Army of Worn Soles: Battle of Poltava



On this day, September 18, 1941, the German forces invading the USSR captured the city of Poltava, Ukraine. My father-in-law, Maurice Bury, was in that battle. I wrote what he saw and experienced in Chapter 10 of Army of Worn Soles, the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy. Here’s a sample. 

 

Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 10: Panzers

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave permission to General Kirponov, head of the Soviet 5th Army, to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than twenty-four hours.

But the withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10. On the September 14, the two generals shook hands a hundred miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, more than half a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last. The Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped near Uman in mid-August. And after the Wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

General Kirponos had fought hard against the encirclement in September, but a landmine killed him. Only a few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement. Maurice and his men joined the retreat, heading southeast to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans sent more Panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the Red Army pulled back another one hundred kilometres. Soldiers dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol River to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain. The soft soil of the trench walls crumbled. The food was bad or there wasn’t enough. But they could not complain for long. The Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counterattack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Maurice’s fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons. The lines stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast, alert and fearless like a predator.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads. The drivers down-shifted and continued on.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’ bodies fling up out of destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” Andrei and Orest pulled their triggers and the kick-back of the rifles geysered dirt into the air. Damn, Maurice thought. If that doesn’t draw the Germans’ attention, nothing will.

The shells went wide.

“Reload.”

Machine guns erupted from behind and a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded, throwing bodies high into the air.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time one shell hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank. The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting.

All at once, shells began falling behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans had turned their heavy artillery guns on the Red Army.

“Down, boys,” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire relented, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, a heavy anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

But more Panzers splashed through the river. Behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit landmines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

To his right, eastward, came a deep rumble. Maurice saw hulking Soviet KV heavy tanks, looking twice as high as a man, crawled forward on their wide treads, firing cannons and machine guns.

Why are they moving so slowly, he wondered. He saw their tracks moving, churning the earth and sinking into it. They’re too heavy for the soft ground. They were impervious to enemy fire unless it was point-blank on, but they were soon immobile. The Panzers just went around them.

“Pull back,” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the guns and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the guns and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late.

The tanks swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. Andrei and Nikolai swung their gun around. “Aim at its back,” Maurice said. “FIRE!”

The gun whooshed and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical fuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned. The explosion rang in Maurice’s ears for minutes.

“Let’s get them, Lieutenant,” Orest said. He stood to pick up the gun, and Viktor, his loader, looked at Maurice wide-eyed. “We killed one tank. Let’s get more of the bastards.”

Big Eugene stood too, submachine gun at the ready. “Get down,” Maurice said. He grabbed Orest’s uniform and pulled him to the ground. Big Eugene dropped as a shell burst thirty metres away. Maurice saw him crawl back to the trench, flat on his belly.

Army of Worn Soles

A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?

Army of Worn Soles is the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy, which tells the true story of Maurice Bury’s experiences in the Second World War.

Find it on Amazon.

Sample Sunday: The Red Army takes Estonia from the Nazis



Today in the history of the Second World War on the Eastern Front

1944: The Red Army breaks through near Narva, Estonia. — World War II Database 

A description of the following events from Walking Out of War.

From Walking Out of War: Book 3 in the Eastern Front trilogy

Battle of Narva, 1944 Image source: Wikiwand http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Battle_of_Narva_(1944)

When the train passed a station with a sign that read Narva, Maurice realized they had reached Estonia, which the Germans called Ostland. Its history was complex. Home to a sizable German elite minority for centuries, Estonia had been independent after the fall of the Russian Empire during the Great War. In 1939, the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact ceded the Baltic states to the Soviet “sphere of influence,” and Germany evacuated tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from Estonia and Latvia before the Soviets took over. The Soviets deported thousands of Estonians to Siberia and killed thousands more.

When Germany invaded in 1941, many Estonians saw it as a liberator from Stalin, as many had in Ukraine. And as in Ukraine, the hopes for independence were soon proven to be lies. Germany set up Reichskommissariat Ostland, a huge buffer zone between “greater Germany” and the occupied areas of the USSR. Nazi Germany confiscated all the state property that the Soviets had confiscated a year earlier and imprisoned or killed the Estonian political, intellectual and commercial leaders that had not escaped. The German Reich minister for the occupied eastern territories began “germanizing” Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Nazis set up concentration camps and murdered tens of thousands of Estonians, including over 4,000 Jews. By the end of 1944, the Reichskommissar could declare Ostland “Jew-free.” The Nazis exploited Estonia’s resources for their war effort and used Estonians as slave labour.

Which means the country is filled with partisans fighting both the USSR and Germany. Just like Ukraine.

As evening fell, the train stopped at an improvised army base, a muddy field in the midst of forests. The crops that had once grown there had been burned by war and churned by vehicles and marching feet. A few trees still held leaves, colourful in the fall, but most had been blackened and broken. Skeletal ruins of a town and farm buildings were grey against the red sunset.

Red Army soldiers in Riga, Latvia, 1944. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

“The Estonian-Latvian border is ten kilometres west of here,” said the earnest Lieutenant Vasilyev. “The Germans hold the border town of Valga. We’re going to take it in the morning.”

Maurice looked at Mykhailo. He was shaking. Old Stepan looked glum, as usual, and Young Olesh was pale even in the red sunset.

Maurice took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ve been in action. I’ve been in far worse situations, when we were running from the Germans. I survived. I will survive tomorrow, too.

They camped, groups of three making little tents of their chenilles, or greatcoats: one on the ground, two draped over their rifles, propped up as poles. They would sleep alongside one another in shifts: every few hours, they would change around, so each of the three had a few hours in between the other two, and thus the warmest place in the tent.

The sergeants woke them quietly before dawn. They packed their gear, pulling on their greatcoats against the chill. Maurice tightened his helmet strap and checked his rifle magazine was full. The sergeant led them to their starting position. Groups of two odalenye, or twenty-four in total, would accompany a tank. “Let the tank do the hard work,” said Nikolaev. “Your job is to protect it from enemy infantry. The tank will be your protection, but remember that it’s also the target for Fritz’s artillery. In the town, watch the windows and don’t trust the civilians. A lot of partisans favour the Nazis and will kill any socialist comrade they can.”

Or maybe they just want to be free from both Germany and Russia, Maurice thought. “Keep low, boys, and keep your eyes focused ahead for Fritz in hiding places,” he told his comrades.

The Lieutenant stepped in front of them. “This is our first experience in carrying out deep operations. The shock army will hit as soon as there’s light. Keep your head down as the planes strike. The tanks will move fast, striking deep. We’re the second echelon,” he said, and Maurice thought he sounded disappointed. “When they’ve broken through, we follow into the breach and occupy the town, destroy any remaining resistance and take over their bases, ammunition, vehicles. Our regiment’s specific objective is the railroad station. When we get there, we’ll set up the Maxim as a defensive weapon. If the enemy counterattacks, follow your training. Fire in short bursts. Don’t waste ammunition.”

A colonel stepped up behind Lieutenant Vasileyev, his battle uniform perfect. “We’re going to liberate Valga today,” he said, catching each man’s eye in turn. “That means we are freeing Latvia from the Nazi tyrant, restoring the rule of the people of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia, and tomorrow, Lithuania as well. Other than partisans, this town is part of the Soviet Union. Stavka will not tolerate looting or abuse of the civilian population. Is that understood?” He did not wait for a reply, but walked away to repeat his message to the next group.

Sergeant Nikolaev summed it up. “Hands off the women and especially the girls.”

The sky lightened behind them, and then a line of planes buzzed past overhead. Maurice had faced the blitzkrieg in 1941. He knew what it was to be overwhelmed by a fast, unstoppable foe.

But nothing could have prepared him for the Red Army’s assault on the German invaders in 1944. The line of planes hitting the enemy stretched in both directions as far as he could see, and explosions lit up the western horizon with a hellish light. They felt the earth vibrating, felt the heat on their faces.

Katyusha rockets. Image source: World War II today.

As the sun’s first rays lit up the field, Maurice saw the artillery raise their barrels and begin firing: mortars and cannons, long-range artillery pieces and something new: the Guards Mortars, the innovative rocket launchers that became known as the Katyusha. They looked like the pipes of a church organ mounted on cantilevered assembly on the back of one of the now-ubiquitous Studebaker trucks. Maurice watched a crew load fourteen metre-long rockets onto the rails. The rails rose, pointing at an upward angle toward the enemy. Then with an unbearably loud but almost musical sound, they fired. Rows of multiple rocket launchers sent a volley of thousands of shells toward the Germans. Nothing could survive that, Maurice thought.

Then the shock armies raced westward. First came tanks and armoured cars, all carrying men with a grim but confident air. Looking at them, Maurice knew they had no illusions that some of them were going to die, but they were going to destroy the enemy.

Soviet infantry advance alongside T-34 tanks in the summer of 1944. Image source: World War II Today.

Hundreds of vehicles poured past Maurice’s position. The Germans returned fire, but that did not slow the shock troops. As the day brightened, the men could see the German positions in the town of Valga, about two kilometres to the west. Smoke billowed up from dozens of spots. Buildings crumbled as shells from Soviet tanks and cannon struck.

Successive lines of Soviet tanks, trucks, guns and men moved across the fields toward the first buildings of the town. Men fell, trucks burst into smoke and fire but the shock troops kept moving forward.

Walking Out of War: The Eastern Front, book 3

Ukraine, 1944: After the Soviets burned the Ukrainian city of Ternopyl to the ground to crush the stubborn Nazi occupiers, they rounded up every remaining Ukrainian man around for the Red Army’s final push on Germany. Maurice Bury, Canadian citizen, Ukrainian resistance fighter and intelligence officer, is thrust once again into the death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

Fighting across the Baltics in the autumn of 1944 is tough and bloody. Then the Red Army enters Germany, where they’re no longer liberators—they’re the long-feared Communist horde, bent on destruction, rape and revenge. The Communists are determined to wipe Nazism from the face of the earth. And the soldiers want revenge for Germany’s brutal invasion and occupation.

Get it on Amazon.

Sample Sunday: A simple assignment



From The Wife Line

A Sydney Rye Kindle World mystery

Provence, France, May 2010

Mulberry had promised Sydney a simple assignment. But now, with the sweet scent of lavender filling her nostrils, the deep darkness of Provence pressing in from all sides, it did not seem all that simple. There was another aroma beside, or maybe underneath the scent of flowers. Musky, deep, dark. It was making her edgy, excited — horny?

Sydney Rye looked down at her dog, Blue. He looked back up with an expression that seemed to say “If you can’t identify scents this easy, I can’t help you.” She couldn’t see that one of his eyes was brown, the other blue, but her mind filled in those details.

Blue was the size of a Great Dane with the long, thick fur of a wolf, the markings of a Husky and the elegant muzzle of a collie. A thin whine escaped his mouth and his bushy tail went from brushing Sydney’s leg to shaking the fronds beside him.

Sydney and Blue both looked up when they heard a rustle in the branches above.  Sydney thought she could see something moving along the vines above her, but the dark made it impossible to be certain. Blue whined again, his tail accelerating to beat a tattoo against Sydney’s leg.

Sydney raised her gun, sliding the safety off with a click. Her mouth felt dry. Her pulse throbbed in her neck. Sweat loosened her grip on her weapon. That scent again, under the floral odor. Why was she thinking about sex at a time like this?

Blue growled so softly that only Sydney, standing in the shadows right beside him, could hear it. Above, the shadows no longer moved.

Probably just a squirrel, or whatever animal moves around the trees at night get in southern France. If it was a threat, Blue would have warned me, not wagged his tail.

“Stay here, boy,” she told Blue. She put the safety back on and tucked the weapon firmly into its holster, then reached up and jumped. She pulled herself into the tree and climbed high enough to look over the old stone wall in front of her.

A shadow rustled ahead, seeming to recede through the branches toward the country mansion behind the stone wall.

The mansion seemed to Sydney the epitome of France: originally constructed of light grey stone probably hundreds of years ago, it had new, modern windows that showed polished wood floors, bright lamps and modern furniture inside. The light spilling out the windows added to that from modern fixtures that lit up the manicured gardens inside the wall.

While she couldn’t see them from her vantage point in the tree, Sydney was certain there was also state-of-the-art security and surveillance technology that kept a better eye on the grounds than she had.

Sydney glanced down to the ground. She couldn’t see Blue in the shadows below her, but she could feel him there. Blue — her rock. Always there for her. He had saved Sydney’s life more than once, even took a bullet meant for her. He was better to her than she was to him, Sydney knew, but she also knew she could always rely on him.

Movement in the front yard caught her eye. A shadow slid down the wall. A tall man, or a very tall and athletic woman with broad shoulders, dressed all in black, crouch-walked to the limousine, keeping it between him- or her-self and the front door.

The slim figure vanished into the limousine’s shadow, then re-emerged a few seconds later. It took a run at the wall, sprang up, gripped the top and swung over, vanishing into the night.

Sydney jumped off the branch, landing ten feet below beside Blue. “Hunt,” she said, pointing along the wall toward the front of the estate. Blue sprang ahead, disappearing into the darkness under the trees. Sydney ran as fast as she could behind him, but of course could not keep up with the big dog.

She rounded the corner of the wall, arriving in a small clearing surrounded by bushes, still invisible to anyone in the manor. She had expected to find Blue pinning the shadowy figure to the ground, standing on his chest and growling into his face.

Instead, the wan light that filtered through the leaves from the manor showed Blue in classic play posture: butt high in the air, tail wagging, front paws and head low to the ground, head tilted to one side.

In front of him was a man in the same posture, or as close as a human being could get to doggie pose: on his hands and knees, butt high, head low. He and Blue looked at each other, sprang up simultaneously, collided, fell together on the ground, rolled over and over. Blue jumped away, giving a little, happy bark, turning to look back at the man lying on the ground. Blue’s tail was a blur in the dark.

“Are you kidding me?” Sydney stepped close, getting down on one knee to touch the barrel of her gun to his head and said “Freeze.”

The man did not freeze. Instead, he rolled over onto his back and smiled up at her. He had large, light-colored eyes under heavy eyebrows, high cheekbones, a perfectly straight nose, a full mouth and a slight dimple in his chin. The woolen cap on his head hid his hair.

Sydney leaned over to keep the gun in his face, and turned to Blue. “What is the matter with you?”

Blue’s ears drooped, his tail stopped and fell. He whined softly.

Sydney turned to the man in black. “Who the hell are you and what have you done to my dog?”

“Dogs like me,” he replied with an American accent. His deep voice stirred something inside Sydney’s chest. She swallowed. She could feel sweat on her upper lip.

He smiled broadly, his teeth shining in the wan light. That smell again, she thought. What is it? It was so faint, she wondered whether she was imagining it. Soft but irresistible. Her mouth suddenly felt too full of saliva. She swallowed again.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Sydney demanded.

“My name is Van, and I’m probably doing the same thing you are.”

What’s The Wife Line about?

Human traffickers are selling young women from eastern Europe as sex slaves and killing them when they become inconvenient. Sydney Rye’s job is only to protect her client, until a mysterious, aggravating and irresistible young crusader pulls her and Blue on a far more dangerous path: taking down the whole slaving ring.

If you like Emily Kimelman’s Sydney Rye series featuring a strong female character, her canine best friend, Blue, tons of action and a dash of sex, you won’t be able to put The Wife Line down.

Start following Sydney, Blue and Van across the seamiest part of Europe right now.

Get it on Amazon.

 

 

All people are equal: My manifesto



“Alt-right,” which these cowards call themselves in a vain attempt to deflect identification as nazis, expressing their fear of everyone who’s not white in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: courtesy CBC.

I have been unfriended on Facebook by Robert Bidinotto, a writer with a decidedly conservative bent, who commands quite a following. As far as I can tell, very few in his group disagree with him, and the overall tone of the discussions is like a tea-party, where everyone basically agrees.

My sin was apparently disagreeing with the tribal wisdom, or maybe the hegemony of Robert Bidinotto. He and his followers are entitled to their opinions, of course, but I think the point of divergence of opinions between them and me are some basic, underlying tenets.

It’s useless to try to logically argue against ideology at times like this. When you start arguing against people’s deepest beliefs, they respond emotionally, not rationally. So I won’t do that. But I have been accused of various things, so I want to set the record straight about my beliefs.

Don’t let yourself be manipulated

The recent history of Western culture has many examples of politics being emotionally manipulated. Just look at how so many mainstream commentators demonize the terms “liberal” and “leftist,” let alone the irrational, visceral response Americans have to the words “socialist” and “communist.”

This same kind of emotional, irrational demonization has been successfully used against labour unions, environmental organizations, hunters, meat producers and consumers, and community groups of many different stripes. It’s used against the Black Lives Matter movement, too, albeit with less success so far.
It’s hard not have an emotional response to issues that affect our lives, but the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend show very plainly where that can take us. The protesters against the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee were irrational, chanting “You won’t replace us! Jews won’t replace us!”
They’re acting out of fear. Deep, knee-shaking and wholly unjustified fear. Fear given life through manipulation.

And the counter-protesters reacted out of anger. Justifiable anger, but the violence was unjustified and counter-productive, only adding to the racists’ narrative that they’re under threat.

Coverage and media reaction has also been emotional too, even by the professional news media.
Here’s where I had the falling out with the conservative tribe.

Blame the messenger

Robert Bidinotto’s pet peeve is the “leftist narrative” of the “mainstream media,” which he calls the MSM. He’s not the only one to make this assertion, and while I could easily refute the existence of a leftist bias held by a media that is mostly owned by multinational megacorporations, I won’t. Bidinotto kept posting photographs that cast the counter-protesters in unfavourable, red-tinged light, captioning them “pictures you won’t see in the MSM.”

Well, here are a couple.

Antifa protesters in Charlottesville exercising their Second Amendment rights. Source: New York Times — the Grey Lady of the mainstream media. I’m just happy that the ink doesn’t come off on your fingers as much anymore.

The counter-protesters, with a suspiciously red flag, raised fist, and “solidarity” slogans, in Charlottesville. These dastards dared to support equality. Photo source: NYT.

Where I crossed the line, apparently, was in objecting to comments that said “the lefties were just as bad as the protesters.” My favourite was the one guy who said he’d “defend his home if leftists were throwing rocks at his windows.”

When did that happen?

It’s depressing to read all the posts that blame the “leftists” as much as the racists for Charlottesville and other violence.

It’s also aggravating to read how the “MSM” favours one side over the other. I don’t know about you, but I understand those who forgive opponents of racism.

So anyway, I wrote a few replies on this Facebook group, calling out those who drew this false equivalency between the racists and the counter-protesters. Yes, both were wrong to commit violence. I agree with that, fully, because violence did not solve anything or even advance the argument.

But the groups are not the same, not even the “antifa,” or anti-fascists. Here’s why: the racists promote oppression, the abrogation of other people’s rights.

The counter-protesters were a wide assortment of groups from churches, community organizations and, yes, some organized leftist organizations. But as I said, “leftist” is not necessarily bad. Racism is. The counter-protesters came to support equal rights.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

To get to the root of the issue, here are my underlying tenets. I guess this is a little manifesto.

  1. All people are equal. Without exception. While some people face disabilities and other exceptional challenges, they may have abilities that the rest of us cannot guess at.
  2. In corollary, we’re all fallible. We’re all often wrong. Even me. This whole essay could be way off. And whether you agree with me or not, you could equally be wrong. There is just a lot more that we don’t know about the universe and ourselves than we do know.
  3. Degrading the natural environment is a slow form of suicide and genocide.
  4. No human mind can comprehend infinity or divinity. We are limited (see #2, above). Therefore, all religions are at best useful metaphors for the way the universe and people work.
  5. Protecting free speech, even by Nazis and racists, is vital to preserving liberty. Hate speech is abhorrent. Chanting “Jews will not replace us” is chilling.But repressing racism, or any other ideology, does not destroy it, nor does it make the problem go away. That’s been proven through history. Nazism has not gone away. Repressing socialism in the U.S. has not eradicated it. Repressing Judaism or Christianity has only made them stronger.The racist jerks in Charlottesville have exposed their hatred, and it’s far better that all of us see it than it be allowed to grow unseen.
  6. It’s better to object than to be offended. Who cares if you’re offended? If you are, then object to it in a thoughtful, constructive way. Suggest solutions.
  7. Capitalism is not necessarily the best way to organize an economy. It’s a relatively recent invention, and there have been many other models over the millennia of civilization.Success of an economic model depends on what your goals are. If the goals of the current North American economic model are to concentrate as much wealth as possible in as few hands as possible, hollow out the middle class and drive household debt as high as possible, while making education so expensive that it’s impossible for most people to ever escape the debt-poverty cycle, then modern capitalism has been very successful, indeed.
  8. Unions are not evil. While I remain skeptical of the unionists’ claims that they’re solely responsible for the two-day weekend, vacation pay, etc., they can certainly take a lot of credit for those advances.
  9. Government is not evil. In republics and democracies, government is the instrument of community will. Yes, often it’s clumsy. There are many examples where its actions are the manipulations of a particular group—usually a small group of very wealthy people. But it’s not inherently evil. And in fact, government action in the West has demonstrably led to many improvements in human life.Likewise, regulation is not evil. Regulations keep poisons out of our water. Regulations ensure packagers don’t sell us food that has spoiled. Regulations have reduced air pollution in our cities.And government spending is not evil. Governments organizing health care and education is not evil.These are investments that return more to the taxpayers than they cost. It’s not about “entitlement.” It’s about where we, all of us, in society, who vote, decide to put our resources in order to build the kind of community and life that we want.
  10. “Left” and “right” are useless terms to describe our political debate and violence today. The divisions between the “alt-right” and the “liberals” encompass so much more than how each side feels the economy should be regulated. And don’t think that adding a second authoritarian-libertarian axis helps much, as the libertarians describe. The situation is far more complex than that.“Left” and “right” are terms used by those in power who seek to divide and thereby control the rest of us. Grouping Nazis and racists with economic conservatives is extremely insulting to conservatives, with whom I often (but not always) disagree. But the ones I know personally are not racists. Okay, some are. But I object to their opinions (see #6, above).
  11. Science is the best way to make decisions and move forward, because the scientific method by definition seeks what really works, and what’s verifiable. Climate change? Look to the science.
  12. The globe is warming. There’s no credible debate about that. Climate change deniers are like the people 20 years ago who argued there was no scientific link between smoking and lung disease.
  13. We can get past this. Without denying our emotions, our humanity, we can respect each other. Start by acknowledging our equality, and our equal ability to be wrong. Leave religion aside for the moment. Look at the facts, and our own goals. As long as our goals are not oppression, abrogation of human rights, we can negotiate solutions.

So there. My manifesto. I am open to debate. Like I said, I could be wrong. I was wrong once before.

Fire, fury and quiet



The Furies

Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852). Wikimedia

This has been an extreme week when it comes to North Korea—extreme political tension, extreme possible consequences and extreme differences in communications strategy, tone and messages.

Furious rhetoric

There’s no shortage of reaction to and analysis of the continuing verbal exchange between the Trump White House and the leadership in Pyongyang. I’ll let others debate the merits of two national leaders threaten each other with nuclear annihilation. What I will say is that the rhetoric itself is extreme, and shows an extremity of intention.

On the other hand, two days ago the world learned that Hyeon Soo Lim, Pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, was released from prison in North Korea. Pastor Lim had been sentenced to hard labour for life for sedition—in the words of the North Korean state, for attempting to destroy North Korea through religion.

Canada sent a delegation, including the senior national security advisor, to North Korea earlier this week to negotiate the pastor’s release. Apparently, the Swedish embassy was involved, too, providing consular support to Pastor Lim over these past two years because Canada does not have an embassy in North Korea.

This came as a huge surprise to the public. Apparently, there have been communications behind the scenes among Canada, North Korea and Sweden for some time. The opposite in tone and volume from Donald Trump’s style of shouting threats of “fury, fire and power.”

How to choose your approach

Kim Jong-un does not back down to threats of nukes.

Image source: SkyNews

There are many who have supported Trump’s messaging. “It’s the language that Kim Jong-Un understands.” One author described it as “mad dog complex”: because nuclear war would destroy all sides in a conflict, each has to make the other believe they’re willing to use nukes, to make the opposition back down.

On the other hand, the Canadian and Swedish governments’ approach to communication, while not at all dramatic, was effective. They wanted to have Pastor Lim released from jail, and that’s what happened.

This is an excellent example of strategic communications in action. Whether your communications is effective always comes down to knowing your audience and knowing what you’re trying to achieve.

With the Canadians and Swedes, the audience was the North Korean government and judiciary. The goals was the release of the pastor. And it was effective.

When it comes to Trump and his communications, the strategy is completely different—if there is a strategy at all.

A guess at the strategy

I don’t have any insight into Trump’s mind or the communications team he has working for him, but I will assume that they do attempt to develop a communications strategy, with goals, hoped-for outcomes, audience analysis, key message development and so on. All the elements of a communications strategy.

So I will attempt to guess what the strategy was by looking at it from the receiving end.

Donald Trump threatens

Image source: The Independent

Threats of “fire and fury” have not worked—they’ve only escalated the rhetoric and the tension. Yet they continue.

Threats have an inherent problem: if you don’t follow through with them, you lose credibility not only with your enemy, who will no longer be afraid of you, but also with your friends. Unfortunately, following through with the threat of nuclear war, as I said, will only lead to losers, with no winners.

What is the goal, then? Before answering that, let’s look at the audience.

Trump’s audience is not Kim Jong-un. His messaging, whether spoken or tweeted, are not directed to Kim, but to other Americans. To the media, political aides, and the voters.

Trump is not trying to achieve peace—he’s bolstering the United States’ reputation as the greatest military power in the world, and his own as a strong man.

Trump’s “brinksmanship” is not a strategy to solving the North Korean problem. It’s a tactic in a long-term strategy to get re-elected, because he perceives that his supporters, his “base,” react well to his bullying and showing off.

What it will achieve in terms of international diplomacy—even international war or peace and the lives of billions—is not part of the calculations.

 

A story that twists like the Rio Grande



Review of Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III

One of the most satisfying literary discoveries is a truly unique story. This is particularly rare in the mystery-thriller genre. Many thrillers seem to be emulating another derivative book, trying to ride a bandwagon to market success. Far too many read as if the author were trying to write an episode of his or her favourite TV show.

So when I opened Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III, I was prepared for disappointment. But what I found were realistic characters, solid writing and a satisfying, completely original story.

The plot twists and turns, but holds the road.

Place of Skulls is the fourth in Pirtle’s Ambrose Lincoln series, a spy-thriller set during the Second World War. A lot of authors give their main characters a huge character flaw—alcoholism, a history of abuse, a physical disability—and Lincoln has what seems to me to be the most debilitating for a spy: amnesia. Ambrose Lincoln has no memory of his past, and cannot remember why he knows the things he does and cannot account for certain skills he has, such as the ability to pick a lock with a hair pin.

But he does have ghosts—at least one. He’s followed by a dead man only he can see, and only at night, the ghost of a man he killed in a military engagement that he cannot remember.

A rich Dallas oilman named Eliot Bergner hires Lincoln to find whoever killed his brother, Danny. “Danny B.” is a DEA officer who was investigating the smuggling of drugs from Mexico into the U.S., carried by poor, desperate migrant workers. One night, his mutilated body arrives in Texas in an empty boxcar. But not before he sends a message to his brother, Eliot—an observant Jew—that he has found incontrovertible proof of Christ’s appearance in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest in 1492.

Drugs and religion: that would seem to be enough for one book, but then the author adds the idea that Nazi Germany is lacing the cocaine and heroine the migrants are smuggling with Thallium, a potent and undetectable poison. Their idea is to addict as many Americans as possible, and then kill them.

As if that’s not complex enough, shady U.S. government operatives are about to launch an invasion of Mexico to stop the influx of addictive poison, but because Mexico is a sovereign nation that, at the time the story is set, has not yet declared which side of the war it’s on (which would have to make it between December 7, 1941 and May 22, 1942, when Mexico declared war on Germany), they have to keep it secret, even from the President.

No, it’s not impossible to make this story plausible.

If any author had come to a publisher with an idea for a novel about a detective finding incontestable proof that Jesus Christ came to Mexico before 1492, and getting caught up in a US government plot to invade Mexico to throttle the drug trade, mixing in Nazi spies, he probably would have been advised to pick an easier mystery to pen. But Pirtle handles the challenge well, giving the readers just enough information as the plot builds to keep us readers turning pages.

There were a few places where I was afraid the novel would become excessively Christian, where a plot point could only be explained by a miracle or an answer to true faith, but thankfully, Pirtle avoided that. Everything made sense, and while there is a definite religious motif to this book, it makes sense.

The characters ring true.

Author Caleb Pirtle III

Pirtle gives us a wide range of believable characters, all with strengths, weaknesses and flaws. I loved some of them, and detested others, but I reacted to each one. All their actions and reactions logically proceeded from their situations and personalities, with no unbelievable transformations. Eliot Bergner’s agonized family relationships add some surprising depth to the story. I suspected the femme fatale at first, but Pirtle’s iron-tight plot made her completely believable.

The author  gives us a satisfying closing.

Pirtle also avoids a facile story arc. Lincoln struggles against drug cartels, traitors, cowards and ghosts, all of whom leave scars. At no point do we know for sure who’s going to survive the next battle, and it’s never certain who’s going to win.

Pirtle doesn’t cut corners. The book has been produced professionally, meeting or exceeding the standards of commercial fiction. In fact, this book was much better than the commercially published stuff I have read lately.

5*

Visit Caleb Pirtle III’s website for links to buy this and other books.

Walking Out of War cover wins 1st place



I’m thrilled to announce that the cover of the third book in the Eastern Front trilogy, Walking Out of War, has won first place in the East Texas Writers Guild 2017 Blue Ribbon Book Cover Contest for Nonfiction/Memoir.

The contest drew entries from across the U.S.A., as well as from the U.K, Australia and Canada.

A team of artists and designers from the Dallas, Texas area judged the entries in five categories:

  • romance
  • mystery/thriller
  • science fiction/fantasy
  • historical fiction
  • nonfiction/memoir.

You can find all the winning entries on Caleb & Linda Pirtle’s blog, Here Comes a Mystery.

Walking Out of War’s cover won first place in the nonfiction/memoir category. It tells the story of my father-in-law’s experiences from 1944 to 1947, as he fought in the Soviet Red Army across the Baltic States, Poland and Germany, finally at the Battle of Berlin.

This award-winning cover was designed by David C. Cassidy, who also created the covers of the previous books in the Eastern Front trilogy, Army of Worn Soles and Under the Nazi Heel.

It depicts a Red Army soldier, walking calmly away from conflict and toward a brighter future. Meanwhile, the shadow of the Soviet Union reaches for him from behind. It’s an image that perfectly captures the main theme of the book.

 

David has also done covers for most of my other books, as well, including One Shade of Red, Torn Roots, Jet: Stealth, Palm Trees & Snowflakes, Dead Man Lying, Echoes and The Wife Line.

You can see all the covers on the Books by Scott Bury page.

David, of course, also designs covers and websites for a lot of authors and companies. He is also the author of excellent and truly scary horror novels, such as Velvet Rain and The Dark. Check out his work at his website.

I would like to thank David for his excellent work, and the East Texas Writers Guild for holding the contest that helps promote so many excellent authors and designers.

My predictions: What will happen in the final season of Games of Thrones



The seventh and final season of Game of Thrones begins tonight. It’s one of the least predictable plots in television history, but as the show starts, I’d like to try to predict what’s going to happen.

This kind of prediction would not be possible were the final season based on a book by George RR Martin, but television series obey calculations aimed at pleasing audiences.

Other writers have pointed out a pattern that has emerged over the past six seasons. A major character dies in the first episode. There is the big battle in the second-last episode.

At least, there won’t be a cliffhanger to bring us back to the next season. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be foreshadowing, or some elements that point to possible futures for the characters that survive.

So this is what I think will happen.

The first major character to die will be, I believe, Brienne. Jorah Mormont will die—that’s a safe bet, because he has that creeping skin disease from two seasons ago. But he’ll die fighting for his beloved Daenerys.

Cersei will die, and the television audience around the world will cheer. Jamie Lannister will die, as well.

Bron will survive, because he is a survivor.

Tyron will survive—because he’s the most popular character in the show.

I have a bad feeling that Podric Payne will die horribly.

Sandor Clegane, the Hound, will kill his brother, the Mountain, in a final confrontation that’s been building up since the first season.

The big battle

The coming battle is no secret: the Night King and his White Walkers and army of dead will sweep down from the north, opposed by Jon Snow and Sansa Stark’s armies. Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen will invade with her armies of Unsullied, Second Sons, Dothraki and, of course, dragons.

So the final war will be between the dragon fire and the ice of the Night King—the “Song of Ice and Fire” that is the actual title George Martin gave his series.

The three dragons will die, somehow killed by the Night King, but they’ll kill him, too. Jon Snow, whom we now know is not Ned Stark’s son, will be killed in the final battle, but his efforts will ensure that his cousin Sansa becomes independent Queen in the North, and that the living are victorious. Daenerys will win the Iron Throne.

And at the end will be a scene with another clutch of dragon eggs, to say “there is still room for more stories in this world.”

Agee? Disagree? What’s your prediction?

Dark clouds in Bohemia



The wind ruffles the surface of the Tepla River in southern Bohemia, Czech Republic, just before the dark clouds roll in—very similar to my 2011 short story, Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.

Elmore Leonard said “never open with the weather.” But he never said anything about opening with his admonition against opening with the weather.

Another writer’s rule is to avoid clichés like the plague. I guess I’m going to break that rule, too.

Opening with the weather

Last month, my wife and I travelled to the Czech Republic. On our last night there, we had supper on a patio overlooking the Tepla River in southern Bohemia. Darkness came early, presaging a summer storm.

We had thankfully finished our dinner and were enjoying the last of our wine when I looked up and across the river. Dark clouds had covered most of the sky, but under them, a lighter-coloured cloud was moving fast, like a carpet unrolling—straight toward us.

The ragged edges of the cloud reached for us, some like ragged fringes, others like grasping tendrils of an undersea predator.

The sight unnerved everyone on the patio that night—not just my wife and me, but also the group from Poland at the table next to us. I could see gusts ruffling the river’s surface into flotillas of tiny ripples that dashed from one strand to the other.

Life imitates art

The second work of fiction I published was called “Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.” There’s a scene where the heroes see a dark cloud moving fast toward them, across the sky. When the cloud reaches the protagonists, the son and daughter-in-law of the Witch Queen, it throws up a storm of dust and pebbles, blinding and stinging the couple.

In Bohemia that night in June, the strange dark cloud continued to unravel over our heads—but if it had been unrolling, the rolling motion was counter to the movement of the overall cloud, itself.

When it hit us, the wind whipped a napkin off my lap and a glass bottle off the table. My wife stood up to move indoors, and her chair flew off the patio, landing three metres away, then sliding down three stone steps.

The wait staff reacted immediately, picking up napkins and cutlery and small items, sweeping up broken glass before the wind scattered the pieces. We guests retreated indoors and watched the clouds come lower and closer.

Then the rain hit like surf crashing on a beach. When the lightning began, it illuminated the forested tops of the rides and hills surrounding the hotel. It continued flashing for hours, light filling the dark hotel room, providing entertainment unmatched by any summer blockbusters.

Living what I write

It was a memorable moment, a memorable night. Even my wife said “It’s like your story, ‘Dark Clouds.'”

It’s always been important to me that my writing is as realistic, as believable as possible. That’s why I do so much research about the settings of my stories and the history behind them. It’s why I describe little details about the places, the furniture, the light and, yes, the weather. It helps put the reader into the story, helps them understand and, ultimately, experience the story.

Because that’s why readers enjoy books: they take the audience out of their everyday reality, and allows them, in a small way at least, to experience the exotic, the fantastic or the downright impossible.

So when something happens to me that echoes so closely what I described six years ago, I have to admit—it’s gratifying.

When has your life reflected art?

Tell me about something that happened to you that seemed to echo something you read or saw in a book, film, song or picture. Leave your description in the Comments.

Happy 150 Canada



 

Image courtesy University of the Fraser Valley

And Happy Independence Day, USA

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, the day when three British colonies in North America became the first four provinces of Canada. Ultimately, after a lot of arguing and angst, it led to what the world now sees as Canada, stretching across the top half of North America.

Some personal images in celebration of Canada 150. Here is one of the few of my pictures to survive my trip down the whitewater Missinaibi and Moose Rivers to Moose Factory last summer, at the put-in. That’s a monument to the early explorers of the fur trade route.

And in three days, Canada’s neighbour to the south (mostly, but there’s also Alaska to the west), the United States holds its annual celebration of its declaration of independence from Britain.

The close association of the two days always prompts comparisons between the histories and cultures of the two countries, and I won’t belabour them here.

But it is a good time to consider our history, and as many people, particularly Canada’s first peoples are pointing out, not all of it is wonderful.

Yes, Canada presents itself as the happy, nice country. And for the most part, that’s true. We are, today, vocally and for the most part tolerant, open, accepting and supportive. We have a good social safety net, public health care, liberty of conscience and religion and speech. We have strong public education and equal opportunity—mostly—for all.

But we do have flaws, and the U.S. does, too, and it is important to recognize these on our annual national day. Despite our claims of equality for all, Indigenous people in Canada (and the U.S.) still do not enjoy the same opportunities, rights or standard of living of most of us—certainly they do not receive what Canada promises. Hundreds of Indigenous communities across the country have not had clean drinking water for decades.

The status of women in Canada and the U.S. still lags behind that of men. Visible minorities do not get the same treatment from society, business and even institutions as white Canadians and Americans. We may not feel comfortable about that, we may wish all were equal, we may be striving mightily to achieve true equality for all, but we have to admit that things are not ideal.

Time to celebrate

But today, and Tuesday, are days to celebrate what is good about our countries. It’s time to be happy, to appreciate what our respective countries do for each of us, and what we can do for our fellow citizens.

We have to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, so we can redress them and avoid repeating them. But a day like the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the current country—which is a wonderful place to live for most of the people here—is a time to look forward to how we can make it even better.

Here are some more of my photos of this country.

An iconic Canadian image: Lake Louise in Banff National Park.

Another iconic Canadian image: Moraine Lake in Banff, the image that used to be on the back of our $10 bill.

 

A picture of my two sons in front of Lake Louise about nine years ago.

Some of the inukshuk sculptures in the Ottawa River last summer.

A collection of Canadian images just would not be complete without a shot of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.

I could not resist publishing this one: the 13-year-old Super Nicolas standing on a glacier, halfway up the mountain — as far as it was safe to go without mountain climbing equipment — above Lake Louise.

Rapids on the Dumoine River in western Quebec.

Along the Mattawa River in northern Ontario.

And what would a Canadian photo collection be without a picture of a grizzly bear?

Happy birthday!