Friday, January 25, 2013

Hell in a Very Small Place

Recently I finished reading Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu  by Bernard B. Fall.  Fall was a noted historian of the Vietnamese wars of the mid-20th century, and Hell . . . is his famous work on the French defeat that ended their rule in Southeast Asia.

All failures, especially ones as massive as Dien Bien Phu, breed blame, and every mistake seems to glow in the dark in hindsight. Most of the time I take these critiques with a grain of salt, since they are rarely obvious in the moment; if they could see the cliff ahead of them, who in their right mind would choose to keep walking?

Dienn Bien Phu, however, bucks that trend.

It isn't that the French chose to build their camp on the floor of a valley, surrendering the high ground to the enemy. It isn't that the base was in the middle of nowhere, making reinforcement and supply dependent on air power, which in turn relied on an air force that was short on numbers.  It isn't that the rationale behind building the camp expired before the battle began. It isn't that the French refused to properly fortify the base, or that they knew going in they’d be radically outnumbered. It isn't that the two senior generals in charge of the effort hated one another, or that the base was built, not only on a valley floor, but on a valley floor subject to up to 5 feet – feet! – of rain during part of the year.

It’s all of the above, and more. Hindsight, schmindsight, this promised disaster from the start, and it delivered.  

And yet . . . .

Against incredible odds, the base held from mid-March of 1954 to the first week of May, inflicting terrific losses on the Viet-Minh.  The leadership on the ground – excluding the debacle of the first attack – was largely superb, given the situation, and the determination and grit of the garrison won my respect. For seven weeks they fought pitched infantry battles nearly non-stop, sometimes losing and regaining a hill in the same night. They fought on short rations and under an unending artillery barrage, sometimes in water and mud up to their waist. The battlefield was a stinking cesspool layered with thousands of dead. The military hospital, built to accommodate forty-four wounded, now serviced a thousand or more at a time. A wound was not a guaranty of rest; given the dire situation and the manpower shortage men fought on having lost a limb or an eye.

When the battle was over, the suffering was not; they were marched to prison camps that amounted to death camps. In the end, less than 20% of the POW’s survived to return home.

Fall makes a convincing case that American intervention, in the form of massive air strikes, could have, if not forced a victory, at least staved off defeat. Written in the ‘60’s, he is contemptuous of Eisenhower’s refusal to intervene and imparts a strong moralistic tone to his argument. I think he is wrong.

Perhaps an American intervention could have stemmed the tide. But having just exited the Korean War, intervening on behalf of a colonial power (one with no viable strategy for success) and risking another shooting war with China did not, and does not, give the appearance of sound policy. The fact that it “may” have eliminated the need for America’s war a decade later is irrelevant; not only is that far from certain, it presupposes that the American conflict was inevitable or necessary. I’m with Ike on this one.

A great book. I strongly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Boxing Day 2012

It’s a Boxing Day Tradition for Team Slap: each year on the day after Christmas we take a road trip. 2012’s destination was supposed to be the Cave of the Mounds, but financial concerns scratched that trip. Instead we headed down to Gurnee to dine at the Rainforest CafĂ©.

I’d been there before a couple of times, but I must not have been paying attention, because I had no memory of how cool it was. Robotic jungle animals sit just out of reach (we dined near the tigers). There’s a ceiling of stars. Jungle vines hang from the ceiling. Giant aquariums grace the entrance to the dining room. Every 15 minutes a crash of thunder is heard, and ‘rain’ falls in the jungle areas.

The company was great and the food was yummy!

We ended our meal with their signature desert, a mountain of brownies and ice cream topped off by a sparkler. Deeeeeelish!

What a great Boxing Day, even if it wasn’t the one we had planned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Chuck E Cheese Christmas Bash!

Last week Monday (1/7/13) my Mother-In-Law held her annual Christmas outing at Chuck-E-Cheese, a holiday present for the kids in our circle. As usual, it was a blast, and we stayed until 9 pm!

 The day was best recorded by the 'sketchbook' booth at CEC. I don't know what technology it uses, but I LOVE that program. 

Here's Junie/Ginger and her friend Tempe

Junie and her Grandma

Junie and her Mom

Here's two of my beautiful ladies - YaYa and her Mom

Lisa and her entourage

LuLu and Meadow

Me and my lady

Here's Smiley, and Smiley and Lisa. 

Speaking of Smiley, he won the annual contest to win the Gingerbread House (this year a tree) that my mother-in-law crafts and places in a glass jar handed down from her mother. Smiley was thrilled to win it, as it has been all but owned in recent years by the Entourage's kids! 'Bout time we got to taste the treat (and btw, LuLu would scream at me if I didn't mention she'd helped Grandma make it)

Friday, January 11, 2013

The First Two Books of 2012

Today I finished my first book of the year, ‘The Lawgiver’, a new novel by the great Herman Wouk. It’s the story, told in epistolary format, of the pre-production troubles of a film about Moses. The book was written by Wouk as a concession to his decades-long inability to finish a book on the Old Testament figure, and he and his wife are included as characters in the novel.  I liked it well enough, and Wouk seems technologically savvy despite his advanced age (he’s in his late ‘90’s) but don’t kid yourself. This isn’t in the same class as his masterpieces. What bothered me greatly was that for all the talk about how complex Moses was and how difficult a subject he is, very, very little of the book is given over to explaining why that is so, or to attempting to unravel that enigma.  Grade: B-+

I’ve also finished ‘Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone’, a novel by Stefan Kiesbye. It reads as a collection of interconnected short stories centered on a small group of children in post-war Germany. It has been widely acclaimed as a gem of literary horror, but while I found some of the stories well developed and chilling, most of them left me feeling empty.  I have to say, this one was a bit of a disappointment. Grade: B

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Two Pics of the Kids

I took these pictures (actually, I think either LuLu or YaYa took them) in the van on Christmas Eve. Not the best quality, but worth a laugh!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Christmas Day 2012

Christmas morning the kids came down, as required, in their pj’s and looking photo ready. First to open a gift was YaYa, who received a beautiful hardbound sketch book!

Lulu was next. Alas, she chose to open a very small package, no doubt thinking it was jewelry of some sort. I’m afraid it was her least expensive gift, a cute pen I included at the last minute. She was still very gracious J

Then Smiley opened up his art set

Ginger opened a Rapunzel storybook from LuLu (she earned it as an award from her math tutor)

YaYa and LuLu, in turn, each opened up a brand new sleeping bag for them each to use on sleepovers!

Smiley then opened some Darth Vader slippers!

Ginger opened a Disney Rapunzel doll!

YaYa opened a monogrammed sketchbook

Lulu opened her ‘big’ gift – a Fijit interactive, alien looking thing. In lime green, naturally!

Smiley opened up a Star Wars Lego set

Ginger got a Barbie doll

YaYa opened a sketching/easel set

Lu opened a brand new pink and purple basketball!

Then Smiley opened his ‘big’ gift, a kids tablet known as an InnoTab2S!

After Lauren opened her art set, it was time for YaYa’s big gift – a 16MP shock-proof digital camera that retailed for nearly $300, but that we purchased new on closeout for $50. It’s better than my camera for pete’s sake!

Along with it she got a memory card too!

LuLu followed up by opening a brand new pair of roller skates!

Smiley opened up a Star Wars jigsaw puzzle and puzzle glue

While Ginger opened up her big gift – a Barbie closet!

Lu then unwrapped a pottery wheel and extra clay, just what she asked for!

Smiley then unwrapped a glow in the dark football, the ‘equivalent’ gift of the sleeping bags

Ginger then opened up an outfit that came with a matching ensemble for her doll!

Then she opened her ‘equivalent’ gift, a butterfly PillowPet

Finally, Smiley opened up a chirping cricket stuffed animal.

When I type all of the above out, it sure seems like an over-the-top Christmas. But it’s four kids remember. While we’ve never struck out or gone gonzo on Christmas in the past, I remember being largely dissatisfied with last year’s crop, and so we took pains to do well this year.

The kids all got one ‘big’ gift. They each got an art set of some sort, and a set of pajamas, and the sleeping bag/equivalent, plus a few extras. Careful long-term planning (and a K-Mart layaway) made the difference between a bust and a boom this holiday season.

So far the results have been good. Lu uses her basketball in the house all the time, to our annoyance. The InnoTab has been in constant use, as has YaYa’s camera. Ginger’s worn her outfit, and Lu made Lisa an ashtray with her pottery wheel and used the roller skates at Incrediroll; she also took her sleeping bag to a sleepover on New Years and decreed it “awesome!”. The art sets are all in use, although Ginger’s was too babyish and needed an upgrade.

So far – a hit!

Later that day, after a pancake breakfast with my father-in-law and his Lisa’s step-mom, and a good nap, we treated the kids to a movie at the Value Cinema (Frankenweenie), toured the decorated houses along Candy Cane Lane, and dined at McDonald’s.

A nice, relaxing, wonderful Christmas!

I hope yours was as well.