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Book Mini-Reviews to Clear a Boundless Bibliographic Backlog!

Friday, December 10th, 2010

I have too many books that I have read that I would like to review that, realistically, I will never get to post on in conventional fashion. A fair number belong with Summer Series which seems ridiculous as it is two weeks to Christmas! Therefore, brace yourselves, as I commence the first, and hopefully only, Mini-Reviews post:

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, MD

Dr. Stuart Brown, scientist and psychiatrist, has written a short tome on the nature and cognitive value of play. While there is plenty of child social development information and “pop”self-helpish type chapters, ZP readers wil gravitate to the chapters on play’s vital role in creaivity and innovation ( which are not the same thing), scientific discovery and work. Also of interest are the spectrum of “play personalities” and the “dark side of play”. Not an academic book but a reasonable read on a deceptively complex subject.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter

A superb academic book, previously featured and reviewed in the blogosphere by John Robb and Joseph Fouche, The Collapse of Complex Societies embarks upon a critical examination and partial de-bunking of theories that purport to explain the “sudden” fall of great empires, such as Rome or the vanishing of the Mayans. With caveats, Tainter settles on declining marginal returns from increasing societal investment in complexity as a rough proximate cause capable of subsuming a ” significant range of human behavior, and a number of social theories” under it’s rubric. Highly recommended.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steve Coll

A biography of the Bin Laden family, this book does not come close to matching the impact or importance of Coll’s previous instant classic, Ghost Wars. There are many interesting trivialities about the divergences between the “religious and the hard Rock Cafe wings” of the Bin Laden families, and intriguing nuggets about political matters such as the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque and the connections between the Bin Ladens and elite figures inside the beltway but anyone looking for insight into Osama bin Laden will be disappointed. The most infamous member of Saudi Arabia’s dominant non-royal business clan is a subdued figure in this biography. Coll’s superior skills as a wordsmith and reporter manage to make the book a pleasant page turner.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

Conservative education scholar and historian Diane Ravitch lays out the demise of the movement for high curricular standards in public education that she once championed and it’s transmogrification under NCLB into a punitive system that is slowly imposing an unprecedentedly narrow and dumbed down national curriculum focusing on basic math and reading skills, featuring gamed  test results, highly paid lawyer-consultant insiders and perverse incentives for public and charter schools alike. A depressing but important read.

Blood and Rage by Burleigh

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

After an extended hiatus, Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! re-starts……

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh

British historian Michael Burleigh brings the same kind of unsparingly brutal prose to the history of terrorism that he previously delivered on National Socialism in his acclaimed, The Third Reich: A New History. There is a wealth of detail about terrorists, their casual atrocities and the warped morality that terrorists habitually employ to rationalize their crimes; a nihilistic mentalite shared with their intellectual groupies in universities and political law firms that will shock and inform the reader. The scattered nature of the case studies that comprise modern terrorism though, makes Blood and Rage more of a kaleidescope than microscope.

Burleigh set out to chronicle a comprehensive examination of the evolution of terrorism in the last two centuries. There are Feinians and radicalized Russian Narodniks, murderous FLN Algerians and their pied noir OAS blood enemies, Irgun gunmen and Black September, ETA, IRA and Baader-Meinhoff gangsters consorting with Palestinian radicals and Herbert Marcuse. Burleigh dissects the psychopathology of ultraviolent degenerates like Hugh “Lenny” Murphy, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Andreas Baader. Terrorists, statistically speaking, are generally not madmen in a clinical sense, but Burleigh records a noteworthy exception regarding Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff Gang:

….With their numbers by now reduced to about a dozen people, the group was desperate for new recruits. Salvation came from an unlikely quarter. The mad. A radical psychiatrist at Heidelberg University, influenced by the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing and the anti-institutionalisation theories of Franco Basaglia, had formed a socialist collective among the mainly student clientele he was treating for various mental disturbances common to that age cohort including depression, paranoia and mild schizophrenia. In early 1971 Baader and Ensslin visited Heidelberg where they met some of the radicalized patients. In the following years, about twelve of the latter, including Gerhard Muller, Siegfried Hausner, Sieglinde Hofmann, Lutz Taufner and others became the second generation of RAF terrorists, initially under the slogan “Crazies to Arms”.

Blood and Rage makes for a grim read, with the recurring pattern of terrorism and counterterrorist response erupting to demoralize societies until the terrorists in question are either dead, imprisoned or mellowed by paunchy middle-age and political irrelevance as the times pass their maniacal political passions by. Only in a few instances, notably South Africa and Northern Ireland are political settlements a more feasible option than methodical police and intelligence work followed by tough-minded prosecution and a steely societal rejection of grandiose moral claims of terrorists and their fellow-travelling left-wing lawyer-advocates. Burleigh also makes clear his disdain for militarized CT and multiculturalist enablement alike.

The weakness of Blood and Rage, unlike some of Burleigh’s other works, is a lack of a strong analytical theme, focus or grand theory to explain and unite the relentless and gory march of geographically diverse case studies in terrorism, though an intelligent reader should be able to discern patterns present well enough for themselves. Given Burleigh’s stature as a scholar, one can envision him having taken the ball further down field for a deeper level of analysis of terrorism as a societal phenomena. Burleigh would probably reply that such is not the proper job of a historian, which while true enough, still leaves me wishing he had.

As a popular history, Blood and Rage makes a page turner out of rancorous destruction.

Summer Series 2010: Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! continues……

Killing Rommel: A Novel by Steven Pressfield

As a rule, because of my academic  background and predisposition toward policy analysis,  I have a difficult time picking up a novel. Not because I dislike novels, but because with so many histories and “serious” policy books in my antilibrary demanding to be read, I feel guilty indulging myself in reading fiction.  Realizing that is mildly insane, I decided to shoot for a better balance in my reading this year between fiction and non-fiction and must report….that I have failed miserably. I’ve only read five novels so far in 10 months but one of the five that I read was Killing Rommel and I’m glad that I did!

I “met” the novelist Steven Pressfield online through the first iteration of his website, then a focus on the tribal aspects of the war in Afghanistan. We had some intriguing exchanges and I picked up his The War of Art, one of Steve’s few non-fiction works about becoming a professional writer ( or any creative professional) and defeating the internal psychological resistance that thwarts success and acheivement. I loved that book and read it straight through in one sitting, and later interviewed him about it. Knowing my interest in history and military affairs, Steve sent me a copy of his Killing Rommel and it sat in my antilibrary until this summer, where I read it during long stretches at poolside.

I found Killing Rommel to be a page turner.

Via a literary device, Killing Rommel is the story of  “Chap” – Major Richard Lawrence Chapman, DSO, MC. – and his mission as a member of “The Desert Rats”, The Long Range Desert Group of the British Army to find and kill the legendary commander of Afrika Korps, Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel, “The Desert Fox”. In pursuit of his mission, “Chap” encounters an array of reverses, hazards and adventures in a manner of an ordinary, thoroughly decent, man rising above himself to master circumstances both physically heroic and morally agonizing, leaving the field with honor and humanity intact but free neither of doubt nor memory.

What makes “Chap” remarkable and identifiable as a character in his British ordinariness of an officer doing his duty to King and country, is the uncanny and unerring way Pressfield has reconstructed a British outlook specific to Chap’s time and class – that of the “respectable” upper middle class or younger sons of younger sons of gentry, for whom education and life was bounded by the traditions of the public school and military regiments to which family history was attached. It is a quality of “placedness” and sense of self that most Americans (other than scions of Andover and similar prep schools) cannot easily relate. Where you went was part of who you were and your whole outlook on life. Once established, Chap’s history consistently informs his actions and reactions as the plot progresses; Chap, in other words, “lived” an authentic life in Killing Rommel.

A second feature of Killing Rommel is Pressfield’s fidelity to historical realism. This is expressed both in his attention to details of military history and geographic setting and his willingness to grip war – even an unimpeachably “good” war as WWII – in all it’s moral ambiguity and unmediated violence on the human scale. It is disturbing to the reader that Rommel, the great enemy and objective of the mission, is an admirable man fighting for an evil cause; it is disturbing that dying Germans are not unrepentant Nazi beasts but are found to be men with families and lives, conscripts and volunteers, not unlike Chap and his comrades, who must persevere and fight for their lives but acknowledge these shades of gray.

Highly recommended.

Summer Series 2010: The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! continues……

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt

This summer I read the autobiography of America’s greatest near-great president. It was partly a memoir but mostly idiosyncratic, stream of consciousness commentary by TR, who seemingly grew bored with attempting a dry recounting of his life within the first few dozen pages and launched into a series of never-ending and generally entertaining digressions. Teddy regales the reader with honest beat cops in New York slums, crooked saloonkeeping politicians, rugged cowboys in the twilight of the Old West, ramrod straight Army officers, genteel Harvard men, desperados, captive madmen, wild animals in locales from the silence of nature to the sound of battle with orders barked over the cries of wounded men. Every story involves a fistfight, a gun, a test of integrity and manly honor where respectable men who are “right square” do their duty without complaint and few concessions, except perhaps to a glass of whiskey “taken for medicinal purposes”.

My God, to have a president like that again!

Theodore Roosevelt was an accomplished historian and polished writer and was capable of scholarly work, such as his first book on The Naval War of 1812, or of focused popular history as in his books on the West or his account of his fabled volunteers in the Spanish-American War, The Rough Riders ( I have a 1920 edition); his autobiography is not that kind of book. While historians regard Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir as the greatest written by an American president, Roosevelt’s has a different quality. His voice comes through on the pages; it is more like he is sitting in a chair in his study at Sagamore Hill, talking to you directly, gesticulating, shouting, laughing, leaping up like a jack-in-the-box, leaning forward, face fierce with emphasis and good humor.

Roosevelt would have been a natural blogger.

The autobiography has it’s weaknesses. Despite his ability to cunningly turn a phrase, TR could have used the services of a stern editor. There are parts of this book, particularly in his recounting of minor legislative battles with creatures of the New York political machines that wander at times into redundancy and tediousness. Roosevelt’s periodic expositions into public morality and social problems of his day have a weird conflation of victorian prudishness and liberal noblesse oblige that can run so contradictory that the modern reader wonders which sentiment represents Roosevelt’s real views and which have been judiciously added for public consumption. Outspoken and impetuous in person, TR’s autobiography bears the imprint of an author who has repeatedly gone back and toned down or qualified original judgments or recollections and excised names to spare others embarrassment. Roosevelt was in many ways, a product of his era and his class.

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt is not a great book but is still a good read after over a hundred years since Teddy Roosevelt last sat in the Oval Office. That’s praise enough.

Summer Series 2010: Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop by Giustozzi

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! has begun. This review was originally posted in July, 2010 and is being re-posted as part of Summer Series:

Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop by Antonio Giustozzi

I just finished reading Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan by historian Antonio Giustozzi who has subsequently gone on to write in rapid succession, Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field and Empires of Mud, which I intend to read as well. Giustozzi is doing something important with his study of the Neo-Taliban insurgency that twenty years ago, a professional historian would have eschewed: applying his his historical expertise and methodology in a disciplinary synthesis to understand a dynamic, emerging, phenomenon at the center of current policy.

At the outset, Giustozzi writes:

This book is written by a historian who is trying to understand contemporary developments making use of not just the historical method, but also drawing from other disciplines such as anthropology, political science and geography. As a result, this book combines an analysis of the development of the insurgency based on available information with my ongoing work, focused on identifying the root causes of the weakness of the Afghan state.

This is a useful investigative methodological approach. “Useful” in the sense that while adhering to scholarly standards, Giustozzi offers readers the benefit of his capacity as a professional historian to evaluate new information about the war with the Neo-Taliban, while orienting it in the appropriate cultural-historical context. Not all of the information dealt with is reliable; Giustozzi candidly explains the disputes around particular unverified claims or accusations before offering his educated guess where the truth may be or the probabilities involved in a fog of war and ethno-tribal animosities.

Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop is an academic book with a fairly detached tone and heavily endnoted chapters, which Giustozzi divided in the following manner:

1. Sources of the insurgency

2. How and why the Taliban recruited

3. Organization of the Taliban

4. The Taliban’s strategy

5. Military tactics of the insurgency

6. The counter-insurgency effort

The chapters have a wealth of detail, bordering at times on minutia, on Afghanistan’s complex and personalized system of politics which help shed light on why the effort at providing effective governance, a key COIN tenet, is so difficult. One example:

“….Strengthened as it was by powerful connections in Kabul, Sher Mohammed’s ‘power bloc’ proved quite resilient. Some of the Kabul press reported ‘criticism’, by former and current government officials from Helmand, of Daoud, whose attempts to restrain and isolate the rogue militias and police forces of helmand were described in terms of collaborationism with the Taliban. Daoud reacted by accusing the local ‘drug mafia’ of plotting against him and tried to convince President Karzai to leave him in his post, but not even British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts sufficed to save him. Karzai sacked Daoud in the autumn of 2006. His replacement, Asadullah Wafa, was widely seen as a weak figure who for several months even refused to deploy to Lashkargah.”

This example is a typical one for political life in the provinces. Karzai’s counterinsurgency strategy does not have much to do with ours, and is largely antithetical to it. What we call “corruption”, Karzai sees as buying loyalty; what we call good governance, Karzai views as destabilizing his regime. We are not on the same page with Hamid Karzai and perhaps not even in the same playbook.

Giustozzi is exceptionally well-informed about Afghanistan and the political and military nuances of the old Taliban and the Neo-Taliban insurgency and the structure of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop is clear and well-organized. Giustozzi is informed about COIN in this context but less so generally (in a minor glitch, he posits Mao as primarily waging guerrilla war against an Imperial Japan – Mao didn’t – which did not have much of a “technological edge” – which Japan certainly did over Chinese forces, Nationalist or Communist, for most of the war) but Giustozzi is not writing to add to COIN theory literature, as he specifically noted. What the reader will get from Giustozzi is a grasp of who the Neo-Taliban are as a fighting force and the convoluted, granular, social complexity of Afghan political life in which the US is attempting to wage a COIN war.

Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop is strongly recommended.

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