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Two Mini Reviews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a tremendous backlog of good books to review that I have read in recent months and I am facing the fact that it is dubious that I will ever to get to feature most of them here.  As a stopgap, I am going to try a few mini-reviews instead of the more noteworthy, or at least interesting, titles. Here are two:

1. Stalin: Volume I Paradoxes of Power

Stalin: Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928  by Stephen Kotkin

Eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis praises Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin for his new biography, calling it “A monumental achievement”. This is certainly correct. Kotkin has done more than break new ground with Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; in my view it is arguably the best book on Joseph Stalin ever written.

Admittedly this is high praise. It is true, that Kotkin is not in the same literary class as Simon Sebag Montefiore, who demonstrated his great prose skill with masterfully written and deeply researched biographies of Stalin, but Kotkin is always a clear, effective and always forceful writer. Where Kotkin excels is in the granularity of his biographical narrative, unearthing aspects of Stalin’s childhood and early revolutionary days, the intra-party rivalries with leading Bolshevik personalities, especially Stalin’s complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin and Stalin’s skill as a politician and grand strategist. The narrative is accompanied with Kotkin’s piercing psychological analysis of Stalin’s criminal psychopathology emerging from a combination of complex rational political calculation and a bottomless well of narcissistic self-pity that ate away at Stalin’s soul.

If volume 2 equals the first book, Kotkin will have written the definitive work of Stalin for years to come.

II. Salinger

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The book that accompanied the documentary of the same name, David Shields and Shane Salerno have put together a remarkable page turner that explains the mystifying author behind one of America’s most iconic literary works.

“Don’t worry if all of the first wave of you are killed, We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men” 

J.D. Salinger’s counterintelligence unit spearheaded the landing of the 4th Division on Utah Beach on D-Day, Salinger participated in five major battles in the European theater including the deadly Hurtgen Forest where his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CIC field interrogator, Salinger operated with great freedom and authority and after participating in the liberation of the concentration camp complex known to history as Dachau, he checked himself into a mental hospital. To paraphrase Shields and Salerno, J.D. Salinger carried six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in to battle with him, a book that took him ten years to write and which he then regretted for the rest of his life.

Salinger the Documentary

Heads up: two keepers on terrorism for later review

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — for global perspective ]

Hoffman Ganor 602


Hoffman and ReinaresThe Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death offers 700 pages of densely-packed information about global, ans they do mean global, terrorism since 9-11. Contributors include Peter Neumann, Paul Cruickshank, J-P Filiu, Seth Jones, Rohan Gunaranta, Ami Pedahzur, Thomas Hegghammer, C Christine Fair.

Ganor BoazGlobal Alert, which I just received, appears to offer its own definition of the topic, then take a refreshingly clean, unsentimental look at the field.

Both are recommended.

Browsing in bin Laden’s library II

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — following up on Browsing in bin Laden’s library ]

Marcy Wheeler at Salon reports of the ODNI’s Bin Laden’s Bookshelf (expanded form, .pdf) that “the categorization imposed by ODNI” consists “largely of overlapping categories of English-language materials worthy of a Jorge Luis Borges short story.

Categories include:


The Borges “short story” referenced here isn’t in fact a short story but an essay, The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which includes a classification system “which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge'”. Borges’ spurious taxonomy divides the animal kingdom into the following categories:

(a) belonging to the emperor,
(b) embalmed,
(c) tame,
(d) sucking pigs,
(e) sirens,
(f) fabulous,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) included in the present classification,
(i) frenzied,
(j) innumerable,
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
(l) et cetera,
(m) having just broken the water pitcher,
(n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Nicely observed, Marcy.


Of particular personal note considering my interest in games:

Under the heading “Documents Probably Used by Other Compound Residents” we find listed:

  • Delta Force Extreme 2 Videogame Guide
  • Game Spot Videogame Guide
  • One wonders (idly) whether ODNI cannot believe OBL would play such games, or whether that classification was arrived at on the basis of the location in the compound where these materials were found.

    And given my interest in religion:

    Under the heading “Think Tank & Other Studies”:

  • Program for the Study of International Organizations (PSIO), “Hizb ut-Tahrir: The Next Al-Qaeda, Really?” by Jean-Francois Mayer (2004)
  • And under the heading “Other religious documents”:

    a treatise on Christianity by one Monqith Ben Mahmoud Assaqar PhD, titled Was Jesus crucified for our atonement? — which opens with the following (presumably post-doctoral) statement of scholarship-to-date:

    Praise to Allah (S.W) , the cherisher and sustainer of the worlds, and may peace and blessings be upon all of His messengers. In our previous parts of this series “True guidance and light series”, we have concluded and confirmed a plain truth, which is that the Holy Bible, as we have seen, is man work, and not the word of Allah (S.W) in any way. Thus, Christians cannot present it as evidence for any of their creeds or events, including the crucifixion and the Atonement.

    FWIW, reading this treatise will likely not have helped OBL in his quest for interfaith understanding.

    Browsing in bin Laden’s library

    Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — always interested in other people’s books, & with a keen eye for eccentric choices ]

    Steve Jackson Games Illuminati WTC card

    Steve Jackson Games Illuminati WTC card


    Every terrorism library – and every terrorist’s library, too, maybe – should have at least one conspiracist book in it, and Bin Laden’s library apparently had several – I’d likely count America’s “War on Terrorism” by Michel Chossudovsky and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins among them — but I’m impressed he had a copy of Michael Ruppert’s Crossing the Rubicon, my own choice for that category on account of its chapter on games.

    Interesting, too, that he had a copy of the Select Committee on Intelligence report on Project MKULTRA, “the CIA’s program of research in behavioral modification.”

    Way more interesting, though, is his seemingly owning a copy of Manley P Hall’s great opus, The Secret Teachings of All Ages – “An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of All Ages” — the date 1928 is given in ODNI’s listing of his English language books, so I’m wondering if he had the same huge, wood-boxed early edition I once had, now retailing for $1,500.

    And then there’s the kicker. Bin Laden apparently had a copy of the article Website claims Steve Jackson game foretold 9/11 — still up on the web — see illustration above.

    That’s just too rich!

    More on Stern & Berger’s ISIS: State of Terror

    Friday, May 8th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — hey, I recommend Stern’s earlier Terror in the Name of God and JM’s Jihad Joe, too ]

    Jessica Stern & JM Berger have a very clever title for their book — which is one of many things I didn’t get to address in my Pragati review, because there’s really a great deal to be said about IS and about the book. Let’s take a look at that title:


    ISIS: State of Terror is a triple pun really, since their book is about:

  • the specifically “state building” aspect of the Islamic State as a caliphal movement expansive across geography and concerned with hospitals, roads, policing, and how tight your jeans are
  • the state of mind we call terror, which can be understood either positively as mentioned in the Qur’anic account of the battle of Badr or negatively as the attempt to persuade by selective brutality and its generalized implications
  • an overview of IS that’s essentially a “State of the Union” style summation of where we are, how we got there and where to proceed
  • For some reason I am seeing in threes today, a trait shared by Trinitarians of course, but also by CS Peirce and George Boole.


    Okay. The Islamic State really “exists” on three braided levels:

  • as a military and political entity with peronnel, materiel, logistics, strategic aims, victories, losses — largely stuff that can be viewed by satellite or televised, largely physical, quantifiable, though with its own mental drivers — and in this sense the Baathist military minds are the force-multipliers
  • as a digital and virtual entity with “cool” computer graphics, net-savvy virality, a Naji-derived approach to war as public relations and so forth. Here, the graphics, video and net mavens are the force multipliers. And if anyone is still in doubt as to whether “virtual reality” is real, please note that IS’ virtual reality brings real human bodies half way around the world to their deaths.
  • and as a religious and eschatological entity with its own central “Dabiq” hadith — and an appeal to all the hope frustrated by all the world’s perceived injustices, taking (i) the adventurous, rebellious spirit with its naive idealism (ii) via net connectivity and virtuoso virality (iii) through and past the milpol driver and its practicalities into (iv) the enhanced divine sanction of the Great Final War of Good (brutally) ascendant over Evil. Ironic, I know, but substantially true, and there’s a sort of Moebius twist in there that brings Good to mean Evil and Evil to mean Good — Goorge Orwell would have grimly understood.
  • My point here being that to understand IS we need both “physical” and “metaphysical” eyes, and a healthy dose of online virtual savvy too. And that’s why Jessica Stern & JM Berger‘s book is an invaluable guide: it looks closely into all three realms.


    Interestingly enough, to me at least, I see my focus on Islamist apocalyptic has gone through three phases, each one having its own cluster of traditions / ahadith:

  • I began with Hamas and the Gharqad Tree traditions
  • I moved on to Al-Qaida and the traditions about the black banners from Khorasan, and
  • with the Islamic State came Dabiq the magazine and the Dabiq traditions.
  • On the horizon, still, the traditions about the Ghazwa-e-Hind. Keep your eyes peeled.

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