Special Issues » 2009 Book Issue

Three tales of war, heroism, and struggle

In History's Way

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Valkyrie
By Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager
Knopf • 224 pages

The Attack on the Liberty
By James Scott
Simon & Schuster • 384 pages

The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget
By Andrew Rice
Henry Holt • 384 pages

The course of human conflict is often told in a broad sweep: massive resources and mobilizations brought to bear on an issue diplomacy has failed to settle and where provocations can no longer be borne. But as the air clears in war's aftermath, it is often the individual stories and singular events that emerge as the most telling, the most resonant. They become symbols of self-sacrifice and vindication, loss and inconsolable grief.

Three new books take us from Hitler's Germany to Israel's Six Day War to Idi Amin's Uganda. In their own ways, they fill in the details on those enormous canvases we recall as the bloody history of the human need to redress wrongs, shift the balance of power, and live with the consequences of victory or defeat.

Valkyrie

Philipp Freiharr von Boeselager was 25 years old when the Second World War broke out. The cold-blooded brutality and murder of prisoners by SS officers turned the patriotic and ardent Catholic von Boeselager into a conspirator in 1942. His first attempt to shoot Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, while they were on a camp inspection visit, had to be aborted at the last moment. Undeterred, the plotters then resolved to use a bomb to assassinate Hitler alone.

Von Boeselager's was not the leading role in the bomb plot. He was to deliver the explosives to the meeting site, return to his cavalry unit, and prepare to secure Berlin once the plotters had achieved their goal.

As depicted in the recent film Valkyrie, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg carried the explosive-stuffed briefcase into Hitler's meeting, leaving it under the conference room table. Had the briefcase not been accidentally shifted out of position, history would have changed that day.

But the bomb failed to kill Hitler, and the SS purge that followed cut a wide swath through the German officer corps. Von Boeselager was never implicated by any of his co-conspirators, even as they were tortured and brutally slain, one by one.

Valkyrie is a gripping tale, not only of the failed assassination attempts, but also of the events that shaped this German officer and his own sense of honor, duty, and conscience.

The Attack on The Liberty

On June 8, 1967, in the midst of Israel's Six Day War, the spy ship U.S.S. Liberty stationed in international waters off the coast of Gaza came under attack from Israeli air and naval assault. The jet fighters attacked with the full force at their command: rockets, cannon, and napalm. When the air attack broke off, Israeli torpedo boats moved in, ripping a hole 39 feet wide and 24 feet tall in the ship's steel hull. Thirty-four American crewman were killed, 171 wounded.

In Washington, within hours, the Israeli government apologized for the attack, deeming it a "friendly fire" incident. With the Vietnam War in full swing and public sentiment rising against it, President Lyndon Johnson seemed determined to shield Israel from public outcry. The U.S. Navy's investigation into the incident lasted eight days. It exonerated Israel.

But the story never really went away.

James Scott, in this exhaustively researched new work, interviews surviving members of the Liberty's crew (his own father among them), presents new evidence from recently declassified papers and witness sources, and effectively re-opens the case on the events of that day in the Mediterranean.

His careful reconstruction and heart-pounding re-telling of the attack figure highly among the book's many virtues. This is a first-rate piece of reporting and a harrowing tale of political expediency winning out over the simple need for truth.

The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget

When the dust clears after tyranny and armed conflict have held sway for decades, how is true recovery best served?

The African continent has addressed this question in myriad ways. Truth commissions, civil tribunals, public protest. In Uganda, the chosen course has been called "the path of forgetting."

In the aftermath of Idi Amin's brutal reign as dictator, one man held out for more than just forgetting. In this, his first book, journalist Andrew Rice pursues not only the narrative of Duncan Laki's quest for his father's killers but that broader question: how are memory and justice to be reconciled? When Duncan is able to track down the two men responsible for his father's death, whether or not they will be held accountable for these crimes committed under Amin's regime remains a complex issue.

Rice has done an admirable job of pulling his story into the larger context of the African continent's challenges today as it reaches for greater peace, freedom, and stature in the world.

Individual stories emerge, sharply delineated. And Rice has a novelist's touch for pacing and drama.

Despite the horrific nature of the events this book holds up to scrutiny, it is a compelling, thoughtful read.

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