery list.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a renowned and well-known fantasy writer. Prior to this year I had tried to read some of his best known books and couldn’t get into them. Fortunately I didn’t remember that when I picked up Under Heaven and then River of Stars. These two books are fantasy retellings of events from Chinese history. They take place in an ancient-China-like land where magic exists. These books have a depth and richness I didn’t find in his other works. It may be because Kay is able to draw on the all the sources and stories about this period or it may be some other reason, I don’t know or care. I do know that these are wonder filled and wonderful books.

Station ElevenLike The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven does something new with a heavily used standard science fiction idea. In this case it is life in the post-apocalyptic world. She removes the exoticism which is usually the basis for these stories. This makes the world and people in it seem very normal which only heightens the impact of what they are going through. This is a book I would give to someone who says they never S****** F******. It is very literary, in the best sense of the word. (A finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fact.) It is literary enough that I expect it will somehow not get trapped by the idiotic genre designation that seems to prevent otherwise sensible people from reading certain books.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl. If you haven’t read it then go right now and do so. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.  <Jeopardy theme song as a week or so passes> See. I told you so. Anyway, this year he published The Water Knife and it, deservedly, got a lot of attention. It’s set in an America that has fractured as the water has dried up. It’s a fine book and manages to make the legal end of a dispute over water rights fascinating.

Greg Bear, War Dogs: A stranger came to visit and brought many wondrous gifts. And then the stranger left – rapidly because the bad guys (maybe?) have shown up and are approaching earth (we think).

Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reaches trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance. These could be classified as horror but really they are novels of weird dread. It’s very hard to overstate how good they are.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, In War Times: I’m just going to steal this: “Goonan weaves experimental jazz, particle physics, and biochemistry into a compelling adventure through alternate universes.” All that and World War II, too.

Jo Walton, Farthing (Small Change, #1) Walton, author of the great Among Others (read it before you read this. They aren’t related to each other, it’s just that Among Others is a masterpiece), takes on the What-If-The-Nazis-Had-Conquered-England story and wins. She does this by doing what great writers do: Focusing on the people, not the plot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword: Begin with Ancillary Justice, the first novel in this series which won a whole bunch of awards, then read Sword (which won a fair number as well) and then do what I’m about to do and read the third volume Ancillary Mercy. Leckie has taken a key idea from the late Iain M. Bank’s Culture series, the existence of giant minds/consciousness which run starships, and made it smaller. She makes them human and subject to the same baffling emotions the rest of us go through.

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman trilogy: The world is about to be destroyed by a comet and everyone already knows it. So why is this cop investigating a murder?

James S.A. Corey: Cibola Burn: This series is the best Space Opera being written today: Big, fun, action, action, action, and with enough emotional depth that you don’t have to think of it as a guilty pleasure.

Charles Stross, Rule 34: There’s something in the air or water or something in Scotland – Great SF writers seem to be everywhere: Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod and Charlie Stross to name just a few. Rule 34 is a police procedural set in a near future. The protagonist is head of the Innovative Crimes Investigation Unit, otherwise known as the Rule 34 Squad, which monitors the internet for potential criminal activity, analyzing trends in the extreme fringes of explicit content. You can also pretty much read anything by Stross and at its worst it will be interesting and smart.

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel: Another near future story, this one is about espionage. It’s filled with all the things you want from a good spy novel: Betrayal, emotional and political confusion and great atmosphere. The Execution Channel – where various groups broadcast the executions of captives – plays a small role in the plot but is a constant darkness throughout the book. This was written in 2007 and nails a significant part of the world in 2015. I also recommend his novel The Sky Road which is a wonderful, over-the-top, trippy, comic railroad story.

Carol Emshwiller, The Secret City: Emshwiller is a far-too-little known writer. I think this is because she mostly writes short stories which don’t get the same attention as novels and because her books have all been published by small companies. She has won about every award that can be won and should have been designated a national treasure long ago. Secret City is one of her novels. It is about “a mysterious enclave protecting a lost culture, a hidden city in the wilderness where stranded aliens struggle to preserve their fragile society. Hoping for a better life, many have fled the Secret City in favor of trying to survive in the harsh human world; others remain concealed, living out a fading memory in hope of deliverance.”

Graphic Novels:

Unbeatable SGFrank M. Young, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song The real lives and times of the people who along with Jimmy Rodgers invented what today we call country music. Top Notch.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: This is the best, smartest, funniest comic book I have read since Cerebus. SG is part of the Marvel universe and makes fun of it and every other comic book trope, idea and stereotype. She is a mutant (as in the X-Men and why is a mixed gender group called the X-Men anyway? One of SG’s great questions) with the powers of yes a squirrel. Her confrontation with Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds, had me laughing out loud even after several re-reads.

A brief introduction to the U.S. military: Its structure, size and cost

armedforces2The military is composed of four[1] different services: Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The Army primarily handles war on the ground, the Navy on the sea, the Marines which are responsible for amphibious warfare, and the Air Force which is self-explanatory. There is a lot of overlap in what each service does. All of them have their own air forces, intelligence services, boats, and ground troops. The bulk of the Air Force’s combat ground troops are responsible for defense of air bases; it also has Special Forces units. The Navy’s ground troops are primarily the Marine Corps, although it too has Special Forces units, most famously the SEAL[2] teams like the one which killed Osama Bin Laden.

The military is subject to civilian control. While the president is the commander-in-chief, the Department of Defense[3] is directly responsible for overseeing the military and is run by the Secretary of Defense. Under him are the secretaries of the Navy, Army and Air Force, which are responsible for oversight of those services.

At the top of the military command structure are the chiefs of staff for the Army and Air Force, the chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of The Marine Corps. They also serve as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the committee gives advice on military matters to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council. They all have the top rank in their respective services: For the Army, Air Force and Marines that is a General and for the Navy it is an admiral.

People in the military serve as either officers or enlisted personnel.[4] In simple terms enlisted personnel have to do things while officers have to make sure things get done. All officers outrank and may give orders to all enlisted men and women. Officers are a little like the executives at a company in that they supervise and come up with plans for what is to be done, if not always how to do it. The chief difference is that officers are regularly required to do the same job as the enlisted. For example a lieutenant (which is the lowest grade of officer in the Army, Air Force or Marines) in command of ground troops in combat is also a fighter[5] and not merely there to supervise. Nearly 84 percent of military personnel are in the enlisted ranks and about 16 percent are officers.[i]

  • Just 16% are female, while 84% are male. In comparison, 53.1 percent of the U.S. civilian work force 16 years old and over was female in 2012. The Air Force has the largest percentage of female Service members (18.9%); the Marine Corps has the smallest (7.0%).
  • Of the 238,861 Active Duty officers, 38,574 (16.1%) are female and 200,287 (83.9%) are male.
  • Of the 1,149,167 Active Duty enlisted personnel, 164,302 (14.3%) are female and 984,865 (85.7%) are male.
  • People who identify themselves as White represent the largest proportion of the total DoD force (71.9%), while Black or African American members represent 16.2 percent. Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander members make up 3.5 percent, 1.3 percent, and 0.9 percent, respectively. Over two percent (2.1%) of members report themselves as Multi-racial.
  • Overall, 52.6 percent people serving in the military are married. In comparison, 53.5 percent of the civilian population was married, according to the United States Census.
  • Approximately 44 percent (43.9%) of Active Duty members have children.
  • Overall, Active Duty officers have a higher level of formal education than the civilian population. As of 2012, the majority of officers (82.4%) have a Bachelor’s or advanced degree, while, ionly 30.9 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and over did. Most Active Duty enlisted members have at least a high school diploma (98.9%), which is higher than the percentage of the U.S. civilian population age 25 and over that had at least a high school diploma (87.6%).
  • In 2012, the Active Duty civilian spouse unemployment rate was 25 percent, compared to 26 percent in 2010.


3rd Infantry Regiment 'The Old Guard'

There are 1,477,000 people on active duty in the U.S. military. That makes it the second largest military in the world. China, whose population is four times larger than ours, has 2,285,000 people in its military.

The Army is the largest part of the U.S. military with 561,437 people on active duty; the Air Force is second with 328,821; then the Navy with 320,141; and finally the Marine Corps with 201,026.[ii]

If all we had was the Army we would still have the ninth largest military in the world. The Marine Corps[6][iii] alone is the 26th largest military force in the world, bigger than Israel’s armed forces and only slightly smaller than those of the U.K.[iv]

That’s only counting the active members: men and women whose full-time job is serving in the military. There are also about 424,000 people in the military reserves and another 461,000 in the National Guard.[7] The increasing number and duration of our wars – the 2nd Iraq War lasted 13 years and the war in Afghanistan will soon enter its 14th year – means the Guard and Reserves are being called upon much more than previous wars[8] with many units deployed multiple times to the war zones. So the total force available within a short period of time is closer to 2,400,000 people. China has about 800,000 people in its military reserves so its total is about 3,000,000 people.[v]


The Pentagon has:

  • 13,600 aircraft. The most of any military in the world and about as many as the next five nations’ militaries combined. The U.S. air fleet includes 2,300 fighters, as many as the next three nations combined; 2,600 bombers, also as many as the next three nations combined; 5,000 transport aircraft, as many as the combined total of the next 10 nations; and 915 attack helicopters, more than the rest of the entire world combined.
  • 8,300 tanks; the third most in the world, about half of what the Russia has and around 1,000 fewer than the Chinese.
  • 26,000 armored fighting vehicles which are used primarily to move infantry into combat. That’s about 1,500 fewer than Russia and 2nd most in the world.
  • 473 ships and boats, making it the third largest navy in the world.[vi]

That last is a deceptive number because there is little if any doubt that the U.S. Navy is the most powerful of any nation. Just consider that the largest navy (1,061 ships and boats) belongs to North Korea and most if not all of those are built to operate in the country’s coastal waters. The 2nd largest navy, 520 ships, belongs to China a nation which some consider a possible military threat to the U.S. It is worth noting China currently has only one aircraft carrier.[9] Also, China’s 30 or so attack submarines are diesel fueled[vii], so they must be refueled regularly either by returning to port or meeting up with a supply ship while at sea. As a consequence they are really only useful in coastal waters. America’s 43 attack subs are nuclear powered providing them with a virtually endless power supply – so they can go anywhere in the world and are much, much faster than any non-nuclear powered submarines.

In order to really understand the power of the Navy consider that it has:

  • 10 aircraft carriers[10]. The rest of the world combined has 12. The nation with the second most is Italy. It has two.
  • 61 destroyers – the primary attack ship for a navy – more than any other nation. In second place, with 45, is our long-time ally Japan.

Then there are nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia are effectively tied for first when it comes to nuclear warheads. Each has around 4,300 total either operational or in reserve.[viii] In second and third place are France (290) and China (250).


US mil spending

For the fiscal year 2015 the official budget for the Department of Defense was $495 billion. That half trillion dollars is the base budget and is what people usually mean when they refer to the military budget. However it doesn’t include all the money spent on the military. In 2015 the U.S. also spent $85.4 billion[ix] for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) [11] to pay for the wind-down of the War in Afghanistan. Another $178.4 billion was allocated under different budget items for defense-related agencies and functions, including

  • $65.3 billion for the Veterans Administration
  • $45.6 billion for intelligence agencies not run by the military (Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial-Intelligence Program)
  • $11.7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy

Added together the total military budget is $693.6 billion. That makes the total military spending the second largest Federal government expenditure, after Social Security ($896 billion). Military spending has been dropping over the past several years thanks to sequestration and the end of the War in Iraq in 2011. Its all-time high was $851.3 billion in FY 2010.[12][x] Military spending is greater than Medicare ($529 billion), Medicaid ($331 billion), or the interest payment on the debt ($251 billion). It’s also more than the three next largest departments combined: Health and Human Services ($73.1 billion), Education ($68.6 billion) and Housing and Urban Development ($32.6 billion).

world mil spending 2012It is also more than any other nation. In fact it is as much as the military budgets of the nations with the 2nd through 13th largest militaries combined.

Some comparisons:

  • US military spending accounts for 39 percent, or almost two-fifths of the world’s total military spending
  • US military spending is almost 4 times more than China, about 8 times more than Russia, and nearly 70 times more than Iran.
  • The United States and its strongest allies (the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia) spend approximately $1.2 trillion on their militaries in total, representing more than 70 percent of the world’s total spending on the military. [xi]
  • In 2011 the Pentagon spent $20.2 billion on much needed air conditioning for service members in Iraq in Afghanistan. That was one-third of the United Kingdom’s entire defense budget for that year[xii] and $1.8 billion more than the entire budget of NASA.[13]

It is quite clear that what the U.S. military needs is not more money but the ability to use the money it has more effectively.

That will be the subject of my next blog post.


[1] Sometimes five – the Coast Guard, which is currently part of the Department of Homeland Security, serves as both a law enforcement agency and a military force. When a war is declared the Coast Guard can become part of the Navy. The Coast Guard has been deployed to war zones during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the first and second Iraq wars.

[2] The name is an acronym for SEa, Air, Land.

[3] It is also referred to as DoD and the Pentagon, which is the name and shape of its headquarters building. Until 1947 DoD was called the Department of War, a more accurate name.

[4] There is a very small third group called warrant officers. These are enlisted personnel who have extensive expertise in a specific area – like piloting or surgery or even being a chaplain – and are in jobs that require the authority of an officer. Warrant officers outrank all enlisted personnel and are outranked by all officers.

[5] The Department of Defense refers to people who serve in front-line, combat jobs as “war fighters.” Was someone concerned the troops would not know what type of fighting they were supposed to be doing?

[6] The Marines are the only part of the military to have a minimum size determined by law. In the Marine Corps bill of 1952 the size was set at three divisions, three air wings and supporting forces. This law protects the Marine Corps, which does many of the same things the Army does, from being eliminated or severely cut in size — something that was regularly proposed by members of Congress seeking to reduce government spending.

[7] Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the difference between the National Guard and Reserves, many people don’t – including people serving in them. The National Guard has a dual state-federal mission. This means it is normally under the command of the state government but the President can activate it and put it under Federal command. The Guard can be called up for domestic purposes: Providing aid in the event of national disasters and supplementing or replacing local law enforcement authorities. Federal troops, like the reserves, are forbidden by law from performing domestic law enforcement. Each state has both an Air and Army National Guard, which go thru the same training and have the same basic equipment as the active (regular) Air Force or Army. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Reserves, in contrast, are solely a federal component of their respective military branches and have no domestic responsibilities. Both the Guard and Reserves can be called up for service in wars – declared or otherwise.

[8] During The Vietnam War, which lasted 19* years, only about 9000 members of the Guard were deployed to Vietnam. This was because of the draft which provided a constant flow of new soldiers to the Army. *Officially the government says the war lasted 14 years, from February 1961 to May 1975. However U.S. personnel had been involved in the war starting in 1955. The first American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. He is listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having a casualty date of June 8, 1956.

[9] They bought it used from Russia. A lot of noise is being made about the fact that China looks to be building an aircraft carrier and that this is a threat to the U.S. Much of that noise is made by groups which will gain from increased military spending – military officers, companies which make weapons systems and the members of Congress which represent the places those companies are based in.

[10] The U.S. Navy is a carrier-focused operation. Whether this is a good idea is very debatable. They are incredibly expensive and are increasingly vulnerable to less costly munitions. See The U.S. Navy’s Big Mistake: Building Tons of Supercarriers.

[11] For OCO spending back to 2001, see War on Terror Facts

[12] Unlike the amount I put forth as the total U.S. spending this does not include spending on the VA, intelligence agencies and nuclear security.

[13] Since the U.S. Civil War the American way of conducting was has been to outspend and out produce whomever it is at war against. This has succeeded in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It has failed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how it will succeed against ISIS or the government of Syria.

[14] On the Democratic side only Sen. Sanders has said anything definite on the topic, calling for “a major reform” on military spending. Gov. O’Malley has pretty much avoided the issue and Sen. Clinton wants to appoint a panel to examine the issue.

[i] Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), 2012 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community

[ii] [ii] Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), 2011 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,

[iii] Shaping U.S. Military Forces: Revolution Or Relevance in a Post-Cold War World, Duane Robert Worley, Greenwood Publishing, 2006, P 19


[v]  Why The Chinese Military Is Only A Paper Dragon, The Week, 9/24/2014


[vii] Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013 Office Of The Secretary Of Defense


[ix] OMB, FY 2015 Budget, Table S-11

[x] Office of Management and Budget, 2015 Budget, Summary Tables, Table S-11,


[xii] U.S. Spends $20 Billion A Year On Air Conditioning In Iraq and Afghanistan,  The Telegraph, 6/28/2011

Origins of an Elvis Costello fanboy

“My rock n roll Yossarian, my Groucho, my Bugs Bunny, my hero”

December 1977, my freshman year of high school, and I’d read a review of this album in Rolling Stone – remember when that mattered? Thanks to the wonders of the internets I see the reviewer was Greil Marcus. The album was My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello and Marcus reviewed it and Randy Newman’s new album Little Criminals together. The fact that he’d put the first album by someone pretty much no one on this side of the Atlantic had heard of with Randy Newman said everything because Marcus was a total Newman fan-boy, like anyone with a lick of sense is.

“One is as established as such a performer can be and, it seems, is settling into an acceptance of the refusal of the great audience to accept him; the other is new on the scene and, just possibly, a star for these times. God knows what other times he might be a star for.”

Maybe it was the review, maybe it was the outrageousness that someone would dare call himself ELVIS! The King wasn’t even four months in his grave then and this was beyond lèse-majesté. Maybe it was the cover which was my first encounter with New Wave: Black and white checkerboard with more than a whiff of the Xerox about it. Raggedly and defiantly different from all that album art that wanted to be considered as capital A art. And in the middle this spindly guy with Buddy Holly glasses, a skinny tie, cuffed jeans (?!), looking like a slightly malevolent praying mantis. Whatever it was I bought the album and hurried back to our apartment on Forest Street and listened. The sound matched the DIY feel of the cover. The first song was a snarl at the working week (All of your family had to kill to survive/and they’re still waitin’/for their big day to arrive/ But if they knew how I felt they’d bury me alive) which was pretty much exactly how I felt about school and I was hooked.

Flip the album over though and side 2 started with the song that really made me understand that Costello knew, even though I was too young to know what knowing was. (Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes opens with a snaky, snarky guitar line and lyrics that told me at last here was my rock n roll Yossarian, my Groucho, my Bugs Bunny, my hero.

Oh I used to be disgusted
And now I try to be amused.
But since their wings have got rusted,
You know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes.
But when they told me ’bout their side of the bargain,
That’s when I knew that I could not refuse.
And I won’t get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

I became an evangelist, carrying the album to school and back to try and get friends to listen to it. For most it was too outré believe it or not. The name, the look. Some wouldn’t listen because of that. Some did and those that did got it. My mom became a fan, she loved the lyrics although got tired of me playing it over and over and went and bought me my first ever pair of headphones.

Yossarian_Lives_LogoOver the next six years he put out four more great albums (This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Imperial Bedroom) and three very good ones (Trust, Almost Blue, Punch the Clock) and since then nothing has lived up to that first mad rush of brilliance. Doesn’t matter. I’ve been a fanboy since 1977 and I’ll be one until both of us have shuffled off this mighty mortal coil.

Reflections on the American & German Military Cemeteries in Normandy

Wars leave behind memories which erode quickly and memorials which do not. Hindsight, age and revisionism can change memories but the memorials are fixed. They are guides to how a nation wished to remember a war. Deeply political testaments to why nations fought and what they think came out of it.

There are 28 military cemeteries in Normandy. Sixteen for British & Commonwealth troops, two American, two Canadian, one Polish, six German and one French. Probably the best known is the American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, featured in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. It is located just yards from Omaha Beach, one of three American landing areas in the D-Day invasion. The battle there particularly fierce and accounted for close to half of the nearly 6,000 Americans killed, wounded, missing or captured that day.

american cemetery normandy

American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach

Today it is difficult to imagine a battle here. The German fortifications have been removed and the craters filled in. It is now home to a tranquil, respectful tribute to the battle and the Americans who died in the war. The 172 acres of the site hold a museum, a large memorial and the graves of 9,387 American men and women, most of who died during D-Day. The museum tells the story of some of the people who died there and why the battle and the war were fought with the expected respectful tone. While some special attention is given to Gen. Eisenhower who commanded the invasion, the troops are the primary focus. The museum provides a database to look up the names of people buried here and where their graves are located.

From the museum you follow a walkway which runs along the top of bluffs and overlooks a wide, beautiful beach. It is a serene view with dense, green shrubbery running down the bluffs and ending at a wide, sandy shore. This is where the bulk of fighting took place. Two paved paths offer an easy way to get quickly from the heights to the beach. Nothing about it suggests men trying to climb those bluffs as other men fired down on them. Continue past this vista and you come to what has been formally designated as the memorial. It consists of a semicircular colonnade with open structures – loggias – at either end. The colonnade is a cenotaph, inscribed with the names of 1,557 Americans military personnel whose remains have never been found. The loggias hold maps and narratives of the military operations. The maps, with their large red arrows showing the movement of troops, seem out of place as does much of the memorial’s other adornment. The narratives are almost boiler plate descriptions of large unit actions. At the center is a bronze statue entitled Spirit of American Youth done in can only be described as the heroic WPA/socialist realist style. All of it is superfluous. Look west from the memorial and you see why.

Across a reflecting pool are row upon row upon row of headstones. The graves, marked by crosses and the occasional Star of David, are perfectly aligned – as if still in military formation. Kneel directly in front of one and the gravestones seem to continue into infinity, like the view when two mirrors are held up to each other. The layout of the cemetery emphasizes number of dead more than the person each marker stands for. The sheer number of people killed in war poses a problem for anyone wanting to design a memorial. “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic,” said Stalin, who used this fact to obscure his own acts. That horrible math holds true here. Among thousands of graves the individual’s death is subsumed into the anonymity of the group. It is easy to be awed by the number of dead without feeling the grief which comes from the loss of one person you actually know. Despite 9,000 headstones, death feels at a remove. Perhaps this is why it is such a popular destination for families.

When I visited, mid-week in August in 2009, hundreds of people were there, many pushing baby carriages, and very few old enough to have been alive during the war. Some of the younger children behaved as children should: running among the headstones or calling out loudly. Their parents tried to quiet the kids and call them back with about as much success as most parents of children presented with a place that is if you are under the age of 8 or so perfect to play in. The parent’s reaction was understandable but the children leavened the atmosphere with a sense of hope that might otherwise have been missing. While many adults in the crowd seemed blasé to what they were seeing (I saw only one person crying) they were fittingly quiet and subdued. During the hour or so I was there I didn’t hear or even see a single cell phone. In addition to holding the remains of these soldiers, the American memorial also holds a message that this sacrifice was worth it. (A judgment that is always easier for the living to make.)

Inscribed on the inner face of the colonnade: “THIS EMBATTLED SHORE, PORTAL OF FREEDOM, IS FOREVER HALLOWED BY THE IDEALS, THE VALOR AND THE SACRIFICES OF OUR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.” This same sentiment is clearly echoed in the buildings, landscaping and layout of memorial. The subtext is clear one: “These people died for a great cause. What happened here mattered. Be aware and grateful.” In other wars the defeated sometimes make the same assertion but not in the losers of World War II.

The German cemetery, a few miles away in the town of La Cambe has, out of necessity, a much different feel. Because of crimes committed by the Nazis it is not even vaguely possible to celebrate either the cause or the sacrifice. As a result the people who built and maintain the privately funded German cemetery had a freedom denied to the victors – questioning the very reason for all these deaths. The victors must please family members and comrades of the dead but, in this case, the defeated had no such obligation. So the two cemeteries follow Voltaire’s dictum: “To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe only the truth.”

German cemetery normandy3It is a muted and hidden place, sitting close to a highway but screened by a high wall. Few signs direct attention to it, unlike the American cemetery which has signs all over Normandy. Near the screening wall is a stone marker erected by the French: “The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France. Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.”

The wall that camouflages the cemetery abuts a small parking lot and has a single door only large enough for one person to walk through. German cemetery normandyThe first thing you notice upon passing through the wall is how few headstones there are. Although La Cambe contains more than twice as many bodies as the cemetery at Omaha Beach, it seems to have far fewer stone markers. This is in part because the tombstones lie flat on the ground and in part because many graves contain the remains of more than one soldier. Of the more than 21,000 bodies buried here some 13,000 are unidentified. At Omaha the number is 307. So the first thing you see when you look out at the burial grounds are groups of five dark crosses placed far from each other around the grounds. This gives the cemetery a solitary, isolated feel. Those crosses bring to mind small groups of people separated from each other by vast distances. It speaks of the loneliness and terror of combat; small numbers of soldiers, clinging to each other with no sense of being part of greater effort. The gravestones themselves fill the areas between the crosses so if you walk off the cemetery’s one path it seems as though you are on an ocean of the dead.

Wreaths from allied nations in the German cemetery.

Wreaths from allied nations in the German cemetery.

At the center of the graveyard a large stone cross sits atop a circular mound. The figures of a man and a woman with their heads bowed stand beneath the arms of the cross. The mound serves as a memorial to some 300 unknown soldiers buried beneath it. A stairway at the back makes it clear people are welcome to go up to the cross and look out. At the foot of the mound are a number of wreaths, many of them donated by former foes.

If our Iraq and Afghanistan wars ever do end and thus are able to have monuments, what will they say?

For Alice P.

In Memory Of George Sykes

So they decided to number the days
God gave you. Lined them up and out
to a finite end, give or take the consequential
few. Days that could have swum by at
close to the speed of terror.

But, gauging the accuracy of science
and capricious life,
you paid no attention.
Death is no failure, no surprise.

Hope is an irritating thing,
doubt and desire gnawing
at the cluttered parts of your mind.
You did not succumb to it.
You just lived.


I originally wrote this for my Uncle George but, in keeping with the times, I am re-purposing it. No, same purpose just another time.

Creative Commons License
In Memory of George Sykes by Constantine von Hoffman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Richard Hofstadter explains the difference between the Tea Party and actual Conservatives

Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for non-conformism, but it based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservatism…because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word.

– Richard Hofstadter, “The Pseudo Conservative Revolt,” 1954

Published in his essay collection:The Paranoid Style in American Politics