Book Review: “Six Frigates” by Ian W. Toll

Living in the year 2023 AD, it’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, the American military was the laughingstock of the world. There was a time when the United States couldn’t even defend their own coastline, let alone project military power to another region of the world.

It was the turn of the 19th century. The 1700’s were coming to a close and a new nation entered the 1800’s with nothing but hope for the future. The mighty Atlantic Ocean kept America safe from Napoleon’s bloodthirsty wars of expansion, wars that in turn put goods from the neutral Americans in high demand. Money from its lucrative trade deals flowed into the infant nation and the good times rolled.

But war with Europe was on the horizon, and Moroccan pirates patrolled the Mediterranean, plundering American ships without fear of reprisal. Though many Americans objected, a certain few statesmen realized a basic truth: to survive, the United States needed a Navy.

Six Frigates is a fantastic historic account of the beginnings of the United States Navy, a force that began with six unique frigates, one of which is still in service today. These frigates were bigger than their European equivalents, but faster and more maneuverable, too. They carried more cannons and were made with some of the strongest wood in the world. This wood came from the Southern Live Oak, a species of tree that grows only in the Deep South of America and contributed to one of the six frigates, the USS Constitution earning the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’.

As a matter of fact, the United States Navy to this day maintains its own forest of these trees so as to be able to continuously repair the USS Constitution with its original wood.

The other five of the original frigates were named the Chesapeake, President, United States, Congress, and Constellation. These names were chosen off a list of ten names presented to then-president George Washington. However, his interest in a Navy was minimal, so his method of selecting the names was picking the first six on the list.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and its historical account of the origins of the United States Navy. The author pumped it full of good information and also included some sardonic humor here and there, such as the below passage:

As Rodgers came up over the side to take possession of the captured ship, he was privately thrilled by the sight of the carnage the enemy had suffered. “Although I would not have you think me bloody minded,” the bloody-minded lieutenant wrote Stoddert, “yet I must confess the most gratifying sight my eyes ever held.”

I highly recommend this one to those of you with an interest in US history, and it’s available for free on the Internet Archive!

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When Warfighters Come Home

13 years ago last week, I woke up about three seconds before five o’clock in the morning in complete confusion. Instead of seeing the four walls of my childhood bedroom, adorned with my Chicago Bulls pennant and Michael Jordan poster, I was lying in a bunk in a large, grey room. Where the hell am I? I got my answer moments later when an empty metal trashcan was tossed onto the floor and an irate Drill Instructor started yelling.

Then I remembered. I had just enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and this was the first day of a 13-week long boot camp.

Looking back now, many of my memories of boot camp are funny. What a hilarious situation to look in on, a bunch of bald teenage boys in ill-fitted camouflage utilities running around while grown men in pressed and perfect uniforms and funny hats are screaming at them. I remember the honor of receiving my Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, the emblem of the Marine Corps and a physical acknowledgement of having earned the title Marine, and I recall the awkwardness of being thanked for my service by some civilians before I’d even left San Diego (I haven’t even done anything yet, was my first thought).

But for the most part, boot camp is a hilariously absurd affair.

My memories of that time stand in stark contrast to my experiences in war.

I won’t pretend to be some kind of war hero. I was shot at plenty but only once in my life did I find myself in sustained, prolonged combat with the enemy. A full hour of being pinned down in an open field, surrounded on three sides as bullets flew overhead and grenades rolled dangerously close to our positions. By the grace of God, we all survived the ordeal but with several close calls. Far from the glorious affair I imagined combat would be, the real deal was gritty, bloody, and damn terrifying.

I watched Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front last week, and I remember living a lot of the feelings that Paul, the protagonist, experiences. From the jubilant, naive patriotism as he enlists to the wide-eyed fear as bullets start coming his way. Unlike Paul, I was fortunate enough to return home one day and carry on with my life as a war veteran.

I learned that civilians tend to have a certain image of people like me, warfighters who no longer fight wars. Society has largely chosen to portray us as ticking time-bombs. Angry, unstable, alcoholic maniacs who are one bad day away from committing murder, suicide, or both. And sure, in some cases this is sadly accurate.

But there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people like me: we did our part, then reintegrated ourselves into society. We’re different, but you won’t know it unless we choose to let you into that part of our lives. Some of us are still proud of our time in the military, even if it leaves us conflicted about America’s vast umbrella of foreign policy. In that regard, you could say we’re walking contradictions.

Whatever the case, that’s the kind of veteran I want to see on TV more often. Enough of the violent drunk with the dog tags hanging out of his shirt, and enough of the ‘noble’ homeless veteran, downtrodden and broken. The vast majority of us become normal, productive citizens who just so happen to have a different resume than most.

I’m not sure if there’s an overarching theme or point to today’s post. Passing by the anniversary of my boot camp date and watching a powerful anti-war film at the same time left me in a bit of an emotional maelstrom and I wanted to put digital pen to digital paper. If you read this far and would like something to take away from this post, know that war veterans for the most part just want to blend in with you. We have families, we work steady, unglamorous jobs, and we only pour a drink on the rare occasion that we want one. Just treat us like you do anyone else.

But please, don’t thank a brand-new Marine for his service. It really is awkward.

All Quiet on the Western Front: Movie Review

Available on Netflix, this is a film I’ve been meaning to watch for a while now. I went into it expecting an experience based on the novel of the same name, but got something entirely different. That’s not a bad thing, but I wasn’t thrilled with the choices made by the directors and producers, either.

The film opens with complete silence, the camera facing upwards at snow-covered treetops. The serenity is soon shattered by the sounds and sights of war. You watch as soldiers die in a hopeless charge. I appreciate the affect here and it was well done, but none of the characters you see are the protagonists. It ends up feeling like wasted time. Again, I don’t think this was a bad choice per se, but the book opens with the main character, Paul, in his home village, and you get a glimpse of his idyllic life before he follows the drums of war.

There is a short scene after the opening scene of Paul and his friends as they happily enlist in the Army, but it doesn’t carry the theme quite as well as in the book.

Related to this, later in the book, Paul returns home on leave and finds that everything is the same, except him. He realizes that his war experience has changed him forever, and he eventually concludes that coming home had been a mistake. He is eager to return to the front because that is where he feels ‘normal’.

This is not shown in the movie at all, and that, I thought, was a big missed opportunity. The theme of the story is not just the horrors of war, but also how it changes the soldiers who return. It’s an important theme to explore because I don’t believe many civilians consider it.

We all understand the ‘ticking time bomb’ cliche, when the war veteran is constantly angry, drunk, and suicidal (this harmful stereotype is a whole other problem to be discussed another day, by the way), but in reality, so many more veterans internalize any grief or stress. They blend in because they know they have to. They’re home again, but they know they’re not really home. Home was before, when all was innocent, and they had all their childhood friends.

That’s gone forever. As the book shows, the hometown and the childhood friends are all the same, but the veteran is the one who changed, and he can’t be unchanged.

Failing to explore this theme left me feeling not so high on the movie as I might have been. I immediately contrasted it to the end of They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson, a film I consider required viewing. At the end of that film, you hear an old veteran of The Great War telling a story about returning home to his old town, returning to his old job, and reuniting with his old coworker. His coworker, who had remained at home, sees him come in after four years of being apart and says to the veteran, “Bob! Haven’t seen you in a while. You been working nights?”

And the movie ends there. I get chills just thinking about this powerful testimony. After four years of some of the most hellish warfare humanity has ever fought, the warfighter returns to an old friend asking if he picked up a different shift. The old friend is no longer a true friend because he can’t possibly relate to the warfighter. That old friendship is, in a word, gone, and the warfighter knows this. He knows that he will forever be an other.

Overall I enjoyed the film, and it did do a good job of faithfully representing the anti-war message of the book, but I thought there were too many missed opportunities. There’s another neglected section of the book that shows the boys struggling with a cruel, domineering corporal at the barracks before they ever even see war, but this review has gone on long enough.

I recommend this film (in the original German) to students of history, but I also feel compelled to warn you about some pretty severe violence. I’m sure you would expect that given the film’s subject, but be warned that it can get extremely graphic and includes gruesome hand-to-hand combat.

More Than Just an Author

I’ve mentioned it a time or two here on my blog, but I happen to be a big fan of NFL football, the Chicago Bears in particular. I talk football on Twitter occasionally with fellow author and blogger Berthold Gambrel, actually. Though he at least gets to cheer for a much better team than I do (for now).

Anyway, the point of today’s post is I wanted to let you all know that I do more than just write novels! I’m also a writer for a sports news site called Bears Talk. As you can probably infer, it’s about the Chicago Bears. I started contributing on their site as a guest author last summer, then a few months ago was brought on board to write articles that the site would feature on its homepage!

It’s not a paid gig (though I did get some cool Bears Talk swag), but just a fun hobby and a chance to reach a lot of people with the things I have to say about the Chicago Bears. Mostly good things lately, with quarterback Justin Fields having a real nice season and the Bears (somehow) stumbling into the NFL draft with the top pick.

If you ever wanted to check it out, the website is here. I actually use a separate Twitter account to write and promote those articles, which is probably why you’ve never seen them. I figured it’d be courteous to not flood your Twitter feeds with my passionate football opinions, so I made that second account two years ago to act as a filter. But this way you can still read them if you wish!

Back to Blogging in 2023

Happy New Year to all! Once again, planet Earth has completed an orbit around the Sun, and humans everywhere rejoice!

I have not updated my blog in the past couple weeks, mostly due to the holidays. I tend not to blog around Christmas time, what with the hustle and bustle of seeing friends and family. I was also just kicking my feet up and relaxing once the decorations came down, too.

I did take my daughter to her first professional hockey game, along with my siblings and their kids. I bought a new hat while at the stadium, which my daughter promptly claimed to be hers, and had a delicious cheeseburger dinner. All in all, a really great night with family!

As I mentioned on Twitter, I finally sent off my third Ethan Chase novel for editing, so it shouldn’t be terribly long before that is available to order! Gold of the Jaguar is, I think, my favorite Ethan Chase adventure yet, and possibly the most intense. I really enjoyed writing this one, and I’m excited to see what my editor can do to improve it.

I’m not sure yet if there will be a fourth book or more in this series. The ending I have currently is open to both possibilities, either a continuation of the series or a fond farewell to the characters. I will say that I have a germ of an idea for a fourth book, but that needs to roll around my noggin for a while before I decide to act on it. If I can picture a clear beginning and end to such a book, I suppose I’ll put pen to paper and at least attempt it.

For Christmas, my wife got me the rest of the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, so I’ll be reviewing those as I finish reading them. I watched the Netflix adaptation of the book series and found myself rather enjoying it, so I’ll finish the books (though I do think that he wrote more than totally necessary).

Once again, I want to thank you all who follow and read my blog here! It’s been four years since I started publishing and blogging, beginning with His Name Was Zach and a shortsighted blog site. I’ve come a long way, and I want to thank those of you who’ve been around the longest, fellow authors and readers who’ve engaged the most with me here in our blogging spaces. I would name names but am afraid of forgetting someone, but I reckon you know who you are. So thank you for sticking around and I look forward to what 2023 brings to us all!