Book Review — War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918

War Against War by Michael Kazin

War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 by Michael Kazin is a study of American opinion of the war in Europe. Kazin is a Professor in the Department of History. He is an expert in U.S. politics and social movements, 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, which was named a Best Book of 2011 by The New Republic, Newsweek/Daily Beast, and The Progressive. He is editor of “Dissent,” a leading magazine of the American left since 1954.

World War I was a war that was half a world away to most Americans. Fifty years earlier America was fighting its own war which cost 620,000 lives. Losses and carnage were still fresh in many minds and losing lives in a far away land was not a priority for most. The European war presented complications for many. Today’s seemingly easy answer of the Allies was not clear then. America’s Irish immigrants opposed Britain over home rule. German-Americans would hold some loyalty to the fatherland. The idea of hyphenated Americans is not a new thing. Many Americans held their old country’s identity. When I was going up in the 1970s neighborhoods were identified by their nationality. Immigrants tended to settle with their own kind and kept it as an identity.

Wilson positioned himself in varying degrees of neutrality voicing support for trade and the rights of neutrals. German u-boats and submarine warfare were the most publicized but little was said of British restrictions against American trading with Germany. Britain effectively blockaded Germany from the beginning of the war. In addition to the blockade, Britain imposed a comprehensive contraband list that nearly eliminated US trade with Germany. US industry was as unhappy with Britain as it was with Germany’s submarine warfare.

Many groups in the US opposed the war such as the socialists who saw the war as being fought for the bankers and the rich. Women’s groups opposed the war as it would be their sons who would be dying. Even expanding the size of the military was not a popular idea. Teddy Roosevelt was perhaps one of the most outspoken voices for siding with Britain. As much as many people despised the German actions few believed it was worth fighting for. Wilson’s ability to keep America out of war is seen as the reason for his very narrow victory in the 1916 presidential elections. Almost exactly five months later Wilson asked congress to declare war on the German government.

The tide against the war seemed to disappear but very cautiously. The draft was brought up as volunteerism rather than conscription. Those speaking out against the war were silenced. The Espionage Act of 1917 was enacted to prevent interference with recruiting or military operations. Thousands of antiwar protesters were tried and convicted under the Espionage Act. The most famous of these being Eugene Debs. Chrisitan pacifist inductees were also court-martialed and sentenced to prison. Many civilians were arrested for not having their draft cards with them.

The war no one wanted to fight suddenly turned into the war that was illegal not to support. Kazin gives a detailed study of the social currents leading to America’s entry into World War I and the changes that would have the country as a whole. The sudden change from neutralism to war was without a major incident. There was no Pearl Harbor, Concord, or Ft. Sumpter to trigger the war. The US simply slipped into the war and afterwards slipped into deep isolation.

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Book Review — The Complete X-Files: Revised and Updated Edition

The Complete X-Files by Chris Knowles

The Complete X-Files: Revised and Updated Edition by Chris Knowles, Matt Hurwitz, Frank Spotnitz (Foreword) is the authorized “debriefing” of the series to include this summer’s season 10. Having an advance e-copy of the book I did not have access to high-quality photos or information past season six.

The X-Files can be traced back to Darren McGavin’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker. A supernatural show I enjoyed as a child. However, nothing since the Rockford Files has caught my attention like the X-Files. It was a show I waited for every week and even watched the returns hoping to catch something I might have missed in the original run. It is also the only television series I bought on DVD and I have watched it over and over again. I have even read a few X-Files novels.

The Complete X-Files is filled with photographs of from behind the scenes of the cast and support. Each episode gets at least a short paragraph as a synopsis or a back story. A few had what was new information to me like in the episode called “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”. Frohike was originally supposed to die while in the Cigarette Smoking Man’s gun sight. The bits and pieces on episodes are interesting. Some the background on the making of the episode or how well the episode fared. “Home” starring the Peacock family was barred from re-airing because it was so disturbing. Entertainment Weekly gave the “The Field Where I Died” an “F” despite the outstanding acting of Kristen Cloke.

The Complete X-Files will give the reader an inside pictorial look at the series as well background on the show, the actors, the writers, and Chris Carter. This will make a nice coffee table book for any X-Files fan as well as a quick reference guide. Nicely done and will serve any fan well.

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Poetry Review — Night & Ox

Night & Ox by Jordan Scott

Night & Ox by Jordan Scott is his fourth published work. Scott wrote much of this poetry as a young father holding his son in one hand and typing with the other.

I usually like to type a few hundred words or more in a review, but that is not the case with Night & Ox. A quick look at the cover will give the reader an idea of the poetry contained inside. Is it pen drawing of a rooster’s head? Is it random? It has too much form to be random. The poetry inside is a single poem running almost ninety full-length pages. The lines, however, are usually a word or two long. It is abstract writing that does not form a picture in the mind, but rather captures the mind. The string of words flows well line to line and the reader will get caught up in the flow and feel of the words rather than any message they may carry. Some words are made up, but they seem to be real words and fit the flow of the poem. Night & Ox is an interesting piece of experimental or abstract poetry. It is worth a read for those looking for something new and different.

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Book Review — In the Clouds Above Baghdad, Being the Records of an Air Commander

In the Clouds Above Baghdad, Being the Records of an Air Commander by John Edward Tennant is the memoirs of a WWI British pilot in Mesopotamia. Tennant was educated at Royal Naval College, Osborne and Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. He served in France from 1914-1916 and in Mesopotamia from 1916-1918.

When Americans think of WWI most think of the Western Front. A few can name details of the Eastern Front, even though this is where the war started. Not many know that the war was also fought in the Middle East. The battles on this front were between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire (with German support). The Ottoman Empire was in steep decline at the start of the war and its weakness allowed less than full support of the native populations. The British were seen as liberators to many people. It was also known that the British would not attack the women and wantonly murder the population. The British were seen as safe compared to the Ottoman.

Tennant gives a very British, matter of fact, telling of his time in modern day Iraq. One item he makes a point of repeating many times over is that it was hot. Heat seemed to be a bigger threat than the Ottoman army. The men were not the only ones to suffer. The planes had a rough time in the desert the sun destroyed the dope on the fabric and the infrequent rains would soak in and destroy the wood. Engine seizures were common on both English and German planes. Most missions were pushed back to cooler times in the day or night. The open desert made bombing missions more common than in the European theater. Tennant writes of dropping bombs on troops and pack animals. The carnage is described in unsensational terms.

The day to day coverage of the war and the taking of Baghdad by the British is very well done. Tennant gives a personal touch to the writing. He admits that he is not much of a writer, but the telling of the events seems almost conversational. The book was written only two years after the war and the events were still fresh in Tennant’s mind. One of the best memoirs from World War I that I have read.

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Book Review — Mole The True Story of the First Russian Spy to Become an American Counterspy

Mole by William Hood

The True Story of the First Russian Spy to Become an American Counterspy by William J Hood is the story of real spycraft following the end of WWII. Hood, a retired senior officer in the Central Intelligence Agency served during WWII with the army before transferring to the OSS. Later he stayed on with the CIA and served in Central Europe at the start of the Cold War.

Younger readers might find this pretty dry reading. Middle age readers might be disappointed when it doesn’t read like a 1970s spy novel. What it does read like is more of “Dragnet” than a Starsky and Hutch or Miami Vice. As a CIA officer, I imagine that Hood wrote many reports in typical government fashion. The writing reflects this both in flavor and its procedural method. At times the reader may feel that he or she is reading long sworn statement.

The book revolves around Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, a major in Soviet intelligence, and his work for the CIA. It starts from the almost stereotype dropping a letter into Hood’s car in offering information for money. What starts off as suspicion, grows into a major asset for the CIA. Popov was from peasant stock and did well under the Soviet system for himself, but felt that his family, as well as peasants in general, were mistreated under the Soviet system that was supposed to liberate them.

Mole takes the reader through the turning of the death of Popov. Hood goes through the process of espionage in the 1950s and gives plenty background information. This is a nuts and bolts book about what intelligence agencies actually did in the Cold War. Much like Dragnet, the names in the book have been changed to protect the innocent. Mole is a book that will take the middle aged or older reader back to a simpler time when your enemy was easily identifiable and the world was black and white, capitalist and communist, free and totalitarian, with very little between.

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Poetry Review — No Map Could Show Them

No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort

No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort is the poet’s second collection of poetry. Mort has previously published Division Street which was shortlisted for the Costa and TS Eliot Prize and won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. She has released two smaller collections one for Derbyshire, where she served as poet laureate, and another called a Pint for the Ghosts. Mort also performs in Poeta with flamenco guitarist Samuel Moore (http://www.poetaflamenco.com/). Reminiscent of a modern day version of Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at St. Mark’s. She is a runner, climber, whippet lover, and recently a Greenland explorer.

Perhaps I am just getting older and a bit more conservative (in only my poetry). My background is in political science and not literature and I sometimes feel at a loss with prose poetry and the latest pop poetry of one or two lines, resembling a song lyric. I, by no means, prefer rhyming couplets, but I do like some form in my poetry. I did a quick glance through Mort’s latest collection and saw quatrains, cinquain, three line stanzas and possibly a sonnet. On the surface, it contained poetry in a traditional format. The introductory epigraph is complete with near rhymes that quickly disappear in the body of the work. What I saw as a sonnet at first was a line off and the stanzas, I soon came to realize, are not rhyming. It is traditional looking, but with a little rebellion present. Structure with freedom. The words, however, carry a great deal of meaning and beauty as in the poem “Ink” where the tattoo artist is scarring you elegantly.

Early on the poetry begins to personify the mountains — sandstone chests, wedge for a breast, and a boulder for a belly. At the same time, the climber becomes part of the mountain with clothing of shale and lichen light gloves. There is a natural blurring of the boundaries between the two as the join. The poem “How to Dress” has the reader reflect back on the historical. One thinks of the early climbers in wool and canvas without the benefits of heated gloves, Gore-Tex, and light-weight equipment. What of the women climbers? The proper Victorian dress code for outdoors did not include pants and there was little in the way of women’s sized polar weather clothing. A bit of humor also resides in the writing that concerns “Bob.” For the experienced women climbers, Bob was the ancestor of today’s “mansplainer.” There is the wrong way to do things and the right (man’s) way of doing things and women shouldn’t be out in the first place. – It might get too cold or dangerous.

Mort pays tribute to several climbers and other role models. She pays a very touching tribute in several poems to Alison Hargreaves, the British climber who completed an unaided summit of Everest, soloed all the great north faces of the Alps in a single season– a first for anyone, male or female. She, however, died in 1995 while descending the K2 Summit. Perhaps the most touching poem in the tribute is “Home” taken from a diary entry when Hargreaves was at home with a broken leg, unable to climb. Katherine Switzer’s 1967 Boston Marathon run is remembered as well as Derbyshire’s Tom Hulatt’s run. In a non-sports related poem Lillian Bilocca, a fishwife, took up the cause of maritime safety after the sinking of three fishing trawlers in 1968. Although successful in drawing attention and change, she was ridiculed, received death threats, and was blacklisted by the fishing industry.

As much as I appreciate Mort’s historic context in all her work she adds something more. Many times when poetry is written about a particular subject, the poetry suffers to center stage the subject. For example, Bicycle wheels spinning and pulse ticking in time to the cadence of the cranks. It’s bicycle poetry. It’s a bicycle enthusiast trying to write poetry. Mort doesn’t write climbing poetry; she writes poetry about climbing (among other things). The difference is who stars in the writing — the poetry or the subject. Here it is the poetry that stars and uses the subject as its showcase. It all blends together perfectly as the collection finishes with a blaze of rapid-fire poems celebrating Everest; it is the poetic equivalent to a 4th of July fireworks finale. A brilliant collection.

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Book Review — The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide

The New Sectarianism by Geneive Abdo

The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide by Geneive Abdo is a detailed study of the current Arab and Persian condition. Abdo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She has earned degrees from the University of Texas, Princeton, and Harvard.

The Middle East, including Iran, is a complex place politically and socially. Before the twentieth century, the idea of nations was foreign to the region. The partition after WWI divided the region into nation states. National identity would eventually complicate and aggravate regional tensions. The relations of Sunni and Shi’a would spark into large scale violence and propaganda. A simplistic example is the Iran-Iraq war. Shi’a Iran was against the Gulf Sunni. Iraq which has a Shi’a majority was ruled by a nominally Sunni leadership in a mostly secular government. Today, Iraqi Sunni minority is in fear of the Shi’a majority, to the point of supporting ISIS in some situations. The Iraqi Shi’a, however, do not want any part of the Iranian Shi’a community or expansion. It is not just a Shi’a -Sunni conflict but also a regional one. It is not one side or the other there are at least four different sides in the conflict.

In the days of the Cold War America took a simpler look at the middle East. It was basically viewed that Shi’a was the enemy. This was based on the Iranian Revolution and their supported groups like Hezbollah. Today, especially after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the traditional Sunni base has begun to mistrust the US and its support of a Shi’a majority government in Iraq. Some Sunnis even believe that the US is behind Hezbollah. One must also remember that Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization and the 9/11 terrorists were also Sunni.

Abdo leaves the United States out of the mix except as its role as a catalyst in the deep divide between the sects. Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Bahrain play leading roles in this book. Saudi Arabia is introduced as an overt player in the region sending troops into Bahrain (and recently bombing Yemen). It may seem difficult for many Westerners to recognize or understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni. It is, however, a definable division much like the split between Catholic and Protestant. Similar to Catholicism, Shi’a has holy places and saints that are prayed to for their intercession. Sunni does not, in fact, the very radical Sunni terror group ISIS destroys shrines of all types and more fundamental Sunnis do not consider Shi’a to even be Islamic. An odd part of the Sunni – Shi’a conflict is that it is not being fought for land, but for a version of history.

There are no simple answers in the conflict. Shi’a clerics in Iran are political and essentially rule the country. In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani remains out of politics, this, however, does not stop politicians from adopting his policies. Sistani’s one major foray into politics was calling for Sunni and Shi’a to unite in fighting ISIS. Although defeating a common enemy would be a uniting force between the sects, several Shi’a groups have used their new found military power to fight against native Sunnis. Abdo examines all parties including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, Wahhabists, and the role of the social network Twitter. It is a complex situation and one without a universal answer. The New Sectarianism does play an important role in providing information, which is the first step to understanding the problem and eventually creating a peaceful coexistence.

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