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In Time of War

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In Time of War
By Pierce O'Donnell
Introduction by Anthony Lewis
The New Press, 2005
ISBN: 1565849582

Reviewed by Boris Segel - January 26, 2012

Military tribunals, questions about who should be deemed to be an enemy combatant, charges of terrorism aimed against foreign soldiers, unlawful detentions, the restriction of civil liberties in America - sounds like the developments after 9/11. However, for historians and political scientist, it has all happened before...

In June of 1942, German U-Boats landed eight saboteurs on American soil. One team of commandoes landed near Jacksonville, Florida, and the other near Amagansett, on Long Island. One group, led by George John Dasch, was discovered by a young Coast Guardsman as they were landing on the beach. Being unarmed, the coast guard member was not able to apprehend them, but he sent out the alert. Shortly thereafter, Dasch, sensing that they were doomed even before they started, called the FBI and turned himself, and his team, in. He provided the FBI with information that allowed them to round up the other team within a month. Neither team managed to carry out a single act of sabotage. Rather than being treated as prisoners-of-war, or summarily shot as spies, the eight men where tried by a special military tribunal convened by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, setting a precedent that President George Bush used when he tried to convene military tribunals to try enemy combatants. Six of the Nazi sabatores would eventually be executed, and two, including Dasch, were sentenced to thirty years in prison.

In In Time of War: Hitler's Terrorist Attack on America, Pierce O'Donnell details how this attack was planned, what it's goals where, and how the men were chosen and trained. He also details the events surrounding their landing on American soil, their activities once they landed, and their capture. The bulk of the book deals with their trial, the legal and moral issues surrounding the trial and the sentences that were handed down. O'Donnell also examines how the war, and fear of additional attacks on American soil - after Pearl Harbor - lead to the erosion of civil liberties. Questions about the constitutionality of military tribunes, restrictions on civil liberties, and lack of full disclosure to the public that occurred after the arrest of the Nazi saboteurs, are problems that were destined to reappeared after the events of 9/11.

Code-named Operation Pastorius, the Nazi attempt to carry out sabotage efforts on American soil was a complete failure. However, the aftermath of this abortive attack had long reaching legal repercussions, repercussions which are outlined in detail in this book. As well, the use of the term terrorist in the book's subtitle is subjective. America carried out sabotage activities behind enemy lines during World War II. If you class the Nazi's attempted sabotage efforts on American shores as terrorism, should not American sabotage efforts that were carried out in Germany also be labeled as terrorist attacks? This is just one of the many thorny questions that are brought up in this book, questions that are as relevant today as they were back in 1942.

In Time of War is an informative and important book that is important not just for exploring an often overlooked aspect of World War II history, but also due to how it relates to modern issues currently facing the world. Most important, this book illustrates how public fears - real or imagined, can steer governmental reactions toward actions based on trying to calm public rage and fear, rather than upon legal and moral precedents.

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Related Reviews:

Secret Agent: The True Story of the Covert War Against Hitler, by David Stafford.
This riveting book offers the readers an in-depth look at ultra-secret World War II 'spy' organization called the Special Operations Executive. Details range from the groups formation, to the work that it carried out during the war, along with detailed profiles of its agents and auxiliary staff.

Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman, by Nicholas Booth.
A biography of the man who was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for his exploits while spying on them for the British.

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