Modern History

Into the Black

Remember 1981? Yes, it’s a bit fuzzy at this point, but that was the year that manned spaceflight became normal. On the 21st of April, the Space Shuttle Columbia rocketed into orbit. Over the next 30 years, 135 launches were made by the fleet. For the generations who grew up or were born during this era, astronauts traveling to and living in space (on board the International Space Station) became commonplace. This normalcy hid the difficulty and danger that were behind the curtain.

Rowland White‘s Into the Black recounts the epic effort to design and launch the shuttle. It took nearly as long and was every bit as difficult as the Apollo program. In some ways it was more so: Apollo components had to work once; the Shuttles had to survive the rigors of launch and space over and over.

White recounts how the shuttle program was the final project of the Apollo veterans. It was also a fusion of a canceled military space program – complete with astronauts and launch sites – that would be combined with the civilian side.  Technologies such as reusable rocket engines and protection from reentry were beyond state of the art. The drama that unfolded was every bit as exciting as what was told in From Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13.

Danger was never eliminated, but the later losses of the Challenger and Columbia were not, ironically, cause by failures of the orbiters. None of the shuttles ever failed, repeatedly surviving launch stresses and harsh environments that those of us earthbound cannot imagine.

While the shuttles never flew as frequently as envisioned, nor brought the costs of launch down, history will look back on them as making possible what comes next. We are already seeing the turnover of spaceflight to private companies. The International Space Station that the shuttles enabled is an orbital spaceport on the verge of becoming the staging point for new ventures. The government and politics often got in their own way in opening the frontier, but as Into the Black details, the astronauts of the Space Shuttles swung that door wide open.

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Patriot’s Day

Patriot's Day

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Hacksaw Ridge

Veteran’s Day is on November 11th and it once marked the end of World War I. Now it honors all veterans of all wars. Perhaps a good way to remember the sacrifice of many is to see this new film of true events during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II:

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Warnings from Mars

Ray Bardbury’s classic dystopian tale, Fahrenheit 451, is well known as a cautionary tale on censorship and the suppressing of knowledge. It is not his only warning on this danger. In The Martian Chronicles, in the chapter “April 2005 – Usher II,” this scene unfolds:

How could I expect you to know blessed Mr. Poe? …All of his books were burned in the Great Fire…He and Lovecraft and Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce and all the tales of terror and fantasy and horror and, for that matter, tales of the future were burned. They passed a law. Oh, it started very small…[like] a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another…there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.

These warnings, I think, must be taken seriously. Even now, I read of censorship on certain websites, politicians who openly call for suppression of certain views and venues, repeated attempts to control the internet. People who don’t think the suppression of their rights can occur in our age, need to wake up and listen to what Bradbury wrote decades ago.

It all can begin small. Like a grain of sand.

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Did He or Didn’t He?

At the end of World War II the Allies splintered between East and West, and they began carving up Germany and the rest of Europe. Even as the Cold War began to develop, the Allies were rounding up and preparing to try various members of the Nazi regime. It is no secret that while they were doing this, they were also deciding which Nazis to keep for their own purposes (and others would be released early from prison in the following years). This, and the consequences and questions of ethics, have been documented in many books such as The Nazi Next Door and Operation Paperclip.

The Allies also sent investigators to verify the death of Adolf Hitler, since the remains had been burned. There have always been whispers of Hitler escaping, but I’m not one to jump quickly to join conspiracy theories. Then two things happened.

First, there has been the continuing revelations of deception regarding the protecting of many Nazis brought to the U.S., or used in Europe, to “assist” in prosecuting the Cold War. The government’s nonsensical policy of picking and choosing who to use, and who to prosecute, and to occasionally change their mind years later, is a troubling window into what certain people in power do.

Second, something stood out in these accounts of investigating Hitler’s suicide in his bunker. The investigators relied on the testimony on Nazis and evidence provide by them. Continue reading

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13 Hours

Michael Bay gets criticized for his flashy Transformers movies, but say what you will, he does have a tremendous visual style. Now he returns to ground tread in his film Pearl Harbor in 13 Hours:

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As much as I like alien robots, stories about American heroes trump them any day.

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What Could Have Been

Not much holds my attention on television, creativity has plummeted. Leave to Amazon to change that with its original series A Man in the High Castle. Based on famed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s novel, it opens with this disturbing premise:

The Allies lost World War II and the Nazis and Imperial Japan rule the United States.

A fledgling resistance and simmering unrest between Japan and Germany is set in a dystopian 1960s that isn’t exactly the ’60s we remember. The producers have put fort a movie-level effort in the reimagining what the country would be like. The production design, subtle FX and the historical allusions (like the disturbing cause of the “snow” on one scene of the pilot episode) combined with a well-realized plot for an immersive, and cautionary, tale.

Having watched Season 1 in its entirety, one thing is for certain: Amazon has officially put itself on the map for original television (networks take note).

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P.S. Read more on the series here. And muse over the irony of a show on fascism having its ads censored.

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Pandemics, Elementals and Nuclear Missiles

Receive a few gift cards to your favorite book store for Christmas? Well, here are a few suggestions on spending that money:

In one sense, I hesitated to pick up Steven Konkoly‘s The Jakarata Pandemic. Haven’t pandemics and apocalyptic collapse been overdone? Probably, but apocalyptic books have always been a favorite. That, along with the current Ebola threat, encouraged me to give this book a chance. It didn’t disappoint and ripped a story from headlines that had yet to be written. If you want a realistic look at what happens after a major crisis (no zombies, aliens or Godzilla) and what a pandemic could do, The Jakarta Pandemic will keep you on the edge of your seat. Definitely will be reading more from Konkoly. [Similar: One Second After]

While fantasy has been dominated by reluctant male heroes, that has been changing. In Mary Weber‘s Storm Siren, Nymeria is a slave haunted by her past and her ability. An elemental, her influence of the weather is uncontrollable and deadly. Or can her curse be a gift? Written in the first person, very quickly the reader is drawn in wanting to know what happens to Nym as she is drawn into a war of men and within herself. Listed as a “young adult” fantasy — and it is accessible to that group — but so sophisticated and immersive is the world Weber has created that all fantasy fans will be taken in. [Similar: Daughter of Light]

Want some non-fiction that reads like a Tom Clancy novel? Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control will give you and inside look at the Cold War and the tenuous relationship of man with nuclear weapons. If you grew up in the Cold War, and thought the Cuban Missile Crisis was as close as we got, think again. The rush into nuclear armament was peppered with many close calls. Those who did know are still surprised that no nukes have been used, or gone off, outside of test ranges since 1945. Scholosser recounts the history while threading in the account of an armed Titan II that exploded in its silo in 1980. It is also a tale of the many who served quietly in a supposedly “cold” war. A great book on history that we would be amiss to forget and a telling that honors those who died defending our nation. [Similar: 15 Minutes]

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Warnings From the Third Reich

During the 1990s, as 50th year anniversaries of World War II began to come around, accounts of the war filled bookstores, television and film. Veterans who had said little for decades were now telling their stories. Some have wondered why in the years since so much attention has focused on studying Hitler. His motivations. His past. Attempt after attempt to figure out why and how he rose to power. Some think the attention is overdone.

The focus on Hitler isn’t entirely about him. It is also very much about the place. In 1945, as the Germans looked around them at their destroyed nation, more than one had to ask, “How did it come to this?”

Indeed, that is why Hitler and his Reich are studied so much. It all unfolded in nation made up of people very much like us.

Sure World War I, social chaos and the wild economies of the 1930s set the stage for Hitler’s rise. But Germany wasn’t a backwater, tribal nation ripe for a dictator. Germany was a sophisticated western nation with a deep history and a society of technology, intellect and culture.

Yet Hitler still led them down a path of ruin where tens of millions would die. He led a Reich that excelled in horror, destruction and death.

This is why the story of Hitler must be studied and remembered. Evil just doesn’t rise in nations of radicals and extremists. Do yourself a favor and check out the course, History of Hitler’s Empire or this classic volume.

And here look at the philosophies that gave rise to the Reich, which are growing again in our world:

More on those troubling times can be read here. Be vigilant, because wherever you live in this world, do not think evil cannot arise there and take hold. Make sure you don’t ever find yourself in the position to ask, “How did it come to this?”

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Where’s Your Money Going?

Apparently convicted war criminals are.

Unfortunately, not really surprised. After all, the U.S. grabbed up quite a few Nazis after the war, scrubbed their past, and put them to work for the military. Even as some were being prosecuted at Nuremberg — in fact, before the war even ended — others were being vetted for the usefulness in the Cold War in what was called Operation Paperclip. And there began a decades-long policy with Nazis that still doesn’t make much sense.

Those not so valuable to the country were kept out or sent home. Some became exemplary rocket scientists, until someone decided certain ones should be prosecuted years after being effectively give a free pass. We still hunt down aged SS guards with a few years to live, yet many jailed after the war were released early in Cold War Europe to join the new cause.

Yet another lesson highlighting the government’s long downward spiral.

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