Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Drift" by Rachel Maddow (2012)

You have wanted to read this one for a while now, but you weren't sure you wanted to dive in to a book written by such an obvious liberal spokesperson. You've tried to read nonfiction written from a one-sided political point of view before and you've never enjoyed it much. When you read the reviews for "Drift," however, you changed your mind. If Ira Glass, Matt Taibbi, Roger Ailes, and the Military Times all agree that a book is worth reading, you'll give it a shot.

You first started listening to Rachel Maddow back when she was on Air America and you were charmed by her combination of wit and intelligence. Now that she has moved to a cable news format, she has kept those same qualities, but now she often borders on silly, her wit often threatens to turn into snarkiness. You've always been annoyed by this. She is a Rhodes scholar. It's okay for her to be serious. Even if you find her jokes funny, you sometimes feel that the frivolous attitude she can adopt robs some of her subject matters of their importance. Unfortunately "Drift" flirts with that same problem. In her attempt to keep her voice authentic, she gets dangerously close to losing imoqartial readers who might not be familiar with her quirky personality. Maddow lays out some pretty astonishing things in this book, some pretty weighty and important things. But she uses the same voice in the book that she uses on her show, and it doesn't quite translate to the different medium. TV shows are over in an hour. Books are forever.

But "Drift" is important. In it Maddow chronicles how the United States over the last fifty years has handed over the power of making war to the executive branch (and to corporations) and how we have foolishly divorced ourselves from the emotional pain of asking our young men and women to make war on others. She starts by quoting Madison condemning war, not because war is inherently terrible, but because it so often robs citizens of liberty, imposing debts and onerous taxes, bringing out the worst in people and tempting nations towards aristocracy or monarchy. Madison framed the Constitution specifically to make going to war difficult. By forcing the executive branch to seek the declaration of war from the legislative branch he tried to ensure that there would be public debate about the merits of any looming conflict. Maddow spends the rest of the book outlining how America has strayed far from Madison's framework, and drifted closer to the society he warned we might become if we ignored him.

President Johnson started the problem as Maddow sees it. He went to war in Vietnam using only active duty forces swollen with draftees, without mobilizing the National Guard or Reserves. This divorced the American public from the war in a way that had never been done before. Those weekend warriors remained just that, most of them staying home instead of risking their lives on the battlefield. With the result that many Americans began to think of the war as something that other people were fighting, not something the nation was fighting. General Creighton Abrams was US commander in Vietnam before returning to wind the war down as the Army Chief of Staff. He was not amused by Johnson's decision or by how his troops were regarded when they returned from such an unpopular war. He quickly restructured the Army to make it nearly impossible to ever go to war again without mobilizing the Guard or the Reserve. He gave these citizen soldiers jobs that were essential to fighting a war of any significant size. It was called the Abrams Doctrine: presidents couldn't go to war without making damn sure that the people of the United States were supportive of that war.

Congress was also not amused with the way President Johnson had mislead them into allowing him kingly war-making powers (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) that would have been anathema to the framers of the Constitution. They decided to make the rules more strict and passed the War Powers Act into law even after President Nixon vetoed it. This was how the government was designed to work and when President Ford wanted more funds to bolster the falling government of South Vietnam, no one less than Senator John Glenn himself (former Marine and astronaut) told the president that he was out of luck. Ford's Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld was not pleased at Congress' reassertion of its place as the branch of the government endowed with the power to declare war (this comes up later).

At this point, "Drift" moves into the era of President Reagan. Maddow was not a big fan of The Gipper as president. Candidate Reagan had made a series of terrifying claims about the threat that the USSR posed to America. President Reagan acted on those claims. Even though these claims were provably untrue, the Reagan administration doubled the amount the US spent on its military, despite the fact that we already spent more than anyone else in the world. Under President Ford, a virulent anti-communist DC think tank (The Committee on the Present Danger) had been allowed to contribute to the CIA's secret analysis of the Soviet Union's military strength. Their claims were wildly inaccurate and the team had no business taking part in any intelligence briefing. They admittedly based their most alarmist findings on speculation and intuition rather than on, you know... facts. Nevertheless, their findings were taken as gospel truth by the Reagan administration. President Reagan began hiring members of this think tank into the government as soon as he was sworn in.

You remember being a kid growing up in the world that this kind of hysteria created. You read your uncle Jimmy's copies of "Soviet Military Power" (which Maddow refers to as propaganda) and worried about a looming Soviet invasion. You played war games always assuming that the bad guys were communists and that there were Russians hiding behind every tree. You rarely questioned why this was. It just was. President Reagan operated in the same way. The Russians were the bad guys, they were very very dangerous, and they were getting stronger every day. Never mind that all actual intelligence pointed to the opposite conclusion. Never mind that Soviet leaders were expounding on the madness of nuclear war. Never mind that objective fact pointed to the US as the international saber rattler, not the USSR. President Reagan was granted his wish and the United States doubled its military spending, arming up for a war that would never come against an enemy it had largely made up.

President Reagan did get one real war though. The US invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada and that invasion, now almost forgotten, has proven to be a template for later wars. Trump up a bullshit reason for invasion (like freeing American medical students from possible captivity). Lie to reporters (and the public). Insist you were right about the need for war all along (even when the facts show different). Relate this military action with a previous one (like the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, half a world away). Use the boost in polls to jack up military spending even higher afterwards.

When the Reagan administration was busted breaking lots and lots of US and international laws by supplying terrorists with modern weapons and using the extra cash to fund anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, they started rewriting the rules again. The excuse they came up with to defend their actions was preposterous enough to be almost funny if it hadn't become de facto policy ever since: "The president couldn't have committed any crime because, as Commander In Chief, he can wage any war he wants and employ any military might in his prerogative without seeking Congressional approval." This was patently untrue. And furthermore if it were true, why had the administration worked so hard to keep their actions secret in the first place?! In any case, this excuse added to the perceived power of the executive more than any previous presidents had committed.

President Reagan had stripped from the US government any vestiges of checks on the executive's ability to make war... except the checks within the military itself. The Abrams Doctrine was still there, making sure that presidents had to get approval from the public before waging any big wars. When Reagan's predecessor, President Bush, was preparing to invade Iraq in 1991 to kick Saddam Hussein's armies out of Kuwait, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted that the war plans must include overwhelming force, clear objectives, a well defined exit strategy, and popular support at home. This idea, the Powell Doctrine, also ensured that the Reserves and National Guard would be deployed as well. This was not some quixotic scheme by the highest ranking soldier in America to avert war, but simply General Powell asserting the Abrams Doctrine and stepping in where Congress could no longer, to ask the American people if we were absolutely sure we wanted this particular war.

President Bush got his war, but General Powell got his debate too. Congress eventually approved the use of force in Iraq. Still, President Bush and many of the people who worked for him (and would later work for his son) took the ideological view that President Reagan had. The President of the United States is not required to seek approval from Congress for any military action ever. Anytime. Anywhere. Against any foe. Using any number of troops and spending any amount of money to do it. The authorization from Congress was viewed as merely a formality.

Maddow then chronicles how Presidents Clinton and Bush and Obama perpetuated this belief. But these three presidents took the unmooring of American military power even further. They privatized or outsourced much of what the military does to the point where the cost of the wars they fought was even more deeply hidden from the public's consciousness. Presidents can now deploy the smallest number of war fighters, contract out the logistical support to private corporations, and voila'! you get wars that almost no one protests! The contractors also grant the added bonus that they don't have to report anything to Congress and they don't have to ask permission before taking actions that US soldiers might be court-martialed for.

President Bush and his Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfled clearly stated after September 11th 2001, that the War on Terror would have no declaration of war, it would have no clear borders or surrender documents. The War on Terror would go on exactly how the executive branch of the US government wanted to wage it. There might be warrant-less wiretapping, or torture, or America might be asked to embrace the idea of preemptive war (a notion the WW II generation loathed when Japan used it to justify attacking Pearl Harbor). The United States might be involved in propping up more terrible regimes or toppling dictators who never attacked us. The president could do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted. No matter the cost. Congress might be notified about some of it, but they would sure sign the huge checks required to pay for it.

And now today, President Obama regularly orders the bombings of suspected terrorist targets in nations with which we are not at war, some of whom have turned out to be American citizens (if that's not more power than the framers of the Constitution wanted the president to have, then you have been reading that document wrong for years). Two years ago, the US lead a massive air campaign that allowed the rebels in Libya to oust their long time dictator (something Reagan could never do) and we are now openly arming rebel forces in their attempt to overthrow their dictator in Syria. All with no declaration of war. All without seeking approval from Congress. Remember? The president can do whatever he wants. Whenever he wants. No matter the cost. You shiver to think of what else the next president might do with this unprecedented power, or the next, or the next.

There are checks and balances written into the Constitution with the intent to keep the power to take our nation into war out of the hands of one person. They have all but disappeared. No one party or president was solely responsible for this. Each piled onto the previous precedents. And Congress has become too feckless and too obsessed with their own reelections to fight it. Maddow makes it clear that this is not some partisan issue. It is an American one. We should do something about it, but we probably won't.

You just have to hope that someone will run for office on a platform of changing this. You hope that someone will have the guts to take office and give power back to the branch it belongs in. Until then...

On to the next book!

P.S. There was a whole chapter about our aging nuclear arsenal. The most shocking part was how it has completely deteriorated. Detonators are failing from old age and accelerators are in need of replacement, but there is just one small problem. We don't remember how to make those things any more and no one wrote down how to do it what with the Russians and all. Very Top Secret, you know. So now we have thousands of weapons that could destroy the Earth a thousand times over which no one really wants to do anymore, and those weapons are slowly becoming useless because of old age and our own fetish for secrecy. But they did cost the United States eight billion dollars to create, so they're probably not going anywhere. This chapter was in "Drift" and it was fascinating, but you weren't exactly sure what it had to do with the premise of the book, so you are mentioning it here in the P.S. because you don't want to forget it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Apparently, they are just going to make every single book into a movie now. That's okay. As long as you know the movie is coming out in time to read the book first.


So here's an embarrassing story. You were first turned on to this book because you saw a preview for the movie. Well, that part isn't so embarrassing. What is embarrassing is that you saw the preview and misread the caption and thought is was just a baddass trailer for cool sci-fi book. "That is awesome!" you yelled when you saw that. "I hope this is a new thing," you said, "Spending lots of money on glossy, super high def trailers for books, not just movies!"



You're an idiot. The book was written in 1985 (although the short story that it was based on was published in '77). The preview you saw was for the actual movie and you were just confused. Oh well. You got a fantastic book out of your mistake so no harm, no foul.

You've never read any of Card's stuff before, but he has a large body of work. His recent stupid remarks on gay marriage didn't keep you from reading his book. You've never had a problem listening to the opinions of people even when you disagree with those people on other issues. In fact, you've always been of the opinion that if you never listen to the people you disagree with, you can't really disagree with them. It's why you listen to Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow and Alex Jones. Listening to all three helps you figure out where you stand on certain issues. If you can't figure out why you don't agree with one of them, maybe you don't know as much about the issue as you thought. Even better, maybe you're wrong. And sometimes you can even find yourself agreeing with someone on certain issues, even when you've never seen anything else eye to eye.

In short, Card's opinion on same sex marriage has no affect on his ability to write a fantastic sci-fi novel. And that's what "Ender's Game" is. Fantastic. Another one that you just couldn't put down.

The bulk of "Ender's Game" follows the life of a gifted child named Ender Wiggin, six when the story begins, as he is honed and trained to become a commander in a looming war against an insectoid alien enemy. Humanity was only saved from utter annihilation in the last alien war by the skin of its teeth, and the Powers That Be don't intend to let luck be the deciding factor in the next close encounter. The political reality on Earth is deep into an alternate future where the Cold War is still sort of being played out, and organized religion is frowned upon. Spouses are only allowed to have as many children as their governments allow. The citizens of all the nations of Earth have joined together to resist the "bugger" invasion, but those alliances are more fragile than anyone realizes.

But high above the political squabbles of the Earth, Ender Wiggin attends an orbiting Battle School, where he learns to navigate and fight in three dimensions. He is an extraordinarily quick study, having been selected for this duty by his off-the-charts aptitude for strategy, and empathy. Strategy and battle smarts without compassion and empathy are just a recipe for psychopathic tendencies. Humanity doesn't need more psychopaths. Ender's siblings left back on Earth can testify to this truth. Ender excels at everything he does at Battle School, infuriating some and inspiring others. He finds he is capable of more than he ever wanted to know.

"Ender's Game" moves quickly and without indulging in the painstaking detail of other fantasy novels. Card allows your own imagination to fill in the gaps he leaves. That's one of the things you don't like about movies adapted from books. A movie, however dazzling, is only ever one perspective of a story that was intended to allow for infinite possible interpretations, for endlessly varied imaginings of the same tale. Even though Card's clairvoyance for future technologies is uncanny (the kids log on to world wide information "Webs" and carry around their touch screen "desks," which we call "tablets" today, with them everywhere they go) he leaves the specifics to be fleshed out in your own mind, giving you just enough to let your imagination go wild. Man, you love it when authors do that.

The book explores the concepts of leadership (for good or otherwise) and the curious ethics of a culture that allows their children to be sacrificed on the altar of war whenever it is deemed necessary. It also dives into questions of morality without any heavy-handed obviousness. It makes sense that some children should die and kill others in order for a species to continue its existence, but that's not what any war in human history has been. As effective as our propaganda machines have been, no war has ever been fought to preserve the entire human race. In fact, at this point, if one of our wars gets too out of hand, it could result in the destruction of all life itself. Where is the line there? What is moral in warfare and what is not?

"Ender's Game" is as psychological as it is sci-fi. Ender is able to quickly sum up people and alter his behavior accordingly, like we all do. But the way Card writes these moments is intriguing. He brings clarity to that murky reality that describes how humans are often capable of intuitively anticipating a far distant end result and instantly adjust to either allow or resist that same result from coming to fruition. Card left you thinking, "Yeah... We do judge people like that sometimes, don't we? What is that instinct that enables that?" Ender knows that he is being used for something important, but it doesn't mean he has to enjoy it. His dreams reveal his moral dilemma in being used as a weapon and also a longing for the comforts of the presence of people who love him unconditionally. As childishly honest as he is, Ender knows he can't allow himself to make friends. But his soldiers come to love him anyway. His dreams reveal his moral dilemma in being used as a weapon and a longing for the comforts of the presence of people who love him unconditionally.

This was another book you just could not bring yourself to stop reading.

What is it with novels as opposed to non-fiction? You can become immersed in the story of a great non-fiction book, but it almost never grabs you like a great novel. It must be because you almost always already know how the non-fiction one ends, so you are free to savor the story and dive deep, indulging in the analysis. Whereas with a novel, you become so addicted to the story itself that you aren't nearly as worried about analyzing as much as simply finding out what will happen. Allowing yourself to enjoy the ride.

But as good as the main body of the book was, the ending was far better. It left you with the nagging doubts that most fictionalized war stories tend to forget. What if the wars we choose to fight are all really over some tragic misunderstanding? What if the fights we choose are not necessary? How can we ever know that we are communicating clearly enough to ever think that any war is justified? Can we ever be truly satisfied that we own the moral high ground? How much of a role should forgiveness and grace play in our international (or interstellar) affairs? How can empathy help us as a people, how can it hurt us? How can two cultures, as different as aliens must be from one another, by definition, ever hope to be able to communicate?

In the end, whether it is defeating your enemy on the field of battle, or forgiving them of the atrocities they committed, it all comes down to you learning how to genuinely understand their culture and the way they think. "Ender's Game" helped you begin to understand your own culture a little bit better than you did before. For that, you were grateful.

On to the next book!

P.S. Oh, who am I kidding? Here are a couple clips from the movie that's coming out in a few months.


Monday, July 15, 2013

"To End All Wars" by Adam Hochschild (2011)

You read so many books about war, you thought it might be wise to read one about some of the people who tried to stop the one they called The Great War. You find value in studying war, so it's a good bet you can find value in studying resistance to war as well.

First of all, what a great title, right? World War One was labeled the "War to End All Wars" by those in England who believed it needed to be fought, but those who thought WWI was unnecessary and a massive tragedy worked hard, literally, to end all wars. Very clever.

Second, man, you really need to study more about WWI. It is absolutely fascinating. In those four years, most of what we all think of as the modern world came about. Rapid global travel, mechanized militaries, 'Total War' that targeted civilians and economies as much as the enemy's soldiers, the emergence of submarines, aircraft, instant electronic communications, and the very shape of the countries we all recognize on our maps today, all of these things sprang up when the world went to war in 1914.

Speaking of maps, this book has some good ones. They aren't very pretty, but they are actually useful. Maps of both European Fronts clearly show where the action all happened, and there is even one map numbering the dizzying sequence of domino-like events that lead to so many nations declaring war on one another where only days before there had been peace and prosperity. See, Erik Larson? Using good maps to make your story more understandable is not that hard!

To tell the story of the fight against the Great War, Hochschild has to start with two other stories, the movement to attain women's suffrage in England, and the rise of International Socialism. Both of these groups existed because their members felt they had no power over their own lives. Women (and roughly 40% of British men) weren't allowed to vote at all, and workers all over the world (the proletariat) were feeling the oppression of laboring for an economic system that was demanding much from many to improve the lot of only a very few. When you have those same groups of people being told that they and their loved ones need to fight and die in a war in order to spread freedom and democracy while their allies hail from Tsarist Russia, and they are asked to fight alongside soldiers from India and South Africa, where the natives also aren't allowed to vote, you have a recipe for some serious social conflict.

In fact things in Britain were growing worrisome enough for the government and the upper class of English society that some British Hawks actually welcomed the coming war in the hopes that it would help quell what was fast becoming a full fledged revolution at home. Suffragettes were attacking MPs, burning down homes and churches, throwing bricks through windows, and had even attempted to bomb the house of David Lloyd George, who would become the wartime Prime Minister. Ireland was straining to be free from the rule of the British crown. The great British Empire was beginning to fray at the edges. It is remarkable what people will do when they decide to fight for the right to have their voices to be heard. It is also remarkable what people in power will do to stay there.

You found it fascinating to see the run up to the war from the perspective of the average citizen. Like Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," "To End All Wars" takes history that you knew failry well and flips it on its head, showing you what you thought you knew from a different angle. History does not just happen in the halls of power or on the fields of battle. It happens in people's homes and on their streets, in their churches and in their classrooms. Hindsight always makes history seem like a foregone conclusion, but it is important to you to remember that there were activists and pacifists who fought against the outbreak of war at the time, not because it was merely symbolic, but because there really was a chance to avoid what seemed inevitable. There really was. The way the war ended proves that. Sadly the people on the home fronts of the world realized the futility of the war far too late.

"To End All Wars" leads you through the events of The Great War, the unimaginable slaughter, the awful waste of lives thrown into hopeless shoulder to shoulder marches against the weapons of modern warfare with horrific consequences. Fifty thousand British soldiers dead in one day and a quarter of a million dead in one battle, and the casualty lists kept growing month after month, year after year. The situation became so perverse, that the British commander on the Western Front began measuring his forces' success, not by the ground they gained, but by the casualties they took. He was assuming (mistakenly) that the Germans must be suffering an equal amount. He even became disdainful of officers whose units did not sustain appalling losses. What kind of a general wants his men to die!? If ever there was a war to protest, this was it.

The military leaders of the Western Front were slow to realize that the world had changed. Wars needed to be fought differently now. It took many years and millions of lives before either side began to develop alternative tactics to suicide charges. A public which was quick to cheer the war at its beginning and quick to vilify its critics, slowly came around to the side of the people who had been protesting the war for years. By the time the war was almost over the aristocracy that had ruled Russia for 300 years had been murdered and replaced by a revolutionary Bolshevik Soviet government, the French armies were refusing to fight in suicidal assaults any longer, the British military was withholding forces from the front in order to keep them at home to maintain order, British women had been given the right to vote in order to prevent a full-fledged revolution, and the armies of Germany, still undefeated on the battlefield, were starving and abandoning their positions at the front with words of revolution on their lips. The German navy refused direct orders to sail from their ports and the Kaiser's own brother, commander of the entire Baltic Fleet, had to disguise himself to get out of the port city of Kiel alive. Germany's allies didn't surrender so much as give up fighting because their armies just evaporated.

Shockingly, none of the members of the belligerent governments tried to find a diplomatic coourse that would lead to stopping the bloodshed. Emily Hobhouse, British antiwar juggernaut, was the only person from either side of the bloodiest war in human history (up to that point) to visit the other side seeking peace. She failed. However, Armistice Day arrived not because one army emerged victorious, but because of a mass realization by both the soldiers and the populations of the belligerent countries that the war was stupid. You had no idea that Europe had come so close to an actual continent-wide socialist revolution only 100 years ago. But that is how senseless the violence of this war was, that is how far the madness of it all drove people. Even though the body count in WWII was far, far higher than that of the Great War, at least the armies of '41 and '44 moved! The armies of 1914-18 remained so close to their original starting points that the first and last British soldiers killed in the war are buried in a battlefield cemetery under the shade of the same tree! It proved almost impossible to continue on with the charade that the war was for any noble purpose when mothers and widows were being told all of the male members of their family had died in order to move the front a few hundred yards.

Suddenly, the radicals from 1914, the Pankhursts and Hobhouses and Bertrand Russels and socialist revolutionaries were beginning to sound far more sensible than the governments which demanded more and more sacrifices for less and less benefit. To quote Bertrand Russel on pages 112 and 113,
"As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of all the belligerent nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to barbarism appalled me. As a man of thwarted parental feeling [he as yet had no children] the massacre of the young wrung my heart... This war is trivial, for all its vastness. No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side."
Eventually the people of the world agreed with Russel and those who, like him, were brave enough to speak out against the stupidity of the war. They would also, in time, come to trust the voices they had once tried to silence. Many of the British citizens jailed for refusing the draft later came to serve as members of Parliament or in the Cabinet. One who had not gone to jail but had spoken out loudly against the war, Ramsay MacDonald, was elected Prime Minister of England in 1924.

The propaganda machinery set in motion to swell the ranks of the Allied armies was a little too effective. It certainly inspired millions of boys to enlist, but it planted a seed of hatred that grew in the minds of even those who should have known better. In the days and months following the end of the war, British and French leaders had a choice. They could choose to be lenient on the German people, and show them mercy and some small forgiveness, or they could choose to be vengeful and petty, disguising their bullying with words like "justice" and claims to their own innocence in all the violence. They chose the later option, inflicting an overly burdensome treaty on Germany and demanding more than was just or necessary from their former adversary. The Germans had become a "them," and when we humans make anything about "us v. them" we are capable of committing some of the greatest mistakes in our history. Their mistake in this moment, their inability to rise above their own human frailty set the stage for another, even more destructive conflict. Their refusal to show forgiveness and mercy allowed the reactionary rise of the Nazi party and virtually guaranteed that World War II would be even more inevitable than the War to End All Wars.

But there were moments of hope. There always are. That first Christmas of the war, both sides were still feeling very chivalrous towards one another. The war was all still a game played by boys and men who thought of themselves as Victorian gentlemen. As the sun rose that Christmas morning in 1914, all along No Man's Land between the enemy lines, white flags were raised. Silence filled the air instead of bullets. Young soldiers crept from their trenches and started towards the battlements of their enemies with nothing in their hearts but goodwill. To this day, historians call it the Christmas Truce. Gifts were exchanged and songs were sung. Beer and wine flowed. Animosity was forgotten. Soccer games were played, and old friends, now turned adversaries, were once again united. Peace broke out in the middle of the Great War. If only these soldiers could have kept this attitude for the rest of the war, they all would have made it home alive. For this one day, these men were not soldiers, they were simply citizens of the world. For this one day they looked at the soldiers across the field from them and they did not see the enemy. They were just people, and, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are good.

On to the next book!

P.S. Don't think WWI was all bad. The Victorian era did feature some of the most epic facial hair styles of any war. Check this out.