Sunday, December 23, 2007

Death Traps

I just finished up Belton Cooper's memoir Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II. Like any memoir it is largely a narrative account of one individuals experiences. And thus has all the benefits -- and drawbacks -- of the format.

Cooper was an ordinance officer with the 3rd Armored Division "Spearhead" in Europe in WWII. His primary responsibility was organizing, filing, and delivering loss reports as well as organizing equipment replacement. As such, while he was not a front line soldier, he saw much of the after effects of war -- specifically knocked out tanks. As one of the first soldiers on the scene after a battle, he would assess the likelihood that a specific wreck was repairable, or whether it should be written off and a replacement acquired from the depot.

This is where the title of the book comes in. The US Army primarily relied on the M4 Sherman series tanks as their primary medium tank. Cooper is less than charitable about this vehicle, which he feels is markedly inferior to German designs such as the Panther and Tiger. To an extent he is probably right. However, this is a one-way bias, as Cooper could not see things on the German end. Many German tanks, while they had excellent firepower, protection and (in some cases at least) mobility, they suffered in reliability. While tanks like the Panther could (when working properly) overwhelm the Sherman in a straight on gun duel, it had issues with a weak final drive, transmission, and other reliability problems. Not to mention very early marks spontaneously catching on fire when the fuel line failed and sprayed the engine compartment! As a famous Civil War general quoted, its all about who gets there "the fastest with the mostest," and this is what the Sherman did for the US Army.

While one can amiably disagree with Cooper's assessment of the Sherman, a more vexing problem is the number of factual errors in the book. Cooper goes out of his way pointing out the flaws of the M4 Sherman's R975 Radial engine (it had issues with spark plug fouling while idling for an extended period of time), and is more praiseworthy of the later Ford V-8 powered machines (I assume he's talking about the GAA engine), he refers to the R975 Shermans as the M4, and the Ford V-8 Shermans as the M4A1. This is problematic as both the M4 and the M4A1 has the R975 engine (the M4 was basically an M4A1 with a welded -- rather than cast -- armor hull). I presume he is referring here instead to the M4A3, which besides having a better engine, also had more horsepower to play with.

There are other errors, such as referring to most of the 75mm German cannons as PAK (or KwK) 41's, when these should either be 40's (for the PAK 40 L/46 or the KwK 40 L/48 in the Panzer IV), or the KwK 42 in the Panther. While the average reader would never notice (or perhaps care) about the difference, someone looking at the book with a more scholarly or professional eye will find it suspect.

That aside, there were a few areas I found very interesting. Apparently, Cooper was involved with the Super Pershing project. This tank was to be the answer to the German King Tiger tanks. It mounted a longer, 90mm L/70 cannon designed to kill Tigers. When the 3rd Armored took issue with its example, it was uparmored with scrap armor plate salvaged from knocked out German vehicles. As such it was a bit overweight and nose-heavy, causing it some reliability issues. It also totally failed to get an opportunity to fulfill its designed role (it encountered no Tiger IIs). Also interesting is Cooper's discussion of the immediate post war period. I would have liked to seen more information on the rebuilding and occupation of Germany, but unfortunately, there was not much devoted to this. The 3rd Armored was slated to depart for the Pacific and the War against Japan (though fortunately for them, the Atom Bombs cut short that assignment).

To diverge in a bit of irony, I found it interesting comparing Cooper's complaints about the Sherman in Europe, and its performance in the Pacific. The Japanese did not have a tank park that was anywhere near as effective as the Sherman. Nearly ever Japanese tank was obsolete, or of poor quality compared to the Sherman. I suspect if the 3rd Armored were to enter the War in the Pacific during the invasion of Kyushu, roles would have been quite reversed.

In the end a memoir is more like an anecdotal look at war. I found it entertaining, but then I also didn't think it revealed any new information about the war. This is not to say it is any less of value (the more veterans that die each year, the more of their stories are lost to posterity), but perhaps the book is best approached when one has already a general background on the subject, or at least used in conjunction with such a work.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Left Hand of Darkness

Sometimes you're just not ready for a certain book. That was definitely the case for Ursula K. le Guin's classic _Left Hand of Darkness_. I has started reading it some time ago -- perhaps ten years ago or more -- and at that time I'm not sure I had the mental maturity to appreciate the book (I was still in High School when I started reading it). Now that I've had a bit of life experience as well as reading exposure, I came back to the book and thoroughly enjoyed it!

This book firmly belongs in the camp of "Soft Science Fiction." What technology and science existed in the novel were there merely for background. Instead, she explores the meaning (or our preconceptions) about gender. This is accomplished through a species of Man inhabiting a forgotten colony world that has no gender. Or rather, has both genders in one. It would be a mistake to call these people hermaphrodites, since their sexual role (as either male or female) only manifests itself in the short period of "heat (called "Kemmer)," with either individual capable of going in one direction or another.

Into this is thrust Genly Ai, an emmisary from the Ekumen, a cultural and trade alliance uniting the lost colonies of mankind after some sort of unspecified disaster (war?). And of course his struggles to deal with these people who could be both men or woman -- often at the same time.

I must admit wrapping my head around such a gender disparaty was a challenge. Perhaps it is my own ideas about gender roles that intruded itself on the narrative. I found it difficult at times to remember that the characters (other than the protagonist, which is male). It was easy to fall into assigning those gender roles, since most of the characters are either gender neutral (and thus because of my male oriented bias I naturally assigned the male gender to those characters), or show a slight male bias. It didn't really start falling together for me until Genly and Estraven began fleeing across the ice, and Ursula challenged the reader with the two characters closeness.

Nonetheless, I also felt the book was too short, and there were issues I would have liked to seen explored more. I'm not convinced of Ursula's handling of (for lack of a better term) mating customs. There is no marriage per se, and when individuals feel the "need" they seek out others in Kemmer and ... well... let nature take its course. Families, therefore, are clannish rather than nuclear, with participation in rearing by other clan members (except in Ogoreyn, where socialism seems to have taken root, and children are wards of the state or such). I'm not so sure such types of organization would necessarily work, especially since my biological need to protect and nurture my daughter (as a father) is a very powerful one, and I can't imagine a society in which all fathers would not feel a similar attachment (despite the fact that there are plenty of fathers today who apparently feel no special attachment to their own brood...). I think a bit more exploration of this aspect was necessary.

Another aspect is that Ursula introduced a sort of supernatural mental abilities into the book that didn't serve any purpose except to show that despite the mutual affection Genly and Estraven had, such a level of intimacy (I think here Le Guin may have been making a point about the "mentalities" that separate men and women) is still not possible or sometimes even desirable (but at times -- especially when under stress -- become natural). The Gethenites (as the natives referred to their world) developed independently their own traditions of super-ordinary mental abilities (mostly focused on prescience it seems). The questions I would have is why did they develop abilities in this area, but not in the area of mindtalk that Genly's traditions developed? How does this relate to their unique gender? Is fortune-telling a feminine trait (doubt it)?

In the end, I think it would be illuminating to talk to a woman that had also read this book independently, and see if her perspective is different than mine, and to explore the book more fully.