Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Chemical Arms Explained, Red Army Bared, Wiesel Renewed: Books

Chemical Arms Explained, Red Army Bared, Wiesel Renewed: Books

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

March 7 (Bloomberg) -- As dusk settled over Ypres, Belgium, on April 22, 1915, German soldiers opened the valves on 5,730 cylinders of liquid chlorine buried in mud along the front lines. A cloud of poison drifted over French and Algerian troops in the opposing trenches, enveloping them ``in a greenish murk as if they had suddenly been plunged several feet underwater,'' writes Jonathan Tucker in ``War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda'' (Pantheon, 479 pages, $30).

The gas ``seared their eyes and burned the lining of their bronchial tubes, causing blindness, coughing, violent nausea,'' Tucker says. The deadly assault broke a taboo, prompting France and Britain to retaliate with their own gas attacks. By the end of World War I, soldiers had been subjected to more than 124,000 metric tons of 39 different toxins.

Tucker, who specializes in arms control at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, warned of the dangers of biological warfare in his previous book, ``Scourge.'' His latest book spotlights a chemical arms race in the 20th century.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union were at the forefront of this contest. They produced nerve agents so potent that less than 10 milligrams were lethal. Developing countries joined the race to create ``the poor man's nuclear weapon.'' Though leading industrial nations have been destroying their chemical weapons, terrorists are seeking to build stockpiles, Tucker warns: To keep the world safe, we must tighten trade restrictions and enforce arms-control treaties.

`Ivan's War'

The Geneva Convention helped halt the widespread use of chemical weapons in World War II. Yet German soldiers did deploy them during the siege of the Crimean city Kerch in May 1941, Catherine Merridale writes in her gripping portrait of life as a Soviet solider, ``Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939- 1945'' (Metropolitan, 463 pages, $30; Faber, 20 pounds).

The siege had left some 176,000 Soviet troops dead; the Germans used gas to dispatch the last defenders, holed up in a quarry. In Soviet myth, the quarry ``became another Leningrad,'' Merridale says -- ``a place where heroes held out to the last.'' A professor at the University of London, Merridale interviewed some 200 veterans to learn how the mostly untrained, ill-equipped peasant soldiers lived and died. Their memories are grim: Hectored by government spies and goaded by machine-gun-toting officers, troops attacked Panzer divisions in human waves. The Red Army's fabled patriotism was a product of Soviet propaganda, Merridale says. The underfed troops were really driven by ``shared awe, shared faith, shared dread.'' Altogether, eight million Soviet soldiers died in the ``Nazi meat grinder.''

Elie Wiesel

Merridale paints the pivotal Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in bold strokes. She also picks out details of everyday hardship, from the brackish tea soldiers drank to the cloth strips they wound around their feet as socks. Her reappraisal of their sacrifices breaks ground for future scholars.

Few first-hand accounts of Nazi barbarity have made the Holocaust as palpable as Elie Wiesel's terse memoir ``Night.'' Yet this classic has long suffered from a stiff 1960 translation into English.

The author's wife, Marion Wiesel, has breathed new life into this remembrance of life and death in concentration camps in a fresh, lucid translation (Hill and Wang, 120 pages, $9). The timing couldn't be better. In January, U.S. television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey selected ``Night'' for her popular book club, guaranteeing millions of new readers.

`Terribly Alone'

Wiesel, now 77, grew up in Transylvania. He recounts how Nazis rounded up his Jewish family in 1944, when he was a teenager, and herded him and his father to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his father was beaten and died. He nearly abandoned his faith.

``My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man,'' he writes.

Marion Wiesel's prose is more vernacular than the previous English translation, using more Yiddish words. Hundreds of accounts have been written about the Holocaust; ``Night'' remains a masterpiece of brief, brutal candor.