Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Foreign Affairs Bestsellers - September/October 2008

  1. The Post-American World. Fareed Zakaria. Norton, $25.95. [Previous rank: 1]
  2. Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Ted Sorensen. Harper, $27.95. [New Listing]
  3. Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters. Richard A. Clarke. Ecco, $25.95. [New Listing]
  4. War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq. Richard Engel. Simon & Schuster, $28.00. [New Listing]
  5. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. Michael Dobbs. Knopf, $28.95. [New Listing]
  6. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. Muhammad Yunus. PublicAffairs, $26.00. [Previous rank: 14]
  7. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Ahmed Rashid. Viking, $27.95 [New Listing]
  8. Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, From Communism to al-Qaeda. Richard Wallace and H. Keith Melton with Henry Robert Schlesinger. Dutton, $29.95. [New Listing]
  9. War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. Douglas J. Feith. Harper, $27.95. [Previous rank: 4]
  10. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. William J. Bernstein. Atlantic Monthly Press, $30.00. [Previous rank: 9]
  11. Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad. Andrew C. McCarthy. Encounter Books, $25.95. [Previous rank: 7]
  12. Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making. David Rothkopf. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00. [Previous rank: 10]
  13. The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. Steve Coll. Penguin Press, $35.00. [Previous rank: 2]
  14. Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy. Natan Sharansky. PublicAffairs, $26.95. [New Listing]
  15. The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Robert Kagan. Knopf, $19.95. [New Listing]

The Economist's "Pick of the Pile" - 6

Here is the sixth section of The Economist’s best of 2008.

Culture and digressions

Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts. By Joseph Horowitz. HarperCollins; 480 pages; $27.50 and ₤27.50.

Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History: Volume I, 1863-1959. Edited by Bruce Altshuler. Phaidon; 410 pages; $90 and ₤45.

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. By Henry Hitchings. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 440 pages; $27. John Murray; ₤16.99.

How Fiction Works. By James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 288 pages; $24. Jonathan Cape; ₤16.99.

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionised American Music. By Ted Gioia. Norton; 448 pages; $27.95 and ₤16.99.

Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes. By Ferdinand Mount. Bloomsbury; 384 pages; ₤15.

Knight's Castle as a Literary Resource

For one reason and another, I haven't posted anything much in the way of personal musings or opinion lately, with the exception of a short comment on the rather sudden appearance of the Philistines in the book of Judges. But there has been quite a bit of material posted to Knight's Castle.

For one thing, Lloyd Smith and I have posted quite a number of book reviews. More of these have been about the Middle East and the war in Iraq, than any other single topic, but there have been reviews of several works of fiction and one book on neurology and music. Lloyd has most recently posted a review of Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. This is a very good review of an excellent book. (I commented on Fiasco in one of my reading lists from the summer of 2007.) We would appreciate comments on these reviews from those who have also read these books, as well as from those who may have read other books on the same subjects, or have other reasons for commenting.

I have posted several lists now from the Foreign Affairs bestseller lists. I find these an excellent resource for finding good books in international relations and foreign policy. Several of the books I have reviewed lately appeared on the Foreign Affairs lists, and I am planning to continue seeking out books from those lists to read and review.

The Economist magazine publishes an annual list of best books of the preceding year, and I have been posting sections of that list here. So far, I have posted five lists: Politics and current affairs; Economics and business; History; Biography; Science and technology. I will publish the remaining two shortly.

Since I started this blog, I have published twenty-two posts on my monthly reading lists. These begin with January 2007 and run through October 2008. I will be publishing my lists for November and December of 2008 shortly. Because I have been publishing reviews of books I've been reading, I think the reading lists may take a somewhat different form beginning with January 2009.

In all, aside from whatever value it might have as a forum for the discussion of political, economic, philosophical and other questions, I hope that you find Knight's Castle a valuable resource for informing you of interesting and useful books. As always, your comments and suggestions for improving this blog are welcomed.

The Economist's "Pick of the Pile" - 5

Here is the fifth section of The Economist’s best of 2008.

Science and technology

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. By Rose George. Metropolitan Books; 304 pages; $26. Portobello Books; ₤12.99.

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. Edited by Timothy Gowers, June Barrow-Green and Imre Leader. Princeton University Press; 1,008 pages; $99 and ₤60.

Bad Science. By Ben Goldacre. Fourth Estate; 352 pages; ₤12.

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Duelling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. By Matthew Goodman. Basic Books; 384 pages; $26 and ₤15.99.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Yale University Press; 304 pages; $26 and ₤18.

Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. By Matthew Connelly. Harvard University Press/Belknap; 544 pages; $35 and ₤22.95.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. By Sudhir Venkatesh. Penguin Press; 320 pages; $25.95. Allen Lane; ₤18.99.

The Economist's "Pick of the Pile" - 4

Here is the fourth section of The Economist’s best of 2008.


Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. By Rick Pearlstein. Scribner; 896 pages; $37.50 and ₤25.

The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of V. S. Naipaul. By Patrick French. Knopf; 576 pages; $30. Picador; ₤20.

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. By Jonathan Bite. Random House; 496 pages; $35. Viking; ₤25.

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson. By Brenda Wineapple. Knopf; 432 pages; $27.95 and ₤27.95.

Chagall: A Biography. By Jackie Wullschlager. Knopf; 608 pages; $40. Allen Lane; ₤30.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005
by Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin, 2007

Bob Woodward’s The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, which Glenn reviewed earlier, examines the current “surge era” of the war in Iraq, beginning in 2006. In this book, Thomas Ricks offers a thoroughly sourced analysis of how we went to war in Iraq, how the war was conducted prior to the surge, and the consequences that the early phase of the war had for the US. As a bonus, it is also a gripping, fast-paced narrative.

In a nutshell, Ricks demonstrates that US decision-makers justified the war with Iraq by believing worst-case assumptions; indeed, in many cases they actively solicited those assumptions, and in some cases, they probably manufactured them. The chief villains he sees in this process are Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Dick Cheney. Wolfowitz, one of the many Department of Defense high-level officials who had no military experience at all, is the subject of Ricks' particular scorn.

After the decision to go to war was made, the mind set of our decision-makers changed; rather than believing worst-case scenarios, they believed best-case assumptions about how our forces would be received by the Iraqis and how the war would likely proceed. This led to what Ricks sees as the major blunder in US planning, the commitment of insufficient troops to the war. The chief villains are Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, but the political generals in the Joint Chiefs of Staff are also culpable.

The lack of sufficient forces was exacerbated by a complete failure of vision on the part of the Army's leaders, namely their near amnesia about the lessons the US learned at great cost in Vietnam about fighting insurgencies.

Ricks does not see sinister conspiracies or imperialistic ambitions at the root of our Iraqi involvement; rather, he sees it literally as a fiasco. The book's subtitle is "The American Military Adventure in Iraq." He's using "adventure" in the sense of an ill-considered fling, and that sums up his view of how the war was prosecuted.

The only heroes in the book are the ground troops, most of whom have acted with great courage and honor to carry out the wishes of our political and military leaders—no matter how ill-considered or unrealistic—while they tried to stay alive in the steadily deteriorating conditions prior to the surge.

The book is based on hundreds of interviews Ricks conducted with current and former political, foreign policy, and military officials. The unique thing he does is to rely most heavily on the military "middle management"—the majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels—for the bulk of his interviews. These are the people who have the best vantage point for what happened at the intersection of policy and military operations early in the war.

This is an important, well-written book that will more than justify the time taken to read it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Economist's "Pick of the Pile" - 3

Here is the Third section of the Economist’s best of 2008.


The Return of History and the End of Dreams. By Robert Kagan. Knopf; 128 pages; $19.95. Atlantic Books; ₤12.99.

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. By William J. Bernstein. Atlantic Monthly Press; 467 pages; $30. Atlantic Books; ₤22.

Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. By Anthony Lewis. Basic Books; 240 pages; $25 and ₤14.99.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. By Richard Holmes. Harper Press; 380 pages; ₤20.

Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West. By Andrew Roberts. Allen Lane; 720 pages; ₤25.

Out of Mao’s Shadow: the Struggle for the Soul of a New China. By Philip P. Pan. Simon & Schuster; 368 pages; $38. Picador; ₤14.99.

Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present. By Jonathan Fenby. Ecco Books; 816 pages; $34.95.

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919. By Mark Thompson. Faber & Faber; 464 pages; ₤25.

The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. By Sarah Wise. The Bodley Head; 240 pages; ₤20.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Centre of the World. By Roger Crowley. Random House; 368 pages; $30. Faber & Faber; ₤20.

American Rifle: A Biography. By Alexander Rose. Delacorte Press; 512 pages; $30.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Economist's "Pick of the Pile" - 2

Here is the second section of the Economist’s best of 2008.

Economics and Business

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash. By Charles R. Morris. PublicAffairs; 224 pages; $22.95 and ₤13.99.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State. By Yasheng Huang. Cambridge University Press; 366 pages; $30 and ₤15.99.

When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change. By Mohamed El-Erian. McGraw-Hill; 304 pages; $27.95 and ₤15.99.

The Venturesome Economy: How Innovation Sustains Prosperity in a More Connected World. By Amar Bhide. Princeton University Press; 520 pages; $35 and ₤19.95.

The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World. By Tim Harford. Random House; 272 pages; $25. Little, Brown; ₤18.95.

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. By Don Tapscott. McGraw-Hill; 384 pages; $27.95 and ₤15.99.

Globality: Competing with Everyone from Everywhere for Everything. By Hal Sirkin, Jim Hemerling and Arindam Bhattacharya. Business Plus; 304 pages; $26.99 and ₤18.99.

The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs. By Charles D. Ellis. Penguin Press; 752 pages; $37.95. Allen Lane; ₤25.

The Economist's "Pick of the Pile" - 1

Every December the Economist magazine publishes a list of the best books of the preceding year. I decided that it would be worthwhile to publish this list, to assist my readers in planning their reading for the next while. I have omitted the short reviews which appeared with the list in the December 6, 2008, issue. Many of these books, if not all, had longer reviews in the Economist in the course of 2008. Here is the first section of the Economist’s best of 2008.

Politics and Current Affairs

The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State. By Noah Feldman. Princeton University Press; 200 pages; $22.95 and ₤13.50.

A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East. By Lawrence Freedman. PublicAffairs; 624 pages; $29.95. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; ₤20.

Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy. By David Marquand. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 496 pages; ₤25.

The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. By Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes. Norton; 311 pages; $22.95. Allen Lane; ₤20.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. By Jane Mayer. Doubleday; 400 pages; $27.50 and ₤22.85.

Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror. By Benjamin Wittes. Penguin Press; 305 pages; $25.95.

India: The Emerging Giant. By Arvind Panagariya. Oxford University Press; 544 pages; $39.95 and ₤19.99.

Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant. By Heidi Holland. Penguin; 280 pages; $30 and ₤17.99.

The War Within - A Review

Woodward, Bob. The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2008. xvi + 487 pages. Glossary. Notes. Acknowledgments. Index. $32.00.

This is the fourth of Bob Woodward’s chronicles of the Bush administration’s struggles with Islamic terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its domestic critics, and itself. As a reminder, the first three were Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and State of Denial. One of the most interesting background features of The War Within is that President Bush resumes his interviews with Woodward, after cutting him off during the writing of State of Denial. I suppose the president decided that he had a better chance of getting his point across if he talked to Woodward, than if he forced Woodward to rely on opposition sources.

The story of The War Within is the story of the origins of the surge. During 2006, while President Bush was campaigning for Republican candidates, there were a number of studies underway on the war in Iraq, and all of them were concluding that the war was not going well. This point was put most bluntly by the so-called Council of Colonels, an ad-hoc review panel pulled together by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when they concluded that if the United States was not winning the war, it was losing it. In effect, all of the various reviews – the Iraq Study Group, the Council of Colonels, State Department studies, and National Security Council studies, all concluded that the war that was being conducted by George Casey in Iraq and John Abizaid at Central Command was a losing effort.

By 2006, after three years of what might charitably be called drift in Iraq, George Bush himself was not satisfied with the way the war was going. He was certainly not satisfied with the way it was perceived by Congress, including the Republicans in Congress, and the public. He was not, however, going to tell anyone that the war was not a success. The first theme of The War Within, a theme that pervades the first two-thirds of the book, is Bush’s determination to maintain a public stance that the war was going well, that the United States was winning, that Iraq was better off and the United States was more secure, while he was countenancing a number of assessments and reviews, all predicated on the unsatisfactory state of the war and the current strategy.

Years ago, I read an article about business communications, in which the author discussed research showing a disconnect between what one level of management perceived as their subordinates’ greatest problems, and what the subordinates themselves identified as their worst problems. The conclusion was that the subordinates were reluctant, even strongly averse, to reveal to their superiors that they were having a problem, unless they could identify a plausible solution. Therefore, the bosses only knew about the problems the subordinates thought they knew how to solve. The really intractable problems were kept close to the subordinates’ vests.

I was reminded of this, because Woodward’s portrayal of Bush struck me as a case in which the president was not going to reveal to his bosses – the American people – that he perceived the war in Iraq as a major problem, until he was able to present them with a solution. Thus, for seven months, Mr. Bush “put on a happy face” about the war in Iraq, while those around him were trying to formulate an alternative strategy that could turn the war into a success. Was Mr. Bush lying to the American people? Was he just trying to make the best of a bad deal? Was he trying to maintain support for the strategy we had until he could bring forward the new one? The effect is very much one of a man who was not willing to let the public know that he had any doubts or concerns about the war, when, in fact, he had pretty much written off the current strategy and those responsible for carrying it out.

The second theme is President Bush’s passivity. President Bush didn’t ask Steve Hadley, his National Security Advisor, to undertake a review of the war in Iraq. He didn’t ask the Joint Chiefs to start the Council of Colonel’s study. He didn’t ask Condoleeza Rice to have some of her Iraq experts conduct a study. The movers here are Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff, Chuck Robb on the Iraq Study Group, and Steve Hadley. Hadley started a review on his own initiative, obtained the president’s approval to proceed when he needed to, and pushed the process to come up with an alternative strategy. Keane identified the problem, and identified David Petraeus as the best man to deal with it. Chuck Robb may have been the first to suggest a temporary increase in force as a means of turning the corner in Iraq.

The president may have been “the decider,” but he wasn’t the initiator, he wasn’t the leader, he wasn’t the engine of change. What is most depressing about this book is the sense of wasted time. From 2003 until 2006 George W. Bush was becoming more and more unhappy with the war in Iraq. He wasn’t willing to say so publicly, and he didn’t take any action within his administration to change that. In 2006, until the Congressional elections were over, he was unwilling to expose his thinking to public view. He was unwilling to fire Don Rumsfeld, because it might show weakness. He was unwilling to replace George Casey, because it might reveal a lack of resolve. In the meantime, men, women and children were dying in Iraq, waiting for the president of the United States to make up his mind.

This is a very good book. I would say it is essential reading for anyone interested in the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq. But it is a portrait of a man who was either so sure of himself that he was incapable of motivating himself to make necessary changes, or so insecure that his fear of appearing indecisive overwhelmed his ability to make the right decisions.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

War Games - A Review

Anvil, Christopher. War Games. Edited by Eric Flint. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2008. 468 pages. $22.00.

War Games is a collection of stories with a theme, as indicated by the title. And yet, there are more motives here than just stories about war. The collection contains 18 stories, or, more precisely, a novel of about 200 pages and 17 shorter pieces, gathered into six sections. The dates of original publication range from April of 1957 to February of 1982, so even the newest story (“Top Line”) is more than a quarter-century old.

In my review of The Trouble With Aliens, I noted that Mr. Anvil’s fiction was influenced by the Cold War. The first three sections of this book also reveal the importance of that influence. The Peacekeepers’ Problems includes three stories, all with an ironic, or even a sardonic, bent. “Truce By Boomerang” reminds us that peacekeepers are most likely to be successful when they possess some effective means of sanctioning the other, more heavily-armed, parties. “A Rose By Any Other Name …” puts a twist on the old epistemological question of whether we can think about things we have no words for. “The New Member” is a humorous story, eschewing political correctness to lampoon the pretensions of some of the world’s newer countries.

There are four stories in the Washington’s Headaches group, of which “Babel II,” a fable (I think I’m using that word correctly) about the difficulties raised by overspecialization. As technology advances, could we reach the point that various specialist grouping would take on the significance of religious or ethnic groups? “The Trojan Bombardment” is a nice bit of farce. “Problem of Command” relates to some of the same problems raised by “Babel II.” When everything has become too sophisticated to be known, what is the right mix of technical knowledge and judgment to provide a level of understanding sufficient for control?

Moscow’s Dilemmas has the fine story “War Games,” in which the U.S. and the USSR manage to step back from the brink of war by going to … war. The other stories in the section are entertaining.

The Free Enterprise at Work section has four stories, of which “Top Line,” about technological innovation in the face of obsolescence and economic challenges is probably the best. “Gadget vs. Trend” is interesting, and Anvil has a good time making fun of academic views of real life.

The fifth and largest section has only two stories, “Ideological Defeat” and The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun, the latter of which was first published by Ace Books back in 1980. These are related stories, set in the same post-war (or is it?) world, in which the survivors in North America have been reduced to barbarism, while the remnants of the Soviet empire seem to have retained some of their sophisticated technology.

“Ideological Defeat” serves as an introduction to the novel The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun, bringing up the main characters, setting up the situation, and working through a conflict to reveal how this world operates. Arakal, the leader of the remnants of the old democratic regimes of North America is a well-drawn character, and the story revolves around his efforts to oppose a Russian invasion of his territory. The author is quite serious about the distinction he makes in the title between ideological defeats and other kinds of setbacks. Again, we see the Cold War influence at work in Anvil’s writing.

However, it is worth noting that “Ideological Defeat” was published in 1972, while The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun was issued eight years later. And while the novel embodies a confrontation between democratic and totalitarian principles, the purposes of the actors are not quite what you might expect them to be. Moreover, when the truth is revealed about the “war” that caused the destruction of both American and Soviet society, a considerable shift is required in one’s thinking about the roles of the characters one has met.

In fact, it might be fair to say that The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun is less about the opposition of “conservative” democracies and “radical” totalitarian states, and more about the totalitarians’ and democrats’ differing attitudes toward risk and innovation. Anvil is quite right that change, innovation, is inherently unsettling. This provokes two responses, which I might refer to as the defensive and the exploitative. In this novel, it is the rugged barbarians who see innovation as a means of solving some of their problems and, thus, something to seize upon, while the apparently more sophisticated servants of the security apparatus are actually playing the part of the French aristocracy in 1788.

The final section, Or Peace, has but a single story, “Philosopher’s Stone.” This is a very well-written story, very nicely set up around the problem of time dilation, which explores how a well-run state might encourage innovation. I was very pleased with this story, as it does a better job than many government programs at defining the right kind of incentives to stimulate the desired behavior.

Altogether, War Games is a most enjoyable reading experience. It includes some very good stories, and I was glad to see a book-length work by Christopher Anvil. I was beginning to wonder if he had every tried longer forms. Now I know he has tried the novel form, and that he was quite successful at it. A good collection that will repay the reader’s time and … well, I won’t say effort, because you won’t have to expend much to get through this collection.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Trouble With Aliens - A Review

Anvil, Christopher. The Trouble With Aliens. Edited by Eric Flint. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2006. 440 pages. $24.00

Half of the eighteen stories in this collection are in a section entitled War with the Outs. As the sequence of stories begins, the Outs are winning the war. They don’t have better technology, more weaponry, or more skillful generals – the secret is that they have a secret agent at the heart of Earth’s defenses. This agent has mental powers that enable him to persuade Earth’s leaders to adopt self-defeating strategies. He is, in fact, so clever, so insidious, that the only way to stop him is through an act of massive self-sacrifice.

I don’t know that Anvil intended to make the Secretary of Defense in “The Prisoner” a Christ figure, but his final action is at least comparable to that of Samson. He sacrifices himself and the entire central government to be sure of eliminating the traitor within. Once that key act of redemption has occurred, the remaining stories in the cycle chronicle the slow but steady human success in defeating the Outs.

What I find particularly interesting about this story, and the more general theme of the traitors within, is that most of these stories were written in the late 1950s, the days of Sputnik and the “missile gap,” in which right-wing groups were more concerned about putative enemies within than the actual Soviet enemy without. Ah, the halcyon days of Senator McCarthy (Joe, not Gene), and the John Birch Society’s references to Eisenhower as a Communist agent!
Christopher Anvil’s work was influenced by the Cold War. His is, of course, the conservative, rather than the liberal reaction to a lack of success: It can’t be our own missteps; there must be a traitor among us. (Not that liberals are immune to that sort of thinking, but in my lifetime this sort of leap has been characteristic of the hard right.) Not only is it necessary to weed out the enemy within, but taking out the entire central government along the way will only strengthen us. Meanwhile, the men on the front lines seem to be immune to such evil influences. Steadfast and true, they need only to be given a free hand and a decent amount of support in order to defeat any enemy, no matter how strong.

There are some very strong stories in the War with the Outs group. “Cargo for Colony 6” is a very well-written story about mental powers and our problems with dealing with things we don’t understand. “Foghead” is very entertaining. “The Ghost Fleet” reminded me of some real technology I encountered in the early 1990s – the ability to project illusory vessels to impress the enemy with an exaggerated sense of your strength. One of these stories, “Of Enemies and Allies,” is published for the first time in this collection.

The second group of stories, Beware of Aliens Bearing Gifts, isn’t just about Trojan Horses. It’s actually about our the dangers in believing in the free lunch, in some that’s too good to be true, in the kindness of strangers. As such, especially in “The Kindly Invasion,” Anvil espouses a hearty dose of skepticism and a handy personal weapon as the correct reaction to altruistic offers. “Mission of Ignorance” returns to the theme that it is the mental, not the physical or technological powers, of aliens that are most dangerous to us.

The third section, The Uninvited, includes “Mind Partner,” another story about mental powers and illusions. The theme here is that it is our ability to see things as they are, not as others might wish them to appear to be, that preserves our independence. The “mind partner” seems kindly and well-intentioned, but his charms are addictive and, eventually, destructive.

The stories in The Trouble With Aliens stand up to those in the earlier collection Interplanetary Patrol II. I think they stand comparison with a lot of the science fiction published in the 1950s and 1960s. Do they stand up to the work of Robert A. Heinlein, James Blish, Jack Vance, and some of the other stars of the period? I’ll leave that to the reader to determine for him- or herself.

Musicophilia - A Review

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. xiv + 381 pages. Acknowledgments. Bibliography. Index.

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who has published many essays on his speciality. A number of these have been collected into books. I read and enjoyed The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat some time ago. Musicophilia pulls together a number of essays with a common, rather broad theme: how the brain affects our hearing and enjoyment of music, and vice versa. It should be noted that Sacks doesn’t deal much in the normal brain, but rather with cases of abnormalities due to disease, trauma, genetic accident, or aging. These cases can be very useful at illuminating normal brain function by showing exactly what happens when something goes wrong.

So, what Sacks provides are case studies of patients with particular problems. Despite the almost mind-numbing number and variety of these cases, Sacks never loses his compassion for these people and their families. This books leaves one with the impression of a kind man who is often frustrated by his inability to help people. His joy at the occasions on which he is able to help, through music therapy or other means, is apparent.

The first story in the book is that of Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who was struck by lightning and acquired an “insatiable desire to listen to piano music.” Cicoria started listening to lots of recorded piano music, then he took up the piano after a hiatus of 30 years. While he has continued to practice as a surgeon, he has become a very accomplished pianist, as indicated by a public performance of Chopin’s B-flat Minor Scherzo, together with a piece of Cicoria’s own composition.

Clive Wearing suffered a herpes encephalitis that left him with a memory span measurable in seconds. This case, with some others Sacks mentions, brings up the very interesting distinction between “episodic” memory and “semantic” memory. Clive can carry on a conversation, or at least appear to do so, because he has in his semantic memory a little repertoire of conversation pieces. But he can remember nothing that happened five minutes ago, and has, in fact, the impression of constantly awaking from a state of unconsciousness.

Like several other people here, Clive remembers quite a bit of music. There is one case of a woman who practiced for days to sing at an event at her hospital, and when led up to sing commented that she wished she’d had some notice. She remembered the song perfectly, but she had no memory of the practice sessions, or even that she had been told of the event in advance.

All this with semantic memory reminds me of something I was told when learning French at the Foreign Service Institute: Learning to speak a language is a physical, not an intellectual, exercise. One can’t think about speaking and carry on a normal conversation. Rather, like a game of catch, a conversation is a series of transactions in which one party “tosses” something, and the other has to “catch” it and return it. This answers for me the question of how people can lose their memories almost completely, through Alzheimer’s or other diseases, strokes, or accidents, and yet they can still speak. I suppose that if I reach the point at which I am unable to recognize my children, I’ll still respond “Good morning, and how are you?” when they say “Hi, Dad.” And, in fact, if they were to say “Bonjour,” I’ll probably answer, “Bonjour.”

Another very interesting article has to do with Williams Syndrome, of which I had not heard until I read this book. Williams Syndrome was identified in the 1960s, and its possessors have, like those with Down Syndrome, a particular look. They also have IQ scores in the 40s and 50s, and their brains are about 20% smaller than those of the average person. Despite this, they are capable of learning complex musical arrangements, and they are eager to perform. One Williams Syndrome person, with an IQ of about 49, is a professional singer of opera and art songs. They are articulate and social, but their spatial relationships and drawing abilities are deficient.

Sacks is a good writer, and these are entertaining, sometimes fascinating stories. He seldom attempts to draw conclusions in the higher realms of epistemology or philosophy. About as far as he goes is to state that every mental condition he’s ever seen has a physical source. But that is very important for those concerned with dualism, the mind-body question, and questions of consciousness. Sacks provides me with many, many instances of how the brain not only provides a general substratum for mental processes, but how relatively minor, and very specific changes to the brain are followed by similarly specific changes to knowledge, skills, attitudes, memory, and perceptions.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where Did the Philistines Come From?

As you may know, I've been doing regular Bible readings. As it happens, I have just reached the book of Judges in this year's round. Judges is an interesting book, in that it appears to be a collection of unrelated hero tales from a pre-monarchical period in Israel's history. From the round numbers (forty years, eighty years, twenty years), there doesn't appear to be any attempt to date these stories or place them in an historical context. (They are, however, placed in a theological context.)

Throughout the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, supposedly the work of Moses, as well as in the book of Joshua, there are references to the people who live in the land promised to the Israelites. For example, in Joshua 3:10, "This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Prizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites." This list is consistent. Part of it dates back to Genesis 10:15, "Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites." (I could, by the way, get into the implications of the fact that the authors of the Bible appear to have thought of the Hittites as a tribe of Canaanites, rather than the possessors of an empire of which Syria was merely a small portion. But I won't do that now.)

In Judges 3, however, there is a change in the cast of characters. Judges 3:1-3: "These are the nations the Lord left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience): the five rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath." According to the indices to my NIV Study Bible, all of the references to the Philistines (with one exception) are in Judges or later books. That one exception bears some inquiry.

In Genesis 10:13-14, just before the previous passage cited, it says: "Mizraim was the father of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, Pathrusites, Casluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites." I don't have the facilities here to verify this, but that parenthesis just shouts out "Later addition." In other words, some late editor of the Bible, finding all these references to the Philistines in Judges and other post-Mosaic books, and not finding any mention of them earlier, inserted this reference to maintain the idea that Genesis gave a complete listing of the peoples of the world.

In any event, I think this is evidence of a very important break in the continuity of the biblical narrative. Through Joshua, the Bible is based on a set of traditions passed down through a chain of sources with some specific parameters. Beginning with Judges, we start seeing stories based on a period of actual Israelite residence in Canaan, when they began to encounter people, like the Philistines, who were not part of the earlier tradition.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East - A Review

Wright, Robin. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. 2008. 464 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $26.95

Robin Wright has been reporting on the Middle East for some thirty years, and she has spent enough time in the region to be familiar with a lot of the ins and outs. She knows a lot of people who know people, and that’s the key to her reportage. Ms. Wright isn’t into the sweeping, impersonal, top-down history that characterizes Samuel Freedman’s Choice of Enemies. Her account of the Middle East in the past few years is much more personal, and much more immediate.

Dreams and Shadows takes its title from a quote of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: “Neither sentiment nor illusion must influence our policy. Away with dreams and shadows! They have cost us dear in the past.” The book is divided into ten chapters, one on the Palestinians, two each on Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran, one on Syria, one on Morocco, and one on the United States and Iraq. Each chapter, in turn, focuses on one or two political figures, figures outside of the governments, each trying in his or her own way to reform the old order. Wright’s purpose is to uncover what the people of the Middle East themselves want, as opposed to what we in the West might think to be good for them.

These vignettes don’t come to clear conclusions; Middle Eastern societies are in flux, and too much is happening now to let us see the ends of these movements. That flux and instability is nicely captured in the chapter on the Palestinians, in which Wright’s primary interlocutors are brothers. Khalil Shikaki was the head of the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, a secular man, who had been a support for Yasser Arafat and Fatah for many years. His older brother Fathi Shikaki, a medical man, was a cofounder of Islamic Jihad. Wright also obtained an interview with Khalid Mashaal, the head of Hamas. The brunt of her story is that the Palestinians are so deeply divided among themselves that there is no chance of them arriving at a coherent policy. Moreover, they are an outstanding example of the extent to which secular nationalism has been so disappointing to the people that the religious movements are gaining support.

Wright provides us lengthy stories of Egyptians trying to reform their political system by opening it up, making elections more transparent, striking at the pervasive corruption. I had the sense of a deep futility here, as these people try to establish democratic norms in the face of Hosni Mubarak’s determination to have his son, Gamal, succeed him as Egypt’s dictator. Similarly, her Syrian reformer spend more time in jail or in exile than out organizing an alternative to the Baathist regime of the Assads. In Morocco, there are women fighting for women’s rights, while reform moves at exactly the pace set by King Mohammed VI, no faster, no slower.

Wright’s own optimism is strained in the last chapter, as she considers how the U.S. invasion of Iraq has set back progressive forces throughout the region. For one thing, a number of regimes have cracked down on the forces of reform in the name of fighting terrorism. For another, the example of chaos and violence in Iraq has made regimes even less interested in loosing the forces of change in their societies. Perhaps most importantly, the forces of democracy, feminism, and liberal values are now identified with the increasingly unpopular United States.

For me, the high point of the book was in the chapter “Lebanon: The Shadows,” in which Wright has an extensive interview with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Nasrallah gives us a lot of insight into his thinking and plans, and Wright provides background and analysis that places the Shiite leader’s thinking in the context of the region. She concludes that the Israeli invasion in 2006, aimed at the destruction of Hezbollah, was a failure, but that Nasrallah made a critical error in provoking the attack, not least in failing to realize that his action in capturing/kidnapping Israeli soldiers would provoke such violent retaliation. Hezbollah’s ability to provide reconstruction aid immediately after that conflict made up in political gains a lot of what they may have lost in military credibility. And they still have bragging rights as the only Middle Eastern force that can claim to have met the Israelis in combat and not been defeated.

Oddly enough, the most hopeful chapters in the book are those on Iran. Too often, because, in part, of our government’s statements, we think of Iran as a closed society, a dictatorship, a sort of theocratic totalitarian state. Wright shows that, while the ayatollahs carry a lot of influence, there are active electoral politics in Iran. (After all, the election of Ahmadinejad was a major upset for the little-known mayor of Teheran.) There are restrictions on democratic processes, as there are in any country, and some of them are pernicious, but in Iran, unlike any of the other countries Wright surveys, the authentic voice of the people has a chance to be heard. Their democracy is not our democracy, and their policies are not our policies, but the Iranians are the one country in this group that may have broken through the “dreams and shadows” to a workable popularly-elected government.

Finally, while Wright states that she wants to find out what the people of the Middle East want for themselves, what sort of future they themselves imagine, it is evident that she, like many Americans, including the Bush administration, is disappointed that the emerging future of the Middle East isn’t living up to her expectations. Liberal, feminist, secular, progressive – these are not the adjectives one will be using to describe the Middle East for many years to come. I think we might be satisfied with prosperous, peaceful, tolerant, and popular – but those may be just my own dreams and shadows for this troubled region.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
by Lawrence Wright
Vintage, 2007

If you're only going to read one book about 9/11, this should be the one.

There are dozens—maybe hundreds—of books about the events of 9/11, the so-called War on Terror, and the development of radical Islam, but this one is among the most important. It's also one of the most accessible for non-experts, and it's almost certainly the most readable.

With this book, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a nominee for a National Book Award, Wright, a reporter and writer and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has done something unique in two ways. First, it doesn't demonize Islam, the Clinton administration, either Bush administration, Israel, Iraq, or any government agency. Rather, it traces the events of 9/11 from the origins of radical Islam in the 1940s through the attacks by relating the life stories of four people who, in various ways, connect all of the dots. Those four are Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the creators of al-Qaeda; John O'Neill, the former chief of FBI counter-terrorism; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence. The activities of these four men encompass all of the important events, relate all of the players to one another, and, most importantly, demonstrate how the events slowly took on a sort of historical inevitability.

Second, this book does the seemingly impossible: It is a carefully researched, heavily annotated (almost 200 pages of notes, bibliography, lists of interviews, and index), academic study. At the same time, it is a fast-moving narrative that reads like a thriller or suspense novel. You'll find that you almost literally can't put down.

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this book. Among the most important:

We should not demonize Islam. The vast majority of Muslims have been struggling against the extremists for decades. Demonizing the entire faith simply reinforces the radicals' notion that their struggle is between the faithful and what they call the crusaders.

Inter- and intra-agency turf wars and bureaucratic bungling cost us dearly on 9/11, and they continue to be problematical. For example, the CIA knew that several of the hijackers were in the US, but they refused to share that information with the FBI until after 9/11. In addition, the FBI's administrators mistakenly interpreted the rules about avoiding cross-contamination between intelligence and criminal investigations, thus handicapping any attempts to disrupt the 9/11 plot.

Bin Laden is a complex, critically important player in the terrorist world, but he's not the center of that world; indeed, if he died tonight, there would be no appreciable change in the terrorists' campaigns, in large part because the 20,000 or so people who went through his training camps between 1994 and 2001 would simply carry on as they now are. Bin Laden's role was actually confined mostly to providing inspiration and raising money. (Interestingly, he isn't the billionaire that he's generally thought to be; indeed, as he was being forced out of Sudan in 1995, he was fleeced out of almost all of his money and he had to beg the Taliban for shelter and supplies.)

Maybe most importantly, we need to appreciate and encourage the work of out-of-the-box thinkers like John O'Neill and several others featured in the book. Their insights were ignored or suppressed, delaying an effective response to al-Qaeda until it was too late.

If you're looking for the one great book about 9/11 and the events surrounding it, this is it. It's a richly rewarding and even entertaining reading experience.