Sapere Aude

Dare to be wise, or Sapere Aude in Latin, is a favorite motto among philosophers and educational institutions.  It is easy to understand why this is the case.  Philosophers imagine themselves to be wise and so of course they are interested in promoting a view by which others might dare to be as wise as they themselves are.  Likewise, educational institutions, colleges and universities, generally view themselves as being in the business of passing along wisdom to new generations of learners, and so for them urging others to dare to be wise is urging others to become customers for their own particular business.  It is flattering to consider that wisdom requires daring, and also all too easy to conflate wisdom with the acquisition of book knowledge and head smarts.  Some of us acquire head smarts relatively easily and are an easy sell for authors and educators.  Others find there to be an unfortunate gap between wisdom and the sort of intellectual prowess that is taught at a university, especially when what is most useful at universities has long been the social connections that one makes at a university with professors, people in industry, and one’s fellow students.  To be wise can be being brainy in the eyes of some, while it can be being shrewd and well-connected in the eyes of others.  Yet in neither such case would we consider someone who was simply very learned and scholarly to necessarily be wise, nor do we consider those who are well-connected socially to be necessarily wise in the most praiseworthy aspect of that expression.

A somewhat opposite tendency was celebrated in the “Weird Al” Yankovic single “Dare To Be Stupid,” which somehow managed to be part of the 1980’s Transformer movie soundtrack (and an underrated gem in the soundtrack pop of Yankovoc), and serves as a style parody of the works of Devo.  The song, with its nonsense advice and general silliness is an effective portrayal of the rather dogmatic thoughts of Devo concerning de-evolution and the wellspring of stupidity that can be found in the contemporary world.  To be sure, daring to be stupid is certainly a tendency that we have seen often in our contemporary world.  To feign stupidity in order to be laughed at by others for profit is one of the driving aspects of reality television culture, by which people act in such a way that others think them so stupid as to be unworthy of surviving, while being clever enough to profit from the general contempt that they receive from others.  It is remarkable that daring to be wise and daring to be stupid both involve a fair amount of deception.  Daring to be stupid means pretending to be dumb in order to make others underestimate us, allowing us the advantage in our dealings with them at some cost to our pride and ego.  Daring to be wise by the world’s standards usually means conforming to the dictates of worldly wisdom, often at the price of considerable folly and treasure.

Why do we need to dare to be wise in the first place?  Wisdom is the skillful arrangement of words and behaviors to the best effect, knowing what is fit and proper to say and do to achieve the best purposes.  It is acting in the precise opposite way of entropy, increasing the information value within a given institution or being rather than suffering it to decline and decay as is the default option.  To act or speak wisely requires us to distinguish between options and to choose from among them that which is the best suited to the goals and ends we have in mind, and it of course requires us to have something in mind, some sort of plan that we are seeking to follow.  It requires audacity to act in hope contrary to the usual way of this world of decay and loss and incomprehension and fiction that we may do something more skilfully than is being done at present.  This daring is not always rewarded.  For the first year or so after having taken control of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee was able to skillfully interpose his army, at heavy cost, to prevent the advance of Union troops in Virginia.  Yet was it a wise thing to have staked a civil war in the defense of viewing other people as property that one could do anything with that one wished–similar to the way many contemporary women view their unborn children?  I would argue the opposite, with some vehemence.  It is all too easy to be daring and audacious, but to do so in seeking objects that are not proper or godly, making one’s behavior unwise, regardless of how daring it may be.

Yet even in, especially in, defense of godly goals, audacity is required.  It requires moral courage to stand up for what is right in a world that is fallen and evil.  And the world has always been fallen and evil so long as rebellious and corrupt human beings (and other fallen creatures) have lived on it.  It requires daring to speak out against popular evils–and there are always evils that have been popular–while remaining gracious in one’s own discourse and behavior.  It requires considerable skill to disagree without being disagreeable, to retain the moral high ground as well as the intellectual high ground in one’s dealings with others, and to refute others while not leading them to want to put you to death and make a martyr of you.  To be sure, even those who seek to avoid martyrdom in such circumstances are not always able to avoid it.  Sometimes simply being a godly example in a sufficiently evil age is enough to bring about one’s own death and the blowing out of one’s candle.  We may hope that it is not so for us, but it is impossible to be sure ahead of time, for God is sovereign and we do not know the times we are placed in or the purposes our lives and deaths will work out.  And we must have moral courage to act for what is right and what is good even when, especially when, it appears wrong and foolish to those around us, for wisdom is not something we always see clearly at the time but something which often requires a look with hindsight.

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Book Review: The Fracture Zone

The Fracture Zone:  A Return To The Balkans, by Simon Winchester

Not often does one get a second chance to better understand an area where one had previously visited, although admittedly it happens more often for writers and journalists perhaps than for most.  As someone who came of age in the time after the fall of Communism, I must admit that it is hard for me to understand just how gullible many people seemed to be about the issue of nationalism during the Cold War.  Did people honestly believe that dictators of one stripe or another could eternally keep the lid on the problem of nations and identities that has proliferated over the last three decades (and more)?  If they did, as it seems that Simon Winchester did, they were very mistaken indeed.  If Yugoslavia seemed to be quiescent under the role of Marshall Tito, it certainly has not been so since the collapse of communism, when the rest of the world found out just how intractable its identity problems were, how vexing even the most basic questions of language and borders could be, and just how much trouble that the region would bring to the rest of the world.  It is a good thing for the author that he got a second chance of the region to develop, belatedly, some insights about it.

This particular book is organized around a Vienna-Istanbul trip the author made in 1999 or so, during the time that NATO was bombing the Serbs in order to provide for an autonomous (and later independent) Kosovo.  The author’s own travel experiences, which are mildly entertaining on their own, are intermixed with discussions of geology and history that places what was then current events into a larger context and demonstrates the divides and struggles that still remain.  The author moves from Vienna, quickly through Slovenia (where he finds no reason to stay, as there is no conflict for him to deal with there), to Croatia, where he finds in Dubrovnik and other places some clues as to the historically contingent nature of the disaster of the Yugoslav breakdown and the importance of religion in forming identity.  He spends a great deal of time in Bosnia reflecting on the restive nature of Bosnian Serbs, the fragile unity of Bosniak and Croat, and the many regional divisions that make life in Bosnia particularly fraught with landmines.  He even manages to explore the struggles of Montenegro and Macedonia for legitimacy and freedom before Montenegro won its independence and Macedonia renamed itself North Macedonia to end Greek opposition to its efforts at European diplomacy before ending in Istanbul.

This is the sort of book that simultaneously invites and discourages hot takes being made about its contents.  For example, it is a pretty easy matter in a book like this to blame the Turks for a lot that is wrong here, and that is certainly part of the truth because of the issues of memory relating to the disaster of 1389 and the conversion of peoples like the Bosniaks and Albanians to Islam and the problems that have resulted from that.  Certainly others have contributed to the disaster as well, as the World War II experience of Yugoslavia encouraged Croats that they could be free and victorious over oppressive Serbs, lessons that were put to good use in the 1990’s.  Montenegrin desires for freedom appear to be more subdued but never surrendered in the period after they were forced into a union with other South Slaves in a Serb-dominated kingdom, and problems of language and nomenclature make identity a vexing matter for all of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia.  And while the Slovenes appear to have done the best in avoiding the disaster of many of their former fellow citizens, there is still much that remains to be written about the divides that exist in the region to this day.

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Book Review: The Men Who United The States

The Men Who United The States:  America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, And Mavericks, And The Creation Of One Nation, Indivisible, by Simon Winchester

This book is odd for a variety of reasons.  For one, it is written by a naturalized Brit who clearly has some agendas he is pursuing here about the importance of giving credit to obscure people and in celebrating oddballs and mavericks as well as supporting a certain degree of “big” government expenditures in science and technology and even the five classical elements of Japanese thought.  For another, this book is far more a book about creativity than I had thought at the beginning, and it is clear that Winchester has a great degree of interest in the subject, even if he explores it from a variety of different ways than that of the psychological approach that is particularly popular among those in creative studies.  The author instead looks at creativity from the point of view of popular history and examines how it is that certain technologies took off and others failed to take off based on corporate and political power and the decisions of wider society and their elected officials and unelected bureaucrats.  All of this makes for an odd but compelling book that has a lot to say about the ways that America has been united.

This book of almost 450 pages is divided into five parts.  In the first part the author talks about the way that America’s story was dominated by wood from 1785-1805, examining the forests of Appalachia and the frontier thesis and America’s expansion west (1).  After that the author discusses the importance of the earth, spending a great deal of time on geology, one of his favorite subjects, and its importance in American history (2).  The third part of the book discusses the importance of water to American history (3), which is so transparently obvious I am surprised he does not spend more time here talking about canals and riverine transportation and communication.  The fourth part of the book looks at the importance of fire in united the states, which allows the author to discuss roads and railroads and even early plane transportation (4).  Finally, the author closes with a discussion of the unification of America through metal with regards to telegraphs and telephone wire, power lines, radio and television and the internet, and the way that these first united and then divided society by increasing the opportunity for people to do what they wanted.

Overall, this book has a few sources of unity, namely the scope of the work in terms of dealing with American history in a broad scope, as well as the five-element structure of the book itself.  Fortunately, though, even if the author leaves out a lot of what one would think of as fairly obvious (the way that metal and fire united the United States during the Civil War, and the way that wood and water were important in bringing people to the United States by boat in the first place), the book is full of a wide variety of entertaining stories that include a view of the Youghiogheny River (a very important river in my own personal life), some thoughts on Asian carp and their spread through the Mississippi river valley, as well as some intriguing thoughts on matters of Asian immigration in the 1800’s and the tension between unity and diversity that one finds in technological advances.  There is a lot to enjoy here, and the author clearly finds himself in his elements as someone who can weave a variety of compelling stories into a larger and interesting narrative that, as always, reveals his own biases and eccentricities as an author.

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Book Review: The Perfectionists

The Perfectionists:  How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World, by Simon Winchester

I must admit that when I started reading this book I was not very familiar with what the author meant about precision engineering.  To be sure, it is easy enough to understand the difference between precision–where everything is made exactly the same or where a group of shots has very little variance between them, and accuracy, which is hitting the target aimed at, even if one only does it occasionally.  And when the author is writing well, as is the case here, nearly any subject can be made rather entertaining and instructive, and so this book ended up being a very good one even if I was not as familiar with its content as I am with most of the books I read.  The book dealt a lot more with questions of manufacturing and design that I was used to, but it was a good thing, I think, to take a look at a sort of work that I did not usually read and find that it met my expectations and allowed me to ponder questions about design and where information is located that are worthy of being thought of in more detail.

This sizable work of about 350 pages is divided into ten chapters and various other material.  The author begins with a prologue that discusses his own familiarity with precision engineering (thanks to his father as well as his travels) and his own desire to be precise with words.  After this comes a discussion of the origins of precision engineering in finely crafted works of antiquity as well as the longitude clock (1), and how precision engineering got its start in cylinders for cannon manufacture as well as steam engines.  The author then moves to the way that the design of precision equipment from the beginning had a negative effect on the standard of living of skilled craftsmen (2), and that it quickly served the interests of mass producing weapons and clocks for the common people (3).  Later chapters discuss the way these machines sought to make a more perfect world (4), provided both mass and elite automobiles (5), were vital in the creation of safe airliners (6), and were vital in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope (7).  The author also spends time talking about favorite issues like the disputes over standards and measures (8), the possible limits of chip design (9), and the way that there are many people who prefer what is well-crafted even if it is less precise or efficient in its construction (10).  The author then closes with a discussion of how we should measure our world, along with acknowledgements, a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an index.

In reading this book, one senses a great tension within the writer, and it is easy for a reader to feel a great deal of ambivalence about the subject of precision engineering as well.  There are two ways to precision, one of them through developing extremely skilled artisans who build in low units that which is expensive and designed for elite audiences, and the other through putting the skill in the machines and having unskilled workers (as well as machines) construct large amounts of very inexpensive but reliable goods designed for the masses.  Some advances in precision have long appeared to threaten the well-being of ordinary people in terms of their income and job variety and skill while simultaneously providing inexpensive items for people to purchase.  Additionally, there appear to be certain limits to precision in many aspects, and there are always questions about the purpose of precision and the overall aims that it serves.  One can tell in reading this book that Winchester wants to celebrate quality, encourage the well-being of the commonfolk, and also be a booster for popular science, and finds it difficult to do all of it simultaneously.

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On The Regulation Of The Womb

One of the sad aspects of contemporary existence is the way that false dilemmas are so common.  When it comes to the contentious question of the regulation of the womb, many people appear to be most interested in a false dilemma, where unless the right of women to do what they want in all cases whatsoever is secured that society will go into a patriarchal age where women are under domination by women and their bodies and wombs will not belong to them at all.  The shrillness of the rhetoric of The Handmaid’s Tale and others of that ilk demonstrates the lack of sound reason on the part of those who demand as a right an act that denies the right to life for unborn children.  What sort of argument can be made for the regulation of the womb that does not involve the sort of patriarchy that people would be afraid of?

Let us note at the beginning that it is obvious that the unborn child is a different life than that of the mother.  Beyond a certain point of development, the child would be able to exist in incubation outside of the womb.  Unborn children have their own separate genetic identity that is made up of the combined genetic inheritance from both parents, and they have their own personalities that can be somewhat influenced and recognized in the womb.  And there is compelling evidence of the silent screams that demonstrate the suffering that is caused by acts of violence committed against the unborn, in ways that do not amount to pleasant viewing but which demonstrate that there is a certain degree of awareness and cognizance among children before departing the womb.  The fact that the child is a different being than its mother (or father) indicates that the child has its own interests that ought to be defended by someone.  We would naturally expect both fathers and mothers to stick up for the interests of their unborn children, and someone must if they fail to, since unborn children are even more vulnerable than those children who have been born and who still require protection and care for a considerable length of time from the cruelties of this world.

Let us also note that the fact that the unborn child has interests of its own that are worthy of protection cuts against either the tyranny of the father or the tyranny of the mother.  A society that honors the right to life of unborn children would oppose both the wanton destruction of the unborn by careless women who lack natural affection as well as the hostility of would-be patriarchs who are not pleased by the changes in their own life or well-being that would follow having (more) children.  While society would best be served by parents seeking the best interests of their children, both before and after birth, this world is all too full of examples where this is not the case and where parents pursue their own private pleasures despite the negative impacts these self-destructive behaviors have on their offspring.  And the existence of interests that are worthy of protection and the failure of those who are closest to the situation to defend and uphold those interests tends to increase the amount of intrusive government involvement in the defense of those interests.  We pay a heavy price in the loss of freedom when our lack of virtue encourages or induces government to step in in order to make sure that the innocent and vulnerable are protected from our carelessness, neglect, and abuse.

Let us not forget that governments have always been somewhat slow about defending the well-being of children.  In the late 1800’s, before child abuse laws were on the books, early abusive parents were convicted through laws against animal abuse, because the rights of animals were protected above and beyond those of children.  We see the same situation in our contemporary society.  A great many of us would likely prefer that government regulation would be as little as possible, but it must be conceded that the implications of Colson’s law demonstrate that the failure of segments of the population to self-regulate and to act according to a morally upright conscience increases the need for regulation and enforcement.  We might therefore ask if there are any grounds that would justify the expense of government regulation of the womb, and indeed there are.  The preservation of social welfare for the aging and indigent requires a growing population, and the most obvious ways for a population to grow are either through immigration (which threatens the demographic security of a nation) or through natural increase (which is far more beneficial in nature), and there are compelling social reasons why encouraging natural increase to preserve the solvency of public promises would lead a government to regulate the womb to encourage the increase in the number of offspring that native-born American citizens have.  And those needs have nothing to do with any supposed patriarchy.

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Book Review: The Patch

The Patch, by John McPhee

One of the things that happens when a writer has a lot of material is that one tends to see feasts of scraps made of those materials.  This book is an example of that.  This material is certainly not bad–if you are familiar with books by the author, you know there is a lot to like and appreciate.  That said, this book is a feast of scraps that have not been published in any book before, and so there is a great deal that is fragmentary and incomplete about this book, and those looking for satisfying narrative will probably be disappointed.  Indeed, this book as a whole is a strange chimera of a book, and that fragmented nature makes this book a test of whether one wants to read very small bits of thoughtful McPhee essays that have been collected in a basket.  As for me, I am generally a fan of reading the author’s works as a whole, but even I found this book to be less enjoyable than most of his works.  Since this work is likely the sort of thing that an editor or publisher wanted in order to pad out a commercial deal rather than being driven by the author himself, I’m not going to hold McPhee himself responsible for this.

As I noted before, this book is a bit of a chimera.  The first 40% of the book or so is a collection of generally entertaining sports essays.  The first, the title story, is a fishing story that discusses the author’s father’s death.  After that, the author writes an amusing football story related to his own education and his wondering what he would talk to a New England Patriots coach about.  A story about the collection of golf balls and an exploration of their stories then follows, which is one of the highlights of the whole book, and then there is another golf story after that dealing with the British Open and its context.  The last two stories in this section are pretty amusing as well, one of them dealing with the Denver men’s lacrosse coach who had moved on from Princeton, and the author’s thus far unsuccessful efforts at seeing a wild bear from his New Jersey home.  The rest of the book is made up of mostly small bits of a large variety of essays and articles, which have been shorn of about 3/4 of their content and are left to what the author considers the highlights, which serves as a bit of a covert memoir and a mostly interesting collection of miscellany.

This book would have been better for me if the author would have had it be all one thing or all the other.  A book of only miscellaneous material would have been about as good as this one, as that was definitely the weaker part of the book for me, even if it did provide at least scraps of essays and articles the author had written that had not yet been collected in book form.  A book of sports or sporting related essays would have been very worthwhile and more enjoyable than this book.  To be sure, I don’t know if I would have wanted to read 200 pages about the author’s thoughts on golf, a sport I am not very expert in, but I am sure there are enough sporting articles and essays the author is written that there could have been an entire book on that subject, and that would have been a more enjoyable book to read than this one.  Still, as is often the case, one cannot review the books one would have wished to read, but rather the books that are actually made.

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Book Review: Uncommon Carriers

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee

As someone who is interested in logistics, largely from my own personal experience, I found this book to be deeply interesting.  The author clearly has some personal interest in logistics as well, and knowing a bit about the back story of this book as I do, I found a few aspects of the book to be highly interesting.  For one, the author keeps a fair amount close to the vest, such as the difficulty he had in actually persuading companies that it would be a good idea to let a journalist/writer like himself on the boats to talk to the people who worked in logistics.  If you look at the book, you don’t get a sense of the deliberate design of his structure, or of the work it took in setting up the trips, or even the timing of the particular trips (except that there are two trips with the enjoyable truck driver who bookends the story, and it is clear which one is first and which is a follow-up trip).  The amount of time it took to work on the project is unknown, and the work even manages to jump back in time and reflect on earlier writings about some of the places where the author went, all of which makes for a typically enjoyable McPhee experience.

This book consists of seven chapters that are connected essays dealing with the subject of logistics, all of them told in an earthy and humorous manner by noted writer John McPhee.  The first of the essays tells of a trip that McPhee took from northern Georgia to Washington with a truck driver, where he learns about the economics and culture of truck driving, and enjoys the way that truck drivers operate, where they eat and sleep, how much they obey the rules, and so on.  After that comes a visit to Port Revel, where various people from all over the world learn how to better manage ships and become better pilots.  This leads to an essay on barges who travel up and down the Illinois river dealing with the riparian logistics of the greater Mississippi basin, and how much work it is to manage such a task successfully.  The author spends some time following the trail of the Thoreau brothers down the Concord and Merrimack rivers and examines how much has changed today from the mid 19th century.  McPhee spends some time in the sort looking at deskilling and the way that UPS has sought to profit from being a logistics company of many talents and abilities, something I have some experience with.  He also goes to a coal train and sees how Wyoming coal is brought to power plants around the USA before closing with a return trip with the opening trucker, where he compares truck driving in the East and in the West.

Overall, there is a great deal to appreciate about this particular book.  The author shows himself interested in logistics in a broad perspective and has enough sensitivity to sympathetically portray the various people he discusses.  Whether he is dealing with single men driving trucks, or married men (and women) working on boats, or single women sorting packages for UPS, McPhee is a sympathetic viewer and listener of their daily lives and someone who is able to convey the truths of their working lives and how it affects their personal lives and how and why they work in logistics in very relatable ways.  That general good nature allows these essays to shine and gives the reader a better understanding of the sort of people on whom we depend for so much that we use in our lives, most of which is brought to us through supply chains and carried in boats and on trucks and trains by logistics workers who in many ways are people not unlike ourselves.  And for those of us who have personal experience in dealing with logistics, it is comforting to have these sketches of life on the rivers and seas and roads and railroads of the world where so many goods are carried for us and for our neighbors.

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Book Review: Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4:  On The Writing Process, by John McPhee

I must admit that my earliest reading of the author gave me a somewhat slanted perspective of who he was as a writer.  It so happened that my local library in Tampa, Florida (where I lived when I first became familiar with the author) had books by the author that were about popular science, specifically geology, and so it was that I associated the author with that sort of writing in exclusion to others.  Fortunately, it so happens that I have found many more books by the author that demonstrate him to be a skillful and often entertaining writer in narrative nonfiction, some of it with a scientific base, but other aspects of it which deal with stories about athletes and politicians and truck drivers.  This particular book offers a pleasant look at the author as well as a self-aware essayist discussing how his own writing was influenced by its editing (as he was a longtime freelance writer for the New Yorker) and how he approaches the matter of creating nonfiction writing, proving the author to be an unexpected authority on the issue of creativity that is well worth paying attention to.  As is often the case, I found an unexpected resonance with the author given my own writings.

This short book of less than 200 pages gives several essays that show the author’s approach to the writing process and how he manages to stay creative, and it is definitely a worthwhile book to read whether or not you are familiar with McPhee’s writing as a whole, much of which springs from his own personal interests.  The author begins with “Progression,” where he shows how he conceives his works and seeks the right source material to fill out his plans that provide a compelling and fascinating approach.  After that comes “Structure,” where the author talks about how he chooses the spine of his work and the way that flashbacks and shifts in chronology will provide excitement and drama to a story, even if it is not obvious to the reader.  “Editors & Publisher” show the way that McPhee’s writing was influenced and affected by the people who read and published his writings, and how he had to fight sometimes to express things in the earthy way his sources sometimes described them.  “Elicitation” provides a humorous discussion of how it was that the author was able to interview others successfully and deal with sources in a thoughtful manner that provided for sources’ dignity as well as the telling of stories.  “Frame Of Reference” then shows the way that we borrow vividness by the use of metaphor and comparison but then can pay that back with vivid discussion of our own.  “Checkpoints” shows the importance of fact checking to nonfiction writing, the title essay shows the process of editing and iteration by which the author’s writing is honed and writer’s block is vanquished, and “Omission” shows the author struggling with cuts and with the desirability of the reader filling in some blanks for oneself.

While each of the essays individually only covers a small part of the writing practice, together as a whole the essays present an entertaining and very instructive discussion of the writing practice.  The author begins with a discussion of how it is that our interests and suggestions from others lead to the creation of works, while later essays show how these ideas are structured and formed into a compelling piece, how they are edited by others, how source material is obtained, often through interviews, how drafts and fact-checking help refine the practice, and how it is that a finished piece of writing then becomes something that the reader brings his or her own perspective and knowledge to.  The author notes rather humorously that many writers (himself included) use comparisons that are not in the frame of reference of others and so have to add some level of vividness to make a piece of writing sing, such as talking about a forgotten actor and mentioning his “manic energy,” which can be understood by those who do not know anything about the actor being compared to.  Overall, this work is a fantastic piece of essayism by a writer who has earned through his own intense productivity a fair amount of credibility in speaking about his writing process to others.

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The American Civil War: A Case Study In The Ambiguity Of Creativity

What is the relationship between war and creativity?  Let’s think about this for a moment.  On the one hand, a great many inventions have resulted from our desire to slaughter each other, and the Civil War is no different.  There were advancements to technologies like the rifle, where breechloading and repeating rifles were developed, the invention of an early version of the machine gun, along with upgrades and development of grenades, mines, submarines, ironclad ships with turrets, along with the widespread use of trains to speed the transportation of troops and telegraphs for the maintenance of civilian command and control over troops in the field.  On the other hand, wars are immensely destructive.  The Civil War killed somewhere above 600,000 men when the losses of North and South are combined.  On top of that hundreds of thousands more had suffered grave injuries, many of which left them crippled in body and mind for the rest of their lives, with legs or arms amputated or afflicted with PTSD (although it was not known at the time).  How much creativity was gained in the push for victory?  How much creativity was lost in the wholesale destruction of a generation of Americans?

These are not easy questions to answer.  Nor is it obvious that creativity and innovation as it took place in the Civil War is necessarily a positive.  Yes, technologies like the telegraph allowed for the rapid spread of news throughout the United States, but that spread of news allowed for increasing civilian and political pressure on generals to gain victories quickly and sometimes led to the publishing of plans through leaks, harming the ability of armies to surprise their foes as much as they may have wanted.  And no doubt many generals would have preferred not to have Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis impatiently sending telegraphs urging movement, and would have preferred the old days where generals on the spot had more latitude to conduct warfare with far less interference.  Gains in the effectiveness of control by commanders in chief are losses in the freedom of action by subordinate commanders in the field.  These are matters that need to be taken into consideration as well.

Nor are all of the innovations of the Civil War things that the nation as a whole would have been proud of.  For example, the massive losses of the Civil War, including large amounts of prisoners (far more Southern than Northern prisoners, it must be noted) led to the establishment of large prison camps in both the North and South where there were a variety of deaths due to disease and starvation.  And while Andersonville’s horrors were such that they led the camp’s Swiss-born commander to the gallows for war crimes, other camps like Camp Douglas and Elmira, among others, were not much better.  Indeed, the experiences of the Civil War in terms of keeping large amounts of prisoners in dire conditions was one of the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags and Chinese laogai.  This is not something that most civilized people would celebrate, although it should be noted that the Spanish in Cuba in the 1890’s and the British during the Boer war at the turn of the 20th century similarly helped to innovate with regards to prison camps as well, so the blame does not entirely fall upon the Americans in this regard.

In many ways we must do a bit of a thought experiment to ponder on the creativity and innovation that was lost through the Civil War in terms of the deaths and injuries that were suffered by people in both the North and South.  How are we to count for what these people might have done and created if they had lived?  What masterpieces of literature were snuffed out because someone didn’t survive to write them?  We got the writings of Ambrose Bierce and Lew Wallace, but what would we have had otherwise?  It is impossible to say.  We may marvel at the guns and ships that more effectively killed other people, and that would be honed to kill even more people in World War I when the machine gun made suicidal charges even more costly than Picket’s charge at Gettysburg or Hood’s equally futile charge at Franklin, but what could those people have more creatively done than kill each other, and what kind of creativity would have been fostered had the 1860’s been peaceful rather than bloody?  Again, we cannot say, but given even the aggregate numbers it is clear that a great many creative men were snuffed out prematurely by the war.

In examining the creativity of the Civil War, we must also be aware of the sort of society that existed in both North and South when it comes to the acceptance of various kinds of creativity.  The South was certainly creative in scrounging for war material, in the development of homemade ironclad ships, in the use of landmines and torpedo spars as well as seaborne mines, in the creative substitution for items that they had to do without.  Yet as a whole the South has not been viewed highly as an innovative culture, largely because it lacked an educational and industrial infrastructure to turn its creative potential into large scale technologies, and largely because the creativity of the South in coping with the losses of war were conducted in a traditionalist society that was hostile to the sort of changes that were sweeping the United States, especially the North (and West).  On the other hand, it is easy to recognize creativity in the booming industrial power of the United States and in the way that the North was able to gain in population and expand American culture westbound while simultaneously supporting white homesteaders and land-grand colleges even while winning the Civil War.  The difference between what was and what could have been requires creative thinking and moral imagination, as is the case any time we examine counterfactual scenarios.

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Book Review: Glory Road

The Army Of The Potomac:  Glory Road, by Bruce Catton

This book is the second part of a trilogy (at least) of works relating to the Army of the Potomac, covering the period between the aftermath of Antietam and the aftermath of Gettysburg.  As one can say with reading any of Catton’s books, this particular work is one that shows Catton’s skill as a historian and one that also portrays the humanity of the Army of the Potomac, that much maligned instrument of Union policy in the Civil War’s Eastern theater.  While the Union troops of the Western and Trans-Mississippi fronts generally were able to succeed against troops with pretty bad leadership, it was the misfortune of the Army of the Potomac to suffer from its own poor leaders and to be opposed to the Confederacy’s A team of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, and so on.  As someone who has a fairly typical American support of “underdog causes,” this book certainly appealed to me given its author’s desire to address the justice of an army’s reputation and how proud soldiers dealt with an army whose leaders led them into failure time over the dark days of 1862 and 1863, at least until the tide of war turned.

This book of about 350 pages is divided into six chapters, many of them with three or four sections.  Catton begins with a discussion of the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg and its shattering effect on certain regiments, including a green regiment that had been added to the Iron Brigade with other Midwestern ones (1).  After that comes a discussion of the “mud march” and the mutinous attitude of the Army of the Potomac as it reached its nadir (2).  This is followed by a discussion of the revival of the army’s fortunes and its reorganization under Hooker, who showed himself a very good logistical commander and helped the Union cavalry to reach new heights (3).  After this comes the downbeat account of the Battle of Chancellorsville and how Hooker failed when it came to combat, leading to a great many soldiers losing a battle in which few of them even fought (4).  The period between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg is then discussed, where the army had preserved its morale (5), before the book ends with a discussion of the battle of Gettysburg, and what a near-run thing it ended up being (6).  After notes and a bibliography there are some maps of the three battles discussed in this book.

Although this book is still great, largely because it is written by Bruce Catton, in many ways this book is clearly a middle part of a larger work and suffers accordingly for its transitional nature.  As this is not the fault of the author, it is a flaw that is comparatively minor in terms of how this work (or any other middle work in a trilogy) is to be evaluated.  At the beginning of the book the Army of the Potomac is portrayed as still trying to find its way under incompetent leaders who lacked the sort of aggression that was required by Lincoln and the demands of victory in the Civil War.  Throughout the course of the novel logistics are dealt with and the army shows itself able to win a battle where the involvement of the higher command was relatively minor and where the commanding officer at least did not sabotage the chance for victory because of disastrous errors.  In showing an army of growing resolve, even as it finds itself continually struggling with political matters, this book does a great job at reminding the reader that armies cannot only be judged by the quality of their leading generals, but on much more complete grounds.

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