Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cobra II, Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor

Title: Cobra II
Authors: Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor
Rating: OK

I have finally finished the long, hard slog through this book. Some of it was interesting. Some of it was appalling. Most of it was rather dull, but those parts might be really attractive to someone who loves military history. I suppose I should really concentrate on the book rather than on the politics of the war. Let me at least start there.

The book is about 600 pages long, distributed roughly this way:
  • 150 pages are devoted to pre-war planning
  • 300 pages cover the war itself (roughly up to the time our fearless leader pulled his famous aircraft carrier landing and announced that the mission was accomplished)
  • 50 pages discuss a few of the early post-war issues
  • 100 pages are appendix, index, end notes, and acknowledgments
The chapters discussing the pre-war planning are interesting. It is very clear that Rumsfeld put his stamp on this war very, very firmly. He was the one pushing to limit our troops in Iraq. He was the one who most clearly discounted previous war plans for Iraq that required three times the troops we deployed there. He even prevented the Pentagon from using its usual troop deployment computer system and went over all the deployment requests by hand, himself, to minimize the number of troops and resources we deployed to Iraq. Whether you agree with the war or not - and it is clear that Saddam was a bad guy in any case - there are all kinds of questions that can be raised about the planning for the war.

Those 300 pages in the middle were hard sledding for me. I can read a detailed description of one battle just fine. I can even read detailed descriptions of a few battles without glazing over. But this is 300 pages of "Colonel Foo took his XYZ to some-town-I've-never-heard-of and attacked from the East. While that was going on, Captain Bar of the 2772nd Marine XFN took his platoon into some-other-town-I've-never-heard-of and attacked from the West, intending to take the bridge over the river Yadda-yadda." And so on. It is full of military acronyms that I don't know, and descriptions of both carnage and heroism.

Individually - based on this book - it seems that many (and probably most) of our soldiers were trying to do the right thing. However, as a group we wound up doing some things I find just awful. I'm no military expert, however, and perhaps (viewed from a military perspective) these things were done correctly. I honestly don't know. But they do make for some awful reading at times.

Cobra II, while it was published in 2006, doesn't cover much of the post war effort in any depth. Thus there are only 50 pages or so in that section. In any event, those pages do discuss some of the issues that we encountered in the initial post-war phase, and some of the stupid things we did in the process of trying to wind things up. One of the largest problems is that we didn't have enough troops on the ground to provide security after the war.

The Bush administration has long said it doesn't value nation building, and that it sees the US efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo as failures. Their idea was to go in quickly, get rid of Saddam, and get out. The hope was that the local people - like the Iraqi army - would assist in the stabilization effort after the war was over. In addition, they planned on getting a lot of international support afterwards. Neither of those hopes ever materialized, and (in a strange twist) we actually disbanded the Iraqi army ourselves, putting something like 300,000 unemployed and armed men out on the streets.

Several earlier war plans said we'd need something like 350,000 to 450,000 troops to win the war and stabilize the country afterwards. A Rand Corp study supported those numbers, saying that the safest peacekeeping efforts the US has been involved in have been the ones where the most troops were involved. Several other advisers told the President and Rumsfeld the same basic thing, but all were ignored. Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and Bush decided to go with the minimal number of troops needed to win the initial conflict, which turned out to be about 150,000 in Iraq itself. (Mind you, they were planning to fight the Iraqi army and Republican Guard, not the Fedayeen. But that's another issue that they ignored altogether when things got rolling.)

Now stop for a moment and ponder the reasons we went to war in the first place. The single biggest factor was Iraq's presumed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Bush didn't want those used or (more importantly) given to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. From this book it is clear that the military believed Iraq had WMD and would use them at some point - probably as we closed in on Baghdad. Chemical and biological weapons were both possible, and even nuclear weapons weren't unexpected.

And yet, we went in with so few troops that we couldn't even secure all of the suspected WMD sites and the country's borders. In at least some cases, military units going into the initial conflict didn't even have maps telling them where suspected WMD sites were. Thus, they never bothered trying to secure (or even examine) them as they went by. And in the chaos after the war, if there had been WMD sites scattered all over the country - as the CIA thought - they'd have been looted and their contents sold to the highest bidders all over.

In other words, if our intelligence had been right, this administration's actions would have made the world a far less safe place. We'd have chemical weapon attacks going off all over the planet by now, and all because we tried to run the war on the cheap. This was, to me, the biggest surprise of all: the incompetence of our elected leaders and military planning was offset by the incompetence of our intelligence apparatus, at least as far as Iraqi WMD was concerned.

As bad as it continues to be in Iraq - and I believe it is very bad - we're lucky it isn't far, far worse for all of us, everywhere on earth.

My overall evaluation of this book is just "it's OK". If you're a military historian, it may be a fascinating read. If you're interested in the politics behind the decisions to go to war, there's not as much of that here as you'd probably like. And if you're looking for data on the post-war efforts and events, that's mostly missing from this volume as well.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Take The Cannoli, Sarah Vowell

Title: Take The Cannoli
Author: Sarah Vowell
Rating: Good

My last review indicated that I was slogging through two books and not particularly enjoying either one. That review - of Catch-22 - was one of those books. This is not the other one. In fact, Take The Cannoli is a highly enjoyable, quickly read book of essays, some of which I've heard before on NPR - usually via a show called This American Life where Sarah Vowell is a regular contributor.

Sarah's writing is generally light and fun, often concentrating on humorous episodes from her personal life, but she does tackle some larger and/or more painful subjects. Here she covers things as dark as the Trail Of Tears, but for me her writing is at its best when it is most personal. The story of her trying to understand her father the gun nut is a gem. The pieces about American history of one sort or another - where the connection between her and the story is more tenuous - are interesting, but don't grab me quite as deeply.

This book was published in 2000, and we all know a few things have changed since it was printed. I hope she writes a book including the essays she's written during the Bush (43) years. She'll have some very interesting things to say.

Here are a few lines from Take The Cannoli that I thought were particularly good:
  • "Being irrational can get so inexplicable." From Drive Through Please, about learning to drive at age 28.

  • "Observing these random hobbyists try to keep up with [Nils] Lofgren is like watching Origin of the Species: The Musical." From Your Dream, My Nightmare, in which she goes to Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp.

  • "Sine coffea nihil sum. Without coffee I'm nothing." Her personal motto, from Dark Circles, about trying to find a remedy for insomnia.
Sarah Vowell definitely can turn a phrase. And while her work is better when she reads it in that second grade (her term) voice of hers, it seems to hold up better in written form than that of David Sedaris. It's still properly warm and fuzzy on the page, even though you know it would be funnier if she were there in person, reading it aloud.

A recommended read.

Oh, and for those who haven't seen it or don't know, Sarah Vowell is also the voice of Violet Parr (the oldest child) in the movie The Incredibles.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Rating: Neutral

I've been slogging through two different books lately, neither has been fun, and neither is all that interesting, but this one finished up first.

"What?" I hear you cry. "Catch-22 is famous! It's one of the top 100 books! It's a classic! It has to be good! It is good!"

Forget it. I don't care that it appears at number seven on The Modern Library's list. It's not that good. Not even remotely. I'm giving it a neutral rating for a very specific reason, rather than the negative rating I think it really deserves.

My reasons for such a harsh judgment are pretty straightforward:
  1. It borders on incoherent. The story isn't told in any order the reader can fathom. Yes, perhaps, if you take detailed notes about a couple of things you might be able to track some of it, but overall, it's impossible to follow.

  2. There is no - and I mean zero - character development. None. Not a single one of the characters we meet changes in any appreciable way during the book, except that a bunch of them die. At the very end you might think that the Chaplain has possibly changed, but three pages later the book is over and you never find out. Yossarian - in theory the hero of the book - also never changes. Right up until the very end he's still the same confused git that he was at the start.

  3. There are no characters to care about in here. People talk about Major Major Major Major as being hysterically funny. He's a bit player, mentioned in any depth in a couple of short chapters and just a passing character after that. What about the guy who's extending his life through boredom? There's almost no actual mention of that here. Again, he's just not there. None of the characters has a role significant enough to cause me to get interested in them. I kept wondering when someone would do something interesting, and if I should even bother finishing the book if they didn't.

  4. The characters have no motivations. Why is Yossarian good (or at least as good as he is)? Why does Nately's whore go off the deep end like she does? Why are Colonels Cathcart & Korn slimy bastards? We don't know. Nothing is ever explained about them. This just adds to the fact that I don't care about any of the characters in the least.

  5. The writing is poor. Heller describes the appearance of characters we've met before almost every time we meet them again. Each time he blurs the few distinct impressions we have of them until they're all just faceless, pointless people. That may be deliberate on his part, but it keeps them from being memorable. Again, maybe that was part of the point, but if he's going to write about people we're supposed to forget, why bother writing about them in the first place?

    Oh, and every so often Heller tosses in a word or two that you need an OED to lookup. I'm good at picking meanings up from context - I do it all the time - but this was just pointless. All it did was irritate me.

  6. It's not funny. Pure and simple. It's just not funny. I never even cracked a smile while reading this, let alone laughed out loud. It's so off that it doesn't even work as farce. That was my biggest frustration with the book. I'd been lead to believe that it was hilarious when it simply wasn't.
So why am I giving it a neutral rating? I suspect there is a matter of perspective here, and I grant that I may not have the right one. It is possible that - for its time - this was a ground breaking book. Maybe no one had written like this about WWII before. Perhaps no one had made fun of "The Greatest Generation" in this way. If so - and I think it is possible - then taken in that context it may be an important work. Viewed with my sensibilities, from 2007, though, it fails totally. But on the assumption that lots of people think it is either important or funny or both, I'm not going to trash it completely. I don't claim to understand those points of view, but perhaps there is something to them. I'm giving it a neutral rating for that reason only.

Lastly, I have another frustration to go with this book that I want to call out separately. For as long as I can remember I've known the expression "Catch-22" and wondered where it came from. I'd been told it came from this book, so I was hoping for a real explanation here. Not of what the expression means - that I understand - but why that phrase was picked. Is there perhaps some historical reason for it? Or does it come from some obscure legal jargon?

Nope. He made it up. From whole cloth. There's nothing in the book about it at all. Nothing except the first explanation of what it means. But if you search wikipedia for "Catch-22" you learn (as of the date this review was written anyway) that the book was originally titled Catch-18 and the publisher wanted it changed to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's Mila 18. Read the wiki page for the details.

Now let me be clear. If an author is good enough to get some new phrase stuck into the language as completely as "catch-22" has become a part of idiomatic English, I congratulate him or her for the achievement. Heller deserves full credit for that. But when I stand back and say "OK.. why that phrase?" there is no answer. If he'd done something really clever - based the phrase on something that was obscure but interesting or relevant, I'd really applaud him. But in this case he could just as easily have called it the "olgleblat rule" as "catch-22" (or "catch-18") and it wouldn't have mattered in the slightest:
"That's some rule, that ogleblat rule," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
See. No change. Nothing important differs. It's just silly. Now I do admire and appreciate silliness, but for it to work it has to be funny, and as I pointed out above, it's not.

I wish I'd enjoyed this book.

As it happens, I saw the movie of the same name just before starting to read the book. The movie is actually much worse than the book. Entire series of events are explained even less well in the movie. For example, I had no idea who it was that was stabbing Yossarian in the movie at all. None. I had to read the book to learn that tidbit. Of course I still didn't care, but at least the book let me know who it was. So give the movie a pass along with the book. Neither is any good.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Marley & Me, John Grogan

Title: Marley & Me
Author: John Grogan
Rating: Great!

My wife was given this book for Christmas, and spent a fair bit of time howling with laughter while she read it. Then she set it down on the top of my TBR pile, so I picked it up next. The story covers the life and times of Marley, a huge, goofy, and borderline psychotic Labrador Retriever owned by John Grogan and his family. The subtitle is "Life and love with the world's worst dog" and that gives you a pretty good idea of what is coming. Marley lived a long and full life, and I can assure you that parts of it are amazingly funny. Of course, any story of this nature covers the end as well, and I spent the last two chapters bawling my eyes out as I read about Marley's failing health and eventual end.

I love my dogs. They mean more to me than almost anything, and I do my best to take them everywhere I can. Sometimes they drive me crazy, of course, but that's all part of the package deal. I won't recount their stories here - though I still need to write them up for posterity - but I will say that Nikki suffered one of the same issues that Marley did: a horrible fear of loud noises, particularly thunderstorms. If you read this book and learn what Marley was like, you've also learned about Nikki in that case, though she was a lot lighter than Marley, which reduces the damage potential somewhat.

Grogan covers more than Marley's life, though. This is basically an autobiography. He's a good writer, and the stories are good, but they are at their best when Marley is on the center stage.

Recommended reading if you're an animal lover, or want to be one.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Letter To A Christian Nation, Sam Harris

Title: Letter To A Christian Nation
Author: Sam Harris
Rating: Great!

This little (91 page) book should be read by everyone. And I mean everyone. Harris clearly and concisely addresses a broad range of concerns about religion that most of us ignore or sidestep. Given he's also the author of The End Of Faith - a book I must go out and purchase - you can guess that his point of view is strongly anti-religion. I say: "more power to him."

Doug reviewed this book as well, and his comments are well thought out (it was that review, in fact, that setup my reading of the book) but I'm not sure I agree with him about the need to avoid provoking the mainstream Christians. If we don't, I don't see how anything changes for the better. Of course, there may be no way to change things for the better in any case. If it can happen, though, it's got to start here at home, in the good old US of A. Our house must be scrupulously in order before we try to lead on this (or any other) issue, and frankly, we're pretty messed up as a nation of late.

Harris is eloquent in his writing, but he holds nothing back. Here's a quote - one of many that strongly resonated with me - as I read this little gem of a book. This comes from page 73:
The truth is that no one knows how or why the universe came into being. It is not clear that we can even speak coherently about the creation of the universe, given that such an event can be conceived only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the birth of space-time itself. Any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for there intellectual arrogance. There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell. . . . An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse - and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.
I wish I could write half as well.

Do yourself a favor: if you are honest about your beliefs and think that religion is correct in any sense, please read this book. You don't have to agree with it in the end, and I'm not asking you to buy it - get it from the library if you can - but please read it. It's a cry for intellectual honesty and reason from all of us. If you don't come away questioning your religious beliefs, at least you'll have spend some time thinking about them in depth, and asking questions about them that might not have occurred to you before. Hopefully you can't be hurt by that bit of introspection.

When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours, Teller

Title: When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours
Author: Teller
Rating: OK

I think I found a reference to this book on Regardless of where I heard about it, I've always liked Penn and Teller's brand of magic, so I requested it on a whim.

Think of it as a short, light hearted biography of Joe and Irene Teller - the parents of Teller, the quiet half of Penn and Teller - by their son. It was inspired by Teller's discovery that his father had drawn cartoons at one time, hoping to be published (and make some money in the process, of course).

I found the book to be a brief but amusing diversion. The cartoons are interesting, but the center of the story is Joe Teller's life as he grew from boyhood to marriage to WWII. He spent time as a tramp, riding rail cars all over the lower 48, and some of that lifestyle is briefly documented here.

There isn't anything amazing in these pages, just anecdotes from Teller's parents as they look back on their first 40 years of life. But it is fun in its own, quiet way. I'd have liked to see more paintings by the Tellers, though. The few included show they both have significant skill with paint - far more than I will ever have.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Title: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Rating: Great!

Blame this one on crystaldearest. Her review at the end of 2006 caused me to decide it was past time to reread this classic. I'd had it on my 2006 reading list but hadn't gotten around to it. Now I have.

In my opinion, Neuromancer continues to be one of the great pieces of science fiction. The plot is complex, the future real, and the characters fascinating. Some of my more recent reading has had me a bit worried. I haven't enjoyed some of the science fiction and fantasy as much as I expected I would. Perhaps, I thought, my tastes are changing. But no, Neuromancer is still every bit as good as it was back in 1984 when it was published.

For those who haven't read it, it's the story of Case (a hacker in today's lingo), Molly (a thug, but what a thug), and a few others as they commit a crime of mind bending proportions. When they are done, something new may come into existence, or they may all be dead.

Of all the characters here I have the most affection for Molly. She's always viewed from the outside - the story is told entirely from Case's perspective - so she's got a bit of mystery to her. And she really is a thug. You wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley, regardless of whose side she (and you) are on. But she's got style, and something else - something that is hard to describe. Perhaps it's a code of ethics, though it's clear that she'll break any rules she wants. Regardless, there is something attractive about Molly, at least to me.

As I say, the story is complex and the future world presented is very real. It's dark, no doubt, but even in that setting Gibson doesn't have us give up hope. He's showing us the worst of the worst - the seedy criminal element and the ultra-rich - without spending a lot of time on the rest of the population. But they're around - called "tourists" mostly - and though the work might be called dystopian, it does have elements of hope.

Something I really appreciate about this novel is that it doesn't descend into fantasy. Gibson writes solid SF here. He doesn't violate the rules he sets up for the world. Some cyberpunk novels wind up with mysterious beings that populate the matrix and can do things outside of it. That's bugged me, but it doesn't happen here. Neuromancer is solid entertainment, very thought provoking, and non-stop action.

So thank you, crystaldearest, for causing me to reread this one. It's still an excellent book. Highly recommended.