Book Review: A Restless Spirit – The Last Months of Manfred von Richthofen.

The books I like to read more than any others are works of historical fiction set in and around World War II.  Give me a new novel by David Downing, Joseph Kanon or Alan Furst, particularly Alan Furst, and everything else I need to do can go to Hell in a hand basket from the moment I crack the front cover until I finish every last word. I’m not saying that Marc Cirigliano is catching up to Furst in terms of style or output and in fact he’s writing about another war – World War I. But the book I just read, A Restless Spirit, The Last Months of Manfred von Richthofen, excited me and made me hope we will see more such treatments from a professor of art history who knows how to tell a good tale.

ace                It wasn’t until I started reading A Restless Spirit that I remembered that we are, in fact, in the middle of the centenary of World War I.  And while a few WWI memorial organizations  and events have sprung up here and there, you can wander around Washington, D.C. and easily miss the WWI Memorial which was erected in a secluded spot on the edge of the Mall to honor DC residents who died in that war.  Meanwhile, the National World War II monument sits between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and if that’s not enough, you can always go across the Potomac and visit the splendid Marine Corps – Iwo Jima memorial which commemorates the great Joe Rosenthal photo of Mt. Suribachi as the men of Company E, 2nd Battalion unfurled the flag.

We only fought for 18 months in World War I and our total casualties, dead and wounded, were slightly more than 50,000 men. We had that many casualties of Confederate and Union fighting men in four days at Gettysburg, and between the British Isles and the Empire, the cost in dead alone from World War I was almost 2 million men.  That perhaps explains why the First World War holds just a sliver of the popular imagination when compared to World War II.  But in many respects, World War I may have been more important in terms of shaping subsequent events.  Both Hitler and Stalin were products of how their countries were ravaged between 1914 and 1918 and it’s doubtful that we would have had World War II if those regimes had not emerged from the chaos and destructiveness of what we now call the Great War.

The terrible cost of the war is brought home in vivid detail by Cirigliano’s descriptions of the air battles engaged in by Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a the Red Baron, whose 80 combat victories not only made him the leading fighter ace of the war, but transformed public consciousness about the value of air technology both during and after the war.  Richthofen, who came from Prussian nobility, was in military service from the day the war began until he died in April, 1918.  He led by example, was fearless in combat and in one month alone was credited with more than 20 enemy kills.

The author nicely weaves portraits of air combat with the day-to-day soldiering duties on the ground; the text puts the reader onto the battlefield, behind the lines, whatever and wherever troops were encamped or making ready for the next attack or defense against the foe.  But within this stressful and dangerous narrative another portrait emerges, that of Richthofen the outdoorsman and hunter who got away from the strains and harm of war by taking his Mauser into the woods.

I really liked the descriptions of Richthofen tramping through the forests around his native Schweidnitz and other spots.  The author tells us that he writes to illustrate “cooperation, self-development, conflict resolution and peace as essential components of the human experience,” and he ties this all together in fulsome descriptions of Richthofen hunting elk and boar. As you can tell, I really enjoyed reading this work and you’ll like it too.



Protecting The Wilderness: Hunters Or Environmentalists?

wildernessIn my last blog about the frontier, I talked about the fact that what we believe was a process of wilderness settlement was probably re-settlement by whites who infected indigenous populations with disease and killed most of them off.  How did this disparity between so-called civilized peoples who conquered the wilderness and so-called uncivilized people who inhabited the wilderness come about?  After all, it was this disparity, – steam and steel versus wood and clay – that allowed us to believe that the frontier marked the border between civilization and wilderness.  In fact, it was our encounter with ‘savages’ (i.e., uncivilized people) that was the proof that wilderness could still be found.

This disparity goes back to the domestication of animals and plants.  Prior to domestication, humans were no different from any other animal species, forced to forage for foodstuffs and move from place to place whenever they consumed more plants or animals than could be reproduced by nature in the area where they happened to be.  Once food could be increased without depending on the natural cycle, humans could cease migrating, develop permanent communities and most important, experience increases in population beyond minimal levels.

This did not mean that civilized communities were yet totally liberated from the natural replacement of foodstuffs; in fact, famines still break out to this day.  But the problem had been definitively resolved in the eastern half of the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century, and as white settlement pushed further into the western frontier, the natural cycle of plant and animal replenishment that governed the existence of indigenous peoples was replaced by commercial farming and herding whose benefits had nothing to do with the relationship of humans to the wilderness at all.

Enter the sportsman-hunter, in the form of elite easterners like Teddy Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.  They didn’t view wildlife as a means of subsistence, killing wild animals was challenging and fun.  Roosevelt owned two cattle ranches in North Dakota and Grinnell bought a cattle operation in Montana.  Both operations supplied food to urban, i.e., civilized communities back east.  Meanwhile, wilderness game quickly began to disappear.  Roosevelt remarked on the scarcity of big game when he spent nearly three weeks trying to shoot a trophy brown bear so that he could display its stuffed head back in New York.

The conservation movement that hunters like Roosevelt and Grinnell founded in the 1890s wasn’t an effort to save the wilderness or roll back the frontier.  It was seen as a necessary effort to regulate hunting so that game birds and animals would survive in areas where the natural balance between man and nature had disappeared.  The early conservationists weren’t conserving wilderness, they were protecting enough habitat to support the natural cycle of animal replenishment that was required for the enjoyment of their sport.

Now enter the environmentalists who started to subsume the conservationists after World War II.   Whereas the traditional conservation movement was rooted in the idea of preserving habitat, the environmentalists, beginning with Rachel Carson, moved towards protecting the larger environment from man-made pollutants and industrial-residential projects.  Thus, the definition of what required protection shifted from animal habitat to human habitat, from preserving where animals roamed to safeguarding where people lived.

But threats to human habitat were not so much ecological as political.  Decisions about where to build highways were political decisions, as were decisions to purify water, create landfills and clean the air. The  environmental movement fed off of civil rights protests, nuclear testing protests and the grand-daddy of them all, the anti-war movement.  In the process, particularly when environmentalism morphed into global warming, the concerns and needs of hunters were swept aside.

And who embraces hunters and never misses an opportunity to remind them of the important role they played in building our great country and conquering the frontier?  You guessed it: the National Rifle Association whose defense of the 2nd Amendment is a brilliant ploy to capture the hearts and minds of hunters like the ones whom President Obama accused of “clinging” to their religion and their guns.

Hunters and environmentalists may think they have little in common with each other, but in fact both groups may be living a myth that still endures.  It was eastern elitists like Roosevelt whose passion for hunting bequeathed the notion of habitat protection to modern-day hunters decidedly not from the upper class.  Meanwhile, it’s today’s elitists, the environmentalists, who seek to protect a wilderness that may have disappeared long before Roosevelt and his friends hunted it away.

This is the second part of a three-part series on hunting and conservation which will form a book to be published by the end of this year.


The NRA’s Answer to Gun Violence: Armed and Dangerous


When I first joined the NRA in 1955, its primary mission, in partnership with the U.S. Government, was to train civilians in marksmanship and gun safety.  In fact the first gun I learned to shoot was a 1903 Springfield army rifle that had been re-chambered in 22lr as a training weapon for World War II.  These venerable guns would have ended up rusting away in some government arsenal except the NRA was allowed to sell them off for a few bucks to shooting clubs around the United States.

When the NRA changed its stance in the 1970s and began running defense of the 2nd Amendment up the flagpole, it also shifted its concerns away from safety and marksmanship to promoting the right of gun owners to use guns for self-defense.  This was partly in response to the crime wave that occurred in many places when drug-addicted soldiers came back from Viet Nam.  It was also tied to the  fear of lawlessness that was a reaction to the riots sweeping through some inner-city neighborhoods at about the same time.

The NRA’s push for using guns in self-defense was also motivated by a change in the demographics of gun ownership and an effort to help gun manufacturers respond to new demographic trends.  In brief, hunting was beginning to decline and the sale of long guns (shotguns and rifles) was experiencing a slow but steady death (no pun intended.)  In the 1970s,  two-thirds of all guns sold commercially in the United States were hunting guns and manufacturers that relied on handgun sales, like Smith & Wesson, needed law enforcement contracts to stay afloat.

This changed in the late 1980s with the “invasion” of high-capacity European pistols like Beretta, Sig and Glock, and the push to normalize the idea that civilians should go around armed. In 1986, only 10 states either had no restrictions on carrying concealed handguns or allowed for unlimited concealed carry following some kind of background check.  As of this year that number had increased to 41.  Most of this growth was due to organized, effective legislative work carried out by the NRA and their state affiliates.  Not surprisingly, it was during the 1990s that handguns began to outpace long guns as the weapons of choice in gun shops, a reversal in long gun to handgun sales that has accelerated to the present day. Currently long gun sales account for less than 40% of all guns and perhaps half of them are the assault rifle look-a-likes that are in such demand.

The NRA has responded to the upsurge in concealed carry licensing and handgun sales by vigorously pushing the idea that crimes are inversely linked to an armed citizenry; i.e., the more people who carry guns, the less crime we will suffer.  They propagate this endlessly and tirelessly; it was a cornerstone of all the convention speeches, it’s peddled by various right-wing researchers and NRA members are exhorted to send in examples of good guys chasing away bad guys for the monthly ‘Armed Citizen’ report.

Of course if people are going to walk around with guns sticking out of their belts, they need proper training.  And the NRA has a special course, Personal Protection Outside the Home, which I am certified to teach, that covers the basics of concealed carry techniques, including types of equipment and using a gun for self-defense.  The multi-day course requires live-fire exercises at distances that might typically occur during an armed confrontation.  In order to be certified as a NRA trainer in this discipline, one must be certified in a series of NRA instructor pistol courses leading up to PPOH, which is considered the pinnacle of handgun instruction.

One thing about NRA training that I always admired was the degree to which every trainer has to show both experience and skills judged by the NRA to gain certification in each training discipline.  And the NRA training manual insists that trainers not only behave in a completely professional manner, but are required to withhold certification from any student who does not demonstrate proper skills or demeanor in shooting.  Every time I took a course as a student or as an instructor that I was part of a long tradition of education and training that adequately prepared me to participate in the shooting sports.

That has now changed.  The NRA recently announced that trainers who teach basic pistol shooting courses can add an extra “module” to the course (and charge additional tuition) covering concealed carry techniques and shooting.  This is an obvious and blatant effort to cash in on the concealed-carry mentality that has boosted handgun sales over the last decade.  But in addition to diluting the curriculum, the standards for instructing have also been relaxed because NRA instructors do not have to be certified in the NRA Personal Protection course; they only need to show some kind of ‘proof’ that they have attended a commercial shooting school, like Thunder Ranch or Gunsite, in order to be certified to offer concealed-carry instruction at an NRA course.

The net effect of this new policy is that people are going to be walking around carrying loaded handguns who have taken a minimal course taught by instructors who may or may not even possess the training credentials that the NRA used to require for teaching concealed carry of handguns.  So while the NRA talks about how armed citizens make our streets and neighborhoods safer, it’s pretty hard to believe that this new policy will do anything other than make people line up to buy more guns whose safe use is far from assured.  For an organization that started out to teach civilians safe gun use, the NRA has come a long way – backwards.