Bush at War

bawThe latest in my “catching up on all my reading” project this year, I finally finished this book by Bob Woodward detailing the Bush administration’s immediate response to 9/11.

Told in bland, journalistic prose, Woodward must have interviewed pretty much everyone involved to have this kind of detail about how, meeting by meeting, the strategy of the regime change in Afghanistan evolved. Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Franks, and of course, Bush all have a chance to get their various points across.

What’s most unexpected is how chaotic everything was. The basic idea (depose the Taliban, get al Qaeda) was so simple. But the logistics of how to do that, and how to manage public and diplomatic opinion at the same time, were formidable. Reading something only a few steps removed from a transcript, the meetings seem like organized chaos, with principals talking past each other constantly.

The lack of personality in the prose indicates (though, of course, doesn’t ensure) a lack of bias on Woodward’s part. He dramatizes the differences of opinion, but he does not seem to take sides. Is Rumsfeld being belligerent, or responding appropriately to unknown threats? Is Powell being conciliatory, or accurately assessing world opinion? Woodward leaves these questions to the reader. Which is how journalism should be.

As a book, it’s not a fun read, but it is an interesting one. As a source of data to evaluate my own personal views, I wasn’t particularly moved to change my opinion of this war. I was always for the invasion of Afghanistan. Their leaders openly supported the group that had attacked us brutally. That they were an oppressive regime who deserved toppling was merely gravy. They needed to go. The angle I found most hilarious was the media using the word “quagmire” before the war was a month old. Man, that’s jumping the gun. Maybe there were missteps in the decade of police action following the actual war, but the war itself seemed to go remarkably well.

The book also lays the groundwork for the following volumes, which dig into the Iraq war in more detail. The relative ease with which Afghanistan was upended gives the administration a level of comfort with regime change that directly impacts the next war. Little is said in the book about the case for war in Iraq, or the case against. Hopefully Plan of Attack addresses what has always been a much more divisive war, for us and the world.

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River-Horse

rhHere’s an idea: take a trip across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific… by boat. That’s the idea that author William Least Heat-Moon came up with. So, he plotted a course that would require the least amount of portage and the most actual water miles, determined when was the best time to start so as to catch the snow melt in the Rockies, fitted a workhorse of a boat for the journey, and enlisted a group of friends to accompany him.

It’s a bold notion, one that would feel more at home in an offbeat independent film rather than a true-life travel book, but Heat-Moon put Nikawa in the water in New York and pushed forward for over three months and five-thousand miles. Perhaps that’s a spoiler, but a simple perusal of the table of contents describes the bare-bones scope of their voyage, if not the thousand details.

Heat-Moon’s prose is remarkable. At times wistful, and occasionally hilarious, the book is also unhurried, laconic, pulling the reader along just as a river might. He has an eye for the big picture as he describes plains and lakes and canyons and sky, but also for the eccentric place names and colorful characters they meet on the way. There is an undercurrent of environmentalism, but not a heavy-handed one. It’s hard not to decry strip mining and water conservation efforts when they scar the landscape. However, these are grace notes in a larger melody of his love of the land, the people in it, and the simple act of journeying. The author says it best: “I’ve never believed speed and ease are conducive to living fully, becoming aware, or deepening memory, a tripod of urges to stabilize and lend meaning to any life.”

I doubt I’ll ever undertake a voyage quite as singular as this one, but I can hope to take a little of this to heart and enjoy the moments of the journey as much as I enjoyed this book about them.

The Imperial Cruise

ticHere is a list of people who should not read The Imperial Cruise:

  • Anyone who subscribes to the concept of American exceptionalism, or at least that it applied during the turn of the Twentieth Century.
  • Anyone who would be disturbed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was a racist douchebag.
  • Anyone who is annoyed by the occasional sarcastic turn of phrase from a writer of a popular history book.

In the middle of his Nobel Peace Prize winning brokering of a peace deal between the Russians and the Japanese in 1905, Roosevelt sent Howard Taft, his Secretary of War, and Alice Roosevelt, his daughter, on a trip across the Pacific. The ostensible reason for the trip was goodwill and public relations. The real reason for the trip was for Taft to speak personally to members of the governments of Japan, the Philippines, China and Korea as TR’s unofficial spokesperson.

Author James Bradley uses this frame to discuss topics of US race relations around the world. According to Bradley, we gave a pretty raw deal to Mexicans, Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese in our eternal quest to “follow the sun” and continue the nation-building spirit that created the United States of America. In other words, treat the world about as well as we treated the natives of our continent.

Can a line be drawn quite as directly as Bradley suggests from these behind-the-scenes negotiations with the leaders of Asia to future events as disparate as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Communist Revolution of China, the Korean War and the Vietnam War? Maybe not. I suspect cause and effect here are a bit more complex than that. But, nonetheless, disrupting a functioning democracy in the Philippines and then practicing extermination efforts there is unconscionable. Telling the Emperor of Korea over and over that we will support him, and then handing the country over to Japan is unforgivable. And telling Japan that they could be “Honorary Aryans” and they should have their own Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine, and then being surprised when they actually do it strikes as hubris on a global scale.

The only saving grace for my personal pride in my country as I read this book is that, at the very least, our nation is less genocidal and flagrantly racist this century than we were in the last. Here’s hoping we continue to improve.

The Know-It-All

Welcome to my Summer of Finishing Books. I’ve set myself a goal of finishing the skittyteen-million books I have half-read over the past few years, and what few I decide I simply can’t stomach, I’ll let myself actually say goodbye to, rather than carrying on the fiction that I’ll eventually get to them. (I’m looking at you, Chaos by James Gleick.)

tkiaSo it is fitting that I start my process of finishing reads by reviewing a book all about finishing a read. In this case, the read is the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. This was the goal of author A. J. Jacobs, a guy who seems to be the following:

  • A fountain of pop-culture knowledge
  • Kind of a know-it-all
  • Someone who has difficulty self-censoring
  • A guy with some daddy issues
  • A guy who looks forward to being the kind of father who doesn’t generate daddy issues

Fascinated and daunted by his father’s breadth of knowledge, Jacobs decides that the best way to surpass his dad is to read the granddaddy of all reference works, beginning to end. The book, thus, is a severely shortened travelogue of his journey through Britannica, as well as a memoir of how that journey informs his relationship with said father, his relationship with his also-desperate-to-be-a-parent wife, and his own quest for meaning.

This seems like dry stuff. Oh, no. It is hilarious. Listening in as Jacobs tries mightily to put his newly found esoteric knowledge to use is a treat, whether he is navigating the stultifying world of Mensa, or appearing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, or simply talking to people at a cocktail party. These detours take about half of the book. The rest is his just-this-side-of-snarky take on the tidbits he has mined from the tomes of knowledge.

I thoroughly enjoyed this journey, not least of which because I feel kind of like I’ve read the EB vicariously. Thanks for that, A. J.!

Entertainment Weekly 100 All-Time Greatest Issue

Yeah, I know “All-Time Greatest” lists are a dime a dozen. But I like EW’s editorial style and (mostly) their critical slant. (No, Buffy isn’t that good.) So, I wondered how my personal tastes line up with theirs.

Stage — For this category, they picked the 50 greatest plays of the last 100 years. (Presumably, they knew they couldn’t stuff the last ten pages of their magazine with a medium that, like, 10% of the population care about.) Of these 50 plays, I’ve seen only one performed (“Death of a Salesman”), seen movie versions of two others (“Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Odd Couple”), read two (“Waiting for Godot” and “A Raisin in the Sun”) and actually performed in one (“Our Town”). My knowledge of great theater, it seems, is somewhat limited.

Music — I’m way out of touch on this one. I only have four of their album selections in my library. (“The White Album”, “Graceland”, “Abbey Road” and “Achtung Baby”)

Books — I’ve only read 17 of their 100 greatest books. This troubles me. You know, what with me being, like, a writer, and stuff.

TV — This one is tough to count up. I think I’ll count a show as “seen by me”, not if I’ve ever seen an episode (because it’s easy to accidentally catch shows you don’t really want to see), but if I made a concerted effort to either catch them in syndication, or watch the bulk of a season, either during its run or on home video. I won’t subject you to a list, since I count a full half of the shows as ones I’ve seen at least somewhat regularly. (Also, somehow, Fawlty Towers did not make this list. This is an oversight of staggering proportions.)

Movies — Well, I whonk on this blog more about movies than anything else. How many of the 100 greatest (as chosen by EW) have I seen? Only 45! Wow. I guess the fact that Transformers isn’t on there hurts my numbers. (Also, just for grins, I counted how many of these films I actually own. 20 of them. Actually, not bad.)

So, either I’m more of a TV buff than a movie buff, or I just synch up with EW’s TV critics more. Who knows?