Category Archives: Books

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.

Minireviews: Smil on energy, and useless letters to the climate generation

Vaclav Smil – Energy (2006)

Most of the energy we use has its origin in sun rays, which are inefficiently captured by photosynthesis, and then slowly makes its way to us through the food web, (and, more slowly, through fossils fuels), and which are also the source of wind and hydro power. History is the story of how of how one of Earth’s life forms directed an increasing amount of this energy towards its own ends, at increasing levels of efficiency, and what follows will hopefully be the story of how we move on from the temporary fossil-based bootstrapping phase to something more permanent.

Recommended: Strongly. I love these sort of condensed topical overviews. They’re like extra long encyclopedia articles.

Snu, brev til klimagenerasjonen (2012)

See, this is why I decided to get involved in the climate debate in the first place, because if I didn’t, it would be left to people like this, second-rate artists and intellectuals pushing their talents to the limit by making the profound statement that gosh, climate change is so important, and we should do, like, something, I don’t know what, but I’ll do my part by spreading awareness. Oh, you don’t see how this image of an ampersand spreads awareness about climate change? Well, it does.

Recommended: Dear God no. (Oh, and to the one or two contributors I’m friend with on Facebook, I probably didn’t mean you. But you have to admit that overall this book is fucking useless.)

Bjørn Lomborg (ed.) – Smart Solutions to Climate Change

Bjørn Lomborg - Smart Solutions to Climate Change

Bjørn Lomborg (ed.) – Smart Solutions to Climate Change (2010)

If we pretend that it’s possible to calculate the costs of climate change, and the costs of potential climate solutions, then we can pretend to carry out a cost benefit analysis that will tell us what to do about it. Ta-da!

Recommended: No. There’s a place for cost benefit analysis. That place is after you’ve made an argument that it is the right tool for the job. I agree with Frank Ackerman that this is not the case with climate change. Dealing with climate change means staring out into the Big Unknown. You can’t pretend your way out of that. The chapter on technology-led climate policy is worth reading, though, because it puts more emphasis on actual relevant arguments than on a phony cost benefit analysis, arguing, in line with Pielke Jr, that instead of using a large CO2 tax to discourage fossil fuels, we need a small (and thereby politically feasible) CO2 tax that can be used to finance energy R&D. On the other hand, as one of the other contributors point out, this sort of program requires a high level of technological competence in government, and is vulnerable to pork barrel politics. Is it even possible for governments to make good investments in a field as open-ended and risky as alternative energies? It’s certainly nothing to be enthusiastic about – but then neither are any of the alternatives.

Roger Pielke Jr – The Climate Fix

Roger Pielke Jr – The Climate Fix (2010)

We don’t currently have the technology we need to decarbonize the world, ie to have continued economic growth for less CO2 emissions. But we do have the political will, and should stop pretending that it’s the climate skeptics that stand in the way of a solution. The real problem is the iron law of climate policy: That when people are asked to choose between preventing climate change and having economic growth, they choose growth. Ambitious CO2 targets, like the 80% by 2050 goal the UK has adopted, are irrelevant, because nobody have a practical solution to this problem. Instead of trying to price carbon out of the market, we should tax it just enough, perhaps $5 per ton CO2, to finance an investment in alternative energy technologies, so that an actual decarbonization can become easier in the future.

Recommended: Weakly. The ideas are interesting, but the book is unfocused. Pielke spends so much time on topics that by themselves could be interesting, but have little relevance to the theme, that by the time he gets around to explaining what his “climate fix” is, the book is almost over. A better title would have been “various thoughts I have that are more or less related to climate change”. Also, I disagree that we have the political will to prevent climate change. People say they want to do something, but political will is also the willingness to choose away something else. That willingness is small, hence the iron law of climate policy.


Frank Ackerman – Can We Afford the Future?

Frank Ackerman - Can We Afford the Future (2009)

Frank Ackerman – Can We Afford the Future? The Economics of a Warming World (2009)

Using estimates of the cost of climate change to argue for inaction is to undervalue the lives of future generations, and is fundamentally misguided: The biggest risks of climate change are priceless and unquantifiable. Markets won’t help us to solve them, we need complex international agreements and a WW2-scale mobilization.

Recommended: Weakly. I agree that cost estimates are misguided. Although you can set a price tag on a human life – you do this yourself implicitly every time you choose a cheaper, riskier car over a more expensive, safer one – I don’t see how this can be made to work when it comes to climate change. Partly because of the fundamental uncertainty we’re dealing with, and partly because there’s no choice involved. If you disagree with the price, which planet would you go to? But the market ideology Ackerman objects to is a straw man, which leads him to overstate his case in some odd ways. He thinks the economy is full of free climate lunches, just waiting to be eaten, and he believes that spending $1 billion to avoid climate change is inherently better than spending it to clean up afterwards, because investments in green technologies “create jobs”. Sure, but what about the people we take the $1 billion from to pay for this? He’s forgotten the forgotten man. Mostly, this book serves as proof to why climate policy can’t be left to the left.