Monthly Archives: November 2012

Minireviews: Bing West on Afghanistan, Andrew Alexander on imperialism

Bing West – The Wrong War (2011)

NATO gave itself an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. It could not defeat the Taliban, because it didn’t want to escalate the war to their sanctuary in Pakistan. Its counterinsurgency doctrine told soldiers to downplay what soldiers are best at, providing security through killing, and focus instead on a vague goal of nation building, which circumstances were against, thus causing them to fail at both. The Taliban was too powerful, the soldiers too few, and Hamid Karzai’s government was too corrupt. The least bad option now is to leave behind enough soldiers and support to make the Afghan army competent to fight its own war.

Recommended: Strongly.

Andrew Alexander – America and the Imperialism of Ignorance (2011)

The Soviet Union had no concrete plans for ruling Europe after World War 2, (other than a reasonable buffer zone of roughly half of it), and would have been unwilling and unable to literally conquer the entire world. Therefore the Cold War was the fault of those ignorant Americans, and a complete waste of time.

Read: 14 pages, + the Korea chapter.

Recommended: No. I’m sure there is a case for a revisionist look at America’s role in the Cold War, but Alexander – a newspaper columnist – overstates it in a way no good historian would. It’s to avoid such sweeping judgments half-supported by evidence that I prefer history to punditry in the first place. Alexander should stick to writing for the kind of people who prefer the latter.

Joris Luyendijk – People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East

Joris Luyendijk – People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East (2006)

Middle East correspondent Luyendijk returns home to the Netherlands to explain that it was all for nothing: It is impossible to do real journalism from dictatorships and war zones, and those who try end up delivering a product that is close to worthless. The most important story you can tell from a dictatorship or a war zone is the one that is hardest to explain and least interesting to editors and the audience: The nature of dictatorship and war itself. You’re left dependent on fixers who dig up the same old donor darlings with well-practiced soundbites, and on military PR departments who deliver partisan perspectives pre-packaged in a news-friendly story.

Recommended: Strongly. Although Luyendijk assures us in the afterword that his message isn’t that journalism is useless, that really is his message, whether he likes it or not: That in many parts of the world, journalism is so difficult that the end result is practically worthless. You’re better off skipping the daily news from these regions entirely, and stick to background articles and books, such as this one. Its only fault is  Luyendijk’s strange belief that Israel is winning the PR war in the West. Really, where? Luyendijk’s own views seem to be closer to the norm among correspondents. I respect his skepticism of Israeli war propaganda, but I don’t respect that he presents as a profound discovery of his own what is really just the other of two common and superficial media stories about the conflict.

William Manchester – American Caesar

William Manchester – American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (1978)

When World War II caught him poorly prepared in Manila, MacArthur had spent a lifetime shaping the character that would be in the world’s spotlight and change the lives of millions over the following decade. He’d been wandering stupid-bravely into battlefields since World War I, seemingly daring the universe to kill him, and, seeing that this didn’t happen, seems to have concluded that he was invulnerable, held in store by fate for a historic mission. Which wasn’t far from the truth. Manchester paints him as an egotist with little skill at the political game he dearly wanted to play, whose many flaws were made up for by two strokes of brilliance: Retaking Southeast Asia, (and, temporarily, Korea), with minimal loss of life, and turning Japan into one of America’s closest friends, (or at least not preventing this from happening). Caesar is a good comparison, but you might just as well call him an American de Gaulle, and if, like de Gaulle, he had become president, as he wanted to, the result would no doubt have been equally .. interesting.

Recommended: Strongly. Another book that makes the case for biography as the superior form of history.

Dwight Macdonald – Masscult and Midcult

Dwight Macdonald – Masscult and Midcult – Essays against the American grain (1960s, 70s)

Some authors leave behind books that, like the statue of Ozymandias, command you to look at their works, ye mighty, and despair, yet somehow have ended up broken, half-forgotten, covered by sand. Macdonald’s fault was to be a critic who sided unashamedly with high-brow art against the onslaught of what he called masscult – lowest common denominator art for the masses, and midcult – masscult with pretensions, in the service of the aspiring middle classes. Had he been more perceptive, he would have recognized the strenghts and weaknesses of both masscult, midcult, and his own precious highcult. But I find there’s something appealingly tragic about a critic who lives in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, which to me is one of the world’s golden ages, yet who stubbornly refuses to appreciate this fact. This book is a collection of a last stands for lost causes. It’s beautiful.

Recommended: Yes.

Jung Chang – Wild Swans

Jung Chang – Wild Swans (1991)

A story of 20th century China, told through the eyes of the author, a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, her mother, a Communist official, and her grandmother, the foot-bound concubine of a 1920s warlord.

Recommended: Strongly. This book makes the case for biography as the superior form of history. The strongest parts deal with the road from the stern idealism of Jung Chang’s parents, high officials in 50s China, to the country-scale madness of the Cultural Revolution. It captures brilliantly how an entire society tears itself apart to serve the ambitions of a handful of sociopaths. It’s not the scale of the event that sticks with me, but the way this madness seeps into every single aspect of life, the way it seems to touch, ruin, or bring out the worst in, everyone. It would be hard to capture that story better than in this triple biography.

Robert Taber – War of the Flea

Robert Taber – War of the Flea (1965)

“With the common people of the whole country mobilized, we shall create a vast sea of humanity and drown the enemy in it.”

Recommended: Yes. There are probably better books on guerrilla warfare now, but there’s something magical about a book written while there was still a glow of revolutionary romanticism attached to the idea, so that you almost find yourself agreeing when the author, (no revolutionary or extremist, just an excited reporter), starts talking about how humane terrorism is compared to normal warfare. It’s a book that presents the inevitability of guerrilla victory in such a way that almost any politically dissatisfied reader might go “hm, that’s interesting, perhaps I should give that a try”. It’s about guerrilla warfare, and brilliantly so – but also about how beautiful guerrilla warfare and terrorism, for a time, from a certain point of view, could be made to look.

1950s movies marathon – part 116

Horror of Dracula (1958, UK)

Peter Cushing hunts down Cristopher Lee to punish him for his crimes against symphonic metal. Watched it all. This isn’t a good Dracula, but it is a very fun one, the most fun anyone had made up to that point, with blood and cleavage and gothic camp in screaming color. The Bela Lugosi version is the one everybody remembers, and calls a classic, for some reason I don’t understand. It was horrible, and was made at the lowest point in Hollywood history, right at the birth of sound movies. You’re better off watching this.

Touch of Evil – Director’s cut (1958, USA, Welles)

I’m confused by how popular this movie is. The self-conscious stylishness screams at you from every scene. Orson Welles is awful, his character is a caricature whose purpose seems to be to demonstrate Welles’s acting talent, and Charlton Heston feels off somehow, perhaps because no amount of makeup can make him look or sound like an authentic Mexican. The result is interesting, but a flawed masterpiece? Film buffs are very strange people.  Watched it before, and half of it this time.

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud / Elevator to the Gallows (1958, France)

A quiet murder farce where the punch line is revealed in slow motion throughout the second half of the movie, but is no less funny for it. Watched it all. Who knew French filmmakers (other than Tati) had a sense of humor?