Sunday, April 24, 2016

This Is Serbia Calling

In all wars and under all authoritarian regimes that I have heard of, there has been an underground movement of some sort or another.  I admit that I know very little of many of them.  Whether it be the Underground Railroad of the American Civil War period or the resistance efforts during Germany’s World War II-era conquest of Europe or the people in the former Soviet Union who yearned for freedom and did what they could, the stories are spell-binding.  Some, of course, are better than others, but I find it hard to pass judgement on those who made only small contributions to resistance movements; they did what they could in an atmosphere where even the littlest action against a tyrannical government could and often did result in death, sometimes for one’s family and friends, too.  I hadn't really heard about such people when it came to the Bosnian War, but I figured there had to be some.

Book cover.This Is Serbia Calling: Rock 'n' Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance by Matthew Collin (ISBN: 1-85242-776-0), tells about a few of the people who tried to change the minds of Serbians during the war with Bosnia & Herzegovina.  I found the very idea of someone going against what Serbia's ironically-named (his first named means free) despot, Slobodan Milošević, worth reading about.  The book tells the story of how what is now Serbia's second-largest TV and radio station came to be, how it presented a constant message that went against the ultra-nationalist propaganda of the Serbian ruler.  It was often a dangerous message, one that resulted in jail time, seized property, and the constant fear of death and beatings.  Most of the radio station's personnel suffered only lightly, but others in the political opposition were murdered.  B92 struggled to present a message that would galvanize the people of Serbia against the war, and once that was over, against the government that had brought so much trouble to their land.  B92 was no great supporter of NATO or the West when they started bombing Serbia during the Serbian campaign in Kosovo, but mostly stayed on message as they continued to denounce the their corrupt president.  They brought a message of hope and freedom to the people, which ultimately resulted in the people of Serbia taking to the streets and quickly, with minimal bloodshed, throwing Milošević out of power.

The book was an interesting history told from an unusual perspective (and in the highly charged vocabulary of the Balkans).  The other resistance movements I've read about have not had such an open presence as B92, a radio station, did.  Milošević had a strategy that left those dissenting voices around that he figured didn't really matter, so there's probably an argument to be made about the real threat B92 presented the regime, but the fact that they were eventually taken over, probably means they were too effective for the regime's liking at the spreading of their pro-democratic message.  I was intrigued by their dislike for the West, even though Western governments were pumping money and manpower into keeping B92 and other anti-Milošević organizations relevant.  I liked reading about how, once Milošević was deposed, most people involved in the movements against him just returned to their everyday lives.  They weren't seeking power or fame, just freedom.  They were willing to stand up for what they believed, some at considerable risk to their physical safety or even lives.  It was great to read about people desiring freedom, taking matters into their own hands, and working to get it.

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Monday, March 07, 2016

Blood and Vengeance

The stories of war are always fascinating.  It seems to me that when I read about it, the best and the worst of people come to light, and those extremes are interesting.  The vast majority of my experience with learning about life during war comes from WWII.  Its stories have captivated me from an early age, likely because I heard my grandpa’s stories of being a soldier in the Pacific theater and the stories of my grandma and grandpa on the other side as civilians in wartime Germany.  I have always been exposed to both sides and found worthwhile stories in both.  Modern warfare also has its heroes and bravery and villians and cowardice.  War is, of course, an overall saddening thing, usually rather senseless, but there are incredible stories and great lessons to be learned.

Book cover.Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia by Chuck Sudetic (ISBN: 978-0-393-33548-4) is, indeed, and incredible story.  It follows one Bosniak (Muslim) family from the final few years of Yugoslavia through the end of the Bosnian War.  The information about life in an obscure village on the border of Bosnia and Serbia serves a great purpos in the book; it sets up what life was like in so many places.  Ethnic hatred simmered under the Communist cover of “brotherhood and unity.”  When the lid provided by party was gone, it boiled over and escalated quickly.  Based on personal interviews in the first few years after the war, the stories of fights, flights, bomb shelters, forced marches, and genocide are raw and personal.  The Muslim villgers, chased from their homes, their neighbors floating face down in Bosnia’s famous Drina river, seek shelter in neighboring villages progressively farther and farther from the fields and dirt paths of their nativity before finally reaching Srebrenica, where many would meet their ultmate demise.  Along the way, they face a very personal enemy, their former friends and neighbors.  At Srebrenica, the Bosniaks think they have found relief since the UN has provided for them a safe zone.  They soon find out that the realities of international policy are far from cut and dry, and the safe zone has little in common with the word “safe.”  Here, Sudetic relies on articles, documents, and archive material, painting a picture of great power ineptitude.  Eventually, the war comes to an end, but not without changing forever the lives of those involved, some, paradoxically, possibly for the better.

The highly charged (the book is littered with Bosnian swearing, which is very representative of the linguistic realities of the Balkans) narrative is raw, personal, and oftimes graphic.  An accurate portrayal of the horror of war compounded by the atrocity of genocide is not likely possible to portray any other way.  I, a far removed observer, found it interesting.  These personal stories have a place in history.  Living in the Balkans, I wish I had an opportunity to hear them with my own ears, but the younger generation doesn’t remember them because they were not a part of it — at least not significantly — and it’s usually an impropriety to ask the older generation about it.  This made the book a gripping read.  I was somewhat skeptical at first because the author is distantly related (by marriage) to the main family in the book.  I found, though, that the story was objective.  There were mistakes on both sides.  In addition, like many families of the times in Yugoslavia’s dying years, the Bosniaks of the book were intermarried with Serbs.  There was really no clear-cut delineation between the ethnicities (throughout the book, soldiers, gangs, and others resorted to what was the only sure-fire way to tell if a man was Muslim or not: they demanded prisoners drop their pants to check for circumcision), making the whole genocidal aspect of the war that much more senseless.  The author had a clear anti-UN bent, but painted NATO in a more positive light, which probably aligns with my own thoughs on that matter.  The massacre of Srebrenica was just as depressing as always.  The truly eastern European moments of deeply rooted superstition and bizarre folk belief mingled with the Koran and an Orthodox view of Christianity (both willing to accept a certain degree of mysticism) provided some lighthearted moments in an otherwise dark book, mostly because it brought to mind my own run-ins with the eastern European mentality.  A witch riding a broom around a yard to remove a hex from a cow is something to never be forgotten.  Finally, out of the mess there was a ray of hope, which also mirrors my personal experience in eastern Europe.  A Bosniak who had never seen himself doing anything but walking behind a yoke of oxen in field in a village named for cabbage, now found himself living in the capital city, forging a way forward through owning a business and seeing it as a step up and a way forward.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

When Character Was King

Technically, since he was president until 1981, Jimmy Carter was the first president in my life, but I was too little to know anything about him, so Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981 to 1989, is the president who I think of first when I think of the first U.S. president during my lifetime.  Reagan is famous for a number of things, all of which those who like to politicize everything argue about.  One is economic policy, which I don't think I'd ever heard about or even thought about as a kid.  Another was foreign policy, and even as a kid, I was pretty attuned to this.  Russia and her satellite states broadcast an ideology of oppression, were a clear and present nuclear threat, and fought wars and proxy wars to spread misery and oppression.  In a way, it had a personal connection.  I was well aware of my German heritage and was always fascinated by Germany.  Germany, of course, was separated by a wall, and not a wall of defense, but one meant to prevent people from leaving, from seeking a better life or from the "pursuit of happiness."  Reagan, famously, called on Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down [the] wall!"  Even as a young kid, I understood that Reagan was a man of principles and a man who knew how to lead.

Book cover image.In When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan by Peggy Noonan (ISBN: 978-0-14-200168-4), the former Reagan staffer (speechwriter), journalist, and columnist gives her take on the fortieth president.  The story starts when Reagan was a kid and ends as he succumbs to the Alzheimer's and the ailments of time.  One learns where he got his worldview from and how his early life influenced where he got.  Reagan's father, I learned, was an alcoholic, but he still imbued his son with principles that served him well in seeing the greatness in all people and in upholding America's tradition of equality.  Reagan's mother was a strongly and actively Christian woman, which also became a major part of his character.  He believed in God and believed God wanted to be part of people's lives.  One reads about Reagan's involvement in Hollywood.  He was arguably an up-and-coming star, but never went big time because he got involved in the actors' union and the more political side of things.  His political career was dogged by accusations of being just an actor, and acting likely helped him as he campaigned, but his real talent was likely in speechmaking to begin with.  The book recounts Reagan's entry into politics.  He was not, it seems, overly ambitious, but saw his involvement as a chance to help people, and that's where character came in.  Reagan had standards and stuck to them, providing for people a stable and strong standard behind which they could rally.  He was unabashedly religious, had no tolerance for racism, and knew that there was a distinct difference between democratic forms of government with capitalistic and those of the "evil empire," the Soviet Union.  Principles made it so Reagan, with an unwavering rear guard in his wife, Nancy, could set goals — goals based on character and principles — and achieve them, improving lives around him in the process.

I really didn't know what to think about the book before reading it, but I did somewhat doubt the decision to pick it up since I figured a weightier biography of one of America's all-time great presidents might've been in order before this shorter one that could really only promise an overview of the many things Reagan undertook and accomplished.  I learned some things about the man and his life, though, and was happy with the depth of the information about the bigger events in his life.  I thought Noonan did an admirable job with what might be called the backstory to Reagan's political career, which is really where his character was formed — in his childhood, in college, and as an actor and union activist.  I think she made a good argument for the role that character played in what Reagan was able to accomplish, whether it was overcoming political defeat, recovering strongly from being shot, or helping bring about the demise of Soviet Communism.  Overall, the book was an enjoyable read and really only solidified my view of Reagan as one of the all-time great presidents.  There were things I liked about the Bushes, but the book's title says it all about Reagan and that era, because it wasn't principles in certain times, as I feel it was with the Bushes, but princpled, strong leadership all the time.  It also made me want to learn more, so I will, someday, find my way into a weightier, more academic biography of this great man.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gulliver's Travels

I am not a big movie fan, but a few years ago, the comedy actor Jack Black did a movie based on the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels.  I don’t much care for movies, so I know even less about actors.  What I did know was that Jack Black made a movie about being a Mexican professional wrestler.  It looked massively dumb, and I never saw it.  Black’s modernized take on the classic novel didn’t look much better, and I avoided it, too.  I hadn’t ever read the book, but, as everyone knows, the book is better than the movie.

Book cover. Gulliver’s Travels (ISBN: 0-14-143949-1) by Jonathan Swift is an interesting novel that was originally published as political satire.  Now far removed from the contentious political scene of XVIII-century Great Britain, it has withstood the test of time and continues to be popular.  This is mostly thanks to the first part of the book, where the book’s hero, Lemuel Gulliver, visits Lilliput, home to a humanoid race only inches tall.  Gulliver has a number of adventures in this part of the world, including participating in a battle and putting out fires, which saves the island’s royalty.  He also ends up being trapped in some distant land where the inhabitants are giants, which also provides for some adventure, but mostly being carried around in a box by a girl.  Gulliver’s third voyage features a few different islands and a people who have figured out how to live on a machine that perpetually floats in the sky, landing only if the inhabitants are trying to crush the people on the ground below.  Finally, Gulliver finds himself in a land where the ruling inhabitants are horses.  The most inferior race in this quarter of the world are essentially humans, but in a wild and feral form.  In each place, Gulliver is exposed to differing methods of government and people.  He seems to learn from each, although always very patriotic when it comes to his homeland.  Finally, after his visit to the land of the horse beings, he is disgusted with mankind, claiming it to not think and to be disgusting and wild in nature.

I, like most modern readers, did not get much of the political satire in the book.  I would probably agree with many others that the Lilliput episode was the highlight as far as adventures went.  The other sections were significantly drier, although they still had their interesting points.  I noticed that by the end, although likely starting in the third episode, I was more attuned to the commentary on the behavior of people.  One of the points that Swift made multiple times in the book is that people spend a lot of time in conflict with one another because we choose to magnify little differences.  He also thought people succumb to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, especially when it comes to the pursuit of scientific and technological advancement.  Finally, Swift, as I read him, was a big proponent of honesty.  If people would be honest in their dealings and in what they say, the likelihood of our never-ending conflicts decreases to a large degree.  The combination of the story of travel and adventure with commentary was interesting, although I think it tended to detract from the book a little, making it too slow in places.  I thought it was a decent book, but probably not one that I would pick up and read again just for the fun of it.

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Monday, December 07, 2015

Rise and Fall

Yugoslavia did not play a large role in my life until I came to Sarajevo for work.  I was too young, really, for the 1984 Olympics to mean anything.  I vaguely remember the old, small, black-and-white television showing ice skating competitions from the games.  Later, I learned that Yugoslavia was part of the Communist bloc.  Beyond that, I knew nothing of it and heard nothing of it until the 1990s, when it all, quite literally, blew up.  War, ethnic cleansing, and genocide are probably not what the peoples of this Balkan region wanted to have help them get on the map, so to speak, but it did.  There has been no shooting here for twenty years, but when people learn that I am working in Sarajevo, 90% of the time, they ask about the war and if that makes it a problem to live, work, and play in Sarajevo.  The effects, of course, do, but the war, of course, does not.

Book cover.Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas (ISBN: 0-15-177572-9) provides one man’s (Djilas (Đilas) himself) view of the Communist rise to power in Yugoslavia.  Since he was one of Tito’s closest aides and advisors, he provides an inside perspective that is largely unrivaled.  He also chronicles what he considers the falling away of the Yugoslav Communists from their revolutionary ideals.  As he comes to realize that Communism, as implemented in Yugoslavia, isn’t what was promised, he becomes disillusioned with it, enough so that he published material critical of Tito and the Communists, leading to nine years as a political prisoner.  Djilas covers a lot of ground in a little over 400 pages.  He gives a short account of the wartime Communists, but mostly focuses on life under Tito after the war.  He talks about foreign relations, internal politics, bizarre Communist Party perks like special stores for the elite party members, the cult of personality surrounding Tito, and the oppressive nature of a totalitarian or dictatorial political system.  Interestingly, Djilas’s falling out was not with Communism; it was with what Communism had developed into in Yugoslavia.  The reader even gets a small glimpse into Djilas’s personal life as he discusses his marriages.  Finally, the totalitarian oppression claims the once high-ranking government official and he spends almost a decade as a prisoner because of his ideas, not necessarily even that radical.

If one wants to study Yugoslav history at all, this is likely not the appropriate place to start.  Djilas made his name in the West because he was considered a dissident in a system that the West saw as inherently evil (rightly so) even though he was not proposing anything radical and certainly not a departure from Communism.  While that contributes to my thinking that Djilas was not the best person to take up as any kind of symbol or hero of the opposition in Yugoslavia, that is what happened, and this book is one of the results.  It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the history of Yugoslavia, which, if one lacks, results in a rather dry read in places.  On the other hand, the intimate insider view of things is appreciated and unique.  I found his discussion of Yugoslavia’s short-lived falling out with Russia fascinating.  Many modern Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians paint Yugoslavia as different from many of the other Eastern bloc countries for a few different reasons.  One of those reasons, they proudly proclaim, is that they weren’t just a puppet state of the U.S.S.R., like the Warsaw Pact nations.  Reading Djilas’s take, Yugoslavia towed the line set by Moscow as much as it could, so things really weren’t that different.  Those types of insights made for an interesting read.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

To the Rescue

I have always looked up to Church leaders as good examples, and the prophets in particular.  Since President Kimball died when I was only 5 years old, I only vaguely remember him.  I remember President Benson better, in large part because of his lifelong commitment to Scouting, and he was the prophet while I was heavily involved in Scouts.  I remember President Hunter mostly because the Bountiful Temple was dedicated while he was the prophet, and I participated in that temple’s open house and dedication.  President Hinckley is probably the first prophet I remember because of the things he taught.  He is also the first one that I looked to as a role model.  He was a very positive person and chose to see the bright side of life, no matter the situation.  Before President Monson was even the president of the Church, I saw him as a role model.  His many stories, most of them based on his personal experiences, showed that he had developed many of the character traits that truly good people possess.  Over and over again, I found myself listening and thinking that I should, somehow, implement what he was talking about in my own life.

Book cover image.To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson by Heidi S. Swinton (ISBN: 978-1-60641-898-7) chronicles the amazing life of service that President Monson has led from an early age through the present day.  The timeline for the biography is straight forward, starting with his early childhood and ending with his time as the leader of the Church.  He learned from parents and family around him in what was, at the time, a typical childhood.  It follows him through high school, a mission, early marriage, employment, and a variety of Church callings.  Along the way, there are many familiar stories, but there are sometimes some additional details that weren’t always part of the many sermons President Monson has given.  There were also some additional stories.  It was interesting to read about President Monson’s family a little bit and about his professional experienes.  There was a lot of time spent on President Monson’s service as an apostle in what was then East Germany.  The Church history aspect was interesting, as it was with some of the other episodes from his life, but they often seemed more like pioneer stories because of the great faith shown and the hardships endured.  What was consistent no matter what part of his life was being discussed was the dedication he showed to serving others, whether that be in his family or those around him.  President Monson was never too busy to help someone out, talk to them, visit them, give them a blessing, or share time and possessions with them.  It becomes abundantly clear as the life of this man is chronicled that he understands very well that Heavenly Father is serious when He says that the worth of souls is great in His sight.  President Monson has cultivated that genuine love and concern that is a trait of our divine Father and made it a part of his own personality. 

I never really doubted I would find the book interesting, but I think that I underestimated the power behind the stories.  There is sense of warmth and comfort in the stories from home, whether they be from his childhood or when he was a father.  The stories of service, love, and compassion are often familiar, but never dull.  In fact, they’re just the opposite.  They are inspiring and teach true principles.  I don’t necesssarily remember the details of who, when, or how, but a desire to be more in tune with the Spirit and more ready to help others is clearly left in your mind and heart after reading even a few pages.  Really, you can’t ask much more out of a book.  Thomas S. Monson has led and continues to lead an extraordinary life of service.  It is one worthy of emulation and one about which reading is well worth one’s time.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Surviving Hitler

World War II has always been fascinating to me.  As a kid, it was simply the aircraft and other military hardware that intrigued me.  Outside of the big bombers, I especially found half-tracks to be interesting.  Another thing that is interesting about World War II is that the Axis and Allies alliances were clear and were fighting for a clear right and wrong.  It makes it easy to read about the bold heroes that risked their lives, often losing them, fighting for what was right.  The resistance fighters, brave soldiers, everyday people joining the underground, and those who had the physical and mental stamina to survive the truly horrid death camps were heroes to be admired.  Their steadfastness in selflessly choosing the right is to be copied.  I have no question of that today, but sensed it even as a young child.

Book cover.Surviving Hitler: The Unlikely True Story of an SS Soldier and a Jewish Woman by O. Håkan Palm (ISBN: 978-1-60907-847-8) tells the story of two of the everyday people that made it through the horrors of war.  A memoir- or journal-style narrative takes the reader through the lives of the young woman, Agnes Erdös, a Hungarian ethnic Jew, and Gustav Palm, a Norwegian, as World War II placed its heavy imprint on their lives.  The Germans invaded Norway and Gustav joined the German army.  He was a good soldier who had luck on his side a couple times.  Agnes was raised in a well-to-do family, but as Hungary fell to the occupying forces, her life abruptly changed, and she ended up as one of the many in the Nazi concentration camps.  Sheer determination, coupled with a strength fortified by faith in God, got her through that most awful experience.  Through a series of events, both of them found themselves in Scandinavia after the war, trying to put their lives back together.  They met each other, fell in love, and were married.  Part of the healing process was a search for ultimate truth, and they found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  There are some reminiscences from the author, the couple’s son that makes it seem that the healing process was a slow and often painful one, but these good people, who had endured much, forged on, helping others throughout the rest of their lives, ultimately conquering the scars of war.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, which is probably a little more of an endorsement than I thought I would be giving when I first opened it.  The reason I didn’t think I’d like it when I started is because of the journal-like format where you read a chapter from one person’s point of view, then a chapter from the others, and then back again.  It makes it seem a bit fluffier and not the kind of solid history book I would normally want to read.  I found it an interesting story, though, and maybe a first-hand account isn’t so bad since more thorough and scholarly histories have already been written.  This gives a unique voice to one of the many different aspects of the terrible war.  Notwithstanding my enjoyment of the book, I still think the title is a little sensationalist.  Gustav, the SS soldier in the story, was not a German Nazi bent on the extermination of the Jews or some other hateful ideology.  He was a young man who made what turned out to be an ill-fated decision.  At the time, he made the best decision he could based on what he knew.  It just so happened that he fought for the Germans.  In some notes to the book, someone explained that President Thomas S. Monson had met the couple and encouraged them to turn their story into a book.  I am not sure what he saw in the story, but my guess is that it was something similar to me — a story that makes the power of the atonement and the miracle of forgiveness that much more real.  For a different look at the war and bit of a human interest angle, the book is an interesting and quick read.

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