On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in a typhoon of steel and firepower without precedent in history. In spite of telltale signs and repeated warnings, Joseph Stalin who had indulged in wishful thinking was caught completely off guard. He was so stunned that he became almost catatonic, shutting himself in his dacha, not even coming out to make a formal announcement. It was days later that he regained his composure and spoke to the nation from the heart, awakening a decrepit albeit enormous war machine that would change the fate of tens of millions forever. By this time, the German juggernaut had advanced almost to the doors of Moscow, and the Soviet Union threw everything that it had to stop Hitler from breaking down the door and bringing the whole rotten structure on the Russian people’s heads, as the Führer had boasted of doing.
Among the multitudes of citizens and soldiers mobilized was a shortsighted, overweight Jewish journalist named Vasily Grossman. Grossman had been declared unfit for regular duty because of his physical shortcomings, but he somehow squeezed himself all the way to the front through connections. During the next four years, he became one of the most celebrated war correspondents of all time, witnessing human conflict whose sheer brutality beggared belief. To pass the time in this most unreal of landscapes, Grossman had a single novel to keep him company – War and Peace. It was to prove to be a prophetic choice. Read more »
S. C. Gwynne’s “Hymns of the Republic” is an excellent book about the last, vicious, uncertain year of the Civil War, beginning with the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 and ending with the proper burial of the dead in Andersonville Cemetery in May 1865. The book weaves in and out of battlefield conflicts and political developments in Washington, although the battlefields are its main focus. While character portraits of major players like Lee, Grant, Lincoln and Sherman are sharply drawn, the real value of the book is in shedding light on some underappreciated characters. There was Clara Barton, a stupendously dogged and brave army nurse who lobbied senators and faked army passes to help horrifically wounded soldiers on the front. There was John Singleton Mosby, an expert in guerilla warfare who made life miserable for Philip Sheridan’s army in Virginia; it was in part as a response to Mosby’s raids that Sheridan and Grant decided to implement a scorched earth policy that became a mainstay of the final year of the war. There was Benjamin Butler, a legal genius and mediocre general who used a clever legal ploy to attract thousands of slaves to him and to freedom; his main argument was that because the confederate states had declared themselves to be a separate country, the Fugitive Slave Act which would allow them to claim back any escaped slaves would not apply. Read more »
What makes a revolutionary scientific or technological breakthrough by an individual, an organization or even a country possible? In his thought provoking book “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries”, physicist and biotechnology entrepreneur Safi Bahcall dwells on the ideas, dynamics and human factors that have enabled a select few organizations and nations in history to rise above the fray and make contributions of lasting impact to modern society. Bahcall calls such seminal, unintuitive, sometimes vehemently opposed ideas “Loonshots”. Loonshots is a play on “moonshots” because the people who come up with these ideas are often regarded as crazy or anti-establishment, troublemakers who want to rattle the status quo.
Bahcall focuses on a handful of individuals and companies to illustrate the kind of unconventional, out of the box thinking that makes breakthrough discoveries possible. Among his favorite individuals are Vannevar Bush, Akira Endo and Edwin Land, and among his favorite organizations are Bell Labs and American Airlines. Each of these individuals or organizations possessed the kind of hardy spirit that’s necessary to till their own field, often against the advice of their peers and superiors. Each possessed the imagination to figure out how to think unconventionally or orthogonal to the conventional wisdom. And each courageously pushed ahead with their ideas, even in the face of contradictory or discouraging data. Read more »