war

Layers of Secrets: Joseph Kanon's "Los Alamos"

New Mexico. Ancient ruins of vanished Native Americans. Desolate spaces and tumbleweeds crossing the highway. Snow-capped mountains. Little bars with menus listing hundreds of different brands of tequila. And two of our country’s national laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. Los Alamos was established as a secret center of research for atomic weapons during World War II. In the years following the end of the war, Sandia was established for further weapons testing, but its mission is now focused on developing and testing non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. The mission of Los Alamos is now one of supporting a broad range of interdisciplinary research covering national security, nuclear fusion, supercomputing, and other areas.

Secrets permeate these facilities as easily as unshielded radioactivity, and are just as invisible to the naked eye. And they can be just as dangerous. In Joseph Kanon’s literary thriller Los Alamos, set in the final months of World War II, the secrets are not all military. There are clandestine meetings with Communist sympathizers, lover’s trysts in the desert, and personal histories that many would like to keep from the watchful eyes of government security. I was drawn to the book, and willing to give it a go, because I’ve visited New Mexico’s national labs. I’m familiar with the countryside, from the urban sprawl of Albuquerque to the views from Sandia Peak, from the historic Plaza of Santa Fe to the Anasazi ruins at Bandelier National Monument (the location of an unpublished story of mine). Sure, it’s fun for a fantasy reader to be plopped down in the middle of an invented landscape, but sometimes reading a story where you know the locale well can be even more fun.

Kanon gives us a murder mystery based largely in Los Alamos during the final stages of the development of the bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring World War II to an end. Needless to say, neither the scientists nor the military involved in developing the atomic bomb were pleased to know that one of their own could be murdered. The story of how this mystery is solved spans many pages but kept me glued to the page - not a requirement for me to give a book my blessing, but certainly an indication of how much I enjoyed reading it.

Highly recommended.

Civil War Mysteries

William Martin's hybrid historical-fiction/thriller, The Lincoln Letter , promised to be an interesting read, and I was not disappointed.  The story revolves around a previously-unknown diary of Abraham Lincoln's, a daybook that clearly shows the evolution of his thoughts on the emancipation of slaves. Modern-day historical sleuths Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington are racing to locate the diary before it is found by those who would use its controversial contents to further their nefarious political desires. Juxtaposed with the 21st century treasure-hunting story is the story of how Lincoln's diary came to be lost during the Civil War, and the lengths to which Lincoln's enemies would go to locate it. In order to track down the diary, Fallon and Carrington must - through careful research - reconstruct the Civil War story.  They must also thread their way through a complex web of characters whose varied selfish aims place the sleuths in danger at every turn. The novel was very interesting, but it also appealed to me on another level: it reminded me of my own research in reconstructing the Civil War career of my great-great-grandfather, a junior officer in Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the middle of the war, never to be seen again. Solving Lt. Andrew Lacy's mystery does not have the potential impact of Lincoln's diary in The Lincoln Letter, and there is no race to elucidate this mystery. But just as seemingly minor details at the time of the Civil War provided important clues to the disappearance of Lincoln's diary in The Lincoln Letter, my hope is that minor details (many of which are found in the letters Lacy and his family wrote one another during the war) may lead to the discovery of my ancestor's actual fate. This possibility is what keeps me searching, researching, and re-researching. It also makes for more extensive research than I realized I would need in order to tell Lt. Lacy's story. That, in turn, has caused the writing of my story to take much longer than I had guessed. All I can ask for is patience from those who are waiting to read Lt. Lacy's tale.

Four Ministers and a Confederate Colonel

{research}In a letter he wrote a month after joining Tennessee's Confederate cavalry, Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy spoke of going to church and hearing "Dr. Pendergrass" preach. The chaplain of the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry was Charles Wylie Witt, 39, a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. But "Parson" Witt's nephew, Travis Witt Pendergrass, 35, accompanied the regiment for several months, attending to the needs of both body (surgery) and soul (exhortation). Like his uncle, Pendergrass was a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. His three younger brothers were all in the same company as Lt. Lacy.

A few months after Lt. Lacy heard Pendergrass preach, the Eighth Cavalry was sent to Florence, Alabama. There Pendergrass was surprised to run into a fellow Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Thomas Fletcher Bates. Then, to his further surprise, he encountered Rev. R. A. Young, a prominent preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, currently serving as president of the Wesleyan University in Florence. Pendergrass had met Young in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1853, shortly before Young was reassigned to a pastorate in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1846, Rev. Young had met the "plain, quiet" son of a friend, Anthony Dibrell. That son, George Gibbs Dibrell, was now a colonel commanding the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry. Of Col. Dibrell's religious convictions, Young said "When his chaplain preached to his command, standing between two tallow candles, one of his most devout listeners was the commander in chief." The chaplain he refers to is most likely Charles Witt.

Before Lacy's regiment returned to Tennessee, Charles Witt resigned as chaplain, complaining that the varicose veins in his legs made riding very uncomfortable. Pendergrass signed off on a medical discharge for his uncle. When Witt left Florence for Jackson County, Tennessee, he delivered to Lacy's family an accounting that Lt. Lacy had kept of all the operations of the Eighth Cavalry up to that point. The family owns that document today.

See (1) http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pendergrass/pics/travis/pics_travis.html (2) Young, R. A. Reminiscences. Nashville, Tennessee: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1900. https://readux.library.emory.edu/books/emory%3A7sv2p/pdf/

Killer robots? Not a joke, and I'm not laughing.

Breaking from my trend of reviewing a book I've just read, I have to get on my soapbox and ask, "Are these people crazy?" A "fully autonomous weapon" is one that can be used to kill a human being without human input.  The May 26, 2014 issue of TIME Magazine, page 9, informs us that over the past few years, "the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea have developed drones with technology that could be repurposed to create machines with the ability to open fire without human input."

Are you kidding me?  Has no one seen the Terminator movies?  Ever heard of Skynet?  This is insane.

The TIME article goes on to say that opposition groups have been pushing for "a ban on further developing or deploying the technology ..."  Proponents have pushed back, saying a ban would be premature, and in time the technology could be advanced enough to reduce collateral damage.

Collateral damage?  Is that the only thing we should worry about?  Of course not.  How about the fact that by distancing ourselves from actually pulling the trigger -- or pushing the button -- we make it even easier to kill without compunction.  "I didn't kill those people," an officer might say.  "The drone did it."  Or what if we make drones more and more intelligent, so they can autonomously do our dirty work, only to lose control over them?

Opponents of this technology are hoping the U.N. will issue a ban, but that could take years to materialize.  When a ban on blinding lasers was proposed to the U.N. in 1987, it took eight more years before the ban was issued and three more years before it went into effect.

I worry that the pace of technology development for military purposes may far exceed the pace at which governments can come together to agree on how to use or not use new technology.

April 1865 - Momentous Decisions

April 1865: The Month That Saved AmericaApril 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most people know that Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, and that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox that same month. What most people don't know (but I learned from Winik's excellent book) is that the military and political leadership of both the Union and the Confederacy were involved in momentous decisions in April that helped bring the war to an end, and bring the country back together. These were decisions that, had they been made differently, could've resulted in catastrophe for our nation. Even if the Union had won the war, and the South readmitted, our identity as a unified country might have been in jeopardy. As Winik points out, using contemporary examples, some countries and regions never fully recover from civil wars. To increase the probability of long-lasting peace, Lincoln and Grant chose to disregard the railings of those who would bring shame and severe punishment on the heads of their conquered enemy. Though Jefferson Davis was all for a last-ditch attempt at preserving the Confederacy by sending the army into the hills for prolonged guerrilla warfare, Lee chose the high road, knowing the impact of a sustained war would only make matters far worse than they already were. Winik covers both the strengths and faults of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman, Johnson, Davis, and Forrest, and shows that despite these faults, they made the decisions at the end of the war that enabled the U.S. to come back together.

The only thing I wish Winik had not omitted was a discussion of Lincoln's presidential pardons for high-ranking Confederate officers and officials, and how that played out with Andrew Johnson once he assumed the presidency. I believe Lincoln's policies in this regard played an important role in achieving peace, and Johnson's policies almost aborted this.

For a different but equally engaging account of events in April and May 1865, I highly recommend James L. Swanson's Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse.

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