Friday, November 29, 2013

On Thankfulness

This is the time of year when Americans reflect on what we are thankful for. Those in committed relationships should be thankful that they were able to find someone to share a lifetime of romance. My wife Annette, my partner for over 55 years, is the greatest blessing of my life. Close behind must come the blessings of family. Humankind has organized itself in nuclear families since, as the Greeks used to say, “time out of mind.” My children, their spouses, and my grandchildren have enriched my life beyond measure.

Those of us who live in free and open societies should be especially thankful. Too many of us take the blessings of liberty for granted. Far too few of the world’s citizens live in open societies. Billions of others live in states ruled by despots for whom the welfare of their citizens is not a consideration at all. Winston Churchill once said that, in a free society, if one receives a knock on the door in the dark hours of early morning, it is probably the milkman (as opposed to a squad of secret police coming to arrest you).  Freedom of speech and religion exists only in free societies. In most of the world, the press reports only what the government approves.

Anyone who has access to modern medicine should be thankful for it. When I was a young man, life expectancy for an American man was about sixty-nine. Now it is approaching eighty. And the additional years often provide a much higher quality of life. If you do not indulge in self-destructive behavior (drug use, smoking, overeating to the point of obesity), your chances of having a long life are quite good. How to make the same level of care available to all is one of the world’s biggest challenges.

I’m thankful to have lived in the time and place that providence allotted me. My parents and their ancestors lived much harder lives than did my generation. I lived in an age of opportunity in which it was possible to quite literally live the American dream. Coming from relatively humble circumstances, education opened for me the door to upward mobility my grandchildren may never enjoy. My “golden years” are presently very comfortable. The innovations introduced during my life are mind-boggling. So far, I’ve been able to sort of keep up, but the adeptness of my grandchildren with electronic devices is astonishing.

I am also thankful for a relatively long life. In Greek mythology, Achilles was given the choice of a short life of fame or a long but common life. He chose fame, and died young outside Troy with a poison arrow in his heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, lived a long life and visited much of the known world. Alfred Lord Tennyson described the wisdom of Odysseus gained in his poem, Ulysses (the hero’s Roman name).

I am a part of all that I have met.
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams
That untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
As though to breathe were life!
Life piled upon life were all too little
And to me little remains.

And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

I have experienced a wide swath of history, some of it good, some of it discouraging. I continue to be an optimist. Somehow, we humans always seem to muddle through to an acceptable solution to most problems. Given the choice of Achilles, I would choose to live long.  
Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Did You Do in the War, Mommy?

World War II was the last war in which whole populations were engaged in the struggle. Because the military required a large part of the male population to fill the combat ranks, women were called on in large numbers to fill support positions and keep industry functioning. Most Americans are familiar with “Rosie the Riveter” and film clips of hundreds of women working in factories. But many do not realize the vital contributions made by women who worked primarily with their intellect.

I was reminded of the critical role of women in WWII while reading last Sunday’s Washington Post.  The paper prominently featured the obituary of 92-year-old Mavis Batey nee Lever, one of the many women who worked at the “Government Code and Cipher School,” at Bletchley Park. Perhaps the best-kept secret of WWII, Bletchley Park was where Allied codebreakers deciphered and read the most secret radio signals of the German High Command.  For most of the war, Allied leaders knew exactly what the Germans planned to do ahead of time. Some historians believe that victory in the Battle of Britain hinged on the fact that RAF commanders knew
Luftwaffe bombing targets and schedules the night before.

Mavis Lever was recruited directly out of university for this top-secret work. Her fluency with the nuisances of the German language proved a priceless asset not only in translation but also in the codebreaking itself.  She is credited with predicting Italian naval movements in the Battle of Matapan, allowing Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet to savage Mussolini’s battle fleet. She also was instrumental in convincing Hitler that the Normandy Invasion was a feint.

The counterplot in my novel, Fall Eagle One, is set at Bletchley Park. The American protagonist is a German-speaking lawyer who performs essentially the same work as Ms. Lever. He works directly for an Englishwoman, an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Somewhat like a police procedure novel, I explain how Bletchley Park functioned. The plans and orders of my German protagonist’s secret unit are laid bare to allied commanders, but they do not discern that the German mission is to kill FDR.  

Intelligence was not the only field in which women worked with their brains. Both the RAF and Luftwaffe filled their air defense control centers with women. Those who have seen the movie, The Battle of Britain, will recall that WAAF personnel almost exclusively staffed the sector stations shown in the film.  Nurses saved the lives of countless military combatants of all countries. Women also contributed in many logistics positions.

When we remember the “greatest Generation” and its achievements, we must always remember that not only the men beat the Axis. Countless women contributed their brains and their brawn to final victory. 

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One takes place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Retrospective on Half a Century

This week has been one of mixed emotions for me. Monday, of course, was Veterans Day. My heart warmed to see the many expressions of gratitude being poured out to today’s veterans. The “thank you for your services” filled the television and computer screens. This is as it should be. The young men and women who fight our country’s wars today do so by choice. They risk their lives daily for our protection, and the whole country should be grateful.

But Veteran’s Day also brought reminders of the war in which I participated—the one in Vietnam. An article in the Washington Post eloquently related the long struggle of the women who nurtured our wounded soldiers in that conflict to obtain recognition at the Vietnam Memorial. A quote from one of the women released memories I had tried to suppress, “We were bitter and angry about how the country treated the Vietnam generation.” It was bad enough that the young men, mostly conscripted against their will, who fought in Southeast Asia were branded “war criminals” and “baby killers” by the antiwar movement. How could they have been so petty and small-minded as to throw the same epithets at women who devoted exhaustive hours to saving the lives of our wounded soldiers?

Many of us who served in Vietnam considered ourselves the “Tommy Atkins” generation. For those of you who have not read Rudyard Kipling’s classic lament of Victorian soldiers, here’s a little background. Tommy Atkins was the phrase Brits use in place of our “G I Joe.”  Here’s a sample:

         I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,

The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here.
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";

But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.”

The poem goes on through several verses describing the indignities thrown at Victorian soldiers by an unappreciative public and concludes:

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;

An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;

An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, John Kerry opined that many “blamed the warrior rather than the war” for Vietnam. He got that right.

The other factor that made this past week melancholy for me was the 50-year retrospective programs on the assassination of President John Kennedy. Anyone alive and adult at that time can tell you exactly where he or she was when they heard the shattering news. The very idea that such a thing could happen in modern day America was unthinkable. The entire country was plunged into grief. Kennedy had just led us through perhaps the most perilous time in our history—the Cuban Missile Crisis. Few people realized at the time how very close to nuclear Armageddon the world came in those few weeks. For people my age, the killing of the President began a long series of events that harmed our country: The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the Watergate scandal; push-pull inflation that ravaged the economy; the national disunity over the Vietnam War; the double-digit inflation and interest rates of the Carter Administration.

Winning the Cold War under President Reagan removed the threat of nuclear annihilation but seems to have made the world safe for smaller conflicts. No one is afraid of sucking in the Great Powers and causing a world war anymore. I have a liberal friend who has told me, “Sometimes I miss the Cold War.”

One thing about having lived many years is that today’s challenges don’t seem so overpowering anymore. There’s not much my generation hasn’t faced before and somehow overcome. Humankind continues to adapt and survive. All may not be right with the world, but God’s still in His heaven.
Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One takes place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Blessings and Disappointments of a Long Life

By Florida Memory, via Wikimedia Commons

This week I read a novel by one of my favorite mystery writers, Faye Kellerman. In it, she was describing the parents of her protagonist. The father was 77, the wife, 75. Both were described in ways that made clear that they were elderly. These characters were the same ages as my wife, Annette, and me, but we don’t look on ourselves as elderly.

Long life can be both a blessing and a curse. Watching your children and grandchildren grow from infants to young adults can be a blessing. We are proud of all our children and grandchildren, although they are each a singular person with individual personalities. My wife and I are blessed with devoted partners who treat life as a great adventure to pursue together. We were blessed with successful careers that provided a secure retirement. We’re blessed with a shared love of vocal music and many years of singing together in church choirs. Retirement can yield the time to pursue old dreams, as I am now with my writing and Annette does with her Master Gardening.

Living many years also gives one a long view of history. In a meeting with a group of young adults a few years ago, I was asked what I thought was the most significant thing I had witnessed in my life. My answer came instantly, “The civil rights revolution.” This surprised my young listeners. Having been born after the 1960s, they had no conception of how bad circumstances were for African Americans in the south during the last years of “Jim Crow.” When the market crashed in 2008, many of us older investors didn’t panic. We’d been through downturns before and knew to ride it out. I doubt that anyone under thirty really understands living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, as we did during the Cold War. Yet we didn’t buckle under the pressure.

Time does not always result in progress. People my age remember when Congress used to actually function. Leaders of both parties conferred with the President and worked out compromises all could live with. Politics was not nearly as nasty as it has become in recent years. Compromise was recognized as essential to the democratic process, not viewed as caving in on one’s principles. The country moved forward. Watching the dysfunction of Washington today is heartbreaking to one who loves this country.

I remain thankful for a long life and good health, but most of all for my good luck in choosing a life partner. I suppose one day we really will get old, but we’re doing everything we can to stall that inevitability.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One takes place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Getting Technical Facts Right in Fiction Writing

While enjoying a fairly new mystery thriller set more or less in the present, I read about military guards being armed with M1 carbines. This was something of a jolt for me, because I know that the early Vietnam years were the latest that U.S. armed forces regularly used this weapon. In many other novels, some by highly popular authors, I often discover similar anachronisms, such as placing in WW2 fiction weapons not then developed. I’ve seen some authors use the words revolver to describe all pistols. I have found many other questionable technical details in popular fiction. For some reason, this really bothers me, especially because the right information is so readily available today on the Internet.

I believe an author has a responsibility to make his fiction as plausible as possible. Getting the details right is essential to complete plausibility. For knowledgeable readers, and there are hoards of them out there, hitting an obviously wrong detail interrupts the flow of the prose and may cause irritation. This isn’t a good reaction for the author.

Before penning both of my novels, a spent many hours in exhaustive research. When I first began writing, this required lots of time in libraries. I treat research as a puzzle, digging for the answer I want until I discover it. Only when I’m convinced that I’m on firm ground do I plunge ahead with the writing.

The dogfights in my new novel, Hold Back the Sun provide an example. My Dutch protagonist, Captain Garret Laterveer, is flying an obsolescent Brewster Buffalo against modern Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy (IJN) fighters. I read everything I could find both in print and on the Internet about the actual experience of Dutch pilots early in the Pacific War. Surprisingly, some of them had success, especially against the Army Nakajima fighters in Malaya. The IJN Zeros were another matter. At the time, this aircraft was probably the best fighter in the world. Yet some Dutch pilots did shoot them down. In my research, I found that the Brewster aircraft had a number of the same strengths and weaknesses of the P-40 fighters used successfully against Zeros by the Flying Tigers. Applying artistic license, I allowed the Dutch to use Flying Tiger tactics.

I know the old saw, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and I have used it myself to alter history to make the plot go the way I want it. However, I do not believe this justifies incomplete research. Our readers deserve our best efforts.