Archive for November 2008
Why do opportunistic, clever young novelists — I won’t name any names — gravitate toward magic-realist depictions of the decidedly unmagical reality of the Shoah? For the same reason that actors shave their heads and starve themselves, or preen and leer in jackboots and epaulets. For the same reason that filmmakers commission concrete barracks and instruct their cinematographers and lab technicians to filter out bright, saturated colors. To win prizes of course.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that even the Holocaust can be commodified. But not in the way a humorless Frankfurt School social critic (looking at you Adorno) might imagine. Every year, as Scott writes, we see an invasion of aggressively middlebrow films that turn the tragedy of World War II into a stage for showcasing the technical skills of actors and directors. None of these films, despite their dramatic pretensions, tell us anything new about Hitler, Auschwitz, or D-Day. They do, however, give Tom Cruise an opportunity to look fetching in a eyepatch.
I much prefer something loud and unapologetically crude such as The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare than an overwrought piece of Oscar bait. At least Where Eagles Dare makes no bones about its purpose–Clint Eastwood being a badass. You could change the setting and bad guys entirely (maybe Eastwood single-handedly supressing a zombie outbreak in New Jersey) and no one would care.
Most of the time, I am somewhat irritated with the New York Times‘ Sunday book reviews. There is an irritatingly smug tone to their reviews, especially when reviewing works of popular science fiction and horror. But George Packer has written a masterful review of a new V.S. Naipul biography. Anyone with an even casual interest in British postwar fiction should check it out.
That being said, my favorite British author of the 20th century is Graham Greene. Even his “entertainments” were masterful reading. His book The Quiet American is still the best fictional work about American foreign policy.
Some of these I got from a book sale (very cheap, about 25 cents to a dollar), others from Borders.
- The Social System, Talcott Parsons.
- The Art of War, Antoine Henri de Jomini
- Speed and Politics, Paul Virilio
- Finding the Target, Robert Kagan
- Contemporary Analytic and Linguistic Philosophies, E.D. Klemke (ed)
- The Age of Empire, Eric Hobswam
- Classics of Western Thought: The Modern World, Charles Hirschfeld and Edgar E. Knoebel (eds).
- The Nuclear Reader: Strategy and Weapons, Charles W. Kegley Jr. and Eugene R. Wittkopf (eds).
- European Literary Theory and Practice: From Existential Phenomenology to Structuralism, Vernon W. Gras (ed).
- Sociological Theory: Classical Founders and Contemporary Perspectives, Doyle Paul Johnson
- The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (ed)
- The Philosophy of Biology, Michael Ruse (ed)
- The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Michael J. Loux (ed).
- Introduction to Phenomenology, Robert Sokolowksi
I’m in the middle of writing a case study about insurgency and counterinsurgency in Anbar Province. Given his other two books, West is easily the authority on the matter, despite his occasional (but certainly earned given his extensive service) outlandishness. So in this review, I’ll focus more on Anbar and leave future readers to wade through the 2007 Battle of Baghdad on their own.
Whereas other books like Fiasco end in 2006 when the insurgency peaks and the civil war begins, West’s account ends just after the defeat of the Second Sadrist Intifada in May 2008. Up until that point, he provides a comprehensive account of American strategy and tactics since the beginning of the war, including perspectives throughout the chain of command and different locales in theatre. His observations put the reader front and center into the dilemmas faced by the American military in the war, and the long hard fight to win over the loyalties of the Iraqi people.
At heart, this book is about how the United States military learned counterinsurgency. Reading will overturn any preconceived notions about the subject, unless of course you were there and experienced it yourself. For example, while 2007 was the turning point in Iraq, it was in late 2006 that Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, was brought under control by the Marines. To some degree, the Marines are suggested to have picked up COIN faster than the rest of MNF-I. In taking over Anbar in Spring 2004 from the 82nd Airborne, Marine Expeditionary Force I commanded by Gen. James Mattis deliberately sought a velvet glove compared to the Army’s heavy-handed tactics. This plan was disrupted by First Battle of Fallujah, ordered by Washington and then cancelled as the Marines were about to take the city in April 2004. It was pacified until the Second Battle in November 2004.
West illustrates how the Marines began to practice COIN piecemeal in isolated pockets across Anbar. Fallujah may have been pacified, but insurgents cells still remained in the city. Ramadi was never entirely abandoned by the US military, but attacks are constant, especially on Route Michigan (the city’s main thoroughfare) and against the Government Center. In between lay rural towns and hamlets, centered on the small city of Habbaniyah.
In his travels, West shows how the Marines eventually win over the population in Anbar by bringing security to the people, and by abandoning a force protection strategy that seeks to reduce the amount of risk to the US military by operating on massive Forward Operation Bases and ‘commuting’ to work in towns and cities. Instead, the Marines take back cities and towns block by block, and actively undermine the strategy of murder and intimidation practiced by Al Qaeda and its allies. AQI finds itself unable to ensure the quiesence of the Sunni population once the Americans communicate to Iraqis that they will be a reliable partner in the fight against al Qaeda, reinforced by the American strategy of embedding units within major population centers. Once the Marines communicate to the Iraqis that they were there to stay, the tide of the war shifted permanently.
One great fault of the book is that it lacks an Index. This makes it a bit more difficult to track unit and commander histories and evolution of the war in different locales, as the action often jumps from town to town in each chapter. It should also be noted that this is not an unbiased account either, but first and foremost represents the perspective of the US military. West freely passes judgment of the strategic failures of the Bush Administration and anti-war rhetoric of Congressional Democrats (John Murtha gets a serious dressing down for his post-Haditha comments). These detours back to Washington are thankfully brief as the book runs for a healthy 350 pages.
In a nutshell, no longer book captures the entire trajectory of the war – its defeats and victories – so completely as The Strongest Tribe. Certainly others will follow, but I doubt few will compete.
An interesting question has arisen (for me at least) from Shane Deichmans` excellent review of Admiral Gorshkow`s book The SeaPower of the State.
The question is not whether to buy the book at all. If Shane´s model of what a review should be is not enough to enable a man to take a decision I do not know what is.
The question is: Do I get the
- Naval Institute Press – (1979) version (English)
- Seemacht Sowjetunion : Sergej G. Gorschkow. Dt. Ausg. hrsg. von Eckhardt Opitz
The Naval Inst. version is probably very good, but German is my native laguage so I wd give precedence to an equally good German version.
Now the East German Militärverlag made some good books (I have read some of them) and it may be closer ideologically, thus more authentic. I know the terminology well enough so that may be a plus.
On the other hand the Hoffmann & Campe outfit is known for quality and the editor Prof. Opitz is no fool.
What do you think ? Does it matter at all ?
When I was a teenager I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. A heck of a lot. Favourite authors included J R R Tolkein, Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, and Alan Garner. I haven’t read much sci-fi for a while, although I sometimes dip into Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. But when I read a Times review of Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, I knew that I had to order this new sci-fi novel.
Described by the Times as a “rich and rewardingly complex novel”, The Quiet War…
“is set two centuries in the future, after global warming and the death of billions. Humanity is divided into two camps: those who live on Earth, worship Gaia, and are dedicated to restoring the planet, and the Outers, who’ve created independent city-states and habitats in the hostile environments of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
To the militaristic, ruling families of Earth, the independent Outers, now looking to colonise more of the Solar System, genetically altering their children to cope with new ecosystems, are a threat. A “quiet war” of espionage, politics and diplomatic skirmishing is heading towards open, total war to decide the future of humankind.”
Sci-fi and fantasy is often derided as infantile and escapist. Witness, for instance, the English literati’s hostile reaction to Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and its continued success.
Whatever. Like travel, or living in a foreign country, good sci-fi and fantasy expands the mind and its sense of possibilities. Fantasy and sci-fi can used to examine ethical questions (often in unconventional ways), sound out new ideas and ways of thinking, imagine the impact of revolutionary change, and explore possible futures and alternative worlds. Some of the best sci-fi and fantasy I’ve read – from Norton’s novels about the galactic free traders to Le Guin’s mages of Earthsea – are situated at the fissures and crossing points between civilizations, cultures and worlds. They grapple with the thorny question of whether individuals from different cultures and species can ever understand each other, let alone get along.
And sci-fi and fantasy is just good fun. Any decent novel is escapist – that’s the point of fiction. If you work as a clerk in an airless office with a cretin for a boss, the last thing you want to read is a novel about a clerk in an airless office with a cretin for a boss. That is unless the cubicle is actually a portal to parallel worlds, and the cretinous boss gets torn to pieces by ravenous aliens.
Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist.
Books are souvenirs that hold ideas. Ideas are free. If no one knows about your idea, you fail. If your idea doesn’t spread, you fail. If your idea spreads but no one wants to own the souvenir edition, you fail.
The Ramones broke even on tickets, made a little bit on records, but made big money on t-shirts. They had to tour to sell the t-shirts, to make a living. I will idly speculate that there is something similar under way in the world of idea-generating people, and the books they write.