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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

V.S. Naipul, New York Times, and Graham Greene

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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.


Written by Adam Elkus

November 24, 2008 at 5:40 am

Posted in Nonfiction

New Books

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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

Written by Adam Elkus

November 24, 2008 at 5:26 am

Posted in Nonfiction

Review: The Strongest Tribe

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Bing West. Random House, NY. 2008.


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.

Written by stephenpampinella

November 21, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Nonfiction

Gorshkov’s “The Sea Power of the State”

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seapowerofthestate_gorshkovFirst published in 1976 by Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union (and Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy) Sergei Georgyevich Gorshkov, “The Sea Power of the State” was a dramatic departure from the normally narrow texts from leaders of the Soviet defense establishment.

In this book, Admiral of the Fleet Gorshkov not only offers a vision of the relevance of the “World Ocean” to any nation’s well-being — he also provides a compelling rationale for “joint operations” a full ten years before our own nation’s Goldwater-Nichols Act forced jointness onto a reluctant American defense establishment, and underscores the importance of the littoral in a navy’s ability to influencing events ashore nearly two decades before “… From the Sea”.

The Sea Power of the State is rich in dichotomy: a land-rich nation with few accessible ports preaching the relevance of sea power, an atheist totalitarian regime describing the social and cultural significance of the “World Ocean”, a nation besmirched for its negative impact on the environment bemoaning pollutants and the need for “union with the environment”, and a foundational tome for effective naval force planning from a nation that just this month claimed the lives of nearly two dozen civilians in a submarine accident. Such is Gorshkov’s compelling style — scholarly and impeccably researched, with steadfast devotion to the tenets of Marxism, decrying the “imperialist aggression” of the Capitalist powers who exploit sea power to “hold in check other states.”

Despite the Communist propaganda (which is seamlessly woven into Gorshkov’s prose), The Sea Power of the State is replete with history, statistics and analysis.  Gorshkov calls the World Ocean “the most important environmental element of Marxism”, underscoring the essence of sea power as “linkages amongst elements” of a far-flung enterprise.  Sounding more akin to Sir Julian Corbett than Alfred Thayer Mahan, Gorshkov addresses sea power from a temporal (vice just geospatial) perspective.

Most impressive about Gorshkov is the breadth of his perspective.  Alongside the typical Communist demagoguery (e.g., “Imperialist powers exploit sea power to preserve their monopoly …”) are lucid arguments for balanced force structure planning (inclusive of creating large merchant fleets), diminished pollutants, and even maritime law (with an appeal to demilitarize the World Ocean beyond the 12 mile territorial waters).  Curiously, he never once expresses disdain at the limited blue water access of the Soviet Union — and was convincing enough in his vision that the Kremlin subsidized his development of a fleet that nearly reached parity with the dominant sea powers of the west.

He dedicates nearly 100 pages to Chapter 2: “Pages in the History of the Navies”, covering nearly five hundred years from the time of Columbus to the Brezhnev-era legacy he helped build.  He deftly describes the crushing Russian defeat in the Straits of Tsushima (in 1905) as being ” … decided in advance” due to the technological and doctrinal advantage of the Japanese fleet operating in its home waters, and to the Czar “… completely misunderstanding the importance of sea power for Russia.”  As this defeat preceded the October Revolution, Gorshkov quotes V.I. Lenin’s remark that, at Tsushima, Russia “… faced not only … a military defeat, but also the complete military bankruptcy of the autocracy.”

Admiral of the Fleet Gorshkov is credited with building the Soviet Navy — a Navy that achieved its strategic purpose in freezing the “imperialist” threat, forcing our rigid attention to the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. (GIUK) Gap and the northern Pacific Ocean.  Through his deep grasp of the “universality of sea power”, its “decisive role in influencing events ashore”, its policy role (in “stabilizing allies or subjugating them”), and the “value of balanced force structure”, Gorshkov gave the Soviet Union a dominant role on the world stage — and, had he been born a few decades sooner, may have altered the course of history.

UPDATE: The inestimable Zenpundit has posted a review of the review — and has added invaluable context to the political machinations of what Zen calls “the noontide of Brezhnev’s faction.”  Check it out.

Written by deichmans

November 13, 2008 at 3:35 am

Posted in Nonfiction

Hell For Leather

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In his review of Mike Davis’ Buda’s Wagon in Foreign Affairs, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote:

With so many grim stories to tell in a brief book, the context of individual episodes is often sketchy, the underlying political analysis shallow, and the prognosis alarmist.

Well, as an example of strategic analysis Freedman is right, but this does not detract from the value and sheer vicarious thrill of reading Davis’ book. Like Planet of Slums before it, Buda’s Wagon is a fast-paced and enthralling one-stop shop on a focused theme of global importance.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only readily accessible volume on the subject of the VBIED, the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or car bomb. Davis kicks off his history with Mario Buda, an anarchist who detonated a wagon full of explosives in New York City in 1920. Forty deaths, 200 injured, and a declaration of national emergency, as the technological accident inserted itself into a post-WWI America – a phenomenon later described by George Orwell thus:

A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.

This is the premise upon which Davis builds his story, that of asymmetry and the empowerment of the non-state actor. He traces the development of the car bomb from a semi-strategic weapon analogous to early air power – the attacks on critical urban nodes, and the creation of ‘terror’ – to its flowering as a fully strategic weapon. He illustrates the latter by the attack on the US Marines in Beirut (1963), the 1993 IRA bombs in London, and the 2001 New Delhi experience, which was as close as mankind has come to a nuclear war since the Bay of Pigs.

Buda’s Wagon is a journalistic account, and Davis often reveals his caustic and empassioned wit, particularly in passages in which he lays bare the role of states like the US and Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism from the 1960s on, a period he describes as “mass technology transfer”. Later, when discussing the global jihad, he writes:

Like his forerunners Hermann Goering and Curtis LeMay, Osama bin Laden seems to exult in the sheer statistics of bomb damage – the competitive race to ever greater explosive yields and killing ranges, regardless of the dead children and scattered body parts.

Davis’ Marxist bent is obvious, but as E.H. Carr noted, history is interpretative. His structural framework is interesting, involving step-changes such as the first multiple car bombings, economic car bombs, suicide car bombings, videotaped and broadcast actions, first against tourists, etc. The story ends in Iraq and Afghanistan 2006, having structured the latter part of the book around the principal theme of “the thousand fissures of ethnic and religious enmity that globalisation has paradoxically revealed.” He describes the car bomb as the “kudzu vine of destruction” and asks if it can be countered. The answer seems to be ‘no’, and his historical account illuminates the failure of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency to combat VBIEDs thus far.

Conversely, Davis suggests that initiatives like urban ‘rings of steel’ and heavy surveillance environments are the future, and will be as ineffective against the “hot rod of the apocalypse” as previous schemes. “The car bomb probably has a brilliant future”, despite the militarisation of Baghdad and London alike. Vehicles are ubiquitous technologies, and large cities “will never enjoy universal security”. As with much of modern CT thinking, it’s all about risk management, rather than 100% “beating the terrorists”. Davis offers no solutions to this quandary, and is probably right when he states that solutions cannot be achieved, for example, through “that sine qua non, the permanent suspension of civil liberties.”

Buda’s Wagon serves as a reminder of the evolution of a phenomenon rather than a deep analysis of one, as Freedman critiqued, but it is more than a lazy addition to the groaning shelves of bookstores fuelling the terrorism industry. As a provider of occasional great insight it should be read by public, politicians and practitioners alike – especially those who think they know everything about the history and future of that most ubiquitous weapon of technological urbanism, the car bomb.

Written by Tim Stevens

November 12, 2008 at 10:01 am

Posted in Nonfiction

Generation Kill

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Evan Wright is a lunatic. Not by the traditional definition; one that is in exactly zero command of his own mind, rather in the same sense that a Dodge Viper is “bad,” Bert Blyleven’s curveball was “filthy.” Evan Wright is a lunatic who embedded himself with the Marines First Recon and willfully experienced the American invasion of Iraq at the “tippity-tip of the spear.” Wright’s experiences were captured in a multi-part report for Rolling Stone and then later expanded to become a book.

Published in 2004, Generation Kill is an account of Wrights experience riding, eating, sleeping and generally experiencing the twenty three Marines of First Recon as they rocket forth from Kuwait to Baqubah.

Wrights prose is not eloquent, not learned and not melodramatic. It’s cadence is fast, it’s descriptive qualities clipped and macroscopic references beyond the microscopic details are sparse. Wright posits little description of the strategy of the operation (though he does allow occasional peeks at it) rather restricts his reflections to the microcosm of men at arms executing (complaining) on the behalf of the military upper echelon.

In this sense Wright falls a bit short of another lunatic, Robert Kaplan, in presenting a multidimensional study of the conflict within which he embeds himself. If your looking for an in depth analysis of a conflict that includes hairy, personal, real time reflection, Generation Kill is not your book.

However, Wright’s personal account of the confusion, violence, comedy, boredom and general anarchy that entails war or more specifically, America’s invasion of Iraq is as gritty and “there” as one can expect. Wright’s work includes descriptive accounts of friendly fire, civilian casualties, brutal and abject civilian murder and highlights the disconnect between upper echelon strategy and “boots on the ground” tactics.  Additionally it highlight’s a particularly fascinating psychological transformation as the platoon’s attitude toward combat evolves from initial excitement (“get some!”) to extreme fatigue (what the fuck are we doing here?) to a semblance of normality (a debate between Sgt. Colbert and  Cpl. Person regarding country music is interrupted by a violent fire fight only to be rejoined as though nothing happened after the threat had passed.)

My cohort Kotare lamented the nonexistence of a “first person shooter” reflection of a conflict. Generation Kill might not be exactly what he seeks but it’s very likely a close bet.

In closing, Generation Kill reads like a work of fiction (hence it’s easy translation into an HBO series) but packs a mighty account of actual ground level warfare and a healthy dose of the personal reality of America’s invasion of Iraq.

Generation Kill, written by a lunatic, is good stuff.

Written by subadei

October 25, 2008 at 12:46 am

Posted in Nonfiction

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A “first person shooter” approach to military history?

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Yesterday I advanced the idea of new form of military history – of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men as events unfolded, rather than studying it from an omnipotent vantage point. I want to expand on that idea. It’s what I call the “first person shooter” approach to the writing of military history.

The problem with most books on military history – whether written from the perspective of generals or privates – is that we (the readers) know the outcome in advance, even if we don’t know the detail of how the outcome came about. If we pick up Adam Zamoyski’s 1812, for instance, most of us know when we start reading that Napoleon and his army suffered a calamitous defeat in Russia. We read the book to understand how that defeat came about.

But what if we could follow a battle, a campaign, a war, as a participant actually lived it? Without knowing in advance what the outcome would be, without knowing what lay beyond the next hill, without knowing what the next 24 hours might hold, without knowing where the enemy was and what he was planning? That would be gripping – more like reading a novel or playing a first person shooter game than the traditional approach to military history.

Clausewitz wrote that war is the province of danger and uncertainty. With its omnipotent vantage point, military history strips away those elements. The ‘first person shooter’ approach might give us a greater appreciation of the dilemmas that commanders encounter in battle – having to make quick decisions of great consequence in a climate of danger, uncertainty, surprise, fluidity, fear, unreliable intelligence and conflicting information.

Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist.

Written by kotare1718

October 22, 2008 at 9:01 am

Posted in Nonfiction

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