Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ten Ways to be a Good Citizen

It's long been a national pastime to disdain our elected officials as either inept mediocrities or as corrupt crooks. In doing so, we are probably right. In my admittedly unscientific estimate, roughly 45% of office-holders are inept mediocrities, 45% are corrupt crooks, and only about 10% are decent people genuinely trying to do the right thing.

I am an eager participant in the disparage-our-politicians-as-much-as-possible, but I have to wonder if our enthusiasm for doing so is a society-wide psychological defense mechanism. By projecting so much anger and resentment onto the politicians, we divert our own attention away from our own shortcomings as citizens. And there are lots of those. All too often, we ignore our own responsibilities as citizens out of sheer laziness. While it's easy to blame the ineptitude and corruption of politicians for all our ills, it is equally important for us to look into the mirror. After all, it has been truly said that every people gets the government that they deserve.

In this spirit, let me suggest ten things each one of us could do in order to be better citizens.

1. Vote
This seems pretty simple. Showing up to cast your vote on Election Day is the most fundamental duty of every citizen. If you don't vote, you are not doing your duty to yourself or your fellow citizens. Anyone who claims that they don't vote because they don't know enough about the candidates is guilty of gross negligence, since it's an easy matter to pick up a newspaper or voter guide and learn all one needs to know about the different candidates.

It is true that the two major parties usually don't give us candidates worth voting for, but generally one of the two choices is better than the other. Voting for the lesser of two evils is always preferable to not voting at all. And one always has the option of casting a protest vote for a third party candidate.

Moreover, voting is something of a sacred act. There's nothing like the feeling of standing in line at the polling place with one's fellow citizens, taking part together in the democratic process. It is the oxygen of a republic.

2. Read about American history, especially the Revolution
It's shocking to me how little the average citizen of our nation knows about its history. Our educational system doesn't do it a very good job of teaching us about it when we are children, but there is nothing preventing us from educating ourselves. Any bookstore or library is filled with outstanding and enjoyable books about American history. Not only does learning about it make one a better citizen, but it is a much more enjoyable way to spend time than playing a computer game or watching in inane television show.

In particular, to be a good American citizen, one should learn about the history of the American Revolution. I think that if one knew more about the political struggles waged by Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others, they would be less willing to tolerate the direction in which modern politicians are dragging out country. In addition, the more one reads about the struggles faced by George Washington's army during the course of the war, the more one is inspired to get up out of the chair and do something to help our country.

3. Read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers
Okay, this is a bit more specific, but there is no better way to get into the heart of American political philosophy than to read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. They're easily available in paperback for a tiny price and, of course, you can always check them out of the library for free.

The Federalist Papers consist of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in 1787 and 1788 in an effort to persuade the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Hamilton wrote most of them, Madison wrote the best of them, and Jay wrote those that dealt most with foreign policy. They are among the most articulate and insightful statements of political philosophy ever written and, considering the context in which they were written, are especially relevant to the United States.

The Anti-Federalist Papers are different in that they do not represent a single, unified project. They were written by various anonymous authors in different states in an attempt to sway public opinion against ratification of the Constitution. They consist of the letters of "Brutus" and "Cato" (probably the New York politicians Robert Yates and George Clinton), the essays of "Centinel" (probably the Pennsylvanian Samuel Byran), the letters of "The Federal Farmer" (never positively identified), and many other pieces. There's not full agreement on what should be considered part of the Anti-Federalist Papers, but several collections have been published. One of the best pieces was a report issued by the dissenting minority of the Pennsylvania ratification convention, which they wrote to express why they opposed the Constitution. Although the Anti-Federalists failed to prevent the ratification of the Constitution, they succeeded in ensuring that a Bill of Rights would be enacted, for which all Americans owe them an infinite debt.

Together, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers are a tour de force of political philosophy, dealing with the proper level of power that government should have over our lives. To gain a proper understanding of the need for a strong military, the powers of taxation, political factionalism, the need for checks and balances, legislative representation, and a vast number of other questions, one can do no better than to read the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers.

The powers-that-be would rather people have their minds numbed to uselessness by watching cable network news or frivolous reality television. After all, if citizens truly studied the political ideals on which our nation was founded, they might get the dangerous idea that they, and not the politicians, are the ones who are supposed to be in charge.

4. Know who your elected officials are and how to get in touch with them. Then, do so.
Only about a third of Americans know the name of their representative in Congress and fewer know the name of their representatives in their state legislature. This is just pathetic. It takes a matter of seconds on the Internet to find out exactly who your representatives are on the federal, state and local levels. That so few Americans know the identities of their representatives is a disgrace and one of the most telling failures of modern America.

So, know who represents you. Once you do, it's easy to find out how to contact them through email, letter, or phone. The realities of modern life mean that you are far more likely to speak to a staff member whose job it is to speak to constituents, but that's better than nothing. And if you are persistent or form a large group concerned about a single particular issue, you can usually get through to the actual office-holder.

The next time you want to complain about a political issue, no matter what it is, stop for a moment and think about how to let your elected representative know how you feel about it. If you upset over the state sales tax, write your state representative an email to complain. If you want to complain about lack of action on climate change, write a letter about it and mail it to your congressman's office. If you are upset about your child being given too much homework, call your representative on the school board. And there is nothing stopping you from calling the local district office and setting up a personal meeting, either.

5. Tune out cable network news, political talk radio, and most political blogs
Back when smallpox still existed, it was generally considered inadvisable to visit places that had been infected by the disease. Following the same logic, a good citizen should avoid infectious sources of pseudo-news like cable network news and political talk radio. They do not provide any meaningful content or information and exist only to make people angry at or frightened of manufactured or imagined problems. After all, angry or frightened people are more likely to keep tuning in, which means continued ad revenue. This is why they have evolved into an absurd "crisis of the month" format that is going to be looked upon with horror by historians of the future.

Most political blogs, similarly, are screed sheets written by misguided or silly people who don't really know enough about what they are talking about to comment upon it intelligently. Some are actually quite excellent, but most are idiotic. Find the good ones and follow them. Avoid the other ones like the plague.

Newspapers (yes, they still exist) remain the best source of news and e-book readers are giving them a new lease on life. I personally try to read my local paper, the Austin-American Statesman, every morning. For national news, I try to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Each has a different editorial slant, but both maintain high standards of journalistic integrity. By doing this rather simple thing, I feel much better informed about what is happening in the country and the world than anybody who spends endless hours watching cable network news or listening to political talk radio.

6. Observe national holidays
It takes a few dollars and a few minutes to purchase an American flag and set up a bracket so that you can display it from the front of your house. The National Flag Foundation provides a comprehensive list of national holidays on which it is appropriate to fly your flag and the proper etiquette for how to do so.

Also, just observe the holidays themselves and not just by having friends over for a cookout. Read the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Read the Preamble to the Constitution on September 17. Take flowers to a military cemetery on Memorial Day. Do something to honor veterans on Veterans Day (see #8, below). Do something to make sure that you embrace national holidays as something more than a day off from work.

7. Cheer on American athletes at the Olympics and the American team at the World Cup
Albert Einstein once said, "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." He was quite right and, as a German Jew, he certainly knew what he was talking about. But there is a big difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is about denigrating other nations and their people, while patriotism is about taking pride in one's own. Only the weak-minded think that they are the same thing.

The Olympic Games and the World Cup celebrate patriotism while rejecting the base instincts of nationalism. We can take pride in the achievements of our American athletes while respecting the athletes of other nations. How much better it is to compete in athletic competitions than fighting on the battlefield? How much better to respectfully shake hands than to smash one another with fists?

The glory of our athletes in international competition is part of the glory of America. It should be celebrated.

8. Support nonprofits that help veterans
Lots of self-righteous people make a lot of noise about "supporting the troops" and then never actually do anything that supports them. If you ask me, these people are worse than those who don't support the troops at all, since to neglect they add the sin of hypocrisy.

There are lots of nonprofit organizations focused on helping veterans or active-duty soldiers. Far too many of them are borderline scams, with a ridiculous ratio of administrative expenses to funds actually devoted to service programs. Others have mission statements so broad and vague that they are incapable of focusing on anything in particular. Donating to these kinds of groups, sadly, is usually a waste of money.

For all the badly run nonprofits, however, there are several that do outstanding work. Two that stand out to me are Homes For Our Troops and Fisher House. Homes For Our Troops builds specially adapted homes for soldiers who had received debilitating wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fisher House provides families of servicemen with free housing near medical facilities where their loved one is receiving treatment. Both of these groups have received excellent ratings from charity watchdog groups and provide a specific and focused service of crucial importance. If you're serious when you say you want to support the troops, give to these two groups.

9. Visit and help preserve national battlefields
There are literally hundreds of places around the country where American soldiers fought and died in the battles of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. There can be no more moving experience for a good citizen than to walk across these pieces of hallowed ground. Whether you walk the ground where Americans fought for freedom against British troops and Hessian mercenaries at Saratoga, or wander among the hills where Americans slaughtered one another in a terrible civil war at Gettysburg, nothing gives a better sense of what it means to be an American than to visit our national battlefields.

Several of these battlefields have been well-preserved by the National Park System or the various state governments. Most, however, are not protected at all from the pressures of real estate development and, in some cases, strip mining and other industrial activities. My father and I recently visited the battlefield at Cedar Creek in the northern Shenandoah Valley to attends the events of the 150th anniversary of the engagement. As moving as the experience was, it was diminished mightily by an enormous industrial facility dedicated to limestone mining that loomed over the battlefield.

The Civil War Trust has long done magnificent work in protecting Civil War battlefields by buying up real estate before it ends up in the hands of developers. In some cases, such as the battlefield at Franklin, Tennessee, it has purchased and torn up the parking lots and strip malls that blemish our nation's hallowed ground. Recently, it launched a project called Campaign 1776 to expand its work to battlefields from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. If you're interesting it protecting our nation's battlefields from being lost forever, consider becoming a supporter of these efforts.

10. Finally, just be a decent person
Okay, this is good advice generally, but it is also critical to being a good citizen. Don't talk during the movie. Wash your hands after using the restroom. Slow down to let other drivers change lanes. Don't use foul language. Put your grocery shopping cart in the designated return area rather than leaving it in your parking space. Don't yell at waiters or retail workers who make insignificant mistakes. Don't make offensive jokes. In short, don't be a jerk.

I think if people tried to follow these ten pieces of advice, it would have a very beneficial effect. We should all strive to be good citizens. If we do, we might revitalize our country and help it find its way back onto a proper course.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Isn't Every Person Enthralled By Space Exploration?

On Wednesday, the human race landed on a comet.

It's easy to type that sentence, but the simple and stunning reality is so amazing that it sends a shiver up my spine. The human race landed on a comet! More prosaically, a robotic mission by the European Space Agency called Rosetta set down a small lander, called Philae, on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, following a ten year, four billion mile voyage. Never before has a space exploration mission been able to study a comet so closely. It promises to answer a huge number of questions we have about the big, dirty snowballs spiraling around our Sun and, as science goes, give us an even larger number of new questions.

There was drama aplenty. Philae's landing system failed, causing the plucky robot to initially bounce back off the surface and come down in a different and thus far unknown location. It ended up lying in the shadow of a cliff, preventing its solar panels from receiving sufficient sunlight and dooming its batteries to a quick demise. The engineers and scientists running the Rosetta mission desperately tried to find a solution, while racing against time to retrieve the critical scientific data before the batteries gave out. The brave little robot eventually did fall silent, but not before delivering enough science back to the European team to completely revolutionize our understanding of comets.

I find all this utterly fascinating and enthralling, but then I have always been absorbed by space exploration. Years ago, in what seems like a previous life, I engaged in a quixotic effort to create a political action committee designed to promote space exploration (it didn't work, sadly). To me, the quest to explore space draws on deep-seated, even primal, human emotions that have been hard-wired into us by evolution. It's the same thing that drove Ferdinand Magellan to attempt the circumnavigation of the planet, that drove, the Montgolfier brothers to soar upwards in their balloons, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore the American West, and a generation of hardy explorers to risk their lives to reach the North and South Poles of the Earth.

James Cook, perhaps the greatest explorer who ever lived, put it best when he said, "Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go."

My question is simply this: why isn't every person enthralled by space exploration? Right now, even as I type this blog entry, two robot rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are scurrying across the face of Mars, while a veritable armada of orbiting robots send by many different nations circle overhead. The enormous Cassini orbiter are spiraling around Saturn, revolutionizing our understanding of the most beautiful planet in the Solar System. The New Horizons mission is en route to Pluto, while the Messenger mission continues its exploration of Mercury. The Dawn spacecraft, powered by a revolutionary ion engine, is moving through the asteroid belt. There are lots of exciting things happening in our Solar System these days.

We live in the greatest age of exploration and discovery since the 18th Century. Anyone with an Internet connection and an ounce of curiosity can follow the adventures of these intrepid robotic spacecraft, sharing in the drama and the excitement of discovery. Why, then, do so many people choose to waste their time watching crude reality television shows or playing frivolous computer games? You wouldn't choose to eat a cheap fast food meal when you could eat in a three Michelin starred restaurant, would you?

The Rosetta-Philae mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a reminder of what the human race can accomplish when we rise above the foul inanity that characterizes so much of the modern world and try to fulfill our real potential. It's worth celebrating.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Sigh For The Eighteenth Century

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was dispatched by Congress to serve as a diplomat in Europe. A major part of his diplomatic mission was to negotiate and conclude treaties of friendship and commerce with as many European nations as possible. Jefferson wrote out a draft treaty and spent several years trying to persuade the great powers of the Old World to sign on. To Jefferson's disappointment, few paid much attention. Only Prussia, then ruled by Frederick the Great, eventually signed the treaty.

I have always been especially intrigued by Article 23 of the treaty Jefferson wrote.

If war should arise between the two contracting parties, the merchants of either country, then residing in the other, shall be allowed to remain nine months to collect their debts and settle their affairs, and may depart freely, carrying offs all their effects, without molestation or hindrance. And all women and children, scholars of every faculty, cultivators of the earth, artisans, manufacturers and fishermen, unarmed and inhabiting unfortified towns, villages, or places, and in general all others whose occupations are for the common subsistence and benefit of mankind, shall be allowed to continue their respective employments and shall not be molested in their persons, nor shall their houses be burnt or otherwise destroyed, nor shall their fields wasted by the armed forces of the enemy into whose power, by the events of war, they may happen to fall; but if anything is necessary to be taken from them for the use of such armed force, the same shall be paid for it at a reasonable price.

When Benjamin Franklin was serving as Minister to France during the Revolutionary War, he was responsible for coordinating the activities of American privateers who were preying on British merchant ships. In the midst of all his myriad duties, Franklin took the time to instruct them what to do in the event that they encountered the ships of the legendary explorer James Cook, who had sailed from England on his third voyage of exploration in the South Pacific some time earlier. Here is what Franklin wrote:

A ship having been fitted out from England before the commencement of this war, to make discoveries of new countries in unknown seas, under the conduct of that most celebrated navigator, Captain Cook; an undertaking truly laudable in itself, as the increase of geographical knowledge facilitates the communication between distant nations, in the exchange of useful products and manufactures, and the extension of arts, whereby the common enjoyments of human life are multiplied and augmented, and science of other kinds increased to the benefit of mankind in general; this is, therefore, most earnestly to recommend to every one of you, that, in case the said ship, which is now expected to be soon in the European seas on her return, should happen to fall into your hands, you would not consider her as an enemy, nor suffer any plunder to be made of the effects contained in her, nor obstruct her immediate return to England, by detaining her or sending her into any other part of Europe or to America, but that you would treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, affording them, as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power, which they may happen to stand in need of.

Just reading these words fills me with a sense of wonder. Jefferson and Franklin were both pragmatic and realistic politicians, well-versed in the shenanigans and dirty tricks by which men achieve their political objectives. Yet they possessed a vision and a sense of optimism that was the hallmark of their century and which is utterly absent in our own age.

One wonders what Jefferson and Franklin would have thought had they witnessed the total warfare of the last century. What would they have thought of unrestricted submarine warfare and mass use of chemical weapons, and massacres of entire populations during the First World War? What would they have thought of the area bombing of enemy cities and intentional slaughter of civilian populations in the Second World War? What would they have thought of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent construction of nuclear arsenals so large they could have destroyed human civilization many times over?

Our own age has its share of wonders, not least in the realms of science and medicine. Yet we have also lost more than we'd probably care to admit. Jefferson and Franklin imagined that we could use the power to human reason to form society into something close to utopia. At the very least, we could make the world far better than it is. That was the dream of the Enlightenment. Yet after the world wars, after the Holocaust, after the creation of nuclear weapons, it's easy to see why the Enlightenment has been so thoroughly discredited.

But despair is never useful. If Jefferson and Franklin could speak to us across the centuries, they would surely remind us that it's always within our power to make our world into what we truly want it to be. We have but to summon up the will to act.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hallowed Ground and Highways

I don't like cars. I never have. They're loud, they're dangerous, they're smelly, they're bad for the environment, and they make walking around otherwise nice cities an exercise in frustration. If I really put my mind to it, I could think of a thousand different reasons for why I dislike cars. I would much prefer to travel by train or go really old-school and ride a horse. I think that the ascent of the automobile in the early 20th Century marked a significant diminishment of human civilization.

On top of all the many reasons why I dislike cars, I would add the fact the damage that they do to the physical and historical landscape of our nation. Allow me to explain.

I recently returned from a five-day trip to see Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia with my father. Part of the purpose for the trip was to do research for my upcoming novel Shenandoah Fire, but it was also simply to have a good time with my dad and recreate some of the wonderful trips on which he took me when I was a boy. We visited nine different battlefields and also took in the battle reenactments associated with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek. We also ate some wonderful food at local restaurants. All things considered, it was a lovely trip.

My father and I acting like kids at the Monocacy Visitor's Center.

The first battlefield we visited was at Monocacy in Maryland, just south of Frederick. The Battle of Monocacy took place on July 9, 1864. A scratch force of about six thousand Union soldiers hastily gathered by General Lew Wallace (most famous for being the author of Ben Hur) fought against the Confederate Army of the Valley, fourteen thousand strong, under the command of the colorful and irascible General Jubal Early. The Confederate force was marching on Washington D.C., whose defenses had been stripped of troops to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. The possibility of the Southern forces capturing the United States capital city was very real. Had they succeeded, the course of the history would have been very different.

A peaceful part of the Monocacy Battlefield

Wallace knew he was terribly outnumbered. Even worse, half of his small force was made up of poorly trained militia, while Early's men were some of the finest infantry in the world. Knowing that he could not hope to win the battle, Wallace's objective was simply to delay Early's advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive in the defenses of Washington. Wallace knew that he was engaged in a life-or-death struggle that might determine the fate of the nation.

All day, the two armies battered one another. Using his superior numbers, Early was able to outflank Wallace to the south and roll up the Union line. On the field between the Worthington Farm and Thomas Farm, a Confederate force led by General John C. Breckinridge (the major character of my novella Blessed Are The Peacemakers) engaged in an epic struggle with the Union division under General James Ricketts. Hundreds of men were slaughtered under the hot summer sun. Breckinridge eventually drove off the Union force, but only after they had delayed the Confederate advance for a few precious hours.

The Worthington Farm House

Jubal Early won the Battle of Monocacy. Yet it amounted to a defeat. When Early and his army formed up for an attack on Washington on the morning of July 12, they were too late. The defenses bristled with the rifles and bayonets of the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which had arrived just a few hours beforehand. The courageous stand made by Wallace's small force at Monocacy had won the Union the time it desperately needed to reinforce the capital. Had the Battle of Monocacy not delayed Early's advance, he could have captured Washington on July 11. Years later, speaking of his men who had fallen at Monocacy, Wallace wrote, "These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it."

On October 16, I walked for hours across the fields in and around the Worthington and Thomas Farms at Monocacy National Battlefield, thinking about the brutal battle that took place there, trying to imagine what it had been like, remembering the courage and heroism displayed by the men on both sides of the awful struggle. So many men experienced their last moments of life at this place. Some were killed instantly, others suffered terribly from grievous wounds before dying on the field or in the nightmare that was a Civil War hospital. How many thought of their wives and their children before they gave their last breath?

It was not easy for my mind to focus on such thoughts, however, as there were thousands of cars and trucks roaring past me at 70 mph, only a few hundred yards away.

Highway 270 carves through the core of Monocacy National Battlefield, right across the fields where the crucial fight between Breckinridge and Ricketts took place. It is a major thoroughfare leading from Washington D.C. to the northwest and is clogged with heavy amounts of traffic. Walking the battlefield, it was impossible to ignore the roaring of the tires and engines, the honking horns of frustrated drivers, or the smell of car and truck exhaust. The highway was like a smallpox scar on the face of the battlefield.

I'm sure that, for some topographical reason determined by some Department of Transportation bureaucrat in some Washington office, it made perfect sense to run Highway 270 right through the heart of the Monocacy battlefield. It probably saved money and a fraction of a second off the driving time of people using the highway. Yet I'm equally sure that the Department of Transportation bureaucrat never considered, even for a moment, what damage he was doing to the country and our collective historical memory when he drew the line on the map that crossed over the Monocacy battlefield. In all likelihood, he didn't even know what had transpired on the piece of ground.

Monocacy is far from the only battlefield scarred by roads and highways. During my trip, I visited the battlefields at New Market and Cedar Creek in Virginia; both battlefields are cleaved in half by Highway 81. Manassas Battlefield has constantly been threatened by highway construction as the suburbs of Washington D.C. expand ever outward, as have the cluster of battlefields around Richmond. The same can be said for literally dozens of other battlefields around the country, including some from conflicts other than the Civil War.

These bits of land, were so many men gave what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion", are hallowed ground. They deserve to be protected. Of the multitude of threats facing historical battlefields across the country, rerouting highways away from them would seem to be the most easily solved, for the politicians in Congress or in the state legislatures can simply decree that the highways not run across the land in question.

I don't like cars. I do like preserving the historical memory of our nation and remembering deeds of great courage. I don't think I'm saying anything radical when I end this blog entry with a simple assertion: highways should not be run through battlefields. That's all.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Annoying Ubiquity of Television

Not long ago, just after church, I took my wife and daughter out to lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. We have often gone to this particular place in the past and have always enjoyed the good quality of the food, the decent prices, and the friendly staff. But today, my lunch was disturbed by the looming presence of a large, flat-screen television hanging menacingly from the ceiling just a few feet from our table.

The lunch itself was very nice (I had a beef chimichanga, in case anyone cares) and the staff was delighted by the cuteness of my eighteen-month-old daughter Evelyn. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not avoid the grim stare of the television, which seemed like some electronic beast from George Orwell's worst nightmare.

For some reason, the television was tuned to a station featuring nothing but infomercials. The first one apparently was advertising some kind of new dog leash that doesn't choke the animals during walks. The second was for an apparently revolutionary bra design, though its exact virtues were completely lost on me. The two infomercials repeated several times throughout the course of our lunch. Mercifully, the sound was off, though someone had unhelpfully turned the closed captioning on.

Another television was hanging in a different part of the restaurant, tuned to the same infomercial station. None of the patrons appeared to be watching, which led me to wonder exactly why the televisions were on in the first place. More importantly, why were the televisions even there at all? I can understand why a sports bar would need televisions in order to show games, but why would an ordinary Mexican restaurant need one? I eat out to enjoy good food and good conversation; if I wanted to watch television, I would have stayed at home.

I am reminded of the opening scene in Blade Runner, featuring gigantic blimp-like aircraft hovering over a dystopian Los Angeles as they pummeled the people with advertising using blaring speakers and beaming lights. Television is ubiquitous and increasingly difficult to avoid. Restaurants, airports, the waiting rooms of doctor's offices, even in elevators. Wherever people are, someone seems to want to deploy a television, turn it on, and crank up the volume.
This makes no sense to me at all. It's as if we have collectively decided as a society to position gas generators in every room designed to release nasty and rotten odors every few minutes. One would hope that we wouldn't put up with that. Perhaps one day we'll learn not to tolerate the unwilling ubiquity of televisions, either.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Scotland Made The Right Decision

The big news of the past week has been the independence referendum in Scotland, in which the voters got to decide whether to remain in the United Kingdom or secede and become an independent nation. By the hefty margin of 55% to 45%, the people of Scotland rejected independence. It was the right decision.

I love Scotland. My maternal ancestors arrived in America from Scotland in 1906. I have visited Scotland many times. I've hosted Burns Night. I listen to Scottish music, eat Scottish food, drink Scottish beer, and read Scottish literature. Far too many Scottish-Americans think that they take their heritage seriously just by watching Braveheart, but I like to think that I'm at least a little more genuine.

It's also easy for me to understand the emotional desire that any proud people might have for independence. History is largely the story of people fighting to free themselves from others, as Americans can attest. Looking over the globe today, we can still see how the striving for independence continues to drive much of what happens in the world. The Kurds in Iraq are perhaps the most obvious example.

Yet Scotland was correct in rejecting independence. Had they voted to secede, the United Kingdom as we know it would have effectively ceased to exist. And a world without the United Kingdom would have been a much lesser place.

The United Kingdom is probably the most successful political entity that has ever existed, exerting an enormous and beneficial influence on the rest of the world. It was the United Kingdom that played the crucial role in defeating the imperial ambitions of Louis XIV and Napoleon and, in the 20th Century, played critical roles in defeated fascism in Nazi Germany and containing communism in Russia until it collapsed. Through the expansion and eventual independence of the British Empire, the United Kingdom spread over the whole world the concepts of parliamentary democracy, free market economics, the rule of law, and (not to be underrated) association football.

But aside from preserving the United Kingdom, Scotland was right in rejecting independence because being part of the United Kingdom is part of what makes Scotland what it is. For too many people, Scotland means William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. It should mean James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine; Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics; James Clerk Maxwell, the discoverer of electromagnetism; Robert Burns, the poet; David Hume, the philosopher; Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; Patrick Geddes, the father of modern city planning; David Livingstone, the explorer of Africa. With a tiny fraction of a percent of the world's population, Scotland has produced some of the most important and influential thinkers of the modern age. Being part of the United Kingdom has allowed Scotland to punch far, far above its historical weight.

(Readers interested in the contributions Scots have made to the wider world should read Arthur Herman's outstanding book How the Scots Invented the Modern World.)

It's important to note that William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are warriors from the semi-barbaric medieval age. The truly great Scots are made their mark on the world after the 1707 Union between England and Scotland. It was through the United Kingdom that Scotland prospered and flourished. Walking away from that glorious historical legacy would have been a mistake.

So, to the voters of Scotland, I say thank you. Thank you for saving the United Kingdom and thank you for respecting the brilliant heritage of your nation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Announcing Publication of Blessed are the Peacemakers

I am very proud to announce that my second book, Blessed are the Peacemakers: A Shattered Nation Novella, has been published. It's available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. It tells the story of the peace conference between the Union and Confederacy following the events of Shattered Nation. The story is seen through the eyes of John C. Breckinridge, former Vice President of the United States and Confederate major general, now serving as a Confederate delegate to the peace talks.

The unexpected success of Shattered Nation: An Alternate History Novel of the American Civil War has been a source of enormous satisfaction for me.  Blessed are the Peacemakers is the first of what I expect will be several novellas that follow on from Shattered Nation. It is intended to serve as a bridge between Shattered Nation and its sequel, House of the Proud, which I hope to publish in late 2015 or early 2016. I'm also doing preliminary work on a novel detailing what happened in the Shenandoah Valley during the events of Shattered Nation. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that the literary adventure I embarked upon when I started work on Shattered Nation some years ago will be a lifelong project.

Yet it won't be the only project. Although I find the American Civil War utterly fascinating and absorbing, it is far from my only historical interest. Indeed, I am one of those unfortunate people who are interested in so many different things that they find it difficult to focus on any one subject for a long amount of time.  When confronted with occasional writer's block with Shattered Nation or Blessed are the Peacemakers, I have distracted myself by doing preliminary work, mostly researching and outlining, on alternate history novels that have nothing to do with the Shattered Nation timeline. My long term plans include alternate history novels dealing with the Second World War, the United States during the 1790s, the reign of Henry VIII, and the last years of the Roman Republic. Alternate history fiction is an immense and surprisingly untapped source of literary possibilities. Though I am still comparatively young, the sad truth is that I doubt I will live long enough to write all the books I want to write.

Writing Blessed are the Peacemakers has been an interesting intellectual adventure.  As with any excursion into the realm of alternate history, it's fascinating to look at the events of the past from a different perspective.  The outcome of the American Civil War and the subsequent course of American history, like most other major historical events, has the whiff of inevitability about it.  But nothing in history was inevitable.  Had events of the American Civil War unfolded as depicted in Shattered Nation, the situation in 1865 would have obviously been vastly different than what it was in the history with which we are familiar.  Trying to map out the course history might have taken, while being careful not to be carried away by flights of fancy, is a tremendously difficult yet strangely satisfying task.

Composing the actual text of the peace treaty, which appears at the end of the novella, was especially challenging and enjoyable.  I spent many hours scouring through the texts of eighteenth and nineteenth century treaties of peace and commerce in order to master the proper language.  This might strike some people as unimaginably boring, but I personally found it to be quite fun.

Anyway, for those who choose to read this little volume, I hope you enjoy it and I hope you look forward to what's coming in the future.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One Hundreth Anniversary Of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's Assassination

It was one hundred years ago today that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo by the Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip. This single act was one of the great disasters in world history. Not only did it lead directly to the outbreak of the First World War, which killed tens of millions of people and left Europe in utter ruins, but it also led indirectly to the rise of fascism and communism and an even worse world war two decades later.

Before the summer of 1914, Europe had generally been at peace for almost half a century. Trade and cultural exchanges between nations had never been greater. Art, architecture, literature, and theater had flourished. The motion picture industry was being born. The Orient Express had made its regular runs from Paris to Constantinople. Luxury goods and travel, previously available only to the wealthy, were becoming accessible to the rising middle class. It's no surprise that the French referred to these decades as the Belle Époque.

There were problems, to be sure. Conflicts like the Spanish-American War and the Russo-Japanese War caused turbulence on the global scene. The Balkans, that always volatile tinderbox, had caught on fire in the years just before 1914. Irrational violent action by anarchists occasionally took place. The Dreyfus Affair revealed the depths of anti-Semitism in France. These troubles, though, might have been managed and the overall peace and prosperity of the time might have continued, but for those fatal shots fired by Princip on that dark June day and the stupidity of the national leaders of Austria-Hungry, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain.

The First World War was a nightmare that left between fifteen million and twenty million people dead. For the first time, industrialization was combined with warfare on a grand scale. Horrific things like chemical weapons, unrestricted submarine warfare, terror bombings by aircraft, and unpredicted concentrations of mass artillery fire were introduced. To read about battles such as Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli, Isonzo, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, the Brusilov Offensive, Passchendaele, and the Chemin des Dames is to read about events that chill the blood and make one retch. Amidst all this carnage, the worst of human nature was revealed in the Armenian Genocide, in which over a million defenseless Armenians were slaughtered by Turkish bullets and bayonets.

The First World War shattered the old order, giving rise to ideologies like fascism and communism. Had there been no First World War, the blood-drenched tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would never have existed. There would have been no Nazi Germany, no SS, no Gestapo. There would have been no slaughter of millions of Jews and other "undesirables" in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. There would have been no Bolshevik Revolution, no Soviet Union, no Cheka or NKVD, no Gulag Archipelago. There would have been no Maoist China, no Red Guards, no Great Famine.

In sweeping away the old order, the First World War also brought down the Ottoman Empire. As corrupt and decrepit an imperial regime as that was, its destruction let loose a series of events in the Middle East that are still inflicting pain upon the world today. The forces of nationalism that were unleashed tore the region apart, set Arab against Jew in Palestine in a conflict that continues to this day, and brought forth forces of religious extremism that eventually led to Al Qaeda and Isis.

Adding another layer onto the tragedy, the First World War only led to an even more destructive war twenty years later. Had there been no First World War, there obviously would have been no Second World War. There would have been no mass genocide in Eastern Europe, no millions of lives lost in bloody battles in North Africa, Italy, the Western Front, the Eastern Front, and the Pacific. There would have been no area bombing of cities like Rotterdam, London, Hamburg, and Dresden. There would have been no atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; in fact, it's entirely possible that nuclear weapons might never have been invented.

One can only wonder, perhaps with bitter tears, how different the world would have been had Gavrilo Princip not fired those shots on the streets of Sarajevo a hundred years ago today.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The True Greatness Of A Nation

The crisis in the Ukraine has dominated the headlines of late, which is not surprising as it is the most serious confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War. President Vladimir Putin seems determined to make the world see that Russia is again a major world power and a nation to be reckoned with. He's like the loudest guy in the bar, thumping his chest to make sure that everyone else knows just how tough he is.

This was on display today as the Russian military held its annual parade in Moscow to celebrate Victory Day, the commemoration of Russia's victory over Nazi Germany. Tanks, artillery pieces, rocket launchers, and even ballistic missiles rolled through Red Square, thousands of soldiers marched in perfect order, and fighter jets screamed overhead in an impressive display. For those who watched, it must have been hard not to be impressed.

Yet what did the parade really demonstrate about Russia that was all that impressive? They have a lot of tanks and soldiers, but who cares? Does the true greatness of a nation lie in the amount of military firepower it might be able to bring to bear? I don't think so at all, and the fact that any of us think so should be a source of disquiet.

You know what impresses me more about Russia than its T-80 tanks and MiG-31 fighters? The writing of Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Dostoyevsky. The music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky. The scientific achievements of Lomonosov and the engineering genius of Tsiolkovsky. What these brilliant Russians achieved will still be spoken of long after the name of Vladimir Putin has been forgotten.

Russia is a great nation, but we don't need Vladimir Putin to tell us that. Rather than push the world towards conflict and show off the war-potential of his country, he would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if he had simply organized a tour of the Hermitage Museum.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Trying To Be Civilized In 21st Century America

I like to think of myself as a fairly civilized person. I speak with proper grammar, use good table manners, and make an effort to keep my kitchen clean. I've been known to read works of classic literature that weren't assigned to me by a professor and I've occasionally been spotted in art museums. Sometimes, if you listen carefully, you might even hear Mozart or Bach playing at my house.

But I'm not nearly as civilized as I would like to be. I partly blame lack of money, as teachers in Texas don't exactly rake in the dough. I also blame simply lack of time and energy, as raising a year-old daughter takes a great deal of both. For all that, though, the real reason I am not as civilized as I would like to be is that it's very difficult to live a civilized life in 21st Century America.

For all its wonderful advances in the fields of medicine, science and technology, the age in which we live is a very uncivilized one. It is an age of ubiquitous, unavoidable advertising, which plays on our worst fears and insecurities to manipulate us into buying useless and even demeaning products. It is an age of frivolous popular culture, which focuses more on the personal lives on untalented people rather than the actual artistry of serious actors and musicians. It is an age that celebrates crass people acting out in order to gain fifteen minutes of fame, rather than people of genuine virtue or achievement.

I can think of no better demonstration of how uncivilized America is in the early 21st Century than what one sees while checking out at a typical grocery store. On one side is a magazine rack stuffed with celebrity gossip rags, their covers proclaiming which untalented singers and movie stars are pregnant, getting married, getting divorced, or whatnot. On the other side are rows and rows of candy bars, bubble gum packs, and other assorted collections of chemicals. It's as if someone is trying to simultaneously rot my brain and make me fat. When I finally pay for my groceries and escape out the other end, I always feel a desperate need to wash my hands.

Another case in point in scanning the programs available for viewing on cable every night. Finding even a single program that is not crass, vulgar, demeaning, or just plain stupid can be a difficult task. Almost everything on television these days is either hyper-sexualized or unnecessarily violent. Comedy is usually uncouth and simply gross, with little of the crisp, witty humor that is the hallmark of a refined sensibility. Then FCC chairman Newton Minow proclaimed television "a vast wasteland" more than half a century ago; it is worse today by several orders of magnitude.

Feel free to call me a snob if you wish. I shall take that as your acknowledgement that my standards are higher than yours.

What can an individual who wishes to be refined and civilized do in this day and age? There is a military tactic known as the "hedgehog defense", in which the defending force essentially creates a series of small fortified positions that face outwards in every direction. The attacking force may succeed in penetrating between them, but so long as each individual position remains intact and continues fighting, the defense as a whole will not fail. In 21st Century America, anyone who wants to live a civilized life must make themselves into a hedgehog, keeping at bay the inanity and triviality that characterizes so much of modern society.

It's simple. To live a civilized life in the 21st Century, you need to build a shield around yourself and keep out the unwholesome, demeaning, and vulgar trash that is swamping our society. Avoid the bad movies and watch the more refined films instead. Turn off the television and open a book. Cook something at home rather than running through the fast food drive through. It's not that difficult. It doesn't require any organization. It's just a choice each of us needs to make.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Magic of Texas Hill Country Wineries

Yesterday was one of the most pleasant days in my recent memory. I got to spend it with three of my favorite people: my wife Jill, my ten-month-old daughter Evelyn, and my visiting cousin Aleena, who was in Austin for a conference. Wanting to show my Yankee cousin a real slice of the Lone Star State (and dispel any images of oil rigs and cowboys), Jill and I decided to take her for an excursion along the Hill Country Wine Trail.

It certainly was a good day for it. After weeks of rotten weather, the skies had cleared and the temperature had risen into the seventies. Humidity was nonexistent; you could have spent the whole day outside without breaking a sweat. The air was so fresh it tasted delicious just to inhale. And the sky put on a fine show. Unless you've spent time in the Texas Hill Country, you can't know just how lovely the big blue sky is. Nothing's in the way out in the Hill Country- no trees, no mountains, no buildings. Just a great and majestic dome of perfect blueness.

We had planned to visit only two wineries but, as it happily turned out, we had time to squeeze a third in. Our first stop was at Becker Vineyards, founded in 1993 and now one of the pillars of the Texas wine industry. Becker Iconoclast is the best-selling wine in Texas; Jill and I make it a point to always have a bottle on hand. I was disappointed to find that they were out of Prairie Rotie, a Rhone-style blend I have always enjoyed. As it turned out, we tried seven wines: the Viognier, the White Wing (a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend), the Reserve Cabernet Franc, the Reserve Cabernet-Syrah, the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Raven (a Malbec-Petit Verdot blend) and the Barbera-Merlot blend.

All of these were good wines, but the real standout for me was the White Wing. Americans don't drink too much Semillon, the primary white varietal produced in the Bordeaux region, and hardly any vineyards in America produce them. It's really too bad, because I love Semillon. Blended with sauvignon blanc in the style of classic Bordeaux white wines, it's a delight for the palate.

We spent about an hour lounging around on the ground outside the main building, sipping on glasses of Iconoclast, enjoying the wonderful weather, chatting with each other and random strangers, and watching Evelyn frolic about in the grass. It's impossible not to be in a good mood at such a lovely place, on such a lovely day, with a glass of such lovely wine in one's hand.

Our next stop was Grape Creek Vineyards, which prides itself on being "Tuscany in Texas". It's long been one of my favorites, for not only does it make wonderful wine, but the winery facility itself is quite lovely and a nice place to spend time. As usual, there was live music. The crowd seemed to be enjoying itself quite a bit.

We had six wines at Grape Creek: Rendezvous (a Rhone-style blend), Cabernet Trois (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Ruby Cabernet), Cabernet-Syrah, Bellissimo (one of those so-called "Super Tuscan" wines), Mosaic (a nice Bordeaux-style blend), and a Riesling. Of these, my favorite by far was the Rendezvous. I was told that it was won two gold medals at San Francisco Chronicle competitions and this surprised me not at all. It was an outstanding wine.

Then again, I'm a sucker for Rhone-style wines. I've always thought Rhone wines are the unappreciated middle child of French wines. Bordeaux and Burgundy get all the attention. Bordeaux is the eldest child, strong, well-behaved, always determined to live up to expectations. Burgundy is the youngest child, a bit wild and unpredictable but absolutely brilliant. The Rhone is the more quiet and unassuming middle child that often gets forgotten, even though it's just as good as the other two. Rhone wines are one of the great comforts of life.

Our third and final stop was the Messina Hof Winery. The original Messina Hof is out near College Station and the one in the Hill Country has only been open for a few years. Its wines are very good and the facility is very nice. It was getting on to the evening by the time we arrived; it would be dark before we left. I tried five wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine called Reflections of Love (a Bordeaux-style blend) and finished the tasting and the day with a glass of their tawny port. The Reflections of Love was very good and all of the wines were well worth drinking.

We were getting a bit tired by this point and it was time to head home. Evelyn, the little trooper, had gone for a long while without a good nap and was starting to get a bit cranky. She had done amazingly well all day, though, smiling at and flirting with everybody she saw, practicing her walking (she took her first steps just recently) and clearly having the time of her life. Once the car got back on the highway and turned towards home, though, she was out like a log.

All in all, the best wines of the day were the White Wing at Becker and the Rendezvous at Grape Creek. But everything we had was enjoyable. By the end of the day, I was reflecting on how far Texas wines have come in the last fifteen or so years. I've been coming out to the Hill Country wineries since the mid-1990s and the improvement has been nothing short of extraordinary. Give it another decade, and I think the wines of the Texas Hill Country will be competing with the best of California, France, and Italy.

God Bless Texas, and God Bless Texas Wine.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How Spielberg's Lincoln Could Have Been So Much Better

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was, without a doubt, a wonderful film. The acting of Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones was amazing, and the portrayal of Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis will certainly be remembered as perhaps the greatest cinematic portrayal of a historical figure by an actor (perhaps its only rival being George C. Scott's portrayal of Patton). The screenplay of Tony Kushner was great, the music of John Williams as epic as one would expect from him, and the whole production really did outstanding work.

Still, the movie could have been so much better.

I remember how excited I was upon learning that Spielberg, without question America's greatest director, was going to make a movie from the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. When I learned it was going to cover only the period of time involving the passage of the 13th Amendment, I became a bit skeptical. After I finally saw the film, as great as it was and as much as I enjoyed it, I felt that my skepticism had been justified.

For me, it would have been far better for Spielberg to have made a film about Lincoln during the late summer of 1862 rather than early 1865. This timeframe would certainly have allowed for much more dramatic intensity.  In mid-1862, unlike early 1865, the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt.  The Confederacy had beaten back Union efforts to capture Richmond and embarked on grand counter offensives in Maryland, Kentucky, and northern Mississippi. The possibility of Britain and France extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy was very real. Most importantly, it was during this time that Lincoln made the momentous decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

By early 1865, the outcome of the war was not in doubt. The fall of Atlanta and the reelection of Lincoln in the 1864 election had driven the final nail into the heart of the Confederacy. The knowledge that the war was virtually over deprived Lincoln from much of the dramatic tension it might otherwise have had. Had it been set in 1862, scenes of Lincoln in the telegraph room receiving news of Union defeats at the hands of the Confederacy would have given Daniel Day-Lewis much more to work with.

Similarly, the Emancipation Proclamation was much more touch-and-go in the summer of 1862 than was the 13th Amendment in early 1865. For all the drama depicted in the movie, it was obvious to all observers after the 1864 elections that the 13th Amendment was going to pass. This was certainly not the case with the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew it would be tremendously unpopular in many areas of the North, would cost him badly needed support in the critical border states, would help the Democrats in the 1862 mid-term elections, and might well solidify Confederate resistance to the Union. There were fears that it would trigger a anarchy and an out-and-out race war in the South. Simply put, the decision on whether or not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation tormented Lincoln, while the decision to push for the 13th Amendment was just a logical next step in the abolition of slavery, which by then had been underway for years.

Put all that together and I think a fair case can be made that Lincoln would have been a far better movie had it been set in the summer and fall of 1862 than in early 1865.

Of course, it's rather silly of me to complain about this. Lincoln is a fabulous film and we should be ever thankful to Steven Spielberg and his team for making it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Save Burnside's Bridge!

Once historical artifacts, buildings and structures are gone, they are gone forever. Once land across which great battles were fought is bulldozed over ands covered with asphalt, it is lost to future generations. Unlike a broken cup, history can't be glued back together. It's imperative on all of us to protect these physical connections we have with the past, no matter how much it costs.

With that in mind, let us turn to the issue of Burnside's Bridge.

September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history. In western Maryland, just across the Potomac River from Virginia, the Battle of Sharpsburg (known in the North as the Battle of Antietam) was fought between the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. All day, Union forces assaulted the Confederate positions, hoping to drive their opponents into the Potomac River. All day, the Southern forces managed to hold their ground, though at times they held on only by their fingernails. By mid-afternoon, the badly outnumbered Confederate forces finally cracked and the corps of Union General Ambrose Burnside began rolling up their right flank. At the last possible moment, however, Southern reinforcements under General A. P. Hill arrived and launched a counter attack, driving the Yankees back and saving the Confederate army.

The battle was one of the most important of the Civil War. Although a tactical Confederate victory, it also was a strategic Union triumph. The enormous losses Lee suffered in the battle persuaded him to retreat back into Virginia and marked an end to his invasion of Maryland. This perceived victory, in turn, gave President Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which not only deterred Britain and France from recognizing the Confederacy, but helped inspire Northern soldiers to see their war as a crusade to destroy the institution of slavery. Still, the battle was a missed opportunity for the Union cause, for had Confederate resistance on the battlefield been broken before Hill's reinforcements had time to arrive, Lee's army would have been completely destroyed. The war, in all likelihood, would have been over by Christmas.

The battlefield at Sharpsburg is one of the best preserved in the nation. The landmarks and fields are in almost pristine shape. On the left, the infamous Cornfield. In the center, the sunken road that became known simply as Bloody Lane.

And on the right, Burnside's Bridge.

The bridge was the scene of one of the most dramatic and consequential defensive stands in American military history. It was defended by only a few hundred men from the 2nd and 20th Georgia Infantry Regiments. They faced an onslaught of thousands of Union troops under Burnside's command. Like by the crotchety and frequently drunk General Robert Toombs, a prewar politician from Georgia, the Southerners repulsed attack after attack throughout the day.  Only after being swamped by vastly superior numbers did the Confederate troops give way, but they had successfully held up Burnside's attack long enough for Hill's reinforcements to arrive.

The bridge has stood ever since as a reminder of the bloody and historic events of that day. It is one of the most photographed sites on any Civil War battlefield and has become one of the iconic symbols for the war as a whole.

Last month, a large chunk of the stonework of Burnside's Bridge broke off and fell into the creek. It seems that the wet and freezing weather weakened the stone structure sufficiently to cause a partial collapse. The National Park Service has been assessing the extent of the damage (which may include portions of the interior of the bridge not visible from the outside) and have closed the bridge to foot traffic.

Civil War enthusiasts around the country have expressed alarm and dismay at the news of the damage to the bridge. As we all know, in this age of budgetary pressure, extra funds for the National Park Service are not exactly easy to come by. Indeed, it often seems that the federal government lacks money to cover the basic operating costs of the national parks, much less unexpected expenses such as repairs to Burnside's Bridge.

Some have expressed a desire to help finance the repairs to the bridge. I sent an email to the staff of Antietam National Battlefield and, a few days later, received the following response from Susan Trail, Superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield.

Hi Mr. Brooks:
Thank you very much for your offer of assistance with preserving this important bridge. You can make a donation directly to Antietam National Battlefield. Please send a check to the following address:
Antietam National Battlefield
P.O. Box 158
Sharpsburg, MD 21782
Please make a note that the donation is intended for Burnside Bridge repairs.
We will be making the repairs in the spring or early summer and will be documenting them on the park Facebook page, so I hope you follow our progress.
Thank you,
Susan Trail
So, anyone who wishes to help fund the repairs for this damaged but salvageable should follow Superintendent Trail's suggestion and send a check to the Antietam National Battlefield, noting that the money should be earmarked for repairs to Burnside's Bridge. This is a chance to help preserve a piece of American history. Step up and do your part!

Friday, January 31, 2014


I'm told that every author needs a blog. Well, here it is.

Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Jeffrey Evan Brooks, author of Shattered Nation: An Alternate History Novel of the American Civil War. I was born in Richmond, Virginia, and grew up in Dallas, Texas. I now live in Manor, Texas, just outside the state capital of Austin. I'm married to my amazing and wonderful wife, Jill, and have a beautiful baby girl, Evelyn. My day job is teaching life skills to students with special needs at Anderson High School in northwest Austin; I'm still amazed that I get paid to do something so fun and so emotionally fulfilling. All things considered, I live a truly blessed life and am one of the happiest people I know.

I'll use this blog to keep interested readers apprised of my writings. I'm about to publish a follow-up novella called Blessed are the Peacemakers, which will serve as a sort of bridge between Shattered Nation and its sequel. I'm hard at work on that sequel, which will be titled House of the Proud. I'm ambitiously planning more writings - short stories, novellas, and full-length novels - dealing with the alternate history created by Shattered Nation. In addition, I have irons in the fire for writings about Ancient Rome, the Second World War, America in the 1790s, and a world in which the First World War did not take place. I'm in my mid-30s, but don't expect to live long enough to write everything I want to write.

I suppose I'll also use this blog to randomly blather on about things I'm interested in. I love wine, having become a certified sommelier in 2009. I love good food. I'm a devoted fan of Chelsea Football Club. I get annoyed by things, like people who don't put their shopping carts back in the cart return areas or intrusive TVs in restaurants and airports. I love reading history and will probably review books here; I'll only review books I like, since I don't see why I should waste time with books I don't like.

Anyway, this will be my blog. I hope everyone enjoys it.