Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943 by Antony Beevor

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Read this only if you have nerves of steel, a temporarily hardened heart and a strong stomach! Stalingrad will go down in history as one of the epochal and seminal books ever penned on the subject of war. With the publication of this tour de force, Antony Beevor has firmly cemented his place as one of the greatest military historians of all time.

Squalor and Sacrifice; Daredevilry and Desertion; Hubris and Hindsight; Massacre and Munificence engage in a joust of hear rending and gut wrenching contradictions as in a prose – that is as ruthlessly unsparing as the happenings on the vast and desolate steppes of the former Soviet Union – Beevor brings to life one of the bloodiest and brutal battles ever fought in the history of armed conflicts. On Sunday the 22nd of June, 1941, the sycophant-perceived-to-be-a-savant Adolf Hitler launched his most ambitious and pride fueled assault ‘Operation Barbarossa’ (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) invading the intimidating territory of the former Soviet Union. This act was primarily the consequence of a demented ideology that had as its backbone, an irrational desire to subjugate and conquer the Western Soviet Union, not to mention the plans to annex the oil resources in the Causcasus. This invasion was carried out by over four million Axis personnel along a 2,900-kilometer front, thereby representing the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, the Wehrmacht employed some 600,000 motor vehicles and between 600,000 and 700,000 horses.

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(The Battle of Stalingrad. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Braving both the unforgiving elements of a biting cold winter and the undying, unbending and unyielding resilience of the Soviet Forces, the German Army in-spite of experiencing a spate of initial triumphs was left to fend for itself in a ruinous state. The huge mass of the much vaunted Sixth Army with their formidable Panzer Divisions were encircled in a pincer like movement by their adversaries. This ‘Kesselring’ or the cauldron ultimately sounded the death knell of the hapless soldiers ravaged by starvation, ripped apart by enemy artillery and riddled with a plethora of deadly diseases like typhus and malaria. However the most insidious killer of them all was the dreaded frost bite which led to the unfortunate soldier losing both life and limb. Antony Beevor dazzles in recounting this fateful Siege of the city named after the Great Russian dictator. Beevor’s research leaves no stone unturned and its meticulousness leaves one gasping and gawking in astonishment. Beevor chronicles with impeccable precision the dire consequences of a mindless battle waged between a psychopath and a despot. The fall out of such an ominous clause could only be calamitous for the warriors plunging headlong into a vortex of death and devastation. Beevor describes in painstaking detail some of the cruelest acts ever perpetrated by man against his fellow human beings. The heartless butchery of captured Prisoners Of War, wanton rape of women and the merciless slaughter of children as young as four years old leaves an indescribably disturbing impression on the reader. The harsh realities of war such as being forced to be clad in lice infested clothing for days together without the prospect of a wash or warming one’s palms by the warmth generated from one’s own relieving depicts in no small detail the perils of aimless aggression and greedy ambition.

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(Battle of Stalingrad as captured by the State Panorama Museum. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Beevor demonstrates his mastery of the genre of his choosing in every page, every line and in every sentence. ‘Stalingrad’ is the closest one can come to experiencing the horror that was the preserve of millions of young and old men and women who were involuntarily pitted against one another in a frightening war of attrition. The urge to annihilate solely due to the desire of preventing being annihilated portrays the meaningless consequence of unbridled pride and unexplained motives. Cannibalism and consumption of carcasses represented just two of the desperate measures resorted to by the starving German soldiers to ward off the steady and unrelenting advances of the Grim Reaper.

When the dust finally settled and the Commander of the Sixth Army, Friedrich Paulus, finally laid down his arms, the damage caused by the Siege of Stalingrad had become incalculable. In addition to the millions dead and missing, a humongous mass of civilian population of Stalingrad, consisting mainly of women and children were laid to utter waste. Mass destruction of property and razing down industrial establishments left a once imperious city in unrecognizable ruins. However what remained intact and consequently proved indestructible was the indomitable Russian Pride.

A pride that could only be paid homage to by the work of Antony Beevor!

Stalingrad – MONUMENTAL!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 19 ALPHABET S)

The Ash Cauldron

Bereft of pretensions and oblivious to favour or fear

Going about both her work and life in a manner simple and clear

One such path brought her to the place of his toil

Little did he realise that his life would quickly be in turmoil.

Sorting out taxes in the morning with evenings reserved for beers

His existence became an explosive mix of unrestrained laughter and unconstrained tears

As the professional and the personal slowly obliterated a blurring line

He plunged into the circumstances fully knowing it wouldn’t at all be fine.

Elation and Enthusiasm converge to impress

Reality and futility together to depress.

(Word Count: 104)

Courtesy of Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt#102

Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945 – Richard Overy

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Professor Richard Overy in this eye opener, details the gargantuan Soviet effort in amassing men and material, which on hindsight turned out to be the most colossal feat of World War II. From the very brink of humiliating defeat after being taken unawares of the German Blitzkrieg – courtesy Operation Barbarossa – to hoisting the Communist Flag at the Reich stag in Berlin, Russia overcame obstacles of every sort, both natural and man made; posed by friend and foe alike to emerge triumphant in some of the bloodiest battles of attrition. When the fighters and bombers finally stopped their savage sorties and the lumbering monstrous tanks ground to a halt, signaling the end of the greatest incursion of mankind into the depths of folly, the casualties suffered by Stalin’s countrymen were mind numbing. Out of a total mobilized manpower of 34,476,700, 11,444,100 were either dead or were captured as Prisoners Of War or were missing in action. The total number killed in action, or who perished on account of their injuries was 6,885,100. The death toll from 1941-1945 amounted to 8,668,400. An unspeakable price to pay for securing freedom.

Overy by concentrating on the physical as well as the psychological factors motivating the Russian War efforts provides various astounding insights which when read together, brings the reader to the startling and sickening realization that the Russian victory could have been achieved at a much lower loss of life, limb and livelihood. For example the atrocious ‘purges’ following the internal civil war in 1919, where a paranoid administration went about culling ‘suspected’ traitors from the officer corps – not before subjecting them to unspeakable bouts of torture with a view to forcing out ‘confessions’ – ensured that by the time Hitler mounted his rampaging attack on June 22, 1941, the Soviet army was in virtual disarray with a grievous lack of leadership capabilities. These abominable purges continued well into the war and even after the World War itself came to an excruciating end. Having a morbid fear of dying, the despotic Stalin not only had himself surrounded by the dreaded NKVD Security guards, but also had a phalanx of cronies and lackeys, who with an objective of scaling great heights of power, committed treachery and treason against their own brethren.

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(Operation Barbarossa. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Professor Overy also highlights the alarming situation of the Soviet ground and air troops itself at the height of the German invasion. Forced to fight behind feeble emplacements and substandard fortifications, the Russian soldier – or ‘Ivan’ as the Germans were wont to term him – was equipped with outdated rifles and inferior weaponry. Against the clockwork precision of the German army equipped with the dreaded Panzer tanks, these pitiful soldiers had only prayers as their best chance of survival. The Russian Air Force was in an even greater mess. Lacking radio communications and trained/experienced pilots, the Soviet air attacks were literally suicidal missions with their planes seeking to ram into the dreaded Luftwaffe when the former ran out of fuel!

From a position of dire disadvantage, the Soviet Union through a process of remarkable political, economic and military transformation, worked a veritable miracle by bringing forth a level of discipline and sophistication hitherto seen in any Armed forces. Even as Germany was bombing the living daylights out of Russian villages and cities, workers transported entire factories over railroads (or what remained of them) to isolated places in Kazakhstan and Siberia and embarked on a mass production initiative of military stockpile. However the most back breaking labour was extracted at an unfair cost. Most of the toil formed the exclusive preserve of the unfortunate prisoners sentenced to a long tenures at the ‘gulags’ or the despicable labour camps. Sleeping on straw beds or even at times, in holes carved out from earth, these prisoners were driven to work in appalling conditions. Braving temperatures of minus thirty degrees and minuscule food rations, hundreds of thousands of brave men and women literally worked themselves to death. By 1945 the Soviet Armed and Air forces boasted technological prowess that was equal to or in some cases even superior to those possessed by their enemy.

The top political echelons also underwent a positive paradigm shift in mindset. Stalin left the dynamics of strategy in the hands of extraordinarily brave and capable generals such as Georgy Zhukov (the hero of both Stalingrad and Leningrad); Vasily Ivanovic Chuikov, the indomitable general who was wounded four times (each time on the 20th of a month) and yet refused to back down an inch, and Konstantin Konstantinovic Rokossovsky. Even though Stalin insisted on being the ultimate Generalissimo, he rarely interfered in the carefully chalked out battle strategies formulated by his generals. This was in direct contrast to the workings of the sociopath Hitler, who insisted on micro managing every front, a disastrous decision which as psychotic as the man’s ambitions, and which ultimately led to the decimation of the Third Reich.

“Russia’s War” is an essential accompaniment for understanding not only the noble sacrifices made by millions of patriotic men and women who uncomplainingly charged the enemy and laid down their lives for their Motherland, but also to fathom the very depths of human blunders which have the capability of triggering a damning catastrophe! Russia’s War was indeed a consequence of a monumental catastrophe!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 18 ALPHABET R)

Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches by Carlo Ancelotti

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Carlo Ancelotti once said “Football is the most important of the less important things in the world”. However the exploits of the man both as a reliable midfielder and a formidable manager seem to indicate otherwise. Football has been the lifeblood of this Italian great. He has etched an indelible mark in the world of football as a manager of repute, resilience and most importantly – results. As the collection of trophies in his enviable cabinet would demonstrate, there are very few glories that have escape the clutches of this man from Parma. However the most unique thing about him is the way in which he goes about the business of winning. Unlike the expressive Jose Mourinho, or the unpredictable Louis Van Gaal, Ancelotti has a benign and placid approach towards both the game as well as the players. Carlo Ancelotti himself prefers to term this method “The Quiet Leadership”.

In this book, co authored with Mike Forde and Chris Brady, Ancelotti provides a valuable glimpse of the “Quiet Leadership”. Quiet here ought not to be mixed up with docile. As will be evident from a reading of his book, quiet also embodies an element of steel; a determined and uncompromising attitude that is backed up by an encouraging trait of beliefs. This is the kind of leadership that has players singing his paeans long after he has stopped managing them. Players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Alssandro Nesta; Paolo Maldini and David Beckham have contributed their view of Carlo Ancelotti in the book and they all seem to have only fond and blissful memories. The picture portrayed by them is that of a fatherly figure doing his every bit to further their prospects as footballers in general and leaders in particular.

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(Ancelotti celebrating the 2014 Champions League win with Real Madrid. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Ancelotti traces out some of his uncompromising belief sets in the book. A few of them that grab instant attention are respect for fellow footballers/team mates; aligned leadership and tactical leadership, a sense of belongingness and loyalty. Ancelotti also addresses the eccentricities of the various owners of clubs such as Roman Abramovic and Silvio Berlusconi, who not only demand instant results but also force the hand of the coach to instill in the club a sense of style that is dearest to them! The style of play has to be in alignment with the tastes of the owner! A contraction if ever there was one!

Although not a kiss-and-tell or a bare all fare, “Quiet Leadership” is part autobiographical, part technical and part management. Ancelotti proves that a good book on football need not contain tabloid stuff and that every page need not sizzle with sleaze and simmer with controversy involving alcohol and bribery. This book also serves as an inspiration to every young footballer and aspiring leader:

If the son of an ordinary farmer at Parma can elevate himself to such echelons through sheer hard work and perseverance, so can anyone!

“Quiet Leadership” – Conveys a loud and clear message.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 17 ALPHABET Q)

The wait of Mr. Charles Bovary

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(Photo Credit: http://bestanimations.com)

Life is but an agglomeration of unpredictable books. Just when circumstances seem destined to be prosaically in progress, there is hurled a non sequitur straight out of the playbook of profundity. Who better to hold forth on this puzzling concept than the unfortunate Venky. Going about his chores with the tedium and tenacity of Flaubert’s Charles Bovary and the monotony of George Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon, his life was turned topsy-turvy by the unexpected arrival of Ash. It would in fact be inappropriate to use the term ‘arrival’ in the context of this story. “Manifestation” would be the most relevant word. Like a cool breeze that wafts in unheralded, or like a cloud that bursts with neither regard nor reason sending unsuspecting people scrambling for cover, she materialized in front of him on a midsummer’s day.

Like a magnificent reptile shedding its skin, the demure Charles Bovary morphed into a delirious Jay Gatsby. Even Scott Fitzgerald would have been taken aback by the transformation. Mr. Casaubon gave way to Homer’s Paris. She was his visceral Helen and the vicarious Elizabeth Bennet. More than anyone she was his own Beatrice. A Beatrice who left him fending an Inferno all by himself. Waft-in-waft-out; glide-in-glide-out

Meanwhile pages’ flutter…life moves on…. Ash Wednesday makes way to Black Friday…Charles Bovary waits with a sadistic glee and a sarcastic glint to reclaim his uneventful place.

Yes, life is indeed an agglomeration of unpredictable books. There are no good or bad stories. Just endings.

(Word Count: 246)

#TellTaleThursday with Anshu & Priya

For more stories for the week, please click HERE

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable – Seth Godin

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All of us have been indoctrinated into absorbing the various ‘Ps’ of Marketing. In fact, as technology and trends have caught up, moved on, been rendered obsolete, before catching up again in an endless spiral, the number of ‘Ps’ in a marketer’s arsenal has only increased over time. Anyone possessing a basic degree would be able to reel out a majority of the P’s even when abruptly aroused from a slumber – Product, Price, Promotion, Positioning, Publicity…

Seth Godin, the founder and CEO of Squidoo and one of the world’s foremost business bloggers in his book “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable” postulates that every aspiring entrepreneur and marketer should never lose sight of an additional ‘P’ which can make or break a business. This ‘P’ (as many of the readers may have guessed by now) is the ‘Purple Cow.’ Purple Cow is in plain terms, a synonym for remarkable. Hence unless a business can offer something remarkable, there is very little which it can do by way of progress and potential. If this sounds extraordinarily obvious, it is the obvious that is invariably and incredulously ignored. The very essence of remarkability is explained in a remarkable fashion by Mr. Godin:

“When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring. Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring.

 They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still cows.

A Purple Cow though. Now that would be interesting. (For a while.)

The essence of the Purple Cow is that it must be remarkable.”

The essential need for and relevance of a Purple Cow is demonstrated by Mr. Godin as he urges us to take a quick visit to the drugstore. A search for aspirin turns up the following unbelievable array of choices: Advil, Aleve, Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief, Anacin, Ascriptin, Aspergum, Bayer, Bayer’s Children, Bayer’s Regimen, Bayer Women’s, BC, Bufferin, Cope, Ecotrin, Excedrin Extra Strength, Goody’s, Motrin, Nuprin, St Joseph, Tylenol and Vanquish“Imagine how much fun it must have been to be the first person to market aspirin. Here was a product that just about every person on earth needed and wanted. A product that was inexpensive, easy to try, and immediately beneficial.”

Thus, run-of-the-mill is passe. Mr. Godin asserts that we are living through revolutionary times where “the TV-industrial complex” phenomenon fails to deliver. This phenomenon represented, “the symbiotic relationship between consumer demand, TV advertising, and ever-growing companies that were built around investments in ever-increasing marketing expenditures.”  Mr. Godin believes that companies would do well to experiment with inviting their potential and existing customers to alter their behavior thereby making the company’s offerings work exponentially better instead of sticking with the tried tested and clichéd formula of tinkering with technology and expertise to tailor make ‘better’ products. A classic case in point: Otis Elevators“When you approach the elevators, you key in your floor on a centralized control panel. In return the panel tells you which elevator will take you to your floor. Otis has managed to turn every elevator into an express. Your elevator takes you immediately to the twelfth floor and races back to the lobby. This means that buildings can be taller, they need fewer elevators for a given number of people, the wait is shorter, and the building can use precious space for people, not for elevators.”

So how does one go about being remarkable? One of the suggested means is by resorting to specialized, targeted or niche marketing. Instead of trying to – and futilely so – impressing an entire market, a company ought to strategically appeal to a small percentage of “Early Adopters”. These are the mavericks, heretics, lateral thinking ‘nuts’ possessing the necessary wherewithal to not only experiment and evaluate a future “Purple Cow” but also disseminate its utility across the market. If impressed the Early Adopters may well be the vehicles of “free advertising” (Mr. Godin calls them sneezers) for the brand: this act will in turn influence the major constituents of the market (“Early and Late Majority”).

Mr. Godin draws our attention to the fact that points out that 80% of the 30 newest entrants to Interbrand’s top 100 brand list attained their repute and rewards more due to word of mouth campaigns rather than the power of advertising. Super star brands such as IKEA, Starbucks, SAP, Krispy Kreme, Jet Blue, Google are a few examples.

Once the creation of a “Purple Cow” has yielded benefits, there is however, a real danger that a company might just being coasting along in a sea of complacency. This dangerous trend needs to be nipped in the bud. “Once you’ve managed to create something truly remarkable, the challenge is to do two things simultaneously:

  1. Milk the Cow for everything it’s worth.
  2. Create an environment where you are likely to invent a new Purple Cow in time to replace the first one when its benefits inevitably trail off.”

Purple Cow is Mr. Godin’s timely warning to companies urging them to shed to cobwebs of complacency and instead think seriously about reinventing, repurposing and repositioning themselves before their customers. A right step in this direction would be a transformation from the unremarkable to a “Purple Cow.”

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 16 ALPHABET P)

Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat

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Reading more like a hyper extension of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” than an introduction to an explosion of technology, James Barrat’s “Our Final Invention”, brings us face to face with the alarmingly potential consequences of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) gone uncontrolled. Banking on materials collected from interviews with scientists, pioneers in robotics, chief technology officers of AI companies and technical advisors for classified Department of Defense initiatives, Barrat coalesces a primer of gloom and doom. Warning the reader of an impending doom, Barrat proclaims, “I spoke with…….trying to create human-level artificial intelligence, which will have countless applications, and will fundamentally alter our existence (if it doesn’t end it first)”.

James Barrat is THE anathema to the optimism of a Ray Kurzweil. But as is apparent from a reading of his book, the claims made by him are neither uncorroborated chunks of lofty nonsense nor the figment of an outlandish imagination that is the outcome of the ramblings of a prophet of doom. Proponents of AI who are convinced that mankind is on the verge of experiencing “Singularity” (a stage where AI will transcend from the stage of Artificial General Intelligence (matching human intelligence) to Artificial Super Intelligence (transcending human intelligence by manifold degrees)) give Barrat a headache in perpetuity. Pulling all possible punches, Barrat takes pains to adumbrate the fact that ASI instead of being the embodiment of an agglomeration of sentient notions, will be a scheming, sinister, surgical monster of intelligence having both the potential and inclination to wipe humanity off the face of Planet Earth. The force of self-perpetuation inbuilt in a machine with ASI, will be in a position to “repurpose the world’s molecules using nanotechnology” thereby leading to “ecophagy” – eating the environment. “Through it all, the ASI would bear no ill will toward humans nor love. It wouldn’t feel nostalgia as out molecules were painfully repurposed”. This clinical, dispassionate probability of impersonal destruction sends an eerie chill down the spine of the reader.

While Barrat is left to ruminate the existential crisis that is a direct offshoot of the burgeoning improvements in AI, progress in this domain continues to be made at a rampaging pace. Barrat gives examples of organisations such as Google, Cycorp, Novamente, Numenta, Self Aware Systems, Vicarious Systems, and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) not to mention a whole slew of covertly funded stealth companies which are optimistic about attaining human level intelligence within a little more than a decade.

At the core and crux of the intelligence explosion of an AI lie four primordial drives in the words of Barrat: efficiency; self-preservation; resource acquisition and creativity. These are the four principal and critical drives that ensure that AI attains its objectives and preserves its existence. “The AI backs into these drives, because without them it would blunder from one-resource-wasting mistake to another”. For fulfilling these basic drives an AI or an ASI whose intelligence will be exponentially sharper and greater than that of the most intelligent human being on earth, will stop at nothing including acts of annihilation. Pioneers of AI and robotics, while choosing to play deaf to impassioned pleas of skeptics and preferring to hurl a blind eye to the attendant perils of AI, underpin their faith in the three laws of robotics immortalized by the science fiction writer Issac Asimov. Asimov’s three laws state:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But as Barrat poignantly points out unless an AI is programmed with a sweeping notion of friendliness and retains the same at the time of its intelligent explosion from AGI to ASI, these laws remain exactly what they are – a brilliant concoction of stupendous fiction. Moreover an ASI that is infinitely more intelligent than a human being will have no reservations while transmogrifying into a manipulative machine of death and destruction.

Employing AI to showcase its power to win chess games against world champions or to display a level of dexterity hitherto unimagined to win contests at ‘Jeopardy!’ is far removed from expecting ASI to play God. The God in the Machine that would emerge at the other end of the intelligence spectrum might be frighteningly indistinguishable from an unpredictable Ghost in the Machine. Mankind might be unwittingly finding itself in the proverbial grip of a Faustian bargain.

Ray Kurzweil, arguably one of the founding fathers of AI and the undisputed doyen of his domain developed his Law of Accelerating Returns (“LOAR”) to describe the evolution of any process in which patterns of information evolve. Kurzweil’s LOAR is expected to bring manifold returns upon its application to AI, including – yes you read it right – immortality. However a more sedate and sobering view is preferred by authors such as Jaron Lanier of “You are not a Gadget. A Manifesto” fame. He and psychiatrists such as Elias Aboujaoude warn about the weakening of character and individuality which are the direct results of an immersion in technology.

However, a paradoxical quote – by the egregious Kurzweil himself – with which Barrat chooses to open the final Chapter of hi book before closing the lid on AI has the last word:

“Machines will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond humans’ ability to control or even understand them”.

In the meantime we as inhabitants of the only Planet that we have the privilege to call home, can only hope and believe that in the near future, we are not reduced to being helpless and hapless experimental beings oblivious to the dance macabre that is the preserve of a devious laboratory worked by AI, AGI, ASI or any other acronym that expands to mean the arrival of doom.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 15 ALPHABET O)