Fusilier

This almost sounds like a quote from Jack Kerouac:

Of all the situations of life, that of having no pursuit is the worst . . . time hangs heavy and I scarcely know how to spin out the day. I generally lay till ten, go to breakfast and then down to the town to play billiards or pick up the news. Here I find a number of stupid beings as dull as myself — yawning and sauntering from room to room and cursing their ill stars for keeping them in such a vile hole.

But that is a British Army officer talking about his life as a prisoner of war during the American Revolution. Officers were not confined but were compelled not to escape by a sense of honor. They could not work, unlike rank and file prisoners who worked on local farms, so they spent their days bored and waiting for their release.

The quote comes from Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution by Mark Urban, a superb history that follows a British infantry regiment throughout the American Revolution. The Royal Welch Fusiliers, also known as the 23rd Regiment, took part in many of the big battles of the war from Lexington & Concord to Bunker Hill to Guilford Courthouse to Yorktown.

I also enjoyed this section, in which Urban describes my Scots-Irish ancestors, who fought against the British in South Carolina:

Charleston’s immediate hinterland, stretching about 100 miles inland, was a swampy, unhealthy terrain crossed by several major rivers. This lowland was also the most economically productive part of the province, with its large plantations. Beyond the coastal strip, there was a distinct change, a rolling landscape of sand hills, the so-called piedmont, began; and beyond that, a further 100 miles or so from the sea, were the Appalachian mountains. . . .

***

In many of the piedmont settlements, Britain’s most hard-bitten adversaries were Irish immigrants or those of so-called Scots-Irish descent. The latter type came from the ranks of Scottish Presbyterian settlers in Ireland who, having lived one or two generations on that island, had left for America, many after losing their livelihoods when the British raised taxes on imported linen.

***

[T]he Hibernian strain that had planted itself in the hills between Camden and the North Carolina border was to prove well-nigh irreconcilable. The meagre existence scraped from the sandy soil of the uplands created a tough, self-reliant patchwork of communities that greatly resented outside interference, be it from redcoats, the Charleston merchant elite, or even tithe-gathering churchmen. One office of the British Legion called these backcountry settlers “Crackers”, recoiling at both their miserable existence and their lax morals, saying they were “more savage than the Indians, and possess every one of their vices, but none of their virtues.”

Settlements of Scots who had not lived in Ireland, by contrast, were often loyalist.

Disclaimer: I also have at least one ancestor who was a Loyalist.

Overall, I took two lessons from this book.

First, as my genealogical research had begun to teach me, the southern campaigns were a much bigger part of the Revolution than is usually recognized. We hear mostly about the war in New England but we also wore down the British Army in a series of battles in the south. Not only that, but the fighting between American Whigs and Tories was incredibly brutal and included the mass killing of prisoners. It seems like this is true of all wars, as extreme incidents of brutality tend to be forgotten over time because nobody wants to remember them.

Second, the popular image of the Revolution is of tight lines of redcoats being shot to pieces by American troops hiding behind rocks and trees. And this is how the war began in Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. But the British soon adapted and began beating us at our own game with the use of light infantry that moved more quickly and safely through the terrain. In fact, Urban argues that the lessons the British learned in the Revolution eventually led to the tactics that beat Napoleon.

In the Revolution, the British kept winning battles but American armies would melt away and then reassemble, while it was much harder for the British to find replacements for the men they lost. In a final accounting of the regiment’s manpower, Urban says that out of the approximately 1,250 men who served in the 23rd Regiment during the war, 75 were killed on the battlefield while 400 died of illness. Another 193 men deserted, many to run away with American women. Urban points out that American daughters may have actually done more damage to the British Army than American sons.

I recently read a great book: The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of the Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, edited by Cynthia C. Kelly. It is almost an oral history, my favorite kind of history. A collection of excerpted memoirs, historical writing and primary documents about the Manhattan Project, it is basically a class reader on the birth of the Atomic Age. I wish there were more books like this. Collections are underrated.

There are several funny moments in the book. Here are a couple.

First, on secrecy. Robert Oppenheimer insisted on the sharing of ideas and problems between senior scientists but for everyone else (like the U.S. Army soldiers who acted as sort of assistants in the various labs) there was compartmentalization so nobody knew the big picture. Though many quickly figured it out. But the higher ups told everyone, “Stick to your knitting!”

This next passage reminded me of the famous Las Vegas slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Perhaps this is where they got the idea? The Vegas slogan is more pithy but this one feels more complete.

The overriding concern of General Leslie R. Groves in managing the Manhattan Project was secrecy. Anyone who entered the grounds of the Los Alamos laboratory or one of the other “secret cities” had to have a purpose and a pass. At all the sites, signs and billboards admonished workers to protect the project’s secrets: “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here!”

Second, on Niels Bohr. Bohr had escaped Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943 and then went to work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Initially, some were not sure of his loyalty to the Allied cause (he was) so U.S. Army counterintelligence agents followed Bohr and his son, code-named Nicholas Baker and Jim Baker. The Army was both protecting Bohr and making sure he did not divulge any secrets.

The following is from a memo written to Washington from an Army counterintelligence officer:

Subject: Nicholas Baker

1. At the conclusion of a recent report of the technical surveillance of the Bakers, the reporting agent made the following comment:

“Both the father and son appear to be extremely absent-minded individuals, engrossed in themselves, and go about paying little attention to any external influences. As they did a great deal of walking, this Agent had occasion to spend considerable time behind them and observe that is was rare when either of them paid much attention to stop lights or signs, but proceeded on their way much the same as if they were walking in the woods. On one occasion, subjects proceeded across a busy intersection against the red light in a diagonal fashion, taking the longest route possible and one of greatest danger. The resourceful work of Agent Maiers in blocking out one half of the stream of automobile traffic with his car prevented their incurring serious injury in this instance.”

2. I understand that the Bakers will be in Washington in the near future, at which time you will unquestionably see them. If the opportunity should present itself, I would appreciate a tactful suggestion from you to them that they should be more careful in traffic.

Niels Bohr, bashing the absent-minded professor stereotype!

Jaded

I get a lot of random movie ideas. This is one of them, a Romantic Comedy for the age of globalization:

JADED

ACT I:

Bob lives in American suburbia. He works all day in a corporate cube in an office park and comes home to an apartment in a shitty beige building in a complex of shitty beige buildings. He gets up, has a long day at work, goes to the gym, gets home, has a quick dinner, watches TV and goes to sleep. Day in day out. He has few friends. Unsatisfying anonymous soul-sucking life. He is not a boring guy but he is in a terrible rut and his usual positive nature has been overrun with cynicism.

One night he’s surfing an online dating website and on a whim he sets his search to women who “live anywhere.” He meets a Chinese woman, Qi. (Qi translated is Jade.) They begin an online relationship. He lives for the moments at night they message or Skype. Soon they Skype every night. He tries to get her to come to the US. He knows “she” might be catfishing him but he doesn’t care. He’s enjoying it as long as the illusion lasts.

Then we see it from Qi’s perspective. She’s a divorced mom. She is kind in her daily life as she cares for her young kids and gets them off to school etc. In short, she is everything we’ve heard her tell Bob she is. He hasn’t been catfished. She has been honest with him EXCEPT for one act of omission revealed to us at the end of Act I: Qi is the star of a provincial TV show and Bob doesn’t know it but he is her co-star.

ACT II:

The show — “We Love You Bob” — is on every night in the Chinese province. It features Bob’s Skype calls, messages, hopes, fears, etc with snarky commentary. He is far from anonymous in this Chinese province. He is famous and beloved and mocked. Every time he complains about his life in suburbia, it becomes water cooler talk for 100 million people. He has no idea, however.

Back and forth between perspectives. Small things happen: like staff of Chinese restaurant starts being weirdly nice to him. Qi begins to feel guilty but at the same time she really cares for him. Qi keeps putting him off about visiting the US but finally she convinces him to visit her in China.

ACT III:

Bob goes to China. His visit is set to be the grand finale of the TV show. He thinks he’s coming to meet her. Bob arrives in the province and mobs of people are waiting to see him. He slowly realizes what has happened as it seems like the entire country has come out to welcome him. At the same time he’s upset. He feels betrayed. But he ends up forgiving Qi, relishing his fame and they marry and stay in China.

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