June 02, 2016


Saladin: The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire. By John Man. Da Capo. $26.99.

The Castaway’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Imperial Japan. By Stephen Harding. Da Capo. $26.99.

The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II. By Robert P. Watson. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Not many people relish war nowadays except for the Daesh murder cult and its ilk. But stories about war are another thing: they have unending (“undying” sounds like a bad pun) popularity, and new books focusing on widespread mayhem are enduringly popular and show little sign of becoming any less so. Occasionally – not often, but occasionally – a war-focused book not only explains events of the past but also proves to have potentially significant relevance to events of our own time. So it is with John Man’s well-written, well-researched Saladin, a biography of the sultan Salah al-Din (1138-1193), who retook Jerusalem from European Crusaders, united the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam, ruled an empire that included Syria, Egypt, part of Mesopotamia, and Palestine, and earned the respect of his Christian opponents despite the undeniable brutality of his battlefield and post-battle tactics (largely because the Christians were even more brutal and were impressed by Saladin’s comparatively merciful handling of those he conquered). Saladin was purely a man of battle and rule, leaving behind no writings and no contributions to Islam. He did, however, found the Ayyubid dynasty, which briefly ruled much of the Middle East (1171-1260). Intellectual and economic pursuits flourished under the Ayyubids, and it is no wonder that modern Muslims wishing for a resurgence of Islamic power – including the vicious Daesh pretenders – look to Saladin as a role model. Saladin himself looked to his own mentor, Nur al-Din (1118-1174), as an exemplar of the sorts of battlefield and political techniques that would eventually cement the Ayyubid dynasty. It was the death of Nur al-Din that opened the way to consolidation of power by Saladin, who married his mentor’s widow and use Nur al-Din’s own techniques to defeat his mentor’s son and other claimants to the throne. Man’s book focuses with intelligence and perspicacity on Saladin’s battlefield and post-battle successes, on his methods of building alliances, on his willingness to be comparatively gentle with enemies when that served his larger purposes – and his unquestioned brutality when that advanced his cause. Man sheds considerable light on an era in which Islamic civilization was considerably more advanced than European, which was still mired in the Dark Ages of a religious supremacy every bit as brutal as Islam and a great deal more hostile to secular knowledge. The great battle that opened Saladin’s way to conquest of Jerusalem, that of Hattin in 1187, is well described and well explained, and Man also spends considerable time on the extraordinary patience with which Saladin planned his campaign against the Crusaders – an undertaking that took him 20 years. Saladin’s willingness to bide his time was extraordinary, and his ability to unite his own Sunnis with Shi’ites was as well. His decision to use Shia-dominated Egypt as his power base was a brilliant one, and his care not to alienate any Muslims for long made it possible for him to assemble the force needed to oust the Crusaders. It is worth mentioning that Man has to pick and choose among sources to put together his narrative – his remark at one point could stand for the book as a whole: “Details vary; this account is a compromise.” But what comes through again and again is that Saladin, whether or not regarded as a humane man by the standards of his time, was a very determined warrior and a very fine strategist and tactician. His patience and bridge-building with other Muslims are the antithesis of the internecine warfare and mass murder of Muslims as well as Christians by the Daesh of today, who claim him as an inspiration. His direct influence did not long outlast his own lifetime, but the acclaim for his deeds and his willingness to turn the enemies of today into the allies of tomorrow remains even in our own time. His personal probity and austere lifestyle earn continued praise as well, to such an extent that he appears in many forms in statuary and other permissible types of display in Muslim countries – despite the fact that not a single contemporary portrait of him exists and no one knows what he looked like.

     Given the remoteness of Saladin’s time, it is scarcely surprising that so much about it and him is unknown. But there is apparently plenty still to be discovered close to our own time as well, as the unending succession of books about “untold stories” of World War II indicates. Serious and generally written and researched with skill, these (+++) books are strictly for people for whom the phrase “glories of war” is not an oxymoron, people seeking to relive what they consider grand moments of their own past or that of members of their family, and people enamored (that is not too strong a word) of the intricacies of gigantic battles and the many, many human stories of which those conflicts consist. Both The Castaway’s War and The Nazi Titanic fit this particular subgenre neatly, and both will appeal to the target audience of war fanciers (“groupies” seems an unkind overstatement, although the word sometimes rings true). Stephen Harding’s The Castaway’s War is a sort of Robinson Crusoe tale with espionage and bullets. Set in 1943, it is the story of a Navy lieutenant named Hugh Marr Miller Jr. who survived a Japanese torpedo attack on his ship, the destroyer USS Strong, which was near the Solomon Islands. Miller drifted on a floater net until he was eventually beached on Arundel Island (Kohinggo), where he found food (coconuts) and shelter (thanks to the trees), but also found he was in the same place as two Japanese infantry regiments. For 39 days, Miller not only survived but also spied on the Imperial Japanese Army, gathering information that – after his rescue – was used in helping determine and focus Allied tactics in the Solomon Islands region. Miller won the Navy Cross for his accomplishments, and on the basis of what Harding details in The Castaway’s War, he certainly deserved it for his bravery, self-reliance and survival ability. Miller died at age 68 in 1978, and Harding’s book is a more-than-fitting memorial to his wartime exploits and to the quiet bravery of innumerable soldiers, sailors, pilots and other warriors who did their duty and did it well – often even better than anyone had any right to expect. But in a sense, that is the problem with this book and the many, many similar ones: even the 16 pages of interesting period photos could just as well have come from (or been included in) many other stories about the everyday heroism shown again and again by the men and women in uniform during World War II. It does them no disservice to state that there were so many heroes that, after a while, their untold stories – once told – start to blend.

     The story of the ship Cap Arcona is yet another previously untold one, somewhat less than run-of-the-mill because of its focus on a ship rather than a person, and also somewhat more strained in trying to engage 21st-century readers in the story of the ship’s adventures and destruction. Robert P. Watson’s book is called The Nazi Titanic because of a tenuous connection between the Cap Arcona and the notorious White Star Line ship – and because the name “Titanic” in a book title is sure to garner attention. The Cap Arcona was largely designed to look like the Titanic, although it was smaller and had three rather than four funnels. For a time it was, like the Titanic, a luxury liner, one that had more than a single ill-fated voyage. But when World War II began, the ship, like many others, was converted to military uses. It was a barracks, a naval training platform, and a rescue ship. It was used in a propaganda film and was, indeed, a stand-in for the Titanic itself. And then, toward the end of the war, it was loaded with prisoners and became a kind of floating concentration camp – a disastrous final use, because British bombers sent to disrupt German shipping destroyed the Cap Arcona and killed so many people that the incident became the biggest case of death by “friendly fire” in the whole war. This final, tragic role of the Cap Arcona is the central point of the book but is not enough to fill a book-length manuscript. Furthermore, the fact that the death of so many prisoners aboard the ship has been largely unknown does not seem to be the result of some sort of malfeasance or official cover-up – the bombing occurred after Hitler’s suicide, in the last days of the war in Europe, and simply became part of the mop-up operation as attention turned to ending the war in the Pacific. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred not much later and was far more riveting than the story of the destruction of one German ship – and the mood of the times was celebratory, not regretful of inevitable wartime mistakes. Watson tries to rectify the neglect of this final chapter of the Cap Arcona story through this book, and certainly his careful exploration of what happened and why (including the likelihood that the Nazis would have scuttled the ship if the British bombers had not sunk it) is intriguing and raises meaningful issues from a vantage point more than 70 years later. And the eight pages of photos here tie very directly to this specific story, including one of the death of the film director who used the Cap Arcona as a Titanic stand-in but fell afoul of his Nazi bosses, another of the ship on fire after the British bombed it, and one showing it capsized after the attack. Readers drawn into the story by a book title with the word Titanic in it will find considerable intriguing material here. But neither the somewhat strained Titanic connection nor the truly horrific final use of the Cap Arcona can give Watson’s book general appeal: it is just another formerly untold war story among so many others, gripping for those already inclined to be gripped by the topic but unlikely to convince others that there are reasons to revisit the World War II environs again, again and again.

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