You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change – Eric Liu

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The recent imposition of trade tariffs by an obstinate Trump administration and the reciprocating adverse measures announced by his Mexican and Canadian counterparts (with the EU sure to soon follow suit) has not only triggered a global concern about an impending trade war but has also set off a panic whose potential backlash could be to say the least ominous. While the whole world seems to be prepared to engage in a deadly ‘who blinks first’ game of attrition, Mr. Eric Liu’s new book, “You’re More Powerful Than You Think”, (“the Book”), could not have made a timelier appearance.

We, as citizens of the world have been brought up with an entrenched belief that governance represents power or even vice versa. The conviction that the governed have been bestowed with as much power – if not more – as is in the possession of the governing has never either bit us hard or raked our conscience. This deliberate ignorance, nay, resignation has led to social, cultural, economic and even structural imbalances which are now taken as a given. The startling fact that the eight richest men in the world have a combined wealth equal to that owned by the entire lower half of the prosperity pyramid, is not startling anymore! The ludicrous fact that a country trumpeting itself as the world’s oldest democracy proceeds to elect a bigot and an unscrupulous loose cannon as their President, ceases to be ludicrous! However, as Mr. Liu painstakingly and inspiringly elucidates in his book, there is no reason for the world to wallow in or stew over this dreaded status quo. A clear understanding of both the prevailing power structure and its mores, combined with a channeling of the immense potential to generate power from within, would lead to a thorough dismantling of the top down structure that has for its foundation the dreaded principles of ‘trickle-down economics and effects’. The replacement will be a true representative mix that gives voice to reason, justice and common sense.

In order to usher in such a paradigmatic shift, Mr. Liu emphasizes that at the very outset it is essential to comprehend what he proposes are the three Laws of Power:
“First power concentrates. That is, it feeds on itself and compounds (as does powerlessness)
Second, power justifies itself. People invent stories to legitimize the power they have (or lack).
Third, power is infinite. There is no inherent limit on the amount of power people can create.”
While the first two laws are self-perpetuating mechanisms that justify and even glorify the ascendancy of the haves over the have nots, and turns a blind eye towards the oppressive tactics followed by the wielders of power, the third law is the antidote for the first two venomous laws. The third law legitimizes the genuine potential of the people to organize, commune, congregate, act and to achieve results.

Mr. Liu also identifies nine solid strategies employing which unequal and intemperate power structures may be turned upside down. These strategies advocate neither violence not reprisals, but serve as a testimony to human endurance and resolution. A blend of empirical approaches and tactical successes, these strategies range from the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (“OODA”) loop developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd to the communitywide work stoppages, hunger strikes and mass marches organized by the tomato harvesters of Immokalee fighting for fair wages. One quintessential attribute that binds all the strategies postulated by Mr. Liu together, is one of organizing. When each one of us recognizes that the sum of our parts at times may be greater than the whole, the resulting synergies can have devastating impacts on the unsuspecting and complacent characters sitting at the top of the pedestal. As Mr. Liu writes, “the powerful, meanwhile, don’t particularly attend to the lives or minds of the powerless because they assume they don’t have to”.

At the heart of the nine strategies are the imperatives to:

1. Change the game;

2. Change the story; and

3. Change the equation

For facilitating an accomplishment of each one of the above core concepts, Mr. Liu provides a set of clear, practical and easy to implement pathways that entail the expending of concerted effort rather than monetary resources. We can trust Mr. Liu at his words since being the Founder and CEO of Citizen University and also donning the role of an Executive Director at the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program has ensured that he has put most of what he preaches into concrete, tangible and fruitful practice.

At a time when the whole world is enveloped in a state of uncertain flux in terms of paradoxical developments – burgeoning GDP growth in the West v exacerbated poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa; stunning developments in Artificial Intelligence v disturbing statistics regarding rising unemployment; uniformly improving living standards for all v racial incarceration of youth and children – there is an urgent need for every like-minded and reform oriented individual to punch above herself and rise beyond the petty and unacceptable set of bias involving religion, race, colour, caste, sex, creed and sexual orientation. This is the only hope that the world has.

As a start, one would do brilliant to pick up a copy of “You’re More Powerful Than You Think” – for surely we all are!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 25 ALPHABET Y)

X-Files: The Whirlwind – Charles Grant

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New Mexico is flummoxed and ravaged by a sequence of grisly murders. While no motives seemingly can be ascribed to the killings, there is no semblance of doubting the intent. Pure, cold, and terrifying sadism. Every helpless victim is skinned even before he/she is dead. The killer seems to have a sense of clinical impartiality. This unbiased attitude takes within its ambit men, women and even cattle!

As is the inevitable, the case files get transferred to Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The two intrepid agents put their heads together to prise out some clues that might assist in at least deriving a logic for  what seems to be an absolute conundrum. For one all these encounters seem to have had their location, the areas surrounding the Konochine reserve of Sangre Viento – also known as Blood Wind.

Scully and Mulder also, during the course of their digging, get enlightened about the uncanny, uncommon and unseen rituals that is the preserve of Native Americans living in seclusion. Can this be the key to unlocking the mystery?  This is what “The Whirlwind” proposes to tackle. The book moves at a brisk and steady pace and keeps the reader engaged. However it becomes very staid and prosaic and also lends an element of predictability in so far as the plot is concerned.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 24 ALPHABET X)

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lewis Galantière (Translator)

Exupery

Winner of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is universally acknowledged as one of the most popular books on flying. However to cloister this indispensable Palmarium within the narrow confines of aviation would tantamount to causing absolute injustice, for Exupery’s work is a book on courage, confidence, catharsis and above all a memorable exploration of the very essence of being alive.

In 1926, Antoine de Saint-Exupery enrolled himself as a student airline pilot with the Latecoere Company, the pre-cursor to Aeropostale (now Air France). He was entrusted with the operation of the line between Tolouse in Southwestern France, and Dakar, in then French West Africa. Exupery chronicles in precise detail and perfect verve, his experiences as an airline pilot responsible for carrying passengers and air mail over skies that are at times benevolent and at others brooding; over mountains that are at once malevolent and magnificent and over landscapes barren and breathtaking. Exupery’s respect and reverence for the predictable performance of his craft as well as the unpredictable behavior of the elements of Nature forms the crux and core of the book. Even when being buffeted against raging storm winds and being tossed around in his flight like a ragged doll, Exupery neither traduces the gale force winds nor tamely surrenders to its treacherous demands. He just flies his conveyance in a matter of fact manner riding what he views as a temporary discomfiture – an elongated hiccup almost!

Exupery during the course of his tryst with the Latecoere Company was exposed not only to awe inspiring wonders of nature but also to the anguish and agony of humanity. These were the times when slavery was still an acceptable societal more and the story of a slave commonly known as Bark who was until his paid release (courtesy of Exupery and his friends magnanimity) in the captivity of the nomadic Moors, makes for some introspective, beautiful and rejoicing reading. Freedom we understand is not merely the release from physical chains but the very unshackling of a desolate soul struggling to find its deserved place under the rays of a bright and radiant sun.

Exupery instills in the reader an encouraging faith in humanity and a perennial belief in hope by recounting his near death experience following a crash that found Exupery and his navigator Prevot in the middle of a vast and scorching African desert. Lack of water and food, exhaustion, the outcome of mindless wandering, myriad mirages, a combination of heat and hunger, all but made certain that the two aviators would soon mingle in body, soul and spirit with the sands of the desert in the perennial sleep of life. The miraculous appearance of two inquisitive Bedouins however ensured that the contrivance of fate had kept the Grim Reaper at bay.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a book of hope, humility and humanity. It is a tribute to the ceaseless symbiosis between Man and Nature; life and death; and agony and ecstasy. It is Exupery’s amazement at both the constructive and destructive facets of mankind, as what has been painstakingly nurtured by a pair of hands comes for some wanton destruction by yet another pair of identical hands. It is a precious lesson for all homo sapiens to view with benediction what they have been bestowed with – a chance opportunity to experience life in a wide expanse termed Planet Earth.

On the 31st of July, 1944, Antoine de Saint Exupery took off in an unarmed P-38 on his ninth reconnaissance mission from an airbase on Corsica. To the great consternation of the squadron compatriots who revered him, he did not return, dramatically vanishing without a trace. The wind, sand and stars which was so dear to this magnificent literary genius had claimed him for their own deciding that he was now for and of the elements. Exupery met his end doing what he loved doing the most – sailing serenely, with the skies above, the sea below and the wind all around him for tranquil company. But not before imparting to us a few invaluable, indelible and inextinguishable tenets of life.

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 23 ALPHABET W)

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

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Written by Evelyn Waugh in 1930, “Vile Bodies” is a scathing indictment of a decadent society that ran amok in London during the intervening period between the two World Wars. The excesses indulged in by the ‘bright young’ (as Waugh prefers to address the boisterous and raucous youth) ranged from various bouts of inebriation to profligate employment of resources. Evelyn Waugh’s stunningly sarcastic style cock snooks at this derisive bunch of ‘Vile Bodies’ who go about their revelry in a completely indifferent and unfettered manner.

Adam Fenwick-Symes is a struggling young novelist who aspires to attain fame and fortune with the publication of his autobiography. His dreams however literally go up in flames as subsequent to a tormenting boat ride to Dover, an asinine Customs Officer burns his final manuscript on the grounds of it containing incendiary material unsuitable for the palate of the English populace. To make matters more complicated, Adam is hopelessly in love with an inveterate socialite Nina Blount, the charming daughter of the forgetful Colonel Blount. Adam’s marriage with Nina depends upon Adam ascending the ladder of affluence sooner rather than later. How Adam goes about this seemingly impossible proposition forms a bulk of this laugh riot.

The frenzied procession of eccentric characters is sure to leave the reader in fits of unhinged laughter; the imposing evangelist Mrs.Melrose Ape and her retinue of girls named Chastity; Discontent; Fortitude etc. the tragically comic Agatha Runcible; a bevy of party animals all entertained by the ever obliging Ms.Lottie all coalesce to create a magnificent mayhem of chaos, confusion and cacophony. Every page is soaked with irreverent wit which at first proceeds to highlight before thoroughly demolishing the notions of impudent vanity. The fact that Evelyn Waugh was himself going through a bout of contrasting emotions (as revealed by himself in the preface to the book) is starkly evident from a reading of his work as the plot is a cleaved creation of two halves. What begins as a rib-tickler transforms into an apogee of apocalyptic tribute to greed, vanity and pretentiousness.

Waugh dazzles with his extraordinary style of narration and impeccable sense of humour. The telephone conversations between Adam and Nina, forming part of a few passages in the book are a veritable work of unrivaled art. The struggles of the Vile Bodies as they desperately try to confine themselves within an elusive moral compass, only to fail and plunge themselves willingly into a whorl of decadence is captured with breathtaking clarity by Evelyn Waugh. Although “Vile Bodies” does not join Waugh’s “Scoop”; “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” as 3 of the 100 greatest works of the Century, it’s absence is more of an aberration than a deliberate excision. For this is a book that deserves to read, re-read and guffawed over until one’s jaws ache with the effort!

Unguarded: My Autobiography by Jonathan Trott with George Dobell

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While some autobiographies constitute an exercise in monotonous trumpeting of the self, there are some that traverse the path of introspection. However rare are the ones that lend a clear perspective regarding life itself. Jonathan Trott and George Dobell have successfully written a book, which, although primarily revolves around the game of cricket, transcends the sporting arena, to touch a raw and uncompromising nerve. The confluence of sport and mental pressure is a subject that has unfortunately and undeservedly not received the coverage and visibility that it deserves. The assiduousness of Marcus Trescothik’s moving autobiography being an outstanding exception. Trott and Dobell however have taken a huge step in the right direction with “Unguarded”.

For a substantial period of time, Jonathan Trott was the undisputed spine of the English batting line up, shoring responsibilities galore. He blunted many a fierce bowling attack, standing firm like a Colossus at the batting crease. Trott was a veritable mendicant unaffected by either cause or consequence and unmoved by neither circumstance nor calamity. He was the perfect ascetic amongst batsmen, whose concentration remained firmly cloistered between the 22 yards that was his home and his possessed turf. When this formidable monk however lost his preternatural Mojo in the year 2013 in an Ashes series Down Under, things turned ugly. Serene calmness metamorphosed into roiling confusion and the art of batting was but an architecture collapsing without reason. Within two years Jonathan Trott’s international career was done and dusted. What was it that led to this extraordinary tumble from a pinnacle that was scaled with patience, purpose and perseverance?

(Jonathan Trott’s sublime Boxing Day Test ton at Melbourne in 2010. Courtesy: You Tube)

Trott and Dobell tackle the reasons underlying the downfall of Jonathan Trott as a batsman head on without mincing words or professing a litany of excuses. In the process, they demonstrate with clarity and lucidity the fact that while cricket or any other chosen career may be for a livelihood, it need not be for life. Trott’s debilitating state of mind and progressive deterioration for the love of the game reveals more than what meets the eye. It also serves as a clarion call for all those involved in the game, players, management and the pundits alike to sit up and take note of an indispensable facet which although seeming extraneous to the game is a integral part of the very heart of the sport. The authors elucidate the pompous and impetuous manner in which the words “mental make-up” is used to describe alternatively the success and failure of a cricketer instead of trying to understand the emotional state of mind of the man behind a helmet or a player rushing into the popping crease with a cherry. The nonexistence of a support infrastructure that fails to initially recognize player anxiety and consequently to treat the same with care and caution has led to the pristine game of cricket treading dangerous grounds.

The courage displayed by Jonathan Trott in bringing his sordid story to the whole world is to put it mildly, exemplary. While he might not have achieved the heights which the whole cricketing world expected him to achieve as a world renowned Number 3, he has certainly distinguished himself from being a mere cricketer to an extraordinary human being. In this he has succeeded beyond all imaginable measures. On a personal note, “Unguarded” landed in my hands only a couple of days after I met with a horrific automobile accident. The taxi by which I was travelling with a couple of colleagues (and driven by a particularly reckless driver) crashed head on into an oncoming vehicle leaving me with a shattered femur, dislocation and compound fractures of the hip. Six hours of emergency surgery later, I lay in bed with aching limbs and creaking bones or rather broken ones. Only a book could have diverted the focus off the pain and it was Trott’s biography that I resorted to. Where I was seeking relief, I got succor and where I was seeking sympathy (involuntarily) I received a morale boosting dose of strength. More than everything else I clearly realized the full import of the word – perspective.

For this I thank Jonathan Trott and George Dobell!

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 21 ALPHABET U)

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations – Thomas L. Friedman

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Just as I was coursing through the final two Chapters of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, a brazen group of white supremacists engaged in a violent clash with nationalists in Charlotsville V.A in the United States. Nazi salutes and Ku Klux Klan tenets strode side by side as bigotry, hatred and discrimination raised their ugly heads. The whole charade finally culminated, but not before a demented driver ploughed his car into the banks of protesters killing one. It also did not help that an inherently abrasive and innately abusive President issued a note of condemnation that was extraordinarily reluctant and barely perceptible.

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(White Nationalists marching in Charlotsville. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

There could not have been a more vivid contrast between the values espoused by Friedman in his book and the causes which the protestors in Charlotsville were so unashamedly saturated with. While Friedman calls for inclusivity, embracing diversity and a collegial relationship between the State and its citizens, the white supremacists of Charlotsville demanded racial segregation, discrimination and a bigoted division based on caste, creed, colour and country. This paradigmatic clash of contradictions reflects in no small manner the crossroads at which the world finds itself in this 21st Century. It is this very fork to the end of which Friedman takes us in his very important book.

In this part memoir, part introspection, Friedman identifies three major forces that are currently accelerating and consequently shaping the contours of how an inextricably connected humanity thinks and acts. These three contending and cascading forces are Moore’s Law, Markets and Mother Nature.

While technology has taken quantum leaps with significant breakthroughs littering and embellishing the realms of Artificial Intelligence and Genome mapping, it has also percolated top down empowering every individual desirous of being so empowered. In Friedman’s words, technology is now “fast, free and ubiquitous” and also “fast, free, easy for you and invisible”. When Gordon Moore first formulated his now ubiquitous law – doubling the power of microchips every two years but at a lower cost – it sounded an incredulous proposition. However as Friedman points out: “if you took Intel’s first generation microchip from 1971, the 4004, and the latest chip Intel has on the market today, the sixth generation Intel Core processor, you will see that Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient, and is about 60,000 times lower in cost”.

The Accelerating Moore’s Law also creates a ripple effect on the markets. Using high fibre optic cables, traders now compete for advantages that are measured in nano seconds as millions are made or lost depending upon the vagaries of technology. A rogue trader sitting in London can manipulate the stocks and futures indices functioning thousands of miles away in Chicago or New York and instigate an episode of dances macabres.

Finally the accelerating technology and markets have a colossal impact on Mother Nature as her occupants exploit mercilessly her finite resources in the name of development. Friedman relies on the words of the London based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan who describes global warming as a “black elephant”. According to Sweidan, a black elephant “is a cross between a black swan – a rare, low probability, unanticipated event with enormous ramifications – and the elephant in the room: a problem that is widely visible to everyone, yet that no one wants to address, even though we absolutely know that one day it will have vast black swam like consequences”
After describing these three unavoidable forces of change, Friedman mulls over the challenges faced by mankind in adapting to this change. The time taken for adapting oneself to such a change is inversely proportional to the speed at which the change itself is being unleashed upon us. Friedman is of the opinion that for the consequences of a new technology to be completely absorbed by the users it would take at least 15 years from the advent of such a technology. But by the time the consequences are deciphered the technology would have ceased to become relevant, being swallowed up by an even newer and enhanced version. Thus adaptability will always be in a catch up mode!

In the second half of the book, Friedman proposes a few nuggets of prescriptive wisdom by which we can not only withstand the accelerating change but also exploit it to make the world a much better, simpler and amicable place to live in. He takes us to his childhood and growing up years in St Louise Park in Minnesota where there was fostered a culture of openness, amiability, cordiality, compassion, equality and acceptance. Banking on an African adage which states that ‘it takes a village to bring up a child’, Friedman passionately makes a case for communities to imbibe responsibility and assume the role of change agents. Using a mixture of top down and bottom up approaches, ordinary citizens and policy makers need to work in tandem to ensure that issues of raging importance such as education, infrastructure and gender equality are given the right degree of attention that they so desperately and richly deserve.

If at all I have any reservations about Friedman’s fantastic book, it is that it is too very inclusive. Although a citizen of the world in its truest and pure sense, I get this unassailable feeling that “Thank You For Being Late” is more for The United States of America in exclusion to the rest of the world. Since the changes of acceleration equally impact every corner of the globe (in some regions the impact is materially greater than that faced by America), I would have expected Friedan to offer a holistic and global perspective.

Then again with a vicious, unthinking, deranged and demented demagogue now at the helm of affairs in the United States, it is the citizens of this world super power who are in dire need of Friedman’s prescriptions. Meanwhile the Neo Nazis still carry on uninhibited expecting to TRUMP….

(Written as part of the Blogchatter’s A2Z Challenge) – PART 20 ALPHABET T)

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)