Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: Restless Souls by Phil Thornton

Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-burma Border Paperback by Phil Thornton (Author)
  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Asia Books (2006)
  • ISBN-10: 9748303918
  • ISBN-13: 978-9748303918
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces

I finally read this book (I picked it up in Thailand in 2011 when I was visiting Mae Sot and Chiang Mai so it's about time. It gives good descriptions of conditions in Mae Sot, Thailand on the Burmese border circa 2006 and the terrible conditions and events that are routine there. Too many of these problems continue to exist.

It also, much to my surprise has graphic descriptions of the harm that is sometimes caused when people seek medical help from "traditional healers." If one is seeking information on what some "alternative treatment modalities" can do (i.e. cause infection and then spread it until a limb needs to be amputated) I recommend you check out this book. If you have an interest in alternative medicine it's worth checking out.

Of course, if one is interested in Burma (Myanmar), refugees, or the Karen people and their horrible political situation, this book is well worth checking out for that too. I preferred it over "For us surrender is out of the question," as the author of "Restless Souls" has more experience with the issues and their complexity. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Karen New Year in Albany --Janurary 11, 2015

Greetings, here's a few photos from the Karen New Year celebration in Albany, New York. It was a big event with Karen from all of the state present as well as others. Not as interactive as I'd hoped, it was largely a spectator oriented sort of event, but it was quite good. 

The Karen people of New York State are taking progressively greater strides towards organizing the event themselves. For instance, this was the first year the Karen had handled the liability issues for the event themselves. Yes, having overcome war, famine, and political persecution, these people are now beginning to face the new challenges of New York State and its massive bureaucratic regulations.  

First, we have a photo of me!! Yeah, that's me on the right. I was invited to gave a talk. I was thrilled to death. Alas, my talk sucked and the Karen attendees wished I'd cut it short so they could see more singers and dancers. They were thrilled, however, that I was able to say hello and thank you in Thai, English, Burmese, Sqaw Karen, and Pwo Karen, as well as Spanish (I threw the last one in for a joke. Alas, the Karen did not really like my jokes. Oh well, I've put in my time. I've got a right to tell jokes. 

Finally, we've got another photo of me, that's me, back of my head on the left, with one of the organizers, a very intelligent Karen woman, and a reporter from the Daily Gazette in Schenectady. I used to write a lot of op-ed pieces for them but it's been a while since they've used much by me, Alas! 

Now here's what they wanted to see instead of yours truly. Dancing and seeing girls! Really, who can blame them?  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: Reconnaissance and Bomber Aces of World War 1

Reconnaissance and Bomber Aces of World War 1, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces -123.
Written by John Guttman, and Illustrated by Harry Dempsey.

Scope – Narrow, focuses on a very specific subject.
Completeness – Amazingly so.
Appeal –limited to a specific audience. 
Accuracy –Although I’m not able to judge, considering that it’s the author’s 18th book on world war one aviation related subjects, it’s probably incredibly accurate.

Years ago, in high school, a friend of mine and I used to mock the Osprey books we saw in the hobby stores because of the obscurity and limitedness of some of their titles. Although we were snot-nosed teenagers unwittingly displaying our ignorance, this is exactly the sort of book we would target.  This 96 page book focuses, as the title says, on aces, people who shot down five or more enemy planes, while serving in the larger planes of the era, the ones with two man or larger crews. These larger planes were not intended to be used as fighters but instead, as the title indicates, were assigned to reconnaissance or bombing duties. Nevertheless, these planes and their crews often saw direct combat with enemy aircraft and a surprising number of their crewmembers became aces. This book tells the little known story of the world war one fighter aces who served in these large planes.
If this subject interests you, ignore any mocking teenagers who see no value in it. If this subject interests you, then this book should make you very, VERY happy indeed. 

Divided by nation, this book covers aces from the military air units of France, the United Kingdom, the U.S.A., Germany and Austro-Hungary. (Apparently these were the only nations who had people who became aces while flying multiperson crewed planes.)  

For each nation it discusses the planes that were used and their weaponry. (No surprise to Osprey fans.) This was interesting. For instance, I was very surprised to learn at how often, particularly when a machine gun would jam, a crewman would pull out a carbine and start firing at enemy planes and crew.

But, perhaps more interestingly, this book attempts to provide a brief biography of almost every Reconnaissance and bomber ace of the First World War. These are generally fascinating. We learn where people were born, how they came to be part of the crew of one of these planes, and, if they survived the war, where they went to next and what they did with the rest of their lives.  We learn of French aces who spent their senior years trying to sort out the division of their country into Vichy and Free French forces, Austro-Hungarians being involved in Czech independence, Americans chasing wild flying feats to earn prizes offered by pineapple tycoons, and more.  As would be expected many of these men had fascinating lives both before and after the war. –they were world war one flying aces after all, and one can’t get more exotic and exciting than that.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book REview -- Osprey Tombstone, --Wyatt Earp,the O.K. Corral, and the Vendetta Ride 1881-1992

Tombstone –Wyatt Earp, the O.K. Corral, and the Vendetta Ride 1881-82. Osprey Raid -41.
Written by Sean McLachlan, Illustrated by Mark Stacey and Johnny Shumate.

Scope – Narrow and well defined.
Completeness – Very.
Appeal – High, well presented.
Accuracy – open to debate

This 80 page, well-illustrated book covers the famed gunfight at the O.K. Coral. This occurred on October 26, 1881 in the town of Tombstone, Arizona.  In this much retold and often fictionalized incident of the old West, two factions, the Clantons and the Earps, faced off and settled their differences with gunplay. 

The story has been retold many times. And like most such true tales of the American West, in many different ways. (For an amusing approach to trying to make sense of the facts amidst myriad confusing reports, of an old Western gunfighter’s life, I recommend “Billy the Kid, the Endless  Ride,” by Michael Wallis (2007, ww Norton & Company, New York, New York).  Wallis, repeatedly, does a great job of surveying conflicting claims and weighing their pros and cons and validity in a manner that is both scholarly and amusing at the same time. Although this book acknowledges such problems, it does not, for reasons of space, go into them in as much space.) Therefore, while at times this book is forced to simply repeat two (or more) conflicting reports of the same incident, it still does do a good job of explaining the whos, the wheres, the whys, and the hows, of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Coral.  

In the early 1880s, Tombstone, Arizona was a frontier town struggling with a political divide. On both sides of this divide were armed men with a proven history of violence.
The Earp faction represented the law in the town. Although most considered the enforcement and strictness of the law in this time and place had to be a bit “fuzzy” and flexible at times, nevertheless, these were the men who were assigned to keep order and maintain the peace. Today, the three brothers, Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp, along with their friend “Doc” Holliday, a dentist by trade, are almost household names and their exploits real and imagined have been the focus of countless movies.

The Clantons, the other side of the dispute, were a group of ranchers who represented the “Cowboys” faction.  (that is what they were commonly called at the time .)  The activities of the group included not just buying and selling cattle, but also rustling cattle and dealing in stolen cattle, particularly cattle stolen in Mexico to the south.

The town was divided between two political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. In the post Civil War American west, the Republicans were seen as the party of the supporters of the North and the Democrats as the party of the supporters of the South. There were separate newspapers for the two factions as well. (My, oh my, how little things seem to have changed after 140 years.)
Problems involving misbehaving “cowboys” escalated, death threats were made, and the result was the most famous gunfight in American history.

This book covers it well, giving a good description of the time and place, the lives and histories of the people involved, the weapons used, the stakes they were fighting for, as well as the outside factions and forces that had to be kept in mind when the people involved made decisions. Although there was a fuzzy line between what was allowed and what was permitted, if either side had gone too far the result would have been outside intervention.      

In conclusion, this is a good introduction and survey to the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as well as the events that took place before and after. It contains nice art, good photographs and nice art and is well worth reading.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015


British Paratrooper, 1940-1945. Osprey Warrior, 174.  
Written by Rebecca Skinner, and Illustrated by Graham Turner.

Scope – A good introduction to the formation, training, equipment and second world war campaigns of the British paratroops
Completeness – Good
Appeal – high, nice book
Accuracy – I know of no problems, but am new to the topic. 

 British Paratrooper 1940–45

During the Second World War, the British decided to respond to the successful use of German paratroops by creating their own paratrooper units. This began with the recruitment of volunteers from soldiers from within the British army. All volunteers from within the pre-existing army ranks, no man would be forced to join a unit whose duties required them to jump from airplanes. (It wasn’t until the 1950’s that one could enlist directly into the British paratroops.) To no one’s surprise, the recruits tended to be highly motivated and very brave.   

The newly formed paratroops wore a distinctive uniform. It consisted of a special outer tunic whose design reduced the chances of equipment getting snagged in the parachute, shoes laced on the side and a maroon beret that showed their elite status. Portions of the uniform, such as the tunic, were inspired by and largely copied from, those of their German adversaries. This made sense as it was the effectiveness of the German paratroops that had arguably inspired the formation of the British units. 

The paratroops soon proved themselves to be useful and important additions to the British forces in several battles. The first of these was the Bruneval Raid in northern France in 1942. A small group of paratroopers were dropped into occupied France to occupy a radar station long enough for technicians to examine it and obtain needed intelligence on its capabilities, and then make their escape via sea using a Royal Navy pick up team.

The paratroops also distinguished themselves through their bravery, skill, and initiative in other campaigns of the war including North Africa, Italy, and Normandy. The book continues right up to the beginning of the paratroops service in Greece after the Germans left while civil war starting to break out in that nation. 
Never having had a strong interest in paratroops, I did not really expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. However, it is an interesting volume that can appeal to many people in many different ways. Some will enjoy the story and description of elite troops bravely facing danger and battle. Others, the stories of eccentric and larger than life personalities (There is, for instance, a story of a British paratroop officer who not only regularly carried an umbrella into battle, he also once captured a tank with the umbrella. OK, it was an Italian tank but it was still an impressive feat. ) 

For me much of the appeal of the story came from hearing how new technology, in this case parachutes, was actively applied during a military campaign. From the time the decision was made to form British paratroop units until the end of the war, training and parachuting procedures were continuously changed and underwent new developments.  To me, it was fascinating to learn that the earliest attempts at training British paratroops, for instance, were done before there were actually good quality planes whose designs facilitated parachuting available. One training plane, for instance, was an obsolete bomber and parachutists were required to crawl down the length of the plane and then crawl out, head first, through the bomb bay in the rear. Another training plane had literally had a hole cut in the center of the floor to enable the parachutists to jump out. To me, these stories of training in the new parachute technologies and techniques were very interesting.
I was astonished, for instance, to learn that the official reaction to a parachuting accident, even or especially a fatal one, was to make the remaining troops jump as soon as possible before fear and trauma had allegedly set in. 

In conclusion, this is a fine book, with much of interest to those interested in paratroops or the Second World War. It is highly recommended.