Review: A World Undone

Review: A World Undone

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

G. J. Meyer set out to write this book to fill a gap in the available literature on the First World War: a popular, holistic account that covered every phase and every front, without presupposing much knowledge from the reader. In this, he was undeniably successful. A World Undone begins at the beginning, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and ends at the end, with the Treaty of Versailles—signed five years to the day of the assassination of the infamous archduke.

Meyer’s scheme is simple but effective: interspersing “background” chapters between his main, military account of the war. These background chapters were inevitably more interesting for me, and provided much-needed relief from the seemingly endless string of battles, divisions, battalions, generals, troop movements, and so on that composed the military history. In these auxiliary sections, Meyer introduces us to war literature, major personalities, political traditions, economic crises, military technology, shell shock, and much else. The wealth of both historical backdrop and military history makes this book an ideal, if somewhat long, introduction to the “Great War.”

Meyer himself is an able and diligent writer, who steers a middle course between rhetorical excess and crass simplicity, keeping his prose lean and tasteful. He has the quintessential skills of the popularizer: the ability to compress information into a tight space, and to explain complex phenomenon without overwhelming the reader. He also wisely avoids speculation himself, leaving the analysis to the reader or the historian, keeping his eye focused on the surface-level events—which is ideal for an introductory text, I believe.

Even with a guide as competent as Meyer, however, the Great War is depressing and deadening. Meyer’s account, perhaps unintentionally, confirmed many stereotypes I had previously imbibed. In his telling, the beginning of the war was due to a combination of poor planning and reckless and incompetent advisors. That Germany could not mobilize its forces without invading Belgium, for example, or that Russia could not choose to mobilize only half of its troops, thus unintentionally threatening Germany—consequences of carefully-drawn plans, an arrangement that virtually guaranteed war—is difficult to believe or forgive.

As for the fighting, the impression one is left with is of remarkably courageous troops heedlessly wasted by monomaniacal generals. Offensive after ineffective offensive, with general after general trying the same tactics and achieving the same failures—leading to endless butchery. One quickly draws the conclusion that the leaders of Europe in this epoch were dim and shortsighted men.

It is this dreary and dreadful aspect that partially accounts for the First World War being overshadowed by its younger brother. The conflict was strikingly non-ideological. There are no Nazis, no Communists, no Fascists, no racial purges (except in Armenia), no freedom fighters, no Resistance—only obsolete Empires fighting for spheres of influence. The fighting, too, has none of the cinematic drama of the Second World War: only interminable shelling campaigns, repeated advances and retreats through no-man’s land, stagnant stalemates and antiquated tactics—there is nothing even vaguely romantic about the bloodshed, despite what Ernst Jünger may have thought.

But even if it is less compelling to learn about than the Second World War, the First World War arguably has even more valuable lessons to teach us. The logic of naked power confrontation is, after all, more historically common than ideological conflict. The comparatively colorless, and often incompetent, quality of the war’s leadership invites us to see the conflict in all its bare, barbaric brutality, without the distorting effects of charismatic chiefs. The manufactured hatred of whole populaces for one another—engineered through strict censorship, outright lies, and strident propaganda—is a case-study in how patriotism can be exploited for deeply cynical ends.

And most important, unlike the Second World War—a sad story that at least ends with the defeat of a genocidal maniac—the First World War has no silver lining, no comforting achievement to offset the millions of lives lost. As the vindictiveness of the victors proved, the winning side wasn’t on a clearly higher moral level than the losers; and in any case, the war didn’t even achieve a resolution to the conflicts brewing within Europe, only a partial deferment. In sum, the First World War is worth learning about because it was a calamitous, unnecessary tragedy that stubbornly resists romanticization or justification—and that is war.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Review: Postwar

Review: Postwar

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

History is a discipline peculiarly impervious to high theoretical speculation: the more Theory intrudes, the father History recedes.

When I was in university, studying anthropology, I always resented the requirement that my essays have thesis statements. Can’t I just collect information and serve it up without taking some ultimate stance? Tony Judt seems to have been of the same mind, since this book is one very large serving of information, absent of any overarching thesis. As he says himself, Judt is rather like the proverbial fox than the hegdehog: he knows many things, and has many valuable observations scattered throughout the text, without any one big idea to tie them together.

There are compelling advantages to this approach. This book is one-stop shopping for many aspects of post-war European life. Economic development, intellectual fashions, architecture, film history, political movements, the Cold War, regionalism, the emergence of the European Union—all this and more is covered in impressive detail. And though multifarious, all of these pieces come together to form an astounding story: a continent nearly destroyed by war, divided by dangerous political tension, slowly emerging from American and Soviet dominance to become the most affluent, most peaceful, and most progressive place in the world.

The main disadvantage of this method is, of course, that this story remains fairly messy and haphazard. Without a thesis to guide him, Judt had to rely on a mixture of interest, instinct, and whim—the latter playing an especially significant role in some sections. What is more, though Judt is an opinionated and assertive guide, the lack of a thesis renders it difficult to point to anything distinctly “Judtean” in his analysis. What ties the narrative together is, rather, a certain mood or sensibility—most notably, Judt’s keen sense of historical irony, which he employs to great effect.

This ironic sensibility is most often directed toward Judt’s political foes. Though he is never explicitly partisan, it is easy to tell where Judt’s sympathies lie: in the center-left, socialist-democratic camp. Thus, depending on where the reader falls on the political spectrum, Judt’s comments will be either gratifying or grating. For me they were usually the former. What irked me, instead, was Judt’s relatively brief treatment of Spain—the Franco era is entirely ignored, and the transition to democracy is covered in just a few pages. But this is admittedly my own prejudice speaking.

If Postwar has one takeaway message, it is this: that Postwar Europe is the anxious construction of a generation wearied and horrified by conflict. After going through the belligerent nationalism of the First World War, the economic depression and intense ideological polarization of the interwar period, the even more gruesome Second World War and the unspeakable Holocaust—all this, coupled with the prolonged armed standoff and Soviet repression of the Cold War—Europeans were intent on creating a world where this could never happen again. Extreme ideological stances fell into disgrace; strong government social safety nets helped to prevent economic crisis and, in so doing, made people less susceptible to demagogues; and governments forged institutional ties with one another, a project that culminated in the European Union.

Without constant reminders of this catastrophe—a European civil war that began in 1914 and whose political aftereffects did not disappear until 1991, if then—we risk falling into the same errors that tore the continent apart one hundred years ago. For this, we need good historians—and Judt is certainly among the best.

View all my reviews

Review: Some Still Live

Review: Some Still Live

Some Still LiveSome Still Live by Frances Smith McCamic Tinker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can’t even surrender in an airplane; your opponent wouldn’t know whether you were joking or not.

I am fortunate enough to have a colleague who studies the Spanish Civil War professionally. And when he heard that I was interested in learning about the conflict, he generously lent me this book, the memoirs of an American pilot who fought during the war. Considering that this book is out of print and hard to get your hands on, this was luck indeed.

Frank Glasgow Tinker, Jr. was an American boy from Louisiana who came to Spain in 1936 to take part in the war. He had learned to fly in the US Navel Academy, and spent some time in the Navy until he was discharged for drinking and brawling (which, if you think about it, is pretty impressive). His main motivation for joining the war, it seems, was just the opportunity to fly combat missions: “When the fighting broke out in Spain in 1936, I was not quite sure which side was fighting for what. I gathered that each was slaughtering the other for being or doing something that the other side did not like.”

After sneaking in by obtaining a fake passport in Mexico, and pretending to be a Spanish citizen—despite his total innocence of the Spanish language—he spent seven months here flying and fighting. Tinker fought on the “loyalist” side, alongside Spaniards, Americans, and Russians, mainly against Italian and German pilots—which shows how international the “civil” war really was. He flew both older biplanes and more modern monoplanes, both of Russian make, against Italian Fiats and German Heinkels and Messerschmitts. And he was good. He shot down at least eight enemy planes, possibly more, making him one of the most successful pilots in Spanish aviation history.

He flew up to three flights a day—responding to alarms, accompanying bombers, strafing trenches, dive-bombing enemy targets, blowing up bridges and trains, driving off enemy bombing squads, and fighting in dogfight after dogfight. The bulk of his fighting took place in the vicinity of Madrid, but he also fought all over the north of Spain. After seven months of this he packed up his bags and went back to the States. Going back wasn’t easy, since he had arrived in Spain with a fake passport and didn’t have any identification; but eventually he succeeded in returning to the States, where he began writing and going on radio programs.

Some mystery still surrounds his death. The accepted explanation is that he suffered from PTSD and ended his own life; but some have suggested that the FBI may have been responsible. As his own tombstone says, ¿Quién Sabe?

Simply as a historical document, this book is invaluable. It contains maps of the air bases used by the government side, photographs by the reporter Robert Capa of wartime Spain, and a vivid picture of the Government Air Force, not to mention reams of information about aviation. Tinker obviously knew what he was doing when it came to flying; the book is filled with aviation jargon—altitude, weather, engines, weapons, rates of climbing and diving, difficulties of landing and taking off.

Even more impressively, this book is successful simply as a book. For somebody who was not a man of letters, Trinker is a strong writer. He sticks to the facts, and relates them with such vividness, candor, and energy that I often had trouble putting the book down. He never overwrites, he never bogs the book down with too many details, and he never uses flowery rhetoric. His time in Spain was so interesting that no embellishment is needed; the bare facts are fascinating enough.

Apart from his doings, Tinker himself is memorable. He is a uniquely American type. He brawls, he jokes, he drinks, he pranks, he gambles, he womanizes, and he drinks some more, and he flies and fights, and he betrays no ideals beyond good-natured hedonism, fierce loyalty, and a kind of warrior’s respect for bravery and skill. There is not a single political statement in this book, and not any indication that his understanding of the war’s causes ever progressed beyond the very basics. He was a soldier.

I will leave you with my favorite paragraph from the book:

Whitey had managed to get the elevator down (it was one of those automatic affairs), but after he got inside he couldn’t reach the control buttons to make it go up again. He was also unable to reopen the door to get out. After about two minutes of this a huge fellow with a mustache came along and wanted to go up on the elevator, too, but as he saw Whitey was already inside he waited awhile, expecting him to go either up or down. When Whitey failed to do either, the large stranger opened the door and asked him, in Spanish, what the hell he thought he was doing. Whitey, not understanding him, asked, in English, why in hell he hadn’t opened the door instead of standing there with his mouth full of teeth. Whereupon the stranger, in perfectly good American, answered that people shouldn’t get into strange elevators unless they were sure they could get out of them. Whitey almost fell on his face when he heard himself answered in English, but soon recovered and explained his predicament and had the stranger do his button-pushing for him. I saw the last part of this act and asked the man at the desk who the stranger was. He proved to be no other than Ernest Hemingway, the famous writer.

View all my reviews

Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil WarThe Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Civil War was an appalling calamity in which every class and every party lost.

The longer I live, work, and travel in Spain, the harder it is to believe that, less than a century ago, the entire country was torn apart by a bloody war. What set of circumstances could prompt a nation of ordinary, law-abiding people to explode into conflict and kill each other by the hundreds of thousands? This, of course, is just a specific version of a more general question: Why do people wage wars? I may sound naïve, but I do find this perplexing—since, as Brenan points out, in the destruction wrought by war, especially modern war, there are only losers.

Brenan’s work was one of the first serious analyses of the Civil War to be published (in 1943, just four years after the war’s conclusion), and has remained in print ever since. Nevertheless I was somewhat hesitant to read it. I found Brenan’s famous memoirs, South from Granada, to be underwhelming, so I assumed that this book would be as well. Happily I was mistaken. The Spanish Labyrinth is a comprehensive and penetrating work, easily one of the best books about the Civil War—or indeed about Spain—that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This does not mean it is accessible. Brenan chose his title well. The events leading up to the Spanish Civil War are intrinsically complex. So many different parties were involved in the accelerating dance of political turmoil that even the most skilled popular writer would have trouble seamlessly weaving it all together. And Brenan, though a strong writer, was too close to the events described to even approach a popular account. As a result the book itself can feel labyrinthine—with valuable comments and data tucked away into footnotes, with several miniature appendices per chapter and a longer one at the end of the book, and a seemingly endless cast of characters, organizations, and movements. Certainly this book, like any excellent book, will repay careful rereading.

Brenan’s take on the Civil War can be helpfully contrasted with that of George Orwell. Orwell, who was in Spain a matter of months and who never learned Spanish very well, saw the Spanish Civil War in terms of the wider struggle between the Right and the Left. For him, it was a straightforward class conflict between the poor workers and the rich fascists, a struggle that was playing out all over the globe. Brenan, on the other hand, who spoke fluent Spanish and who lived in Spain for a decades, saw the war as a particularly Spanish affair; and his analysis focuses almost exclusively on internal factors. (Both authors, incidentally, did share a distaste for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.)

Before the Civil War, political instability plagued Spain for generations. This was, in part, a consequence of economic backwardness; and this backwardness, in turn, had its roots deep in Spanish history—Spain’s commitment to New World gold at the expense of industrialization, and to merino wool at the expense of agriculture. (By the way, Spanish shepherds still hold onto their special privileges, which they demonstrate every year in the Fiesta de Transhumancia, during which sheep are herded straight through the center of Madrid.)

The Church came to identify itself fully with the rich and powerful, alienating itself from the people. As a result, anti-clericalism has played nearly as big a role in Spanish history as the church itself. The army, meanwhile, through a series of pronuciamientos and coups d’etat, came to see itself as the guardian of traditional Spanish values, able and willing to topple any regimes they deemed unsatisfactory—and, as history amply shows, it is always bad news to have a politically active military.

During all this time, Spain was plagued by a long-standing agrarian crisis. In one of Brenan’s most brilliant chapters, he details how different farming traditions sprung up in different regions of the country, partly in response to varying soil and climatic conditions. Unfortunately, many regions of Spain are—either from lack of rain or inferior soil—rather poor for agriculture; and distinct social arrangements (such as small-holding minifundios or large latifundios) are appropriate for these different climatic conditions.

In the hot and dry south, for example, farms are usually quite large; and the work required is seasonal, not year-round. Since a small number of wealthy families controlled these large estates, the vast majority were left to subsist on badly-paid seasonal work, thus leading to inequality and violent political tension. (As I discovered from Gilmore’s The People of the Plain, these agrarian problems persisted until the end of Franco’s reign.)

In addition to the inefficiency and inequality of Spanish agriculture, there was the ever-present problem of Spanish regionalism. Brenan follows Richard Ford and Ortega y Gasset in seeing regionalism as one of the defining features of Spanish political life. (Those watching the Catalan independence movement unfold today will be little disposed to disagree.) Spain is crisscrossed by several mountain ranges and sudden changes in elevation, thus leading to jarring climatic juxtaposition. I have experienced this myself: one moment I will be driving through a windswept mountain range, and the next I will be on the verdant coast. This is one culprit for the famous Spanish regionalism.

Another is Spain’s history. When Fernando and Isabel were married, thus uniting all of Spain for the first time, their separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, had distinct political traditions. As the historian J.H. Elliott describes in his excellent book, Imperial Spain, the Castile of Isabel, with its history of centralized rule and its emphasis on military power, was bound to conflict with Catalonia’s history of liberalism and commercial capitalism. The industrial revolution further fueled these regional tensions, as Bilbao and Barcelona became heavily industrialized while the interior and the south remained mainly agricultural.

These divisions in Spain—climatic, historical, and political—translated into splits in leftist movements in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The fundamental split was between the socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists. The socialists tended to be more reformist, while the anarcho-syndicalists were straightforwardly revolutionary. Each party had its associated union, respectively the U.G.T. and the C.N.T., which most often refused to work with one another as they attempted to bring down the capitalist system using general strikes. Brenan’s histories of these movements—their origins, development, and leaders—constitutes the central portion of this book, and is absolutely first-rate.

On the conservative side, in addition to the wealthy landowners and the Church—not to mention the army—there were the Monarchists and the Carlists. The presence of Monarchists, in a country which still had a king living in exile, requires no explanation. The Carlists, on the other hand, were a distinctly Spanish product. The death of Fernando VII, in 1833, set off a series of civil wars (the war in 1936 was hardly the first in Spain) between two contending lines to the throne. Those who supported the pretender Don Carlos became known as Carlists. Theoretically, Monarchists and Carlists were arch-nemeses; but since, by the 1930s, the last living Carlist claimant was old and without an heir, the distinction had worn thin.

Trapped between these arch-conservative and revolutionary-leftist forces were a comparatively small group of liberals, who attempted to create a Republic in 1931. But they were doomed from the start. First, as Brenan notes, liberalism has historically had little appeal in Spain. What is more, the economic downturn—caused by the great depression—severely limited whatever resources the government had to work with. Meanwhile, forces from every side were determined to undermine or dismantle the nascent state. Go too far to appease one side, and they risked severe retaliation from the other. Threading its way between this Scylla and that Charybdis, the ship of state crashed and sank.

From this rather pathetic summary, I hope you can at least get a taste of how complex a story Brenan had to tell. Climatic and cultural regions, revolutionary movements, workers’ unions, political parties, the army, the Church, economical classes—all of these were involved in the conflagration. There do not even appear to be any outstanding individuals towards whom you can orient your gaze. Franco himself was notoriously uncharismatic. The final result is confusion—labyrinthine confusion—and given all this, Brenan did a terrific job in his analysis.

The book is flawed, of course. Like Richard Ford, and like so many foreign writers, Brenan is pre-disposed to find some essential core to the “Spanish personality,” which can be used as a catch-all historical explanation. More often these are crass stereotypes (Spaniards are lazy, excitable, etc.), or otherwise Romantic wishful thinking—for instance Brenan’s insistence on the Spanish abhorrence of the modern world. Another flaw is Brenan’s focus on the Left. Though his histories of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are masterful, his analysis of the Right leaves a lot to be desired. One certainly does not get any clear picture of Franco’s program from these pages. Finally, by focusing so exclusively on Spain, Brenan ignores the wider international scope of the conflict. The rise of the communists from an obscure party to the most influential organization on the Republic side, for example, cannot be explained without turning one’s eye towards the Soviet Union.

But it won’t do to dwell on these shortcomings. Given that this book was written, not by a professional historian but an amateur, and that it was written so soon after the conflict came to an end, it is a near miraculous achievement. I may not be any closer to understanding war in general; but I do think I’ve come a long way towards understanding this one.

View all my reviews

Review: Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel

The Storm of SteelThe Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm.

Ernst Jünger was a born soldier:neither risk-averse nor foolhardy, able to command the loyalty of others and to follow orders without question, able to fight without malice and kill without scruple. These are his captivating memoirs of fighting during the First World War.

The consensus of posterity regarding this war is that it was bloody, tragic, and ultimately inconclusive—the exemplar of a brutal, pointless war. Erich Maria Remarque, who fought on the same side and on the same front as Jünger—albeit far more briefly—writes of his experience with trauma and disgust. Yet Jünger’s memoirs, equally as bloody as All Quiet on the Western Front, are strangely warm and cheery. A born soldier, he felt right at home.

As regards the basic experiences of the war, Jünger’s memoirs cover all the bases: bloody hand-to-hand combat, endless artillery shelling, taking cover in shell-holes and scrambling to put on one’s gas-mask, swarms of flying shrapnel and bullets, and death forever prowling. But out of this basic fabric of experiences Jünger weaves a heroic and even jaunty tale, a battle narrative of gallantry and daring. Each soldier, in Jünger’s archaizing eyes, is a knight locked in a gentlemanly joust with an enemy, motivated by duty and honor. I often wondered whether this quaint way of viewing the war was some kind of subtle psychological defense mechanism, shutting out its horrors with a chivalrous fantasy; but Jünger seems to have carried this perspective with him before the fight even began.

In many ways Jünger reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Both war heroes, both adrenaline junkies, both of a seemingly inexhaustible vitality—Leigh Fermor lived to 96, Jünger to 104—and both obscenely well-educated, these two authors tend to see life as a legend. Jünger’s prose has little of that cinematographic immediacy as has Remarque’s. By comparison his writing is highly stylized, like a Byzantine mosaic or Homeric verse. Admittedly, this is more true of the first half than the second, which becomes quite thrilling. In any case it takes a special kind of person to compare an artillery bombardment to “a witch’s cauldron,” or to motivate oneself in battle by quoting a verse from Ariosto.

The ending of the book contains, in brief, some of Jünger’s thoughts on the significance of the war. Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, that war is “politics by other means,” seems to have been lost on Jünger. For him the war’s value was not in accomplishing any concrete objective—which was, in any case, foiled for Germany—but in hardening the fighting men. You might say that, for Jünger, the war was valuable for its own sake. The extreme circumstances of war roused in the soldiers an equally extreme dedication to an ideal beyond themselves, the ability to yield themselves completely to their Fatherland; and he thought that future generations would look on the soldiers much as saints:

And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years of schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare, that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.

Personally I find this view disturbing, as I’m sure many do. The nationalistic dreams of Kaisers are nothing in comparison with even one life. In any case I think history has amply proven Jünger mistaken; the very hardening anvil of war he praised led, in just a few years, to another, even more deadly war—under a regime which Jünger himself despised. And whatever we may think of the heroism displayed by individual soldiers, it is outweighed by the sheer horror of it all. I also must say that I am incredulous that someone who lost so many friends and comrades—and who himself narrowly escaped death, getting wounded 14 times—could talk in such fanciful, romantic, and vague terms about the lessons of the war—and again I wonder, was this some kind of defense mechanism?

In sum, this must be one of the oddest war memoirs ever published, equal parts exciting, off-putting, and exacerbating. For those interested in the First World War, certainly it is required reading.

View all my reviews

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front is an extraordinary war novel. It has everything you would expect from a book about World War I: the mixture of boredom and fear; the constant specter of gore; the unrelenting threat of death from every direction; the strong bonds between fellow soldiers and the hatred of superior officers; the reduction of life to its most basic elements; the depersonalization of oneself and one’s enemies; the feeling of apathy and pointlessness; and the difficulty in re-adjusting to civilian life. This, by and large, is the common image of the First World War nowadays, so it is surprising to me that this novel sparked controversy when it was first published. The Nazis eventually burned Remarque’s books, and later decapitated Remarque’s sister.

I have never been in battle, thank heavens, and I hope never to be. Thus the conditions described by Remarque, though doubtless true enough, often struck me as unreal—ghoulish nightmares rather than reality. Indeed, the First World War in general is hard for me to wrap my mind around. That so much carnage could result from such petty causes—it makes my stomach tie itself into a knot the more I think about it. And then there is the, for me, strange collision of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: Kaisers and the aristocracy, cavalry charges, bayonets, juxtaposed with gas bombs, land mines, and heavy artillery. Technologically, it seems that defensive weapons far outpaced offensive ones. There were heavy artillery and machine guns, but neither were portable and so of limited use in an attack. Thus the endless trench warfare and the pointless offensives, as both sides could beat each other back but neither could win a decisive victory.

The final effect for the soldier, if he escaped with his body intact, was trauma. This was a world before PTSD; back then it was called “shell shock,” and poorly understood. But as Remarque describes the conditions on the front line, it is no wonder that recruits were traumatized; rather it would be a wonder if they weren’t. The carnage—bodies stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and wounded in every other imaginable way—was ever-present and horrific. Added to that is the constant fear—of artillery, snipers, landmines, electrified barbed wire, or merely getting separated from your fellows and lost in no-man’s land. And then the soldier must endure the loss of his friends—his fellow soldiers, with whom he forms bonds of terrific strength—as the war takes more and more men.

The worst part, perhaps, is that after enduring all this, the soldier cannot easily return to civilian life. In war, life is reduced to its bare essentials: the search for food, warmth, safety. Every moment, even those of rest, is part of a struggle to survive. Thus the soldier is shocked when he returns to his home. Civilian life, though enviably safe and comfortable, also seems terribly artificial, oriented towards goals that, to a soldier accustomed to struggling for bare survival, can seem superficial and even despicable. Remarque portrays this brilliantly, as the returning Narrator finds himself unable to communicate his experiences when he goes home on leave. After reading Proust’s novel set during the First World War, which focuses on the ridiculous pontifications of the socialites far behind the front lines, treating the war as just another topic for gossip, I can see why returning soldiers could feel disgusted.

Just thinking of how young these soldiers were—just eighteen when they began fighting—one realizes that a whole generation of men spent some of their most formative years in the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is no wonder they considered themselves the Lost Generation. And what was it for? Although admittedly the propaganda seems to have been quite effective in whipping up anti-German, -French, or -English sentiment, many soldiers must have felt like Stefan Zweig did—that the conflict was pointless. Remarque captures the absurdity of the situation: powerful men in ornate rooms, signing pieces of paper that result in thousands of young men fighting and killing thousands of other young men, not because any of them have any grievance against one another, but for the sake of the Fatherland.

Remarque conveys all this with a gripping immediacy. The story moves forward at lightning pace; and yet there is nuance and depth, too, in this short novel. Even though this is hardly a story of adventure, you realize that merely to keep on going required a kind of daily heroism—an unglamorous, grueling, thankless heroism—the loyalty to one’s fellows and the determination not to succumb to despair. War brings out both sides of the human character: our enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and our capacity for selfless devotion and extraordinary endurance. This is why war has formed one of the most popular themes of literature, going all the way back to Homer. But between those two extremes we often forget that war is long, boring, and terrifying, and that many people lose everything. It is this daily horror, and the daily heroism required to live through it, that Remarque captures.

View all my reviews

Review: A People’s History of the United States

Review: A People’s History of the United States

A People's History of the United StatesA People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a country famous for its historical ignorance, Howard Zinn sold two million copies of a 700-page history book. In a country famous for its allergy to the left, Howard Zinn wrote a best-seller from a staunchly left-wing perspective. Every evaluation of his book must begin and end with this achievement. Whatever you like or dislike about Zinn, clearly he did something right.

As you set out to judge this book, you must first decide whether it is a work of inquiry or of advocacy. This distinction has worn thin in our postmodern age, as we have become hyper-aware of the inescapability of bias. Nevertheless I think the distinction holds good in theory, however blurred it may be in practice.

An inquirer searches for the truth, even if the truth contradicts her original opinion; an advocate attempts to motivate people, to bring about some action, even if the action is somewhat vague or far-removed. An inquirer will risk dense and dry writing to get her point across; an advocate will risk simplification and generalization to get her point across. An inquirer will highlight information that her thesis doesn’t account for, and will include counterarguments and consider their merits; an advocate will minimize inconvenient information and will knock down strawmen of counterarguments.

This book is clearly a work of advocacy. And it is important to remember this, since as a work of inquiry A People’s History of the United States has almost no merit whatsoever. Zinn mostly relies on secondary sources, and makes no attempt at addressing counterarguments or at accommodating different viewpoints. His aim is not to explain American history, but to use American history to spark outrage.

Granted that this book is advocacy, we must then ask two more questions: whether it is responsible or irresponsible, and whether it is altruistic or selfish. Responsible advocacy uses careful research, seeks out unbiased sources, and acknowledges those sources; irresponsible advocacy uses lies or severe distortion of facts, or simply lies by omission. Altruistic advocacy acts on behalf of a wide swath of people, not just a narrow interest; selfish advocacy does the opposite. As an example of responsible, altruistic advocacy, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring addresses an issue of broad concern using careful research. On the other hand, the cigarette industry’s fight against the researchers who uncovered the negative health effects of smoking was an example of irresponsible, selfish advocacy, fighting on behalf of a small group using outright lies.

It is worth noting, by the way, that these two values can come into conflict. In these situations the advocate is faced with a choice: What is better, to distort the truth for a worthy cause, or to tell the truth at the expense of that cause? You might say that, if dishonesty is required, the cause can’t be worthy; but the fact remains that careful scholarship is often at odds with popular success—and popular success is what advocates aim for.

I think Zinn faced just this dilemma in this book, forced to choose between a work that would satisfy academics and would sell well, and he chose popularity. Granted, given the constraints of a popular book, I think he is decently honest with his sources. And it is worth noting that Zinn is frank about his political biases and goals. Nevertheless, I think it is obvious that he relies on books—again, mostly secondary sources—that are broadly sympathetic with his views; that he selectively quotes those who aren’t; and that he questions the motivations of any who disagree with him. What we must ask, then, is this: Does Zinn’s moral aim excuse this approach?

I think, on the whole, it does. At the time Zinn first wrote this book, history books used in public schools were unabashedly nationalistic, omitting labor movements, women’s movements, civil rights movements, and pushing aside the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. In other words, the history commonly taught and known was a history of presidents and elections, wars and victories, a history that ignored large swaths of underprivileged people. Of course Zinn didn’t change this single-handedly; he was the beneficiary of an entire academic movement. But his book, by its popularity, played an important role in changing the status quo. By the time I went to school, we had units on women’s movements, labor movements, and the barbarous mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans. It is also largely thanks to Zinn, I believe, that there is a growing movement against the celebration of Columbus Day (a person who I don’t think we ought to celebrate).

It is eminently right that the injustices and oppressions and inequities of American history be laid before the public. For history is never a neutral series of facts. Every political ideology relies on some historical narrative. Thus, systematically omitting episodes of history is equivalent to squelching certain political views. And even though I am not always in agreement with its ideology, I think that the United States suffers from its lack of a strong leftist movement.

Just recently, the political power of history has been dramatically demonstrated through the conflict over Civil War statues. More and more people are coming to the conclusion, I think rightly, that having statues of Confederate generals is not politically neutral. Of course we must learn and commemorate history. But it is impossible to remember and commemorate everything. We are always faced with a choice; and this choice is shot through with ideological questions. What we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it, is a moral issue; and I think Zinn is right to remind us of the struggles of the unprivileged and powerless against the privileged and powerful—not for their sake, but for ours.

This, in brief, is why I generally approve of this book. But I do have many criticisms.

Most superficially, I think this book suffers from a lack of organization. Many chapters feel like hasty cut-and-paste jobs, jumping from topic to topic, summarizing and quoting from different sources, without anything more than a sense of outrage to tie it together. In this way, the book is bizarrely reminiscent of a a Bill Bryson work: a hodgepodge of stories, thrown together in a loose jumble. I also think that Zinn should have highlighted more individual stories and condensed some tedious lists of movements, if only for dramatic effect.

More seriously, I think that Zinn commits the moral error of many on the left: by holding people to a stringent standard, the important moral differences between groups are minimized. This was most noticeable on his chapters on the Civil War and World War II, in which Zinn goes to lengths to undermine the moral superiority of the North and of the United States. I absolutely agree with Zinn that the North was hardly a utopia of freedom and equality (racism was almost universal), and that the United States was hardly a shinning beacon on a hill (think of the Japanese internment camps, the Dresden bombing, or the nuclear bombings). Nevertheless, I think that, with all their inequities and injustice, the Union and the United States were clearly preferable to the slave-owning Confederate or Nazi Germany. Minimizing this difference is dangerous.

I also object to the way that Zinn makes it seem as though the United States is controlled by a vast conspiracy, or that all the elements of power work together in one seamless ‘system’ (one of Zinn’s favorite words). He does, at one point, acknowledge that this system arose unconsciously, through necessity and in stages, and is not, for the most part, used intentionally by the powerful. But this, then, leads to the question: What is the difference between an unconsciously developed and unintentionally used system of control, and no ‘system’ at all?

Or consider this paragraph:

The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to a small number who are not pleased.

Zinn’s message is clear: that this is an unjust situation created by powerful people. But think about what he is saying: The United States is a country where most people are content and where the discontented are allowed to express themselves. Phrased like this, the observation looses its outraged and semi-conspiratorial edge; indeed it doesn’t seem so bad at all. I cite this only as an example of Zinn’s use of rhetoric and insinuation to make political points, a dishonest habit. Another bad habit is his tendency to question the motivation of the people he intends to criticize. Every reform or government action aimed at equality is, for Zinn, just a concession aimed at promoting the long-term stability of ‘the system.’ Again, this leads to the question: What, in practice, is the difference between a self-interested concession and an honest attempt at reform?

I also want to note that Zinn’s effort to write a “people’s” history became, at times, a thin pretense. This was obvious whenever the general opinion didn’t match his own. Zinn was not simply chronically “the people”; he consistently chooses to focus on those who shared his ideals, whether they represented the majority or a small minority. This was most obvious in the chapter on the Second World War, which focuses on the small group of people who disapproved of it. But it was a tendency throughout. Here is a typical passage:

After the bombing of Iraq began with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush’s action [Bush Sr.], and this continued through six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizen’s long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.

This is special pleading at its worst. The people’s opinion, when it disagrees with Zinn’s opinion, is of course not really their opinion; it is just manipulation. But when the people do agree with Zinn, it is of course their “true” opinion.

This, by the way, is another nasty habit of the left: a pretense to knowing the true interests of the unprivileged, even if the unprivileged themselves disagree with the left and among each other. Thus all the differences that divide the unprivileged—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia among the poor—are both excused and then dismissed as being superficial differences that mask a true unity, perhaps even instilled by the powerful to divide the poor. In a way this is a disrespectful view of “the people,” since Zinn apparently thinks that most people are far more easily manipulated than he is himself, and thus should be judged by a more lenient standard than the crafty powerful.

I am heaping a lot of criticism on Zinn; but I do think that, despite all this, Zinn is almost always on the morally right side: for equality, for pacifism, for democracy. And even though, largely thanks to Zinn, many of the episodes he covered in this book have made their way into school curriculums and the national awareness, I still learned a great deal from reading this. Both the Mexican-American War (which, to protest, Thoreau spent a night in jail) and the Spanish-American War (which resulted in prolonged, brutal fighting in the Philippines), two American power-grabs, still receive scant coverage in classrooms. And the long, ignominious history of U.S. intervention throughout the world, propping up dictators and plotting to topple governments, is still not widely known—and it should be.

I think Zinn has already been quite successful in changing people’s perception of history. But is this book inspiring or motivational? On the one hand, Zinn is a powerful writer whose every line carries a sense of justified outrage; and outrage, as Zinn shows, is what motivates many to fight for change. On the other, Zinn portrays movement after movement trying and failing—only about one in ten even partially succeeds, it seems—which can easily create a fatalistic cynicism. I was often reminded of the Onion article: “Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative to Letting Power-Hungry Assholes Decide Everything.

It’s a joke, I know, but I do wonder about this. In a way this is the issue raised by—heaven help us—Game of Thrones: Is it really better, morally speaking, to be an idealist like Ned Stark, if that leads to your defeat at the hands of less scrupulous parties? This is one of the oldest questions in politics; and the way you answer it determines, to some extent, where you fall on the political spectrum. Zinn represents one answer, and I think it is one we too often forget in our cynical age.

View all my reviews

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seven train slowed to a stop in the Mets-Willets Point station and a distorted voice crackled onto the PA system: “Last stop, last stop everybody, this is the last stop, please exit the train.” Normally the seven goes to Flushing; but today it terminated one stop earlier because of track work. With a chorus of sighs and groans the passengers shuffled out and pushed down the stairs to the buses waiting on the street, a stopgap solution used when the subway is shut down.

The buses were much smaller than the train, of course, so we had to pack ourselves in tight. When the final passenger squeezed in, the doors shut and we started moving, throwing nearly everyone off balance. Most people were silent, but behind me a man began talking: “Honestly, this is unbelievable—unbelievable! Every week, track work, signal problems, delays. Every week another problem. And they keep raising the fare! We pay more money, more money, and the service gets worse and worse. These damn MTA people, they don’t even use the subway. You know who’s on the MTA board? Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono hasn’t taken the subway once in her life!”

Except for the Yoko Ono part (I don’t know where he got that from), the man was right: service on the subways is getting worse, even though the fares keep going up. The quality has gotten so bad lately as to approach a crisis. This summer we have had two derailments, and a track fire that sent several people to the hospital. Less dramatic, but no less important, are the delays: signal problems and overcrowding cause constant tardiness. On some lines, the trains are late more often than on time. Since nearly 6 million people use the subway per day, this is a serious political liability. True to form, the politicians have done what they do best: point fingers at each other. The mayor blames the governor, and vice versa, until finally governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency regarding the subways.

Living in Madrid has given me a new perspective on the NYC subway. Before I moved I had just assumed that, by their very nature, subways were dirty, uncomfortable places. The trains screech and wail on the tracks, and jerk back and forth when they pull into the station. The stations themselves are sweaty, claustrophobic, and full of garbage and rats; and the subway cars are always packed to the breaking point. But in Madrid I discovered that a metro can be clean, sleek, and comfortable—and, most surprisingly, cheap. For comparison, a monthly ticket on the Metro North, the railroad from my town in Westchester to Manhattan, costs almost $300; and a monthly subway pass costs an additional $120. An equivalent ticket in Madrid, including both commuter rail and the metro, costs about 100€—one-fourth the price for a cleaner, safer, and better service.

Subway Interior
Modern subway interior

I may sound like I’m disparaging the NYC subway, but really I have a great affection for it. The subway has a gritty, industrial aesthetic that I find strongly appealing. And despite the frustrations, the subway represents what is best about New York: a place where people of every background, doing every activity imaginable, are thrown together in a tight space and manage—just barely—to avoid killing each other. Just the other day, for example, I witnessed a woman violently push herself onto the subway, shoving everyone out of her way to get to a seat. As soon as she reached her prize a man rightly began castigating her, and a loud argument ensued. Luckily, another man began preaching in a loud voice, drowning out the argument and restoring a tense truce as we were given a sermon about the perils of hellfire. I simply don’t witness things like this in Madrid.

For this combination of reasons—a mixture of admiration and despair—I set out to investigate the NYC subway. First I visited the New York Transit Museum, and then I read this book.

The New York Transit Museum has two locations, a small shop in Grand Central Station, and their museum in Brooklyn. The shop in Grand Central has rotating exhibits in half the store. The latest one is about the history of the seven train, which runs from Manhattan to Queens. This line was recently extended to the far West Side, with the opening of the first new station in twenty-five years: Hudson Yards. The museum in Brooklyn, near Borough Hall, is in an old subway station. In addition to the historical photos and the information on display, the museum has examples of all the turnstiles ever used in the subway; and on the old platform there are antique subway cars, going back even to when they were made of wood. (Wooden cars got a bad reputation after the Malbone Street Wreck in 1918, a terrible accident that killed 93 people. The wooden cars splintered apart upon impact.)

Wooden Subway
Wooden subway cars

If you go visit this museum, I recommend a little stop along the way. The New York City subway was officially opened in 1904. The showpiece of the new system was the City Hall station, located right under the seat of the city government. This station was lavish: decorated with ornate tile-work designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, using arches based on medieval Spanish churches. Beautiful as it is, the station had to be abandoned when the subway switched to longer cars. The short length of the platform, and the sharp angle of the turn, rendered the famous station useless. Now it sits, unused and empty, below City Hall. You can still catch a glimpse of this station, however, if you take the six train down to the Brooklyn Bridge station, and then stay on the train when it curves around to go uptown. The subway screeches horribly as it turns, but it is an eerie and fascinating experience to see the old abandoned station.

(I couldn’t get any good pictures myself, but you can find some in the gallery here. The Transit Museum does occasional tours of the City Hall Station, which you can find here.)

This book was the perfect accompaniment to the museum. Written by a professional historian, 722 Miles is, I believe, the most informative book on the market about the subway’s history.* As do many books by academics, this one began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It must have been substantially revised, however, since it is mostly free from academic stuffiness and scholarly squabbles. Hood casts a wide net, focusing on three interrelated aspects of the subway’s history: the political wrangling involved in getting it built, the role it played in the development of NYC, and the engineering methods and challenges of the subway. No engineer himself, the latter aspect is fairly basic; but the politics and the urban history are quite well done.

Old Interior
Antique interior design

The reader may be surprised (or maybe not) to learn that the subway has always been plagued with political wrangling and controversy. It was born in an era that saw major government spending and ownership as antithetical to sound business practices. But since private capital has always proven insufficient to infrastructure on this scale, the subway has been a public-private hybrid since its inception, with the state gradually taking on more and more responsibility. One reason the state had to step in was because the five-cent fare became a political stumbling block, something the public regarded as a sacred right; and so the fare remained a nickel even when the cost of a ride to the business was twice that amount.

Old Interior 2
Another old interior design

Originally the subway system was owned and operated by three separate entities: Interborough Rapid Transit (INT), Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Independent Subway System (IND). A relic of this origin is preserved in the subway’s odd numbering and lettering system: the numbered lines were the INT lines, and the lettered lines BRT and IND. These three were consolidated under city ownership by LaGuardia in 1940. From that year onward, there was very little development or even proper maintenance of the subways, in part thanks to the nickel fare. Another contributing factor was Robert Moses—the villain in every New York City story—who commanded most of the federal money available during the New Deal to build highways and bridges, diverting it from subways. Later, in 1968, the subway system was transferred to the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), by governor Nelson Rockefeller. This did little to help its finances, apparently, since by the early 80s the subway was a frightful, rundown, dangerous place. (Photos from that era have a haunting, apocalyptic beauty.)

The original purpose of the subway wasn’t just to serve already built-up areas in the city. Rather, several lines were run into undeveloped areas in the hopes of relieving population density. When the seven line was built in Queens, for example, it was running into almost pristine farmland and wild fields, where many still went to hunt fowl. It didn’t take long for this land to be urbanized. The muckraker Jacob Riis played a role in this development strategy, since it was he who documented the horrors of overcrowded tenements in lower Manhattan, prompting progressives to see the subway as a tool to make the city more livable and clean. This was done under the influence of Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner who originated the idea of the ‘garden city’ (which Jane Jacobs later opposed).

Turnstiles
Chronological turnstiles

Aside from the drier history, there are some fun facts in this book. The first underground train in New York was, I learned, not a proper subway at all, but a pneumatic train built in secret. This was the idea of Alfred E. Beach, who tunneled under Manhattan under the pretense of building a pneumatic parcel delivery system, to avoid the opposition of the corrupt legislature. In 1870 he unveiled his new train, which caused quite a sensation, despite being totally impractical for longer trips (Beach’s train only went a few blocks). I also learned that the tunnel that takes the seven train under the East River, on its journey from Manhattan to Queens, is called the Steinway Tunnel, because it was originally funded and promoted by that scion of the famous piano company. He was interested because he had a factory on the other side of the river.

This book was originally published in 1993, and it shows its age. This was a particularly bad time for the subway, when it was slowly recovering from its low point in the 1980s, and the book ends on a bleak note. Until fairly recently, the subway has been making quite a comeback since then. Just as many people are using the subway nowadays as they did in its so-called “Golden Age,” the 1920s and 30s, which amounts to almost 2 billion per year. The subways are no longer covered in graffiti and plagued by crime. Instead of posters warning passengers about mugging, they discourage ‘manspreading’ and promote basic etiquette. Viral videos also encourage passengers not to eat, clip their toenails, put their bags on seats, or to try to get on the train before other passengers have gotten off—a big improvement. We still have rats, though.

Even more impressive, the subway is building once again. Delayed for nearly 100 years, the Second Avenue line has just begun opening stations, which will relieve the overused Lexington Avenue line. We also have wifi in all the subway stations now.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems to fix. The most daunting is to replace the subway’s signal system. This system is badly out of date. On some lines, they are still using equipment that dates from the 1930s. Having obsolete analog signals means that there are frequent malfunctions; and even when working properly, trains cannot safely run close to each other, since the old signals are not precise, which leads to overcrowding and more delays. This may seem like an easy fix, but it is estimating that it will take at least until 2045, and probably even later, to refurbish the whole system.

Despite these problems, and despite the expensive fares and the shrieking cars, I am still optimistic about the NYC subway. To me, the subway is a symbol of the entire city: dirty, grimy, overpriced, overcrowded, part worn out and part sleekly modern, where people of all sorts come to strive and struggle and suffer in a narrow space. New York simply wouldn’t be New York if it didn’t include frustration—and garbage—and rats—and loud energy; and the subway has all that in abundance.


*I’m not sure where the number 722 comes from. According to the Transit Museum, there are 656 miles of mainline track and 842 miles total. This number will be rising some more with the completion of the Second Avenue line.

View all my reviews

Review: The Power Broker

Review: The Power Broker

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkThe Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.
—Henry David Thoreau

“Who’s Robert Moses?” I asked my brother, after he bought this book.

Well, who was he?

To drive from my house to the city, you need to take the Saw Mill Parkway, across the Henry Hudson Bridge, onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. Those roads, and that bridge, were built under the direction of Robert Moses. If you have a flight to catch, you take the Hutchinson Parkway across the Whitestone Bridge to the Whitestone Expressway, which takes you the JFK airport; these, too, are Moses constructions. To get from my house to my old university in Long Island, you can take Bronx-River Parkway, which links up with the Cross-Bronx Expressway; then cross over the Throgs Neck Bridge onto the Long Island Expressway or the Northern State Parkway—and that bridge, and every one of those highways, is a Moses project.

Who was Robert Moses? He had formed the world around me. Robert Moses was the most decisive figure in shaping 20th century New York. But what was his job?

In his forty-four years as a “public servant”—from 1924 to 1968—Moses came to hold twelve titles simultaneously. He was the New York City Park Commissioner, with control over the city’s parks and parkways; he was the Long Island State Park Commissioner, with control over all the parks and public beaches on Long Island; he was the chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, with near-total autonomy from the city or state government. He was the chairman of the New York Power Authority, the chairman of the State Council of Parks, and the head of Title I, which oversaw all the public housing in New York City—and this is not to mention his membership on the City Planning Commission and the City Youth Board—and his eventual title as the City Construction Coordinator, which gave him control over nearly all public works in the city.

Robert Moses was a master builder. He built hundreds of miles of parkways and expressways; he opened hundreds of parks and playgrounds; he built some of the biggest bridges and tunnels and dams the world had ever seen. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of people, condemning and demolishing their homes, and tearing the hearts out of old neighborhoods. How did he build so many things, acquire so many titles, move so many people? How, in other words, did he get and hold onto so much power? This is the central question of Robert Caro’s biography. And I can’t give you an idea of Caro’s biography, or why it is so incredible, without giving you an idea of Robert Moses.

The old adage about power and corruption is repeated so often, in such different contexts, that it can sound stale and meaningless. Moses’s story gives meaning to the adage—and qualification. He began his career as an idealist and a reformer; he was an opponent of nepotism, graft, and privilege. Moses’s first major effort was to institute civil service exams and strict pay scales that would serve as checks on government inefficiency and corruption. This effort failed utterly, defeated by the forces Moses hoped to check, leaving him out of a job.

After that, Moses learned to change his tactics. He stopped being an uncompromising idealist and started working with the forces he had once hoped to subdue with his ideas. And once he began to use the tactics of his erstwhile enemies, his prodigious intelligence and drive allowed him to master every force in his way.

The more power he gained, the more he wanted, and the more adept he became at getting it. One strategy was legislative. He was very crafty at drafting bills, sneaking through obscure clauses that extended his reach. His first master-stroke was to give himself, as the Long Island Park Commissioner, power to condemn virtually any piece of land he chose to for his parkways. Later, he managed to pass a bill that allowed him to simultaneously hold city and state government posts. Later still, he wrote the legislation authorizing the creation of the Triborough Bridge Authority, an entity with so much power and wealth that it was essentially a separate government, unelected by the people and unaccountable to and uncontrollable by the city or state governments.

He used underhanded tactics to build his parks and roads and bridges. To get the approval he needed from government boards, he would give extremely low estimates for the construction projects; and then, when the money ran out when the project was half-complete, no politician could refuse him more money, since that would require leaving a road or a bridge embarrassingly incomplete. He used scare tactics to speed eviction of buildings, telling tenants that demolition was imminent and they needed to vacate immediately, when in reality demolition was months away. To outmaneuver opposition to his projects, he would wait until his opponents were asleep and then bulldoze and jackhammer in the night—destroying dockyards, apartments, old monuments—rendering all acts of defiance pointless.

Moses was a master organizer. He learned to use the selfish interest of the major power-players in the city to accomplish his own ends. The unions and construction companies loved him because he provided work on a massive scale. The banks were eager to invest in the safe and high-yield Triborough bonds; and Moses rewarded the banks by depositing his massive cash reserves into their coffers. Cooperative lawyers received lavish rewards as “payment,” hidden through third-parties and carefully disguised as fees and emoluments. In everything, Moses prized loyalty and doled out money, commissions, and jobs based on how much power was at stake. He also forged a close relationship with the press by throwing lavish parties and befriending many newspaper owners and publishers. His carefully cultivated public image—as a selfless public servant who Got Stuff Done—made him an asset to politicians when they worked with him, and a major liability if they antagonized him.

And the more power he gained, the more uncompromising he became. He surrounded himself with yes-men—he called them his “muchachos,” and others called them Moses Men—who never criticized, or even questioned, what Moses said. He would refuse calls from mayors and governors. He did not go to council meetings and sent delegates to City Hall rather than go himself. Once he had planned the route of a road, he wouldn’t even consider changing it—not for protests or activists or local politicians; he wouldn’t divert his road one mile or even half a mile. If you opposed him once, he would use all his connections and resources—in government, construction, law, and finance—to ruin you. He ruined his own brother’s career this way. He kept files on hand full of compromising information that he would use to threaten anyone who dared oppose him, and during the Red Scare he freely accused his enemies of being closet communists—and if that didn’t work, he would accuse their families.

Summed up like this, Moses seems to be a classic case of a man corrupted by power. He went from a hero, fighting on behalf of the citizens to create public parks, struggling to reform an inefficient and corrupt government, to a villain—bullying, blackmailing, evicting, bulldozing, handing out graft. However, as Caro is careful to note, power did not so much corrupt Moses, turning him from pure-hearted to rotten, as allow certain elements of his personality free play, unhampered by consequences. The most prominent of these elements was his monumental arrogance. There are not many clips of Moses online, but the few there are give some idea of Moses’s egotism. He was uninterested in others’ ideas and perspectives, and could hardly deign to explain his own thinking. He spoke about the removal of thousands of people in a tone of utter boredom, as if the families he was moving were less important than gnats.

Compounding his arrogance, Moses was an elitist and a racist. He built hundreds of playgrounds in New York City, but only one in Harlem. He kept the pools in his parks cold, in the odd belief that this would keep black residents away. He built exclusively for the car-owning middle-class, draining resources away from public transportation, even encouraging subway fare-hikes to finance his projects. He made no provisions for trains or buses on his roads, and refused even to build his highways in such a way that, in the future, they could be easily modified to include a railway. It would, for example, have cost only a few million to do this while the highway to JFK was under construction, keeping a few feet in the center clear for the tracks. But because Moses didn’t do this, the railway to JFK, when it was finally built, had to be elevated high up above the highway; and it cost almost two billion dollars.

Moses was also a workaholic. He worked ten-, twelve-, fifteen-hour days. He worked on vacations and on weekends, and he expected his subordinates to do the same. Politically, Moses was a conservative. Ironically, however, Moses was a key figure in the implementation of the progressive New Deal policies of FDR (who was Moses’s arch enemy, as it happens). Also ironic was Moses’s adoption of progressive, modernist urban-planning principles. His ideal of the city was, in its essentials, no different from that outlined by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who was certainly no conservative—an orderly city of parks, high-rise apartments, and highways, with no messy downtown areas and no ordinary streets for pedestrians to stroll about. But perhaps the most ironic fact in Moses’s life is that this most fervent believer in the automobile, this builder of highways and bridges, never learned to drive. He spent his life getting chauffeured around in a limousine that he had converted into an office, so he could work and hold meetings on the go.

Now if you’re like me, you may think there is something obviously wrong with a racist and elitist planning housing for poor people of color. There is something wrong with a man who couldn’t drive planning highways for an entire state. There is something wrong with a workaholic who was never home planning homes; something wrong with a lover of the suburbs organizing a city. There is something wrong with a man who was never elected wielding more power than mayors and governors. There is something wrong with a man who was scornful of others, especially the lower-class, being allowed to evict thousands from their homes. There is something wrong with a man who did not care about other perspectives and philosophies, who never changed his mind or altered his opinions, wielding power for over four decades. Really, the whole thing seems like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, many came to see Moses’s policies as disasters. Caro certainly did. Moses thought that his legacy would speak for itself, that his works would guarantee him immortal gratitude. Rather, Moses’s name came to be synonymous with everything wrong with urban planning. Sterile public housing that bred crime and hopelessness; ugly highways that cut through neighborhoods and flooded the city with cars; top-down implementation that didn’t take into consideration the needs and habits of residents; cities that had superhighways but lacked basic, affordable public transportation. Even the harshest critic, however, must admit that Moses did some good. That both the city and the state of New York have such an excellent network of parks is in no small measure due to Moses. And if his highways were hopelessly congested when Caro wrote this book in the 70s, nowadays they work quite well, perhaps because they’ve since been supplemented by better public transportation.

While the value of his legacy is at least debatable, the injustice of his tactics is not. Moses was extremely fond of saying that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” For him, the ends always justified the means. If a few people—maybe a great many people—would be inconvenienced or hurt by his projects, future generations would thank him. But I think his story is an excellent example of why this type of thinking is dangerous, since it allowed him and his followers to trample over the lives of thousands, destroying houses and neighborhoods, treating those in his way with neither respect or dignity, for the sake of the “common good.” It allowed him, in other words, to be a tyrant in good conscience. And the reason he was able to do this and get away with it was because, as an appointed official, his power did not derive from the public—something intolerable in a democracy.

And yet, as Caro points out, Moses does illustrate a conundrum at the heart of a democratic government. Moses tried to achieve his dreams through the normal channels of government, and failed utterly. It was only when Moses started circumventing the usual rules that he was able to accomplish anything. And I think anyone who has ever tried to make a group decision—whether at work or with friends—can appreciate how enormously inefficient democracies can be. Moses was unjust, but he was efficient. That’s a major reason why no mayor or governor dared fire him; while other officials were mired in red tape and board meetings, waiting for approval, allocating funds, holding public hearings, Moses was plowing through and building his works. As he was fond of saying, he Got Stuff Done. His record of achievement made him, for a time, into a political asset and a public hero.

Here is the democratic conundrum in a nutshell. Quick decisions require unilateral power. This is why the Roman senate appointed dictators in times of trouble. But just decisions require a legal framework, open debate, and the people’s approval—a slow and often painful process. And as the story of Caesar shows, it is a risky matter to grant unilateral power temporarily. Power, once granted, is difficult to take away; and power, once concentrated into one area, tends to keep on concentrating.

But the major lesson about power I learned from this book is that power is particular and personal. This is why this book is so eye-opening and shocking. Before reading this, my operating assumption was that power derived from rules and roles. You were elected to a position with a clearly delineated scope and legally limited options. Each position came with its own responsibilities and jurisdiction, unambiguously defined in black and white by a constitution or a law. Yet Moses’s story illustrates the opposite principle. The scope of a role is defined by who holds it; the power of the position is derived from the ingenuity of the individual. Everything comes down to the personality of the man (usually a man, then as now) in charge, his philosophy, his force of will, his cunning, his intelligence, as well as the personality of the people he has to deal with. Circumstances play a role too. Success or failure depends on the individual’s ability to take advantage of any opportunity that arises. Power is not embodied in an eternal set of rules but rather in an ever-changing set of particular circumstances.

Here’s just one example. Moses thought that his power over the Triborough Authority was inviolable, because he had made contracts with his investors, and contracts are protected by the United States Constitution. But when Nelson Rockefeller, the governor, wanted to merge the Triborough into the Metropolitan Transit Authority—a clear violation of the bond contracts—Moses couldn’t stop him, since the banks were represented by Chase, which was owned by Nelson Rockefeller’s brother—who wouldn’t take the matter to court. In other words, because of the particular circumstances—the family relationship between the governor and the bank—the most sacred rule of all, the Constitution, was broken and Moses was defeated. And the reason this happened was not due to any regulation; it came down to the incompatibility of Moses’s and Nelson Rockefeller’s personalities.

I have written an enormous review, and yet I still think I have not done justice to this enormous book. Caro weaves so much into this story. It is not simply a biography of Robert Moses, but a treatise on power, government, and city-planning, a history of New York City and New York State. Robert Caro is an excellent writer—dramatic, sweeping, and capable of weaving so many disparate threads and layers and levels together into one coherent narrative. The one virtue he lacks is brevity. This book is long; arguably it is unnecessarily long, full of peripheral details and sidenotes and rhetorical passages. But its length is what makes The Power Broker so engrossing. It is more absorbing than a fantasy novel, pulling you completely into its world. For three weeks I lived inside its pages.

I loved this book so much, and learned so much from reading it, that it seems peevish to offer criticisms. I will only say that Caro is clearly hostile to Moses and perhaps is not entirely fair. He is an extraordinary writer, but uses repetition as a rhetorical device a bit too much for my tastes. Also, despite this book’s huge scope and length, there are some curious omissions. Particularly, Jane Jacobs’s conflicts with Moses—which have become somewhat legendary, even the subject of a recent opera—are not covered. Jacobs, who articulated many of the intellectual criticisms of Moses’s approach, isn’t even mentioned.

All these are mere quibbles of a book that totally reconfigured my vision of power and government. I recommend it to anyone. And if you’re from New York, it is obligatory.

View all my reviews

The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct and the New Croton Dam

The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a couple dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct—along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eerie Canal, it is one of the major engineering feats of nineteenth-century New York—and so I set myself to investigate it.

The first step was to walk the whole thing. This is not an easy stroll. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to Manhattan. The water first reached the Receiving Reservoir, which is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, and then traveled further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan on 42nd Street. On this spot now stands the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, and you can still find remains of the old reservoir’s foundation in the library basement. An imposing structure inspired by Egyptian architecture, this distributing reservoir used to be something of an attraction. People would come to stand atop its walls, for what was then one of the best views of Manhattan.

After the aqueduct was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic linear park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way down to the Bronx. I didn’t manage to walk the whole way, but I walked most of this distance, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton.

For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), and into the wonderful Rockwood Park (former residence of William Rockefeller). The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.

Ventilator
Trail and ventillator

The walker will notice a few structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. These were installed to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal sluice gates inside that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed. (And since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were.) These are situated above rivers, into which the water could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Weir
Sleepy Hollow Weir

In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the combined efforts of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the aqueduct, and the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short documentaries you can watch.

Sluice Gate
Sluice gate

Up north in Ossining there is a stone bridge that carries the aqueduct over the Sing Sing Kill. (“Kill” comes from a Dutch word, meaning “river,” and is used in several place-names in New York.) A few times a year, The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct give free guided tours that actually bring you inside this bridge. I recently went on one, and I recommend the experience. A group of about two dozen visitors descended through the weir into the aqueduct. The old sluice gate is a rusty mass of metal now. But the aqueduct tunnel itself, made of brick and waterproof concrete, has held up remarkably well. The only marks of wear are some cracks in the walls from running the aqueduct at full capacity. It made me giddy to think that I could walk through that dark and dank tunnel all the way to New York City.

Tunnel Interior
Inside the Aqueduct

Below this bridge, there is an elevated walkway (a “greenway”) where you can stroll alongside the Sing Sing Kill. This was just opened last year, in 2016, and is astonishingly lovely. From this you can see the spillway, which brought the water from the aqueduct into the river during repairs. As the guide noted, the water would spray out with such force that it scoured the bank on the other side of the river.

Spillway
Sing Sing Kill spillway

From the information available in the Keeper’s House and the Ossining Visitor Center—from permanent exhibitions and documentaries on display—I pieced together the history of this great work. The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to put it out. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted.

Greenway
Sing Sing Kill greenway

The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. He had political as well as engineering challenges to surmount. The land needed for the tunnel cut through hundreds of properties, mostly farms, each of which required an individual settlement. Meanwhile, the two political parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, were squabbling over funding. Upon completion of the project, Jervis rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey. This slow speed was intentional, by the way, since it minimized wear on the tunnel.

High Bridge Ground View
Original High Bridge arches

The largest structure of the original aqueduct stands on the southern end. This is the High Bridge. Opened in 1848, this is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. The water tower Jervis designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some bygone castle. (This tower was needed to pump water to some areas in the Bronx, which lay above the Aqueduct’s slope.)

Water Tower
Water tower

In the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed to the public in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me. (There are some excellent panels on the High Bridge, with illustrations of its history. I have attached the images at the end.)

High Bridge Top
High Bridge

As you can see from the High Bridge, the scale of the Old Croton Aqueduct is undeniably impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped. The aqueduct was constructed by 4,000 laborers, mostly Irish, who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. Having thousands of single men, with plenty of drink available (enterprising farmers began converting their barns into bars), predictably caused some ruckus. But it was a good job for the recent immigrants.

The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. At the time, the Croton Aqueduct was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States, only surpassed by the Eerie Canal. And the effect of the aqueduct on city life was scarcely less important than the canal’s. With a reliable source of clean water, the city began to expand at a remarkable rate. The original aqueduct was built with a maximum capacity of 60 million gallons a day. The engineers thought this would be enough water to supply the city for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly.

Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s. The New Croton Aqueduct is still in use—although it, too, has since been supplanted. The Croton watershed now delivers about 10% of NYC water. The majority of the water comes from the Catskill Watershed further north, ferried to the city by the Catskill and the Delaware Aqueducts. This latter tunnel, by the way, is the longest tunnel anywhere on earth, stretching 85 miles. New York is a thirsty city. (The current daily water supply of NYC is 1.3 billion gallons.)

Not only the original aqueduct, but the original Croton Dam was also replaced in the late nineteenth century. Jervis designed the original dam with an innovative S-shaped spillway to reduce damage from floods. But good luck seeing it now. Today, Jervis’s dam is underwater, submerged under the expanded Croton Reservoir, only visible in times of severe drought.

Croton Dam

For my part, I don’t regret this loss, since that dam was replaced by the New Croton Dam—a grand monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1906. Whole communities—cemeteries, churches, and farms—had to be moved to make way for the expanding reservoir. Standing on top of that dam, hearing the rushing water below you, does a better job than any statistic of conveying how much water a major city like New York needs.

Croton Dam Side

As part of my research, I also read the book in the Images of America series about the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photographs, with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way; but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities—and all this using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than what the Egyptians used. That’s an exaggeration, of course: the dam workers had steam shovels to excavate and railroads to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.

It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”


These images are taken from informational panels on the High Bridge.

IMG_0241

IMG_0243

IMG_0242

IMG_0244

IMG_0245

IMG_0249