Nautical Book Review: To the Last Salute, by Georg von Trapp (rerun)

If you’ve seen The Sound of Music–and who hasn’t?–you’ll remember Captain von Trapp.  The real Captain’s real-life children were not thrilled with the way he was portrayed in the movie–according to them, he was by no means that rigid disciplinarian who summoned the children with a bosun’s whistle and required them to line up in military formation.  (The bosun’s whistle was real, but only for communication purposes on the large estate…no lining-up involved.)

The movie was indeed correct that Captain von Trapp was a former naval officer whose services were much desired by the Nazis after their takeover of Germany and, later, Austria…and that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. His memoir, To the Last Salute, was originally published in German in 1935 and later translated into French; an English translation is now also available  This post is a rerun of my earlier review, inspired by a WSJ article about the movie and its continuing large fanbase.

Captain von Trapp could not be called a brilliant writer, but he does achieve some nice descriptive and reflective passages. Here, he is returning from a patrol very early in the First World War, when he was commanding a torpedo boat:

We had been out all night searching for enemy ships that had been reported, but once again, had found nothing.  Far out in the Adriatic we had investigated, looked, and looked, and again came back disappointed through the “Incoronate,” the rocky, barren island,s that extend in front of the harbor at Sebenico…These islands look bleak; nevertheless, years ago people found them and still live there…It is a heavenly trip there between the islands with the many large and small inlets swarming with fish. But it is most beautiful in the wind still nights, which are uniquely animated.

From one place or another, red and white lights flash on and off. They are the beacons that flash their warnings to the ships. Out of the many inlets merge innumerable fishermen’s boats. Some are under sail, hauling big nets; others, sculled about almost silently by heavy steering rudders, search the water with strong lanterns…As they put out to sea, the people always sing their ancient folk songs: ballads with countless verses, wild war cries, soft, wistful love songs…

The war broke into this peaceful world. Traveling between the islands changed overnight…The singing has become silent, for fishing is forbidden, and the men are fighting in the war…Mines lie between the islands.  At any moment an enemy periscope, or a plane with bombs, could appear, and the nights have become exceptionally interesting; there are no more beacons. The war has extinguished them.

Soon, Captain von Trapp was reassigned to command of a submarine,the U-5.  This boat was one of a type that was extremely primitive, even by WWI standards. Propulsion for running on the surface was not a diesel but a gasoline engine, and gasoline fumes were a constant headache, often in a very literal sense.

The Captain seems not to have thought a great deal about the rights and wrongs of the war.  As a professional, at this stage he also felt no animus toward the men it was his duty to attack; quite the contrary. Here, after sinking a French cruiser:

I quickly scan the horizon. Is there absolutely no escort ship? Did they let the ship travel all alone? Without a destroyer? WIthout a torpedo boat? No, there is nothing in sight, only five lifeboats adrift in the water.

After discussing the matter with his exec and determining that there was no feasible way to take the survivors on board:

With a heavy heart, I order the engines to be turned on, and I set a course for the Gulf of Cattaro. “They let our men from the Zenta drown, too,” I hear one of the men say.  The man is right, but I cannot bear to hear that yet.  With a sudden movement I turn away. I feel a choking in my throat. I want to be alone.

I feel as if something were strangling me…So that’s what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession. Approximately seven hundred men must have sunk with the ship!

On returning to base, von Trapp found numerous letters of congratulation waiting for him, one from an eighth-grade Viennese schoolgirl.  To thank her for the letter, he arranged to have a Pruegelkrapfen from a noted confectioner to be delivered to her.  “The outcome of all this is unexpected. Suddenly it seems all the Viennese schoolgirls have gotten the writing bug because it rains little letters from schoolgirls who are sooo happy and so on.  But such a Pruegelgrapfen is expensive and, at the moment, I don’t have time to open a bakery myself.”

On one patrol, U-5 met up with an allied German U-boat, and von Trapp had an opportunity to go on board.  He was quite impressed with the diesel engine, compartmentalization of the boat, the electrically-adjustable periscopes, and even creature comforts like tables for dining.  “It’s like being in Wonderland…”  The German commander’s comment, on visiting U-5, was “I would refuse to travel in this crate.”

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Worthwhile Reading

Cultural Values and Productivity.  “When I investigate which country-of-origin characteristics most closely correlate with human capital, cultural values are the only robust predictor. This relationship persists among children of migrants. Consistent with a plausible cultural mechanism, individuals whose origin places a high value on autonomy hold a comparative advantage in positions characterized by a low degree of routinization.”  This ties in with Garrett Jones’ book The Culture Transplant, which I mentioned in my 2023 book roundup a few days ago.

Ruxandra argues that elite thought in our society has shifted toward excessive caution (safetyism), skepticism of technology, and zero-sum thinking and goes on to say ‘This shift poses what I believe to be the defining ideological challenge of our time.’  Also a continuation post, including an interesting chart showing the incidence of words related to progress versus those related to caution, in English, French, and German books.

Anna Mitchell suggests that “Westerners aren’t good at love because we’re unsuccessfully trying to reconcile two opposing love traditions. The first is a “passionate love” inherited from the Medieval courtly tradition that gives us a sense of spiritual transcendence that we’re desperately lacking in our secular age. The second is the Christian ideal of committed love in marriage, that makes us feel known as individuals. Retrofitting life-altering passion into the structure of marriage hasn’t worked well – as witnessed in sky-high divorce rates and a flood of negativity about dating”…”However, as social technologies have emerged over the past ~15 years, it also feels like “passionate love” of the 90s romcoms – where you meet someone in real life and get swept away – doesn’t hold the same cultural power. It’s not our only route to transcendence in a secular age. We already HAVE a reality-replacing option on a small screen.”

And from Justin Murphy:  “I think dating and marriage are broken because people simply have too many ideas in their heads. Many of them are correct in certain contexts, but none of them is universally true. The calculation overdetermines the encounter and love simply cannot bloom. My evidence is simply that every man and every woman I know who is dating and looking for marriage has so many notions—what they’re looking for, what they’re trying to avoid, what is a deal-breaker, what is essential, but also rigid interpretations of what various behaviors mean, what certain body language means, and so on.”  Reminds me of my old post about The Hunt for the Five-Pound Butterfly.

The personality and politics of 263 occupations.

Assyria, the First Empire.

A mental model megathread.  Some samples…

Example #13:  “Licensing Effect: Believing you’re good can make you behave bad. Those who consider themselves virtuous worry less about their own behavior, making them more susceptible to ethical lapses. A big cause of immorality is self-righteous morality”…and Example #14:  “Preference Falsification: If people are afraid to say what they really think, they will instead lie. Therefore, punishing speech – whether by taking offence or by threatening censorship – is ultimately a request to be deceived.”

Digital Logic, Implemented Mechanically…atomic scale, smaller than the smallest conventional logic gates.  Conceptually similar to classical railroad switch and signal interlocking; can apparently operate at speeds up to 500 MHz.

The history of videogame revenue.  Shown as $185B in 2023.

From Samizdata: “The shift from “it’s immoral to tell another culture’s story” to “it’s impossible to tell another culture’s story, but in any case, one shouldn’t try for moral reasons” is part of a process Pluckrose and Lindsay describe as “reification”, which emerged after I’d left the ivory tower and commenced moving companies around and drafting commercial leases for a living. Once reified, postmodern abstractions about the world are treated as though they are real things, and accorded the status of empirical truth. Contemporary social justice activism thus sees theory as reality, as though it were gravity or cell division or the atomic structure of uranium.”

Ilya Bratman, a linguist and Hillel leader (originally from the Soviet Union) reports on what he sees among students at NYC public colleges.

Paging Dr Kennedy

Maxwell Tabarrok, at X, asks:

Does anyone have good resources or a blog post on how surgery practice and outcome has improved or changed over the past several decades?

My first thought was that I’ll bet Michael Kennedy can provide some insight on this.

Michael, any thoughts?

Christmas 2023

Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

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The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

This month marks the 61st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war. Reflecting on this crisis seems particularly appropriate in our current era, when the threat of nuclear was has again come forward from the background to which it had been hopefully consigned.

Several years ago,  I read  Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.

Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.

At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.

Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”

Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours

Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:

Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted  ‘Fire!’  that was quite another matter.

Kirillov:

There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.

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