Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us – Seth Godin

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Long before Googleplex tickled the febrile imagination of a techno-cult, a man calling himself a ‘Maverick’, instituted a set of pyretic work practices that made the global corporate culture sit up and watch. It also upended the conventional, taken-for-granted, staid run-of-the-mill approaches to work. Ricardo Semler, the CEO and majority owner of Semco Partners, a Brazilian company, saw revenues under his ownership surge from US$4 million in 1982 to US$ 212 million in 2003. This was made possible, amongst others, due to a set of revolutionary work practices which set Semco apart from the rest. Workers’ share of profits was increased to 39%, management salaries were cut by 40% and employees were given the right to approve every item of expenditure. In Semler’s own words, “At Semco we did away with strictures that dictate the “hows” and created fertile soil for differences. We gave people an opportunity to test, question, and disagree. We let them determine their own futures. We let them come and go as they wanted, work at home if they wished, set their own salaries, choose their own bosses. We let them change their minds and ours, prove us wrong when we are wrong, make us humbler. Such a system relishes change, which is the only antidote to the corporate brainwashing that has consigned giant businesses with brilliant pasts to uncertain futures.”

In his best-seller, “Tribes”, Seth Godin, the founder and CEO of Squidoo and one of the world’s foremost business bloggers, talks about ‘heretics’, such as Semler who not only act as catalysts of change but also inspire an entire ‘clan’ of followers. In other words, these prophets of radical reforms lead their own “Tribes.” A tribe is simply, “any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea. For millions of years, humans have sought out tribes, be they religious, ethnic, economic, political, or even musical. It’s our nature.” With an explosion of technology and a dramatic reduction in the cost of computing,  a majority of the global populace not only has access to an astounding gamut of information, but also the tools required to transform the users into heretics and leaders. In other words, one can have her own “tribe.” As Mr. Godin points out, from the prolific Joel Spolsky who has altered the domain of software programming to the Grateful Dead, who have toppled received wisdom hitherto treated as gospel in the music industry on its head, harbingers of change and their faithful tribes are all around us. The prosaic methodologies which held employees and managers in a fell clutch of manuals, best practices and sacrosanct rituals are now being challenged and dangerously so by a new breed of principles that brook neither fear nor favour. This invasion of intruders is changing the world of work and leisure. “Stability is an Illusion” says Mr. Godin. “” Established 1906” used to be important. Now apparently it’s a liability.”

The standing of the heretics has undergone a sea change. “They burn heretics at the stage. They also drown them, denounce them, ignore them and hang them from the rafters. …. None of that is true anymore. Now we invite heretics to Davos. Heretics get elected to Congress. Heretics make a fortune when their companies go public. Heretics not only love their jobs; they get a private jet too.”

Drawing the readers’ attention to the work of Jerry and Monique Sternin in helping starving children, Mr. Godin emphasies on what he terms “the most important practical idea in his entire book.” “Find leaders (the heretics who are doing things differently and making change), and then amplify their work, give them a platform, and help them find followers – and things get better. They always get better.”  How does a leader go about accumulating and improving his tribe? Over to Mr. Godin: “…it takes only two things to turn a group of people into a tribe:

  • A shared interest
  • A way to communicate

The communication can be one of four kinds:

  • Leader to tribe;
  • Tribe to leader;
  • Tribe member to tribe member;
  • Tribe member to outsider

A classic example of communication nurturing tribes is the medium of Twitter. In a short burst of 280 characters, one can subtly, succinctly and strongly convey one’s intentions and since the medium being online real time the message spreads like wildfire – literally – and before one can say “Amen”, one has a million doting and eager ‘disciples’ looking up to the originator of the tweet for guidance and advice. Mr. Godin strongly urges all of us to avoid what he calls, “Sheepwalking.” Sleepwalking, “is the outcome of hiring people who have been raised to be obedient and giving them brain-dead jobs and enough fear to keep them in line.”

Is there a particular number that forms a traction for the tribe of a leader to bloom fully? Mr. Godin explains that a leader does not actually need many follower fans as long as he she can engage and interact with the ones following her. It could be less than a dozen or a few hundred. Some of us would love to lead millions but would probably settle for 1000. In this Mr. Godin derives inspiration from Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired. As Mr. Godin writes on his own blog, ““Some people will read this and immediately understand. Others will read it and start waffling over the meaning of “true.” My expansion: you need to alter what you do and how you do it so that 1,000 true fans is sufficient to make you very happy.””

Before concluding, Mr. Godin goes on to identify what he argues as constituting “the elements of leadership:”

  • Leaders challenge the status quo;
  • Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture;
  • Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they are trying to change;
  • Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers;
  • Leaders communicate their vision of the future;
  • Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment;
  • Leaders connect their followers to one another

Jacqueline Novogratz, Gary Vaynerchuck, Mich Matthews, Thomas Barnett, Niklas Zennstrom, the founders of Lulu.com and Scott Beale all stand out because they dared to dream. They refused to be cowed down by intrinsic doubts and external fears and proceeded to live according to the dictum laid down by them. This made them leaders with a fanatical base of tribes.

As Mr. Godin reiterates each one of us have the potential to become a leader just as the ones referred to above. And yes, with our own tribes!

Notes On A Nervous Planet – Matt Haig


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On a short and impromptu holiday in early 2017, I found myself in a non-decrepit ‘budget’ hotel in Seoul. Flanked by a row of convenience stores to its left and a gleaming new plastic & cosmetic surgery centre to its right, the hotel was a constricted cubbyhole of rooms which seemed to bend upon themselves and shrink to such an impossible size that their physical dimensions ended even before they began. A row of sophisticated looking and exorbitantly priced watering holes lined the alleys behind the hotel. However, what came as a shock to me was the fact that this cramped, claustrophobic and constrained hotel also doubled up as the convalescence centre of choice for all those patients who had procedures performed upon their bodies in the neighbouring Cosmetic surgery centre. This delayed and accidental realization led me sharing the lobby, elevator and smoking rooms with a whole horde of modern day mummies. Aquiline figures with their breasts tightly bandaged in rolls of white, curvaceous beauties with entire faces (with the exception of the eyes) swathed in bandages and in some extreme cases, Barbie-like artificial looking beauties being wheeled in on account of their entire visage being enveloped tightly by the same pristine bandages in white. A steep price to pay indeed for altering what was bestowed upon by both genetics and habit.

In his new riveting and introspective bestseller “Notes From A Nervous Planet”, Matt Haig in a freewheeling manner, refreshingly brings to our attention the changing priorities necessitated by a fast moving, technology immersed world and the attendant challenges, physical, mental and spiritual. Mr. Haig should know, having overcome a debilitating bout of depression and anxiety himself – the subject of his previous bestseller, ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’.  In an unstructured but eminently readable manner, Mr. Haig details the perils, pressures and predilections assailing us and provides a few practical solutions to retain our sanity. “I am trying to write about the messiness of the world and the messiness of minds by writing a deliberately messy book,” asserts Mr. Haig conceding the unstructured format of his book. And yes, it is messy. Jumping from one topic to another unrelated one, Mr. Haig goes about like a metaphorical whirlwind upending the conventional and uprooting the conventional.

The array of subjects covered in the book is vast. Ranging from a dangerous addiction to smartphones to a sobering realization that a lack of sleep has now become a steeply niggling issue, Mr. Haig tries to tackle each of these issues by offering unvarnished, raw and candid examples relating to his own experience. For instance, a panic attack which rendered him helpless, cowering and blabbering in the centre of the hustle and bustle of a supermarket, provides an enlightening insight into the insidious workings of a depressed mind. For people who are beyond the remit of such unfortunate episodes – fortunately – such attacks might be shrugged away as more a mental ailment than a more complicated physiological disorder which it actually is. “In writing this book I have tried to look at the human psychological cost of the world by looking at the only psychology I truly know—my own,” I have written about how we as individuals can try to stay sane within a maddening world. The fact that I have had mental illness, though a nightmare in reality, has educated me on the various triggers and torments of the modern world.”

We are inhabiting a world where our bodies and minds are held to ransom by greedy and unsparing marketers. We have become walking billboards and wafting endorsements. From the lure of enhancing beauty to the promise of embellishing fairness, humanity keeps leaping from bleach to botox. An irresistible urge to possess sculpted abs and seraphic looks ensures that we unwittingly play right into the hands of these unscrupulous marketers who employ the “FUD” technique to exacerbate our gullibility.

Standing for fear, uncertainty and doubt, ‘FUD’ is a tried and tested method used in sales and marketing to dissuade customers from buying competing products and solutions by providing information that triggers fear and uncertainty, or sows seeds of doubt, about current customer thinking.

Things that may be suggested include:

  • That competing products are problematic.
  • That competitors have operational problems.
  • That promised competing products will not be delivered as suggested.
  • That competitor companies are financially unstable.

So what is the way out of this confusing spiral of competing products, confusing priorities, contrary choices and chaotic living? Are we doomed to spend the rest of our lives like a mouse on a hamster wheel? Or is there a faint stirring of hope?

Mr. Haig’s solutions range from the simple to the systematic. Suggesting a mix of conscious breathing techniques, meditation, walks in nature, etc. Mr. Haig also proposes activities that are simple and not requiring the expending of rigorous efforts. Reading books is one such prescribed activity. Some of the notable physical and psychological remedies offered by Mr. Haig include:

“Accept yourself. If you can’t be happy as yourself, at least accept yourself as you are right now. You can’t change yourself if you don’t know yourself.”;

Find a good book. And sit down and read it. There will be times in your life when you’ll feel lost and confused. The way back to yourself is through reading. I want you to remember that. The more you read, the more you will know how to find your way through those difficult times;

Enjoy the internet. Don’t use it when you aren’t enjoying it. (Nothing has sounded so easy and been so hard);

As Yoda nearly put it, you can’t try to be. Trying is the opposite of being;

Shop less;

Don’t try to pin yourself down. Don’t try to understand once and for all, who you are. As the philosopher Alan Watts said, ‘trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.’

Overcome by depression and anxiety, Mr. Haig almost hurled himself off a verdant cliff off the coast of Ibiza. It is a miracle that not only did he dissuade himself from such a catastrophe but now he is striving his best to prevent a multitude from resorting to such a tragic endeavor.

A ‘Sparkling’ Wisdom

(Portmeirion Village, Wales | Google Maps)

“A white cone to the left, and a bushy plant in the middle, a bushy plant to the left and a white cone in the middle…” Sparkles’ tone now resembled more an incantation than an assertion. Parveen looked down with a mixture of both pride and love at her three-year-old nephew. Sparkles, of course was not his name. However every time the child smiled in undisguised delight, his perfectly symmetrical set of teeth (or whatever he happened to have) almost had a surreal glint.

He was right, thought Parveen. Children had this uncanny ability to decode the complexities of life. Life was a beautiful pendulum just like the cones & the plants. “Agony to the left; Euphoria in between; Despair to the left; delight in between.” It was so elementary yet so profound.

Parveen, bent down kissed Sparkles’ forehead & whispered, “Love you sparkles.”

“Love you too Aunty!”

(Word Count: 149)

This has been an edition of What Pegman Saw

For the complete list of entries, please click HERE

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable


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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.”

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick)

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If there is one common tenet that has been drummed into our heads with such sustained vigour and frequency, it is certainly the one that exhorts us “NEVER” to “QUIT.” Phrases such as “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, and “Winners ever Quit”, are so commonplace that their employ has transcended beyond the use into unfortunate abuse. Thus, in this cliché laden environment, it is easy to get muddled and thereby miss the woods for the trees. Are we never supposed to keep ploughing on in spite of knowing that the desired result is only an wishful fantasy?

Seth Godin, the founder and CEO of Squidoo and one of the world’s foremost business bloggers attempts to show us the way out of this conundrum. In a book, titled “the dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick), Mr. Godin Encourages us to move beyond exhortations and euphemisms, all the while, emphasizing the fact that winners do quit and constantly. But it is the timing and context of their abandonment of an endeavor that still makes them the best. Mr. Godin highlights this feature by taking recourse to three key “curves”: The Dip, The Cul-De-Sac and The Curve.

The Dip, according to Mr. Godin is “the long slog between starting and mastery. A long slog that’s actually a shortcut, because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.”  Successful people are those who do not believe in restricting themselves to riding the Dip. “They lean into the Dip. They push harder, changing the rules as they go.”

The Cul-De-Sac (French for dead end) is “a situation where you work and you work and nothing much changes. It doesn’t get a lot better, it doesn’t get a lot worse. It just is.”

The Cliff is “a situation where you can’t quit until you fall off, and the whole thing falls apart.” The practical working of the Cliff is illustrated by Mr. Godin with reference to the habit of smoking. “Because smoking is designed to be almost impossible to quit, the longer you do it, the better it feels to continue smoking.” One only quits when one falls off the Cliff, let’s say due to emphysema.

So when does one quit and when does one keep striving? The “brave” thing is to develop grit and gumption and tough it out at the Dip so that one reaches the other end. The “mature” thing to do however would be to not even commence upon a task about whose outcome you are not confident. And finally, the “stupid” thing to do is to start, give it your best shot, expend efforts, resources and time, before finally calling it quits right in the middle of the Dip. “When Jack Welch remade GE, the most fabled decision he made was this: If we can’t be #1 or #2 in an industry, we must get out.”

Finally, Mr. Godin provides us with three questions, which he expounds, we must ask ourselves before we decide to quit.

Question No.1: Are we panicking?

“Quitting when you’re panicked is dangerous and expensive. The best quitters as we’ve seen, are the ones who decide in advance when they are going to quit. You can always quit later – so wait until you’re done panicking to decide.”

Question No.2: Who am I trying to influence?

“If you’re trying to influence just one person, persistence has its limits. It’s easy to cross the line between demonstrating your commitment and being a pest. If you haven’t influenced him yet, it may very well be time to quit. If you are trying to influence a market though, the rules are different. Sure, some of the people in a market have considered you (and even rejected you). But most of the people in the market have never even heard of you. The market doesn’t have just one mind. Different people in the market are seeking different things.”

 

Question No.3: What sort of Measurable Progress am I making?

“Measurable progress need not be a raise or a promotion. It can be more subtle than that, but it needs to be more than a mantra, more than just saying “surviving is succeeding.” The challenge, then, is to surface new milestones in areas where you have previously expected to find none.”

The Dip may be a short book. In fact, it is a very short book. But within its pages lie a wisdom that is commonsensical, logical and most importantly, practical.

Big Week: The Biggest Air Battle of World War II

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While the whole word extols the exploits of Normandy, waxes eloquent about the siege of Stalingrad and gasps collectively at the recollection of the Battle of the Bulge, there are a few battles – which even though, indispensable in influencing the final outcome of the War itself – have been relegated to the confines of obscurity. One such battle is OPERATION ARGUMENT. Popularly known as ‘Big Week’, the operation had at its cornerstone a relentless round-the-clock pummeling of German armament factories and strategic manufacturing bases. Targeting locations at Leipzig, Berlin, Schweinfurt, Hamburg and many others, the very gestalt driving this strategy was breaking the spine of an already demoralized Luftwaffe and thereby giving the Allies, a definitive air superiority. Mr. James Holland in his riveting book, “Big Week” recreates the exploits, endeavours and enervation surrounding OPERATION ARGUMENT.

Mr. Holland’s marvelous recreation of the deadly dog-fights in mid-air between the Messerschmitt and the Mustangs, B-17 Fortresses and B-24 Liberators makes for some hair raising and horripilation inducing reading. Sitting within the confines of a claustrophobic interior, the brave pilots, co-pilots, navigators, gunners and bomb manning personnel boarded their flying beasts, with neither complaints nor consternations. It might not have been a comforting thought for these courageous airmen to learn that their birds were also commonly termed “Flying Coffins.” Braving the deplorable English weather, which made visibility a mere hope inducing icing on the instruments, warding off annoying German fighters and having to contend with the intransigence, insouciance and inchoate decisions of the people commanding the Allied Air Forces, Mr. Holland’s airmen are deserving of more than just platitudes.

The U.S. Eighth Air Force by the third week of February 1944, was engaging in flying missions over the Continent from bases in Britain. Mr. James Holland pieces together a very interesting piece of contrast in relation to the bombing sorties. While the preference of the British was nighttime area bombing, the American philosophy rested on daytime bombing. The American logic being such a strategy would lead to better precision and assured destruction of the designated enemy targets. But it could not be denied that this option also exposed the Americans to the rabid German defenders. As Mr. Holland painstakingly details, in the initial phase of the battle for Ariel ascendancy, protection for both British and American bombers was provided by fighter escorts. Known as “little friends” these fighter aircraft would however only escort the bombers only part of the way. This was because of a severe limitation in flying range that plagued the fighters. Once bereft of escorts, the beleaguered bombers, attracted the attention, ire and fury of the German fighters like bees attracted to honey. The bombers were hounded, pounded and tormented till such time the escorts came back to their rescue. This situation however underwent a dramatic shift with the advent of the Mustang aircrafts. With an enviable range capable of escorting the bombers all the way to their target and back, the Mustangs titled the scales definitively in the favour of the Allies, and in the process stubbing out the last vestiges of German hope.

Yet another significant landmark point of inflection was attributable to Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle. Brig. Gen. Doolittle who was at the forefront of the post-Pearl Harbour raid, completely reinvented the role of the P-51 Mustang. Cutting to shreds the accepted notion that the role of the P-51 was to act as escorts to the bombers as the latter went on their bombing raids, Doolittle conceptualized the P-51 going full tilt and all fury in taking the Luftwaffe head on and decimating them both in the air and on the ground. This decisive decision ensured that while the P-51s ran riot rampaging the enemy, the Luftwaffe’s morale was all but incinerated (along with their hapless and ill-trained pilots). Taking recourse to personal notes, diaries and detailed interviews, Mr. Holland provides a memorable, heart-warming and at times heart wrenching account of the extraordinary emotions swirling around the airmen as they readied for battle.

When the dust finally settled on OPERATION ARGUMENT, the final chapters in the fading book of the Luftwaffe’s must vaunted history had determinedly taken shape. The Luftwaffe lost over 500 German fighters and nearly as many irreplaceable pilots. “In total, some 3,300 bombers from the Eighth, over 500 from the Fifteenth Air Force, and some 2,750 from Bomber Command had attacked the main German aircraft industry targets outlined in POINTBLANK. Together, they had dropped some 22,000 tons – 4,000 tons more than had been dropped on London by the Luftwaffe during the entire eight-month Blitz.”

“Big Week” is an indispensable addition to the collection of every World War II aficionado. The interlacing of personal accounts with professional detachment is the telling feature of this book. The supreme sacrifices made by the indomitable warriors on both the warring factions makes one muse, philosophise, rant, rave and introspect about the futility that is war. Some of the notable protagonists meriting mention in Mr. Holland’s book include the Oscar winning actor and bomber captain Jimmy Stewart, German ace Heinz Knoke, and Donald Blakeslee, Acting Flight Lieutenant and the recipient of a plethora of distinctions, including, two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, eight Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Air Medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom).

OPERATION ARGUMENT has been tended to be generally overlooked when compared with the attention given to some of the fierce battles in the European theatre of operations. But Mr. Holland decisively, firmly and flamboyantly ameliorates this dichotomy with “The Big Week.” The bravery of the remarkable airmen and their sacrifices should never have gone unheeded and with the publication of “The Big Week”, never will. For this we all need to join together in thanking Mr. James Holland for his yeoman service.

Invisible Heroes of World War II: Extraordinary Wartime Stories of Ordinary People – Jerry Borrowman

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In a poignant, penetrating and pertinent work, Jerry Borrowman pays wholesome tribute to some of the indomitable heroes of World War II, heroes whose exploits have either been recognized long after such an act was due or have been acknowledged much later than even the lifetimes of the valiant protagonists.

“Extraordinary Wartime Stories of Ordinary People” is a rousing paean to the will of the common man which rose beyond its own determination and packed punches well beyond its expected weight. The chronicles of these selfless men and women not only induce a smile to the lips of the reader, but also brings forth a tear or two.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, known as “The White Mouse of French Resistance” by the Gestapo for her uncanny ability to evade the Axis Forces while wreaking havoc upon their infrastructure in tandem with the French Resistance Forces was forced to endure a harrowing experience of losing her well-do-to husband to torture at the hands of the German Forces. Nancy once “volunteered to ride a bicycle more than 150 miles (250 kilometers) through German occupied lines to ask a radio operator in a different zone to request a new radio and code book for Nancy’s area.” Nancy was, by the end of the war, the most decorated Australian in World War II. Her recognitions and honours resemble a string of pearls. The Companion of the Order of Australia, the George Medal from England, the Officier de Legion d’ Honneur and Croix de Guerre (three times) from France, the Medal of Freedom (with Bronze Palm) from the United States and the Returned and Services Association (RSA) Badge in gold from New Zealand.

If Nancy Grace’s case was one of celebration, the story of Joseph Hyalmar Anderson makes for some heart wrenching reading. Going Missing In Action (“MIA”) after his Lockheed PV-1 Ventural Patrol Bomber went missing whilst on a routine training patrol off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, his family was left waiting for a definitive closure for an inordinately long time before the puzzle of the missing aircraft was finally pieced together. Finally, in 2006 the 101st Squadron ‘erected a permanent marker at the site’ of the crash.

The contribution of indigenous and immigrant populace such as Native Indians and Japanese Americans respectively, to the Allied Cause in World War II have to a great degree gone unnoticed. Borrowman strives to ameliorate this lapse by chronicling the feats of this section of the military component.

Joseph Medicine Crow, the first member of the Crow Nation to receive a master’s degree was a post graduate student in anthropology at the University of South California when he was drafted into the armed forces. Crow distinguished himself admirably well in a few battles while posted in France and Germany. In true Crow Nation fashion, he also managed to stealthily divest from the possession of a band of fleeing SS Officers, their horses, thereby facilitating an easy capture of the officers forming part of one of Hitler’s most venomous and brutal military wings. As Borrowman patiently explains, “more than 25,000 Native American men served in the armed forces in World War II…”

The heroics of the ‘Navajo Code Breakers’, twenty-nine innovative “living code machines whose transmissions were never deciphered by the Japanese” is one for the ages. Rendering yeoman service to the American cause in the Pacific, these code breakers provided a viable and imaginative alternative to the Shackle protocol, a cumbersome method to transmit codes that usually took four hours to send and receive. The Navajo Code, on the other hand, took just two and a half minutes to send and receive messages – a virtually incredulous and exponential improvement over the Shackle method! However, it was not until the year 2000 that the bravery of the Navajo Code breakers was recognized. The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the code breakers. However only, five of the courageous men remained in flesh and blood to receive the awards.

Executive Order 9066 issued by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 19th of February (coincidentally 77 years before this very day of reviewing Borrowman’s work), “authorized the relocation and internment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent into ten guarded camps deep in the United States interior.”  Ironically, some of the bravest and most decorated armed personnel distinguishing themselves in the Second World War were Japanese Americans. The Purple Heart Battalion or just the 100th Infantry Battalion consisted of 1,432 men who demonstrated exemplary act of courage. The Purple Heart Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation and sixteen Divisional Citations. The indiscriminate wrongs against this community was finally righted when first President Ronald Reagan announced a compensation of $20,000 to each surviving detainee and later when George H.W. Bush tendered an unconditional apology on behalf of the United States.

Borrowman also chronicles in a painstaking and refreshing manner the contribution of thousands of unsung engineers and African Americans. “For example, one battalion of US combat engineers, the 291st, replaced fourteen German autobahn bridges in forty-eight hours.” Subject to intense isolation and immense racial discrimination, the extraordinary achievements of these patriots warms the very cockles of the heart. Benjamin Davis Jr. the first black American to be honoured with the Brigadier General title had it extremely rough in his initial West Point Cadet dates. “The silent treatment was enforced on Davis for the entire four years he was in the academy. He lived without a roommate, was assigned to his own tent during field exercises, ate by himself at every meal, and was never spoken to by other cadets, except for official communications.” Overcoming such seemingly insurmountable odds, Davis Jr. rose to become a superb tactical airman and an integral part of the famous, Tuskegee Airman, nicknamed, “The Red Tails.” The airmen commanded by Davis Jr, “flew more than 15,000 sorties, shot down 111 enemy planes, and destroyed 273 on the ground. They lost 66 aircraft.”

However, the most stirring and inspiring story in the book is reserved for narrating the exploits of one of the greatest women war photojournalist, Dickey Chapelle. Posted or as the current prevailing military-journalistic terminology would state, embedded with the Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima, Chapelle covered the battle of Okinawa as well. When the dust settled on the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind, Chapelle’s zeal for truth and adventure remained unquenched. Crisscrossing the world, Chapelle was captured and jailed for over seven weeks during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Chapelle’s inspiring and singularly unique life came to an untimely and cruel end November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon during Operation Black Ferret, a search and destroy operation 16 km south of Chu Lai, Quang Ngai Province. The lieutenant walking in front inadvertently made contact with a tripwire booby-trap with a hand grenade attached to the top of it. Chapelle was struck in the neck by a piece of shrapnel which severed her carotid artery, and she died soon afterwards. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet. Chapelli was thus the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action.

Douglas MacArthur’s immortal quotes ring in one’s ears as the covers come down upon Borrowman’s splendid book. “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” The soldier who neither relents nor remonstrates; one who neither complains no criticizes.