Two Short Books on World War I

German advance

It’s convenient that the hundredth anniversary has come around, but the real reason I’m reading these is that I was trying to get rid of some books I bought on impulse that are now cluttering up my life. 

I got started with Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger.  When he died in 1998 at the age of 102, Junger was the last living holder of Pour le Merite, the highest military honor of the German Empire (says Wikipedia).  I bought the book a few years ago when I was reading Clive James’ stimulating Cultural Amnesia, a kind of rambling encyclopedia of little known interwar types.  The impression I get is that Junger is a little hard to figure out.  His memoir is important, gripping, well written stuff, but though he was never a Nazi, he’s too militaristic for many people to stomach.

junger crop

Ernst Junger

Junger hardly ever looks up from the details of his war in the trenches on the Western Front.  He enlisted first as a rifleman, wanting to be responsible only for himself, but after being wounded the first time he changed his mind and became a commissioned officer.  Even after several promotions, he seems to have been most interested in leading night raids into no man’s land.  He certainly never talks politics, only alluding by way of matters of morale in the ranks.  Though there’s no shortage of gore, and he’s fairly frank about what seem to have been minor nervous breakdowns, he gives the impression of having suffered nothing that a hot breakfast wouldn’t fix.   The long and even the mid term view is completely missing from this book.  The beginning and the end of the war are not discussed.

Overall, Storm of Steel is a dull, even simple read, but I get the sense that there could be a lot going on under the surface.  A psychologist or an historian might really be able to sink his or her teeth in.  What, for example, to make of the publication history of the book?  Junger worked from his diaries, and the first version was apparently more or less a transcription; later versions changed emphases, reducing explicit gore or, so I hear, loading up on military cliches.  The translator of my Penguin edition merely remarks that a full treatment of this subject has not been undertaken.  I imagine it would shed light on a few instances where Junger might be deceiving himself.  For example, after a disastrous raid in which much of his platoon disappeared, he says he felt simply terrible, but then quotes a subordinate who admired Junger’s spirited way of leaping over entaglements.  A phrase like “disturbed only by mosquitoes, shelling, and occasional bombardments of gas” might be drollery, but there is a limit.

While I was still reading Junger, I checked out Norman Stone’s WWI: A Short History.  It certainly is short.  While I hesitate to criticize a work that obviously required a colossal effort of synthesis and compression, I am finding his writing difficult.  I don’t usually need to read a sentence two or three times to work out syntax and antecedents.  It is proving to be an interesting check on Junger; Stone contradicts Junger, for example, in insisting that the Germans enjoyed long advantage in munitions production.  I think I could do better than these two works, entertaining as they are, if I were to make a real effort at learning more about this topic, but I’m not sure I have the time now.  But just in case, are there any books that have helped you understand WWI?

The Wawa Way – What?

I don’t normally read business books, much less promotional corporate histories.  I don’t like advertising and I don’t friend companies on Facebook.  That’s why I found myself vaguely unsettled as I gulped down The Wawa Way. 

“What?  What’s a Wawa?”  Within a fairly well defined area of South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, the question is unthinkable, but now I hear the question all too often.   Since I no longer live in Wawaland, being sent The Wawa Way was the next best thing to getting a sub and cappuccino in the mail. 

Wawa is a convenience store, a place to get milk, eggs, sandwiches, gasoline, but it’s more than that.  It’s wildly successful.  Newer, bigger stores appear closer and closer together.  They stay busy and inspire unusual loyalty.  There’s a wide selection of good food and you can fix your coffee yourself.  Since they really took off when I was at the susceptible stages of getting hooked on coffee, starting to pitch in with the driving on family trips, and taking aimless late night spins with friends, I think the chain might be a defining part of my generation.  When I think of Wawa, I remember my dad buying me cappuccino there after I missed the school bus, and our gratitude as Wawa added one store at a time to our long southern road trips.  I don’t know anyone from back home who doesn’t happily jump out of the car at Wawa and head for their personal favorite items. 

Reading about the history of Wawa was like reading the history of my hometown.  I remember many of the changes as they happened: the advent of breakfast sandwiches, the coming of the gas station Wawa, the new coffee pots that still rankle.  That was fun.  I cruised through a lot of the business talk, but a few more substantial things stuck.  Wawa is still a private company, but, as I learned, it came very close to going public about ten years ago.  The author, former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel, argues that public control would have worked against the company’s strategy of expanding slowly and never franchising.  Instead of selling to Wall Street, the company sold stock to its employees. 

As I hinted above, I have a jaded, if ignorant, view of business in general.  “Free enterprise” is too vague an idea to be per se great for everyone.  The Wawa Way makes a case for Wawa being one of the good companies, but other than the story of employee stock ownership, it’s a little vague.  Stoeckel says that cashiers are the most important people in the business, but doesn’t say how much they are paid.  He touts programs that are in place to help employees in need, but one doesn’t get a sense of whether employees struggle to pay their share of some more traditional health plan.  He makes much of Wawa’s being closely connected to communities and knowing neighbors, and that’s plausible enough, although off the top of my head I don’t know many Wawa workers.  But for all Wawa’s impression on the local culture, I can say that South Jersey is hardly a hotbed of radical labor empowerment. 

When I looked at the book I was reading and examined my feelings about Wawa, I realized that while scoffing at advertising and corporate spin has definite appeal, a better appreciation of what business does well can also give one a better sense of its limitations.  The best Stoeckel can offer is that Wawa felt really bad over their decision to cut the price of cigarettes.  Soon we may be thinking about gasoline and the car culture that Wawa epitomizes so gloriously in the same way.  Wawa may be my favorite big business, and it won’t save us from tobacco, sprawl, or global warming.  Maybe when our representatives do their jobs and get on these problems, Wawa will turn its attention from the overhyped, underregulated Sunshine State and do something about the sad state of convenience food in New England.