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As yet additional evidence (not that any is needed) of the general uselessness of the American media, I did not learn of the death of one of my all-time favorite writers on military history, John Keegan, until the day after I returned home from the WBC Convention in Lancaster. Hence, this tribute is a few days late. Still, given Keegan's influence on the trajectory of contemporary military historiography, late or not, I think this piece needs to be written.
JOHN KEEGAN DEAD AT 78
The arc of Keegan's life, considering his rather unremarkable background, was both interesting and unexpectedly rich. Born John Desmond Patrick Keegan, on 15 May 1934, in Clapham, England, the future historian and best-selling writer was the son of a schools inspector and a housewife. Given the modest circumstances of Keegan's upbringing, it is probably no surprise that his early childhood was uneventful; but that all changed for him, as it did for almost everyone else in Europe, in 1939. John Keegan was only five years old when he first saw, through a child's eyes, the very real effects, both great and small, of war on his family and on his fellow countrymen. And needless-to-say those effects were not trivial.
Like most of the able-bodied men of his generation, Keegan's father had already served in uniform during the First World War; however, both because of his age and because of his background in education, when war broke out with Germany for the second time in the space of twenty years, he was given a civilian task, that of helping to take care of some of the thousands of British children who had been evacuated from England's major population centers to save them from the ravages of the German "Blitz". To the young Keegan, the later years of the war, particularly the time of the enormous build-up of men and materiel prior to the Normandy Invasion, was one of extraordinary excitement; and, given the amazing scale of the events overtaking him and his countrymen, it can reasonably be surmised that his interest in military affairs probably took root during this early period in his life. Of course, for England as a whole, the six years of conflict were a gruelling test of both the national will and of sheer endurance; and it bears remembering that, of the major belligerents of World War II, only England and Germany were in the fight from the very beginning to the bitter end.
A certain amount of normalcy gradually returned to life in Britain and the Keegan household in the spring of 1945, once the Second World War had finally run it's violent and tragic course. Unfortunately, this happy condition did not last because, within a couple of years of the armistice, young Keegan was stricken with a case of Tuberculosis of the Bone, a condition that would, in spite of extensive treatment, ultimately leave him with a frozen hip joint and a permanent limp. Not surprisingly, such a physical infirmity barred Keegan, now a young man, from British "National Service"; on the other hand, it did nothing to interfere with his academic life and, despite his recurring health problems, he nonetheless managed to win a scholarship to read history at Balliol College. In 1957, at the age of twenty-three, Keegan graduated from Oxford and, for the next few years, worked as a minor functionary at the American Embassy in London.
In one of those happy accidents that only become obvious in retrospect, Keegan was offered a place with the faculty at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, as a lecturer in military history, in 1960. The twenty-six year old Oxford graduate jumped at the chance. And, as things turned out, Keegan's new-found role as a teacher of British Officer Cadets suited him perfectly; in fact, the fit between the scholar and his job was so good that he continued, virtually without interruption, to lecture at Sandhurst until 1986. Moreover, besides providing the budding military historian with a steady income, Keegan's position at Sandhurst also provided him the opportunity to do independent research and to write. And write he did, turning out numerous papers and historical monographs, along with two books, in his first decade-and-a-half as a teacher at the Royal Military Academy. However, this early body of work, worthy though it may have been, was still well within the mainstream of military historiography. In 1976, Keegan finally broke with the conventions of his field and gave voice to ideas that had been percolating in his mind for years regarding the intense psychological and physical effects of combat on the men who ultimately decide a battle's outcome: the ordinary soldiers of the line. The title of this groundbreaking look at the "micro" versus the "macro" human variables that often tend to take control of events when organized groupings of armed men clash on a battlefield was "The Face of Battle", and it's wide-spread popular success quickly catapulted Keegan from a position of relative obscurity to one of international renown. Perhaps equally important, his unsentimental and honest look at the different and often conflicting pressures that common soldiers were subjected to in the crucible of combat also established Keegan as a writer of exceptional grace and deep humanity. An accomplishment all the more remarkable because, at the time of its writing, Keegan — by his own admission — had never worn a uniform; never heard a shot fired in anger, or even visited a battlefield in the immediate aftermath of an engagement. Yet, even for those of his readers who had actually done these things, Keegan's narrative rang true.
In "The Face of Battle", Keegan examined three separate engagements from three very different historical eras that all, conveniently enough, occurred within the same general region of Europe: "Agincourt", a clash between British and French (25 October, 1415); "Waterloo", which pitted the French against a polyglot force of British, Dutch-Belgians, and Prussians (18 June, 1815); and the "First Battle of the Somme", the British and French versus the Germans (1 July - 18 November, 1916). [For a more detailed review of "The Face of Battle", please see the link at the bottom of this page.] The Battle of Agincourt was mainly fought using edged weapons (swords, battle axes, etc.), the shock power of massed cavalry, and archers; Waterloo was largely decided by infantrymen and mounted cavalrymen — both groups equipped with single-shot firearms and edged weapons (bayonets and swords) — and by the lethal power of smooth-bore, muzzle-loading artillery; the men who fought and died (in appalling numbers) during the First Battle of the Somme — unlike their predecessors — had to contend with magazine-fed rifles, machine guns, barbed-wire, entrenchments, and rifled, breech-loading artillery. Nonetheless, and in spite of the differences in weaponry, Keegan showed (rather convincingly) how — from the common fighting man's perspective — the overall physical and mental stresses engendered at the soldier's level by the three very different (at least in appearance) engagements had more similarities than differences. In this sense, Keegan's work was both an historical chronicle of three important military events, and a study of the seemingly-unchanging group psychology of the battlefield.
Interestingly, although more than three decades have passed since "The Face of Battle" was first published, it has never once been out of print. Moreover, while Keegan continued to write for most of the rest of his life and followed "The Face of Battle" with some seventeen additional books — many of which were well-received, while, it must be admitted, a small number of others were criticized for either small historical inaccuracies or political naivete on the part of the author — this work remains his masterpiece.
It should be noted that while official honors were a little slow in coming to the Sandhurst lecturer, they did come in the end. John Keegan's many contributions to the world of British letters were formally recognized in 1991 when he was awarded the "Order of the British Empire" (OBE). Nine years later, in 2000, the son of the Clapham school inspector, whose demeanor and appearance seemed more in line with those of a publican than those of a British Peer, was added to the rolls of the English Nobility when he was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
One final observation probably needs to be made regarding both the life and works of John Keegan, and that is this: Keegan grew up during a time when the casualties from the "Great War" (over 8,000,000 dead among the European belligerents alone) were still a source of deeply-felt loss in virtually every village and town in England and on the Continent; but in which — incomprehensible though it seemed on its face — the world had, barely a generation after the First World War, nonetheless plunged headlong back into the abyss of yet another multi-continent existential struggle over the future of Western Civilization. Given his times, it is thus not surprising that Keegan's work consistently reveals a deep personal ambivalence towards warfare: on the one hand, the author clearly detests the squalid brutality and random violence of war; on the other, he grudgingly aknowledges both that wars are occasionally necessary and, as General George Patton once famously observed, that the extraordinary demands that they place on individuals and on nations make "all other forms of human endeavor pale to insignificance when compared to war." Moreover, in Keegan's view, the ordinary soldier — contrary to the popular conceit found in the writings of far too many modern historiographers — is to be admired and respected; he is neither a victim nor a dupe; instead, he is an actor with free will who, whether for reasons of loyalty to his comrades or his general, simple stubbornness, or even a desire to bring his misery and danger to an end, chooses to do battle with other men who, although wearing different uniforms, nonetheless share the same motives and fears as himself. This last is, in some ways, the mystery that both puzzled and fascinated Keegan for much of his adult life: Why, when the instinct for self-preservation urges one course of action, do the soldiers of every era, resist its call and choose, instead, to stand and fight? It is a question that puzzles us still.
John Keegan is survived by his wife of over fifty years, the biographer Susanne Everett, and by their four children.
Related PostsBOOK REVIEW: 'THE FACE OF BATTLE' John Keegan’s Unsentimental Celebration of the Common Soldier
BOOK REVIEW: 'THE FIRST WORLD WAR'
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NOW THAT THIS YEAR'S WBC CONVENTION IS OVER, I CAN AT LAST RESUME A REGULAR SCHEDULE OF NEW POSTS FOR "MAP AND COUNTERS"
The good news, for those of my readers who regularly follow my eccentric musings on "Map and Counters", is that, for this old grognard, the 2012 convention season is finally over, and my two online tournaments are on temporary hold while the last few pairings finish their matches. What this means, in terms of my future plans, is that I will finally again have time to post new material on my blog. And, given the events of this summer, I am hopeful that visitors will find these soon-to-be published articles an interesting and informative mix of both old and new. To that end, what follows is a very brief preview of some of the essays that I hope to have in readable form within the next month or so.
Among the articles that are either planned or already in the works — given that the events are still fresh in my mind — are chronicles of my experiences at this year's Consimworld Expo and recently concluded WBC Convention. In addition, along with the usual collection of reviews on movies and books, as well as additional profiles on older games, I also plan to post more essays on the history of wargaming and on the evolution of popular game platforms (a la "Roads From Smolensk"). Moreover, for those players who, like me, still have a soft spot for the older Avalon Hill games, I intend to publish a piece on easy-to-use "player metrics" for several of the classics (e.g., how to tell whether you are winning or losing while there is still time to do something about it), as well as an analyis of the pros-and-cons of various low-odds attacks in STALINGRAD. Looking farther down the road, I hope to be able to complete the first "After Action Report" (AAR) on at least one of my finished PBeM tournament matches and, if this initial outing is well-received, to follow it up with others as my two online tournaments progress from one round to the next. In something of a break from my past practice, I have decided to make a concerted effort to add a few new voices (and, quite possibly, different viewpoints) to my blog through the publication of "guest" essays from individuals in the hobby whose opinions, although sometimes at variance from my own, I nonetheless respect.
Last but not least, I want to thank those of my readers who have stuck with me through this long "dry spell" in my blogging; your ongoing support is much appreciated. That being said, it is my sincere hope that the articles that will find their way into print in the coming weeks and months will again serve to make "Map and Counters" both an interesting and an informative destination for gamers of almost every stripe.
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Independence Day, 2012
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
Yesterday was Independence Day; moreover, it was, in fact, the two hundred and thirty-sixth Independence Day since our Country was first founded. For those Americans who actually know something of their history, this national holiday is intended to celebrate and honor the passionate thirst for liberty that, almost two and a half centuries ago, pushed delegates from Britain’s thirteen American Colonies to formally declare those colonies’ newly free and independent from a distant and increasingly tyrannical Parliament and monarchy. This declaration was no small thing; the men who debated and ultimately signed the “Declaration of Independence” had — as they knew only too well — all publicly endorsed treason against the British Crown as their political cause. The often soaring language used by Thomas Jefferson when he penned the controversial document might lift men’s spirits, but it was no protection against Royal reprisals by the British army. And simply by putting pen to paper, each of these delegates knew that he had done more than sign a statement of grievances to be delivered to the English Crown; he had — in both his own eyes and in those of the King — personally and publicly endorsed a formal “writ of rebellion.” Thus, the issuance of the “Declaration of Independence” was also a declaration of war against England; in political terms, it really changed nothing so far as America’s fractured relations with Britain were concerned. On the contrary, Jefferson’s words were intended to spur American patriotic ardor for the inevitable struggle already underway, at least as much as they were meant to rebuke both the British Crown and Parliament. And, of course, many years of suffering and bloody fighting were to follow the issuance of the “Declaration of Independence,” before the former colonies — now called states — would finally succeed in winning, through force of arms, their complete and permanent political separation from England.
Signing of the Declaration of Independence, painting by Jonathan Trumball
Nowadays, widespread popular reverence for both the men who signed the "Declaration of Independence" and the principles for which they were prepared to risk "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" so long ago seem to have largely faded from the public consciousness. In fact, in the eyes of many (but admittedly not all) modern Americans, not only are the backgrounds and motives of the Founders suspect, but the idea that they would lead the thirteen colonies to sever their long connection with the Motherland and risk open warfare with the greatest military power of the time over issues as seemingly trivial (and reasonable, on their face) as the modest new Crown taxes levied first by "The Stamp Act" and later by the "Townshend Act", seems almost incomprehensible to those who now tend to view the steady encroachments of a distant (and unresponsive) federal government on their individual liberties as a natural condition of modern life. Perhaps this is the depressing reality of our times; nonetheless, I find it personally inconceivable that a single one of the fifty-six signatories of the "Declaration of Independence" would agree with such a docile contemporary view. And, more than anything else, their example is the lesson that we modern Americans should take away from the Fourth of July: that liberty is precious only so long as a people value it more than they value their comfort and security; and when they come to prefer their ease and safety to liberty, then it is only a matter of time before they will no longer be free. As Benjamin Franklin, when asked as to what form the government of the newly-independent United States would take, tartly observed: "We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it."
Declaration of Independence Printable Text
Happy Independence Day, and may you all have an enjoyable holiday while, at the same time, taking a little time to reflect on the seminal events that long ago set the course of our forefathers towards war and ultimately independence from Great Britain.
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First official flag of the United States.
June 14, 2012, marks a signal, but little noticed anniversary in the history of our Republic: In Philadelphia, on 14 June, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that the official flag of the new nation that, in time, would come to be known as the United States of America should display thirteen stars and thirteen stripes; in addition, the same resolution also declared that the colors of the new flag should be red (for strength and courage), white (for purity), and blue (for steadfastness, vigilance and justice). While the look of the American flag has changed as additional states joined the Union, our flag's instantly recognizeable design (along with its core symbolism) has remained largely unchanged over the wide span of years that now separate the struggling nation of 1777 from the continent-wide world power that the United States is today.
The survival and expansion of the United States, and the system of government that it continues to represent, has come at a sometimes fearful price in blood and treasure. And for this reason, the flag of the United States, nicknamed "Old Glory", has come to occupy a special place in the hearts of many of America's citizenry. As evidence of the flag's special place in American life, it is only necessary to look back on the nation's near and distant past.
In the decades following the American Revolution, a small but gradually increasing number of communities began to commemorate the date of the resolution with locally-mounted ‘Flag Day’ ceremonies. On 30 May, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared June 14th officially to be ‘Flag Day’ throughout the United States. Finally, in 1949, 172 years after the Continental Congress first debated and approved its flag resolution, Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman signed the Act of Congress that legally designated June 14th as ‘Flag Day’.
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Originally, I had intended to post only a few brief comments about a pair of my relatives who, although they did not go in against the German-held beaches with the first waves of the "Overlord" invasion troops, nonetheless both came ashore at Normandy in the days following the initial landings. However, in surfing the internet this morning (I no longer watch television), it struck me that there seemed to be almost no mention of the anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. For that reason, I have decided to repost last year's essay on what I considered then (and still do) to be the real long-term historical significance of the Allied victory on the Normandy beaches on 6 June, 1944.
Thoughts on the 68th Anniversary of the Allied Landings in Normandy
LOOKING BACK AT D-DAY
Subsequent events, of course, showed that this confidence was not misplaced. The expansion of Allied air and ground offensive operations in the west, along with the constant hammer blows from the Red Army in the east, furnished constant and irrefutable proof that the brutal edifice of the German Führer’s “thousand year” Nazi empire was already teetering and ready to come crashing down. Nonetheless, in the spring of 1944, the defeat of the Third Reich and the end of the war still seemed a long way off; this was why, in the eyes of the Allied strategic planners, opening a new front against German forces in France was viewed as being essential. And, in June of 1944, the Allies were finally able to launch a massive, combined air-ground-naval assault against the forces that manned the formidable defenses of Hitler’s Festung Europa.
Seen with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the victory at Normandy was not — like previous amphibious operations such as Torch, Husky, or Avalanche — simply one more Allied success on the long, bloody road to Berlin, but a crucial, even essential, turning point in the war in the west. By the spring of 1944, it had become clear to almost everyone on both sides of the conflict — except, perhaps, Adolph Hitler — that, barring something bordering on a military miracle, Germany’s defeat was inevitable. The new German “wonder weapons”, terrible and destructive as they were, had come too late, and Allied bombing missions — while they may have been largely unsuccessful in destroying Germany’s war production — were, nonetheless, quite effective in devastating Germany’s cities, and the civilians who lived in them. Thus, the only real question that remained to be resolved, and the one that was decisively answered on 6 June 1944, was the actual timing of that defeat. Because the D-Day invasion was an Allied success, albeit an imperfect one, World War II would end in 1945 rather than in 1946, and Western Europe would be liberated by the citizen-soldiers of the western democracies and not by the Red Army. Hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians would, because the conflict ended when it did, survive to begin the laborious process of rebuilding in a post-war world; moreover, the western Allies, as a result of their bloody but victorious campaigns in 1944-45, would demonstrate to Stalin and his advisors in the Kremlin that Russia’s western allies both controlled and were willing to use a powerful military force that was clearly a formidable match for the Red Army. The uneasy partnership between the Soviet Union and the west would not long survive the end of World War II, but the “Cold War” that soon followed it would, because of the events set in motion on D-Day, never escalate into an apocalyptic nuclear clash between east and west. And, in the end, that fact, more than any other, demonstrates the historical significance of the Allied success at Normandy sixty-eight years ago.
Blog Posts about Related WargamesSPI, ATLANTIC WALL (1978)
TAHGC, BREAKOUT: NORMANDY (1993)
SPI, BREAKOUT & PURSUIT (1972)
SPI, COBRA (1977)
TAHGC, FORTRESS EUROPA (1980)
SPI, NORMANDY, 2nd Ed. (1971)
RGA, OMAHA BEACH 1974)
CGC, OVERLORD, 2nd Ed. (1977)
TAHGC, PANZER LEADER (1974)
Recommended ReferenceThis book is a handy guide of maps for the Normandy landing beaches.
Recommended ReadingTHE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU
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Today’s Memorial Day essay is, with only a few minor changes, a repeat of an earlier post that I first published on "Map and Counters" in 2009. I keep bringing it back each year because it conveys, at least insofar as my meager gifts allow, the essence of my thinking on the topic of Memorial Day; moreover, although I do occassionally revisit this topic, I have thus far found nothing in its core message that I would change. At the time I first wrote this essay, I had only recently experienced something of a personal epiphany: one that had imbued me with a powerful urge to honor those who, for one reason or another, are all too often passed over by their countrymen in favor either of better-known military leaders or more famous heroes. Nothing that has happened since I first wrote this post has done anything to change my mind. On the contrary, as time has gone by, I have become more and more convinced that Memorial Day shouldn’t mainly be about celebrating those who are or were famous, whether gallant heroes or successful generals — their memories will almost always be preserved somewhere, if only in a fading copy of an old history book; instead, I believe that what this day should really be about is honoring the countless ordinary men and women who — although largely uncommemorated except by cemetery headstones — have served in our armed forces over the centuries and who, when duty required it, willingly relinquished the most precious thing that they possessed: their own lives. Thus, just as it has done in years past, this Memorial Day essay honors (however modestly) two U.S. Marines who fell as a result of enemy action a long time ago in Vietnam; just as importantly, however, it is also a salute to all of those who, through the ages, have made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country: from the first violent birth pangs of the new American Republic, to the faraway battlefields of the present day. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.
In Memory of Marine LCpl. Clement Johnston, Jr., killed in action 4/28/66 in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Vietnam
When we honor the memory of those who have, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, already “given the last full measure of their devotion,” let us also take a moment to think about all of those men and women who serve overseas as a bulwark against the medieval fanatics that — in spite of the fact that their original leaders are now mainly dead or in captivity — still plot attacks against the American homeland from half a world away.
A Few Additional Thoughts on This, the First “Summer” Holiday of the Year
Today is “Memorial” Day. It is supposed to be a day of remembrance. And I like to think that there was a time, not that long ago, when most ordinary Americans understood and honored this day and its original purpose. Now, for many, if not the majority of my fellow citizens, I fear that Memorial Day has become little more than an excuse for a three-day holiday weekend, or a backyard barbeque, or even for a “blow-out” electronics sale. I hate to admit it, but I understand how this change could happen: memories are fragile things, and they fade far too quickly. I was unexpectedly reminded of this sad truth, myself, only a few years ago.
During the first week of April a little over three years ago, my wife talked me into visiting the touring reproduction of the Vietnam War Memorial: The "Wall". She, herself, had already visited the real monument in Washington, DC, but she knew that — despite the fact that I had served two and a half years in Vietnam — I had not; so she thought that it might be nice for us to finally visit the touring “Wall” display together. I agreed to make the trip, but under protest: I have to admit that I have always had mixed feelings about “war” memorials. Unlike a military cemetery or the site of a former battlefield — I still get a lump in my throat when I see pictures of Arlington or of one of the American cemeteries at Normandy or Lorraine, in France — most of these types of monuments have always struck me as being more like “guilty” afterthoughts than anything else. Too often the statues or marble structures that are erected, usually long after the events that they commemorate, actually seem to say more about their well-intentioned builders than they do about those being memorialized. Nonetheless, because I still value my wife’s good opinion of me, I finally agreed to make the trip; so, on a sunny, windy Saturday morning in 2009, the two of us drove all the way out to Buckeye, Arizona, to pay a visit to the touring facsimile of the “Wall”.
In the end, I and the wonderful, helpful people who volunteer with the monument tour all tried our best to identify at least a couple of individuals from a number of young men that I had known who had been killed in various operations from “Davy Crockett” to the “Tet” Offensive. Guilt is a powerful rebuke, and it had suddenly become strangely important to me that I at least make a serious effort to do this. Thus, melancholy though my and my helpers' task may, looking back, now appear to an outsider, it nonetheless imbued my spur-of-the-moment project and its outcome with an emotional intensity that I have rarely felt before or since. And, more importantly, my and the "Wall" volunteers' labors were not completely fruitless.
The two young marines memorialized at the start of this essay — one forever 18 and the other 22, who died so many years ago in Vietnam — may or may not be the men I knew when I was a young soldier, I will never be truly sure. But what I do know is that even if they are not, they still deserve to be honored on Memorial Day by someone, and I am proud for that someone to be me. It took a long time for me, personally, but having finally visited the “Wall,” I also now know something else: I realize, at last, that if we who served with those whose names are inscribed on that gleaming black marble do not make the conscious (and sometimes painful) effort to remember those who fell in Vietnam so long ago, then who among us will?
May you, my readers, and those you care about, all have an enjoyable and safe Memorial Day holiday. And may those who wear our country’s uniform and who daily go into harm’s way, in dangerous, far-off places, also have a safe Memorial Day!
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JUST A REMINDER
It doesn't seem possible, but John Kranz and company's 2012 Consimworld Expo/Monstergame.Con XII will begin only one short month from today. On June 25th, gamers from all over the world will again congregate at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel in (very) sunny Tempe, Arizona, for an action-packed week (25 June to 1 July, 2012) of both organized and "open" gaming, playtest sessions, designer seminars, new game launches, and other hobby-related special events. In short, Expo 2012 promises to be a great opportunity, as it has in years past, for both new gamers and old to gather together in a celebration of the hobby of wargaming.
Speaking for myself, I am happy to report that this year's convention will be very different from last year's. In 2011, a combination of poor health and transportation problems limited my convention participation to that mainly of a "neutral" observer; in contrast, this year, I fully expect to be busy playing games and blogging at the Tempe Mission Palms from the first day of the Consimworld Expo to the last.
For those readers who continue to "sit on the fence", there is still plenty of time to make arrangements to attend this year's Expo; and for those of my readers who are planning to make the trek to Tempe this June, I invite you to look me up when you get to the convention site. Who knows, if your gaming interests include the Avalon Hill and SPI classics, we may even find the time to play a game or two.
To find out more about CSW Expo 2012/MonsterGame.Con XII, or to register online for this year’s convention, visit the website: http://expo.consimworld.com/
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The creative force behind the American version of Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, first began lobbying in favor of declaring a national holiday to honor mothers in 1908. In 1914, her efforts finally met with success; sadly, by 1920, she had become disillusioned with the rapidly burgeoning commercialization of Mother's Day, and actually reversed course, arguing for her own holiday's repeal. Needless-to-say, in this second effort, she was disappointed; and that, in my view, is probably not a bad thing.
A Heartfelt Salute to America’s Military Mothers, Past, Present and FutureWhen it comes to the origins and background of this peculiarly wide-spread, if oddly ill-defined, holiday, I really have little to say that hasn't already been said by others many times before. Nonetheless, the nearness of this year's Mothers' Day here in the United States — besides evoking, for many of us, people and times long past — does provide me with the opportunity to post one of my all-time favorite Norman Rockwell illustrations. Call me sentimental, but I have a special fondness for this simple, if somewhat old-fashioned image, because it reminds me of my own experience when I came home, after my first year in Vietnam, on a 30-day special leave. I can still remember, almost like it was yesterday, a much younger version of me, still in my "dress greens" (having flown in earlier that evening) sitting, for hours, at the kitchen table with my mother. There the two of us sat — long after the rest of the family had gone to bed — drinking cup after cup of coffee and talking quietly about the trivial, commonplace occurrences that had colored the lives of my friends and family during the year that I had been deployed half-way around the world. To this day, that long, utterly inconsequential chat still remains one of my favorite memories of my mother.
Being both impossibly young and impossibly ignorant, it didn’t occur to me when I was home on leave, that mine was actually my mother’s third war; that she had met and married my father — a Navy corpsman who served in the Pacific — during World War II, and that, with two small children to tend to, she had seen him recalled to active duty a few years later during the Korean War. Looking back, I cannot remember a single instance in which my mother ever complained about the hardships brought about by my father’s military service; nor, in my own case, can I recall a single word of recrimination from her when she learned that I would be going back to Southeast Asia for another tour at the end of my leave. Only many years later, after my mother had passed away, did I learn from my sister about the constant worry and, even more painful to me now, the dread with which my mother greeted every unfamiliar car that pulled into our driveway, or every unexpected knock on the front door during the whole of the time that I was overseas.
Nowadays, of course, only a small number of our fellow citizens actually serve in the armed forces and, for that reason, it is easy for most of us to put out of our minds the wives and mothers that those in uniform leave behind when they go into harm’s way. On this Mother's Day, however, I enjoin all of my readers to remember, along with their own mothers, those others who day-by-day wait stoically for their husbands and sons, and now their daughters, to come safely home. And while other Americans may seldom think of it that way, theirs, quite possibly, is the hardest wartime job of all.
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