Tuesday, 28 February 2012

BEHIND FOOTBALL'S Xs AND Os: The Games That Changed The Game and War Room

It may seem odd that I waited until after football season to tackle two books about the sport, but that may have something to do with my desire to find some uses for my Christmas Kindle besides downloading 19th century books I ought to have read but never did and probably won't in the near future but can feel virtuous about because I carry them around with me while I travel.

It may also seem like I jinked Ron Jaworski, who, just after I finished his book (but before I reviewed it) was dumped as the analyst on ESPN's Monday Night Football, in favour of leaving a two-man booth with Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden. While Jaws and Chucky were never really a comfortable match, clearly the latter's youth and edginess appealed more to ESPN's execs than Jaws' more analytic film study and rust-belt survivor image. I'd put Jaws up near the top of colour men, and in truth he's probably better suited to the breakdown shows, where he has time to study, than to the immediacy of the MNF broadcast (not to mention the relentless youth-oriented-attention-span-of-a-fruit-fly-on-speed approach of ESPN). He runs rings around Gruden in terms of analysing what is going on during a game, but Gruden's got the buzz of the fruit fly down pat.

Having said that, I was a little disappointed in this book, mostly because the title is somewhat misleading. The games he chooses are not necessarily those that triggered various steps of gridiron evolution, but in most cases simply those that provide good illustrations of the strategies he wants to highlight. And I wonder too whether in most cases these are actual catalysts for evolution, or might be better described as stages of that evolution. For example, the third stage is Don Coryell's 'roving Y', a tactic which itself evolved from the remarkable versatility of tight end Kellen Winslow. But the overall picture of Air Coryell itself evolved from Sid Gillman's Vertical Stretch (Jaws' first Sunday) and so did Bill Walsh's West Coast offense (Walsh in effect turned Gillman's vertical concepts horizontal—where Al Davis, for example, preferred to stick with the vertical). My point is simply that you shouldn't expect a moment that 'changed' the NFL, such changes are gradual, and not every team or every coach buys into them. He's very good on Gillman and Coryell, as you'd expect, but just as good on Buddy Ryan's and Dick LeBeau's defenses. I might have liked to see him going back a bit further--Gillman for example, was influenced heavily by Clark Shaugnessy's early-50s Rams, while the 3-4 defense had some of its origins in Gillman's defensive coordinator, one Chuck Noll, using a 4-3 tackle (Ernie Ladd) over the center, which was followed by Hank Stram's Chiefs, and then Joe Collier's defenses in Denver. The innovations in the AFL weren't all offensive.

Trying to mix history and tactics makes a tough dilemma for Jaws, because publishers need more of a hook to sell the book than simply the history he provides, or the analysis of systems and what makes them work which is fascinating. What is obvious, too, is the way personnel influences planning (it's no coincidence that Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, which is included here, like Bill Arnsbarger's 53, drew their names from the jersey number of a player key to their construction). But even beyond that, think of the ways Ryan used the exceptional personnel he had—good man cover corners, hard hitting safeties, a flexible D lineman and a top-flight pass rusher, a brilliant MLB etc—to make his defense better. There's an interesting essay to be written there about the way personnel can influence a system, and then the way the system influences the personnel. Success lies in the median between those ideas, which boil down to putting players in a position to make plays; not asking them to do what they can't do, and then getting players who can do what the system wants them to do.

Even Jaws' most obvious single-game (as opposed to a game illustrating an ongoing system) example, Bill Belichick's 'Bulls-Eye' (Jaws' term) game plan, designed to stop the Rams' Marshall Faulk in the Super Bowl, is not something every coach will try. Belichick (absent a game-changer like Lawrence Taylor, and even with him) seems to believe in taking away the opponent's most dangerous weapon (see the last Super Bowl against the Giants, where the Pats neutralised Victor Cruz) and force teams to beat you with their own Plan B. So it's hard to say that this game changed the NFL, not nearly as much as shocked it. It certainly didn't seem to change the way the NFL does business and, as we have seen, although it prompted a run on Belichick coaches, execs, and to a lesser degree players, few of them have achieved enough success to have any effect on the way the league operates.

In fact, you can see a lot of that in Michael Holley's War Room, the title of which is also somewhat misleading, though its subtitle states exactly what the book is really about. It's not about a 'war room', which we think of as being where NFL drafts are engineered, as about the way Belichick built his Patriots' front office staff, and the way those people eventually moved on. I was already aware of how many of the people in the Pats' coaching tree were, like Belichick, at least second-generation football men, sons of coaches, who grew with the game in their vocabulary and their blood. But as Holley portrays various Pats and ex-Pats, in particular Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff from Belichick's front-office, the more you see the sort of dedication and obsession that is needed to succeed--something which growing up in the game, as opposed to playing it, might help, but something which isn't confined to . It's somewhere between a corporation and the military, and it's also no coincidence that, like the NFL itself, military analogies are used constantly, military examples are held up as goals, and the military life is celebrated. You need a similar sort of hierarchical control, a pecking order, a firm leader to run an NFL team, as much as you need the sort of unthinking, reflex obedience to a plan and to orders to succeed on the field. Questioning authority becomes a difficult task, and no one ever stops to examine the military's inbuilt conservatism, its tendancy toward self-perpetuating bloat and congratulation.

I am extending the metaphor here, because Holley never suggests that that is the way the Patriots functioned, and I would never suggest that Belichick actually operates in such an exaggerated way—there's no one in football more open to new ideas, and Holley also makes it clear that he's easier to question, within certain limits, than, say, his mentor Bill Parcells.

But those coming to this book to try to find out why Belichick chose Lawrence Maroney and Chad Jackson in the draft will be interested to learn that he basically overruled the opinions of most, if not all, of his personnel staff, but will never find out why. And those wondering why the Pats passed on Clay Matthews will hear nary a word.

What you will get is a look into the Scott Pioli now accused of micro-managing the Chiefs front-office and indulging paranoia to the the extent employees are not allowed to watch team practices through their office windows. And into the Tom Dimitroff who rides a bicycle and eats tofu while following in his father's more traditional football footsteps. The why of this is something Holley leaves alone, but the portrait is fascinating. Along the way, looks at Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll, even Romeo Crennell and Charlie Weis, are interesting but never really revealing.

But of course, in the end, the Patriots' war room boils down to the mind of Bill Belichick, and our curiosity about the real Belichick remains unsatisfied. Holley goes a long way into showing us the kind of systems Belichick has constructed, the way he has groomed his support and their successors. It reminds me more of Paul Brown than many of the great coaches of the modern era, and as with Paul Brown, the system is successful to an extent. The challenge is moving forward and passing that extent, creating a new one. Whether Belichick has already done that, or whether, like Brown, he is facing that challenge after a great ten-year run. Holley's book doesn't really suggest what the answer might be. It is interesting, but in the end might tell you more about Dimitroff's Falcons or Pioli's Chiefs than the Pats.

The Games That Changed The Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski, David Plaut, and Greg Cosell (ESPN Books, $26.00, ISBN 9780345517951)

The War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick & the Art of Making the Perfect Team by Michael Holley (Harper, $25.99, ISBN 9780063088871)

Friday, 24 February 2012

LEIF G.W. PERSSON'S SWEDISH WINTER'S END

(warning: this review contains some spoilers)

Lars Martin Johansson differs in some ways from the type of detective we've come to expect in Swedish police procedurals, from Beck to Wallander. But although he is charming, adept in some ways at negotiating the police bureaucracy, Johansson is a dedicated, honest cop, and he is also alone. That last characteristic is one that we see throughout the novel, but one whose importance doesn't become important until the story is resolved, and we learn that many of his assumptions, and ours, have not been false as much as incomplete. And this, I think, is Leif G.W. Persson's crucial point.

Between Summer's Longing And Winter's End reads like a cross between Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck books and the third volume of Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. It has the humour implicit in the Beck books, the almost sheer comic delight in the innate blundering mixed with intricate politicking, and the deeper concern with Swedish society, at least as reflected in a right-wing establishment and deeply conservative police force. This history of Cold War Sweden, and the positions taken by its intelligence agencies, is at the heart of Larsson's trilogy—and in the third volume it takes over the narrative. By melding these two strands, Persson moves from the evident suicide of a young American journalist to the central event of post-war Swedish politics, indeed life, the murder of Prime Minister Olaf Palme. It is to Swedish society what JFK's assassination was to America, only moreso. And Persson's tale in Summer's Longing, that Palme was killed by elements of the Swedish intelligence establishment, and the investigation was bungled simply through police incompetence, seems to be one that many Swedes, and probably most Swedish crime writers, would find unsurprising.

The strength of Persson's novel lies in the gap between Johansson's honesty and efficiency as a cop, and the realities of life, personal, political, and police. That Johansson winds up alone, while the secret police man, Claes Waltin, behind the killings in effect gets the girls, is an irony that echoes the fact that Johansson's findings about Palme's past will never be made known, the fact that the American was murdered will never be known, and the killer of both will go free. Johansson remains blissfully unaware that one woman he approaches is a cop, another he feels attracted to is an NSA agent. He is clever in the way he puts on his country Norrland accent when he needs to, but in the end he is just a cop—and Persson's point is that good honest cops have very little effect on what happens in the world. That Waltin is also, beneath his suave exterior, a rather disturbed sexual fetishist, is just a further irony. And that the Swedes have layer upon layer of secret police, to keep some secret from the ones that become known, mixes the irony with humour brilliantly. Not least in its references to Jan Guillou, the left-wing journalist despised by Sweden's secret establishment; his crime novels were best-sellers in Sweden but sadly made little impact outside the country.

Persson, like Sjowall and Wahloo, likes to tell the reader what the characters are really thinking while they say and do what they do. This makes for some very dry humour, and reinforces the sense of bureaucratic infighting, and self-protection, within the police establishment. His cops are not as one-dimensional as Beck or Wallander, but one wonders what Beck might have seemed like were Sjowall and Wahloo to delve that much deeper—or whether the point was there was no deeper to delve! But at times, Persson over-eggs his mixture; this is a 600 page novel that contains too much repetition, too many asides, and too many scenes that in the end merely repeat information we've had before. I enjoyed it, but when you're going to have to spend a long time explaining both the assassination in the book's present and the deep background in its past, it's probably too much. But I found Summer's Longing both compelling and entertaining, and its explanation of Palme's killing makes as much sense as any I've read. Or maybe I, like so many Swedes, am being overly Manichean.

Between Summer's Longing And Winter's End by Leif GW Persson
Black Swan, £7.99, ISBN 9780552774680

Friday, 17 February 2012

GEORGE PELECANOS TELLS WHAT IT WAS

I suggested in my review a few months ago of George Pelecanos' last novel, The Cut (you can link to it here), that it marked a departure of sorts—it appeared to be both the last in a quartet I called 'Fathers & Sons' but also perhaps the first of a new series, and also a book written in a more straight-forward style that perhaps reflects his television writing but also recalls some of his earlier books with echoes of hard-boiled pulp and westerns.

What It Was is, on the surface, another remarkably straight-forward crime story, and not the first book featuring Derek Strange to follow a western motif: a driving narrative that ends in a shootout. But What It Was is also a meditation, one made all the more effective for the seemingly simple action that drives it.

The story is set in 1972, around the time of the Watergate breakins (and yes, the security guard named Frank who's pointed out in one of the bar scenes is indeed Frank Willis—there is an element of recognition in this novel I found very satisfying, but that many younger –or British--readers will miss) and Derek Strange has left the police and set-up as a private eye. He's hired by Maybelline Walker to retrieve a piece of costume jewellrey with sentimental value, that she'd given to a friend to appraise; said friend has been murdered and the ring has disappeared.

As it happens, the murder is being investigated by Strange's old police partner, Frank 'Hound Dog' Vaughn, and the killer is Robert Lee Jones, known as 'Red Fury', who has embarked on a spree of killing for hire and robbery. But he's ripped off some of the wrong people; mafia killers from up north descend on DC to track down and deal with Fury, even as Strange finds himself caught up in Vaughn's investigation. It's a great story, told with tremendous drive. Red and his girlfriend Coco, driving his muscle-bound Plymouth Fury (part of the derivation of his street name) are outlaws, characters born half from westerns and half from the love of the images of the new black heroes on the screen: this is Shaft chasing Superfly in an urban spaghetti western. The supporting cast is well drawn: the numbers kingpin who gets ripped off, the young hookers the mafia killers party with, the transvestite Martina who is Vaughn's best informant, the Vietnam vet witness Strange tracks down, dismissed by the police as a wino, who maintains a precious sort of dignity; it makes for a rich setting. And, as I said, there are references: to the massive Afros of basketball stars Darnell Hillman and Artis 'Rigor Artis' Gilmore, to Stymie of the Little Rascals, even to a young Nick Stefanos, whom readers of Pelecanos' earlier novels will recognise.

And that all fits perfectly, because this is a meditation—on what it was. The story is being told by Strange to Stefanos, because they are now detective partners, in an afternoon session in a bar, doing what men used to do. What you do, and more importantly, how you do it, defines what you are, and influences everything else. Vaughn, whose views on race are shall we say old-fashioned, still takes people as they come to him, particularly Strange. But as attitudes in society change, that approach becomes more difficult, because the assumptions that lie beneath it are being turned over.

It is a meditation on a different time, with different values, and on change. We all looked different in 1972, not least Pelecanos (see right) and the world seemed more chaotic, and positive, than it did, or does now. Take a look at the cover of the UK edition, which is perfect: hidden inside the natural Afro are all the things which used to define us in the world of adults. Maybe the difference is that now we've managed to transform the world so most people live as if it were a children's world. But of course it isn't.

We see the increase of violence, for its own sake, outside the tight confines even of the business of crime. We see one of the key moments that drove such change – to me the scene with the young hookers using cocaine, the new drug which soon will take over, is indicative of a complete transformation of the value systems of a generation—even one that's already become accustomed to drugs.

This may seem a lot with which to lumber a small taut novel like this, but that's the beauty of Pelecanos' writing; he makes the attitudes shine through. He also returns to his old technique of using music to set scenes and define characters: it's not a coincidence that Strange begins telling his story in reverie inspired by The Dramatics singing 'In The Rain'.

'He's living for this summer,' is one description of Red Fury's disregard for consequences.This is a summer of change—Watergate reminds us of that, perhaps that was the moment when faith in institutional change finally went down the drain. Or up the straw. As the story ends, with reference to 'print the legend' from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence', Strange and Stefanos leave a big tip and go back to work. That's what men do. 'I'll see you when I do,' says Red Fury. Tru dat. What it was indeed.

What It Was by George Pelecanos Orion Books, £9.99 ISBN 9781409143675 NOTE: Orion are offering this book as a 99p ebook and also in a £25 signed & numbered hardback

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

GRAHAM HURLEY'S HAPPY DAYS

Joe Faraday is dead, having killed himself at the end of Graham Hurley's previous novel, Borrowed Light, but his presence hovers over Happy Days, the twelfth and final Faraday and Winter book. Paul Winter needs to sort his life out—working for Bazza MacKenzie has become hazardous: he's decided to stand for Parliament in Portsmouth North, and he's running out of money since all his legitimate investments are tanking. And Winter worries increasingly about the murder that he witnessed in Spain coming back to haunt him. The death of Faraday, whose relationship with Winter was problematical, especially after Winter's turn to the dark side, but remained friendly in a quiet kind of way, has helped spur these re-evaluations.

In a way, the key scene of the book is Faraday's funeral, at the Portchester Crematorium, where the officious boss Willard makes a touching speech, and where Hurley's writing is precise and moving, understanding Faraday and letting him go, just as those at the funeral would have to do, but also showing how he still touches the lives of those left behind. The first section of this book may be the best writing in the series; the grief of Faraday's son JJ, mixed with his understanding of his father, and the way that, at the reception, the wheels of the plot go into motion; cops being cops, and Paul Winter being Paul Winter.

That's where Hurley moves into a different gear. One of the series' great strengths has been its willingness to engage directly with the urban problems of Portsnmouth—often from the point of view of those outside the police—social workers, youth workers, ordinary folk. Bazza's Pompey First party and political campaign give him plenty of scope for one last scan of the harbor, and a cutting take on the realities of local politics. If there's an influence here, it's The Long Good Friday, the efforts of a villain to go respectable, the ego behind such moves, and the blind spot he develops as his original empire begins to crumble. Hurley is very funny with the campaign stunts cooked up by his advisers, a kind of south coast West Wing operation – and it's really the overwhelming swagger that he's built for MacKenzie over the years that makes this work.

Bazza's need for cash could open him up, once and for all, to the police. His plan to salvage a million quid from a northern drug baron, Skelley, who in an earlier book wound up with Bazza's emergency store of cocaine. Winter is the middleman, but Winter also wants to get out, and Jimmy Suttle, protege of both him and Faraday, is the link to yet another undercover operation again MacKenzie. Suttle and his journalist wife Lizzie have a new baby, Winter is the godfather, and Suttle wants to get away from Pompey altogether and out to the country.

Complicating matters is Winter's ongoing relationship with Bazza's former mistress Misty, and Lizzie's journo friend Gillian, who's hanging around Bazza's campaign and getting more involved than she should. When the campaign starts to go tits-up, as Bazza would say, it's because Bazza has offended some of the young Pompey scrotes—the young Bazzas whom he think's he's left behind. And as the cash-flow crisis gets work, Bazza goes into debt to Cesar Dobroslaw, his equivalent in Southampton. When Pompey's top villain has to ask a scummer for help, you know he's in big trouble.

In the end, however, Hurley's books are about the people, and Winter brings events to a head by making things personal. The story finishes with another death, and Jimmy Suttle moves off to the Devon & Cornwall constabulary, and a new series. Over the past 12 years, Graham Hurley's Portsmouth novels have been among the very best British crime fiction, and as I've written many times before, deserve to be better-known and more appreciated. Seen as a self-contained story, with Pompey at the centre, I can't think of anything that matches it.

Happy Days by Graham Hurley
Orion £12.99
ISBN 9781409101253

Saturday, 11 February 2012

THE BIG SLEEP: TWO NOTES

I've written about this before, but each time I watch The Big Sleep, I'm surprised people affect finding the plot so hard to follow. I was reminded of this as I watched it yet again on Air NZ to LA yesterday. The famous story about the screenwriters being unable to figure out one murder in Raymond Chandler's novel may have prompted this response, but, just for the record, here's the scorecard of the seven killings:

1. Geiger (blackmailer, pornographer) killed by chauffeur Owen Taylor to protect Carmen Sternwood
2. Taylor killed by Joe Brody (played by Louis Jean Heydt, pictured left, with the impressive Sonia Darrin as Agnes Lowzier, an appropriate surname) to get blackmail film he took from Geiger
3. Brody killed by Carol Lundgren (Geiger's chaffeur & lover, note the ambiguous name) in mistaken revenge
4. Harry Jones (replacing Brody as Agnes' dogsbody) killed by Canino to shut him up about Eddie Mars' wife
5. Canino, gunned down by Marlowe in self-defense, but also for Jonesy
6. Eddie Mars, shot by Marlowe but killed by his own men, set to trap and kill Marlowe
7. Sean Regan (already dead when story starts) killed by Carmen

Bogart's Marlowe also seems to have sex-appeal like Stacy Keach's Mike Hammer. Women keep giving him the eye, and, because this is a Howard Hawks film (and taking place during World War II) they are often eyeing him more or less as equals. Which makes a great contrast to the way Martha Vickers' Carmen is presented--and an even bigger contrast to the way Chandler draws her, where she disgusts Marlowe. These Hawks-type babes, of whom Lauren Bacall, is an archetype, include:

1. Librarian (Carole Douglas) 'you're not the antiquarian book type'
2. Dorothy Malone's Acme Bookshop owner, who literally lets her hair down (after taking off her glasses) and whom, after their interlude, Marlowe calls 'pal', a very Hawksian touch
3. Countergirl (Deannie Best) who lights Marlowe's cigarette; the kind of male perogative women often exercise in Hawks' films
4. Taxi Driver (Joy Barlow) 'nights are better, I work days'
5. Hat check (Lorraine Miller) and Cigarette girl (Shelby Payne) at Eddie Mars' club and
6 Marlowe calls Mona Mars (Peggy Knudsen) 'my kind of gal', for the way she stands by Eddie Mars.

It might be interesting also to consider the over/under on how many of these women spent time on the Hawks casting couch. And on just how important Jules Furthman's one-liners are to the excellent script, written with Leigh Brackett, who probably provided a fair few herself, and William Faulkner.

Friday, 3 February 2012

DAVID BENNETT'S MAGNIFICENT DISASTER

It seems to be military history week at Irresistible Targets! Operation Market Garden is another of those battles that seems to prompt endless discussion, and though my awareness of it began only with the film A Bridge Too Far, I've followed the debate in casual way for years. A Magnificent Disaster, David Bennett's 2008 study, seems to me the best-balanced account of the failure of the biggest airborne attack of all-time.

The problem with Arnhem is that it combines both our best and worst stereotypes of the British. It is an heroic failure, part of a long tradition that includes Dunkirk, most if not all of World War I, Balaclava and much more. The fact that the failure to reach and relieve Arnhem is counterpointed by the awesome bravery shown by the British First Airborne in holding the town far longer than would have seemed possible has made it easy for British analysts to direct the blame elsewhere: to the Americans, particularly the 82nd Airborne, for getting distracted by one part of their assignment and not completing others, or to the Poles, for an alleged unwillingness to fight. You might also make the argument the British were always willing to assign the greatest risks to others: the Canadians at Dieppe, or Anzacs at Gallipoli being prime examples still remembered in those countries.

The fact that Cornelius Ryan's book was made into a film allowed it to be criticised unjustifiably too, but I was persuaded by Bennett's account that the core of Ryan's analaysis is well-founded. Bennett details exactly where Arnhem went wrong; much of it was in the planning. The film highlights the reluctance of the British to change their plan when intelligence revealed concentrations of SS Panzer units in the area; Bennett shows that Montgomery's concept was based on the false assumption of minimal resistence, and that when the assumption was shown to be false, both Montgomery and Browning ignored the warning. The criticism of Monty by American generals was that he was a glory-seeker who wanted battle only under the most advantageous terms: for example you could argue the British beaches at D-Day were not only the easiest in terms of topography and defenses, but also those closest to Germany, making it easier for Monty to be the first into enemy soil. That was the point of the Arnhem operation as well; Monty wanted British troops to steam up the highway and cross the Arnhem bridge first into Germany, after the Yanks had captured all the other bridges along the way. His American counterparts resented the fact that, despite their own needs, materiel was constantly diverted to Monty who complained nonetheless about not having enough. In American eyes, in short, he is another Gen. McClellan (see previous post, on Antietam).

Gen. James Gavin was even more unstinting in his criticism of Browning: 'Why the British units fumble along... becomes more and more apparent. Their tops lack the know-how, never do they get down into the dirt and learn the hard way.' British historians would argue that they had seen combat in the Great War, but despite their evident heroism there, this was a different kind of war. This coincides with the argument that, having watched the wholesale slaughter in the trenches, Monty never wanted to waste lives recklessly again, which I can respect.

Those who've seen the film will know Gavin, commander of the 82nd, was amazed by his assignment, since it was work for two divisions, not one. Still, he completed it, though his delays are generally cited by British historians as the key reason the plan failed. Of course not receiving tactical support they required to take their last bridge (remember the famous crossing of the river in rubber boats) played a huge part, as did not dropping units close enough to the targets. The 101st executed its plans more efficiently, but the delays in the British infantry and armour in advancing and meeting up with them played a far bigger part in the failures at the second level and beyond, initiating a deadly knock-on effect.

Another subject to which Bennett devotes much attention is the shameless way the British high-command attempted to scapegoat the Polish Airborne Brigade and its commander Gen. Sosabowski (seen on the left, with Browning, who seems to be reacting to him the way Richard Nixon did to Sammy Davis Jr), who had not only, alone among the participants, criticised the plan openly before the operation, but also fought to have his soldiers dropped earlier, despite the risky conditions. Although Montgomery admitted, for the only time in his career, a failure, both he and Browning criticised the Poles, forced out Sosabowski, and passed further blame onto the weather, the lack of supply, and Gavin, in particular, deviating from the plan.

Bennett is excellent is in showing the ways that, given a plan overly ambitious and requiring for its success that it meet little German resistence, the British airborne drops were the inverse of airborne strategy: rather than dropping into the combat zone and defending, the divisions were dropped outside the zones, and had to fight their way in, and, in the case of the 82nd also secure other drop zones outside their targets. That British communications didn't work was part of the 'it'll be alright on the night' mentality which reinforces the 'lions led by donkeys' mantra of the Great War.

But Bennett also gives far more attention than most commentators have previously to the Garden part of Market Garden, the advance by the ground troops of the British 12th, 30th, and 8th Corps. He points out the remarkable consistency in the soldiers actually fighting well, but their inability to advance with urgency. 'It is not that Horrocks failed to impart a sense of urgency;' he writes, 'he never even tried.' The 18 hour delay at Nijmegen was the most crucial of these moments, and has never been explained satisfactorially. One last positive which Bennett, a Canadian, brings to the tale is to highlight the extraordinary efforts of the Canadian engineers which allowed the evacuation of the British survivors at Arnhem, a truly outstanding accomplishment, and far less than those brave soliders deserved. Their days fought holding position in Arnhem remains a remarkable accomplishment, and Frost's refusal to surrender to the Germans, while lacking a quote as pithy as McAuliffe's 'nuts', was every bit as inspiring.

Oddly, Bennett, while praising the film of A Bridge Too Far, thinks it loses much of the drama because it cannot convey the shape of the battle, and in a sense he is right. But what the film does do well is give a sense of the time-line, and though Bennett is excellent with each battle, it is difficult to follow every sector through a progression of days, sometimes seemingly at random. But if you have a general understanding of the operation, and want to understand more of the specifics, and do so in a balanced way, Bennett is your man. He points out too that the fallout from Market Garden was interesting. American airborne divisions wound up fighting primarily as infantry for the rest of the war; Monty seems to have scared the high command off airborne operations entirely. Of course that put the 101st at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Anthony McAuliffe, as mentioned above, was the American hero of Bastogne, and Bennett wasn't particularly complimentary about the 101st's commander, Maxwell Taylor. As it happens Taylor was spending Christmas with his family while McAuliffe held Bastogne. Bennett, like Gavin, likes leaders who lead from the front. Nothing wrong with that.

A Magnificent Disaster by David Bennett
Casemate, £19.99 ISBN 9781932033854

Thursday, 2 February 2012

JAMES MCPHERSON'S ANTIETAM

There are certain battles that seem to exhibit an endless historical fascination. In the Civil War, it's Gettysburg, the three-day epic in which the ultimate fortunes of the Confederacy swung back and forth. And although James McPherson acknowledges that the Union victory at Gettysburg, coupled with the fall of Vicksburg on the same Fourth of July in 1863 had a major impact on the war, he makes a persuasive argument that it was Antietam in 1862 which marked the actual turning point of the war. Crossroads Of Freedom (the title reflects McPherson's monumental one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom) appeared in 2002 as part of Oxford University Press' series 'Pivotal Moments in American History' and McPherson makes his case eloquently and succinctly.

In 1862 the early successes of the Union forces in the West (along the Mississippi, in Tennessee and Kentucky, in West Virginia, and along the coast) had been reversed, and a series of victories brought about primarily by better Confederate generalship, had brought the South to the brink of success. McPherson's thesis rests on the political importance of Antietam, for two reasons. First was the effort to get Britain and France to recognise the Confederacy—something their own cotton embargo (and the Union blockade) had failed to do. But with Union armies stalling, and losing major battles, it looked increasingly as if the South could argue it was a viable independent country. That argument would be reinforced by the second factor, the 1862 mid-term elections. McPherson notes that the incumbent party had lost control of the House in such elections for the past 20 years, and given an unsuccessful war, President Lincoln's opponents, whether they were 'war' Democrats or 'peace' Democrats, were strong enough to win the election by a margin which might persuade the Europeans as convincingly as the battlefield victories themselves.

The political situation was made worse because Lincoln's top general, George McClellan, in command of the Army of the Potomac, was a Democrat, and appeared to show little interest in providing Lincoln with the kind of victory he needed to convince Europe and his own electorate. Furthermore, Lincoln had decided to announce the emancipation of slaves in Confederacy—a move which would not only align the Union with those countries in which slavery was already banned, but could potentially rob the South of a great resource. It was a part-way measure, since it applied only to states actively in rebellion, and not those under Federal control, and it was still tendentious enough for Lincoln to shelf the proclamation, waiting for a victory substantial enough to allow him to announce it. This was a victory McClellan was proving both unwilling and unable to provide.

In a brief over-view such as this, there is little space to develop characters. With Lincoln this is not a problem—we have such a strong image of the man and his contradictions we can fill in much ourselves. Other players in the drama, the Union general Pope, the Confederates Jackson and Longstreet, might need somewhat more fleshing out. But the one character to whom McPherson does justice is McClellan, who fancied himself an American Napoleon, but fell far short. McClellan was beloved by his troops, and a master of organising and drilling them quickly into fighting shape. But he was hopeless at the fighting itself, fearful of making any move unless he were convinced he had an overwhelming superiority, something of which he was rarely, if ever convinced. His constant cries for more soldiers, his claims to be outnumbered by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, by as much as two to one, when the reality was that he always held a vast superiority in both men and materiel, and his outright refusals to obey direct orders to attack, even from the President, put him at a distinct disadvantage when facing men like Lee or Jackson, willing to take great risks to gain great rewards.

Lee's basic strategy was defensive, knowing the longer the war went on, the more discontented Lincoln's supporters would become. But his tactics were aggressive; twice he was faced with situations where he felt he could eliminate Union resistance with a major victory on their soil; Antietam was the first of those attempts. As it happens, he might have won the battle had not a copy of his battle plan, wrapped famously around some cigars, fallen into Union hands. His second attempt also failed, but the inability of the Union forces to stop his retreat after Gettysburg, while not as glaring as McClellan's failure to even pursue Lee during Antietam, ensured that the war would continue for two more bloody years.

Antietam was finally McClellan's perfect situation. Although he believed otherwise, he had far more soldiers available than Lee did; they were better equipped and fresher. And he knew Lee's battle plan, knew that Lee would split his forces, giving him an even bigger advantage. McPherson is very good at giving a broad but comprehensible picture of the battle itself, and particularly McClellan's failures at a number of times when decisive action might have provided an overwhelming victory. At one point McClellan, with more fresh troops in reserve than the Confederates already had on the battlefield, failed to bring them into battle, and thus allowed Burnside's attack to fail. AP Hill, having captured Harper's Ferry, brought his men to Sharpsburg (site of the battle, the Confederates called battles after the towns, the Union after topographical features, like the Antietam Creek) and saved the day. When Lee retreated, McClellan's failure to pursue him for six days finally led to his removal at the head of the Army; Lincoln was livid at his inaction, while McClellan believed he had single-handedly saved the Union. He would run against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864, and lose badly.

The battle fought near Sharpsburg on 17 September 1962 remains the bloodiest in American military history; four times as many casualties as the D-Day landings; more casualties in one battle than in all the other wars of the 19th century put together. McPherson draws a parallel with 9/11 which I find forced and a bit strained, but that is really the only off-note in the book.

Antietam proved victory enough for Lincoln's Republicans to hold on to Congress, for the British and French to stay out of the war, and for the Emancipation Proclamation to be issued. That changed the tenor of the war; no longer was it being fought, nominally, to keep the Union together, now the central issue of slavery was finally at the forefront. Were the Confederacy to lose, the Union would be reformed with the institution of slavery destroyed. It did define the Civil War, just as the Civil War defined then, and, along with race itself, in many ways continues to define America.

Crossroads Of Freedom by James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0195135210

MY WRESTLING OBSERVER.COM INTERVIEW

Here's a change of pace, for all you pencil-neck geeks out there! I was interviewed yesterday on the Dr Keith Presents programme at WrestlingObserver.com, discussing the upcoming Super Bowl, which I will be presenting on BBC1 this Sunday at 10:55pm, and my own background in wrestling. Although we never got to my brief, one-season, eight-programme career as a heel commentator on Meridian/ITV2's Transatlantic Wrestling Challenge, which I still think is some of the best work I've done. You can link to the interview here, and it should be available without charge for the week.