High school teachers around the country, desperate for a lively philosophical and ethical debate to waken a sleepy history class at the end of the fall semester, often throw out the question, "If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?" I've had years to think about that particular question, and after listening to Candice Millard's "Destiny of a Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President" (2011), I know what my answer would be: I would send President James A. Garfield's doctor, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, on a year long trip to Europe starting the month before Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau. I would leave the more famous incidents (like the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, 1865) to more showy time travelers.
Guiteau, a former member of the Oneida cult and then an itinerant preacher, firmly believed he was THE guiding force in American electoral politics. Guiteau did not have a modern diagnosis - but his stalking and delusions are very reminiscent of attempted President Ronald Reagan assassin John Hickley, Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Hinckley's 1982 diagnosis was Schizotypal Personality, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and depression. Guiteau, like Hinckley, was trying to get someone else's attention by assassinating the president. Unlike Hinckley, Guiteau was put to death. In 1881, the nation knew Guiteau was legally insane, but it took its vengeance in blood.
Guiteau fired the shot, but Doctor Bliss killed Garfield. Yes, Bliss' first name was Doctor. Bliss introduced, and repeatedly introduced, the sepsis that killed Garfield. Bliss' arrogant refusal to use the techniques of Joseph Lister, who pioneered sterilization in operations; and his refusal to fully accept the help of Alexander Graham Bell, who developed a way of finding the bullet in Garfield's body after Guiteau shot Garfield, and long before Garfield's death. Bliss refused the help of other far more qualified doctors, and hid Garfield's true condition from the world to cover his own incompetence.
Wonderful book, but the audio - lets just say that Paul Michael did mostly fine, but the narration the voices of young girls - like Molly Garfield - really needs work.
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About ten years ago, I was shocked when my now-teenager asked me, "Where we you when President Kennedy was killed?" I told him I was born after that, but I was sure his grandparents would remember. They do, of course - but even 50 years later, it's hard for them to talk about that day. My mother's eyes become unfocused, and she talks about the apartment she and my Dad lived in, and going to watch the news on the neighbors' black and white television. My Dad mumbles, talks about hearing the news at his first job after college, and looks at the floor.
"Three Shots Rang Out: The JFK Assassination 50 Years Later" (2013) is an ABC News Special by Diane Sawyer. Sawyer narrates a collection of radio stories and interviews, along with audio clips from television broadcasts made immediately after John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963. "Three Shots" follows the story as reporters did, from Dealey Plaza to Kennedy's burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Audible version includes reporter interviews of witnesses made right after the assassination that have never been rebroadcast, which are fascinating today. The interviewees are calm, sound and relate what they saw, without speculation. That's a real contrast to today's requisite "How did it make you feel?" end-of-interview question. I do remember 9-11 quite vividly of course, and the news, and I always felt like saying "Why are you asking that question? How does it help the story? Do you think you'll get an answer other than an eloquent version of scared and devastated, followed by tears?"
Sawyer's piece also has interviews with the reporters, describing in more detail the various locations where the events happened. I was pretty startled to hear a thorough description of the Dallas Police Office basement, followed by audio of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. I realized that the screams I heard were Oswald's. Millions of radio listeners must have heard the same thing 50 years ago.
It's a very good listen. If my future grandchildren ask me the same JFK question, I'll tell them to listen to this story.
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After the Arab Spring began, I wanted to know more of the history of conflict in that area of the world. I have paid careful attention to the news, but news is a snapshot of what is happening now. Without historical context, the “why” is elusive.
“Six Days of War” is a detailed history of The 1967 Six Day War/The June ’67 War and the 1973 Yom Kippur/October War. It gives the historical context that gave rise to the long running Arab-Israeli dispute that started even before Israel became a nation. Orem follows with a comprehensive, but brief discussion of conflict until 2002, when he wrote his book.
Syria triggered the 1967 war by a series of border skirmishes, and firing on an Israeli farming outpost. Six weeks later, after the Israelis and the Arabs gathered munitions; tried to convince the United States (Israel) and the Soviet Union (Egypt) to provide artillery and planes; nominally tried to resolve the situation peacefully at the United Nations; and mustered public support, the war began.
Oren avoids easy stereotypes about the military prowess – or lack thereof –on either side. It would be easy to minimize the Arab military preparations and tactics because they were completely overwhelmed in combat, but Oren pays careful attention to the factors that caused that. Those included Soviet military equipment unsuited for desert warfare; an overriding Arab distrust of Jordan’s King Hussein; Syria’s failure to fight until 4 or 5 days into the war; nepotism and cronyism in the Egyptian army that meant incompetent men were making battle decisions; and an overarching communications problem.
The Israelis had different problems and some spectacular failures. Because of mistaken identity, the Israelis bombed the USS Liberty, an American ship in international waters 25 miles off the coast of Egypt, killing 34 Americans. The USS Saratoga had planes in the area on a training exercise carrying nuclear armed missiles. Identities were established and resolved shortly before an accidental nuclear war started.
The book is light on the actual armaments used in the war, which was a bit of a disappointment. Tanks and artillery are covered pretty well. External fuel tanks were a real issue, and what happened to those tanks and crews is as obvious as it was unfortunate.
I liked the narrator’s voice, but he mispronounced words, which was annoying. He did well with the Yiddish and Egyptian, but he was hit-and-miss with the Arabic. Occasionally, some English words were wrong, which was jarring – it sounds like he is a native English speaker.
I am glad I listened to the book. I now have a much better understanding of what is happening now, and why.