Monthly Archives: February 2015

Book Review — America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam

“It is unknowable how long the conflict (War in Iraq) will last. It could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 7, 2003

America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam by Christopher Lawrence is a look at the most misunderstood aspects of modern warfare. Lawrence is a historian, a military analyst, and the director of The Dupuy Institute. The Dupuy Institute is dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of armed conflict and conflict resolution.

When America goes to war there are many considerations that should be taken into account. War should not be a knee-jerk reaction by political and military leaders as it usually is with the general population. There is detailed historical and statistical information that can be used in predicting the needs of a successful campaign. America has a poor record of estimating its enemies resolve and predicting its own casualties. Not all is bad. The First Gulf War and Bosnian interventions did have a much lower casualty rate than expected. Our quick venture to liberate Iraq, however, was grossly underestimated.

Using up to eighty-three conflicts that had occurred since the end of World War II, Lawrence attempts to create a standard model of small wars and insurgencies. Lawrence’s data confirms and disproves many standard assumptions about warfare. For example, force ratios have been used by some and discredited by others. However, current data show a tipping point at nearly a ten to one ratio in fighting insurgencies. This ratio does not guarantee success but makes it the statistical outcome in the vast majority of cases. Other factors that come into play and some are expected. If the insurgency is for liberation or political reason, there is much more resolve. Other aspects are included such as outside help, population size, borders, estimating insurgency size (usually dreadfully underestimated), and terrain. A look into the Rules of Engagement gives some very surprising data and it’s not what most people would think.

The use of elections during or after the conflict are studied too. One thing that needs to be remembered in elections is that the counterinsurgency force usually determines when elections are held. This typically means elections will be held after the counterinsurgency believes it has one. An example of this is in Iraq and Afghanistan with the electoral ink-stained fingers making the news. The coalition forces were sure of the election outcome when elections were allowed.

America’s Modern Wars is a very detailed look at modern warfare and its results as far as success or failure of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. The amount of data in this book and the meticulous use of the data is incredible. Not just leaving his research to stand alone, he brings in other studies and schools of thought to compare to his results. The comparison and contrast itself is a wealth of information. In discussing America’s role in fighting insurgencies, Lawrence discusses America’s military responses and training. It was the Marines that first developed a manual for fighting insurgencies. The Marines experience in Central America in the interwar periods prepared it for Vietnam. The army was almost completely focused on a large-scale war with the Soviets. America found itself very unprepared for a war like Vietnam and really has not learned its lesson as the experiences in the Gulf War and Afghanistan show. A very scholarly and enlightened read.

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Book Review: Daniel Jones Doom

Daniel Jones Doom by Mark   King

It is not odd to remember a book’s storyline after two years. It is also not that odd to remember a book in the context of what was going on at the time when you read it. I do think it is a bit unusual when a book takes priority over scheduled events that you have been looking forward to. I was really looking forward to seeing Rickie Lee Jones in Dallas. She has been a favorite singer of mine, but life events and the military kept me from catching even one of her shows. I finally had a chance to see her in Dallas. At the time, I also received a copy of Frenzy: A Daniel Jones Story to review. I started the book a few hours before catching the train. Read it on the train. Read it at the venue before the concert. Regretted when the lights went down and the show started. Read it on the train home, and finished it late that evening. It was that kind of book.

I was happily surprised to hear from Mark King just over a week ago that he had the second book in the series ready and would like to send me one of the first copies. Daniel Jones: Doom arrived a week later and it had a lot to live up to. Mark King is a private man aside from mentions of traveling, his blog, and living in Norwich, he is pretty quiet about himself. From the information on the cover flap, it looks like Frenzydid pretty well.

I gave up fantasy and science-fiction/fantasy a while ago and read mostly non-fiction. When I tried to pick up a book in the genre its been difficult to want to read through it. I read many of these books in the early 1980s but since then, it has been hard to find a match for me. The Daniel Jones series, however, seemed to hit the spot perfectly. I gave the first book five stars which is really unusual for me to award to contemporary fiction. The characters seemed to be just right. There was a mix of experience, youth, recklessness, and caution among the characters on the side of good. Evil held that relentless drive that made them believable and hated; there was little in the way of their weakness. There was hope, blind hope, the darker side of human nature, and a sense of community mixed into the story in a near perfect ratio.

Doom picks up after Frenzy ends with very little time passing. It keeps to the formula set in Frenzy with the same characters, with a few minor additions. The story now lets on a bit more about the characters and exposes new and perhaps unexpected connections between the core characters. The new revelations work well in the story and are not forced to make the plot work. They blend well together.

Although not much time has passed for the characters between books, plenty of time has passed for the reader. It has been eighteen months and more than two hundred books ago since I read Frenzy. Doom very gently reminds the reader of the events in the past book while progressing in the new story. I couldn’t quite place the character Wolf in the story, I knew who he was, but had forgotten exactly what his role was in the first book. The character’s past from Frenzy was reintroduced in Doom by his rival piecing together Wolf’s past while plotting against him. Cleverly done, and very effective. The important parts of the past are recounted in a non-intrusive way and eliminated my need to go back to the first book and use it as a reference.

The story is well done. The plot flows smoothly and moves at a quick pace. The events in the story are all plausible if you buy into the overall premise of aliens occupying the earth — it is science fiction, after all. The actions of the aliens are really no different than any occupying force in history. Maintain dominance, recruit help from the local population, remove methods of resistance– like weapons, organization, and printed communication. Like pacified populations, most people conform, especially decades after the occupation. A few fight and use their differences to build a strong team. Doom is a sequel that fully lives up to the original book. It is part of the plan and not an afterthought. Like the first book Doom brings closure to the immediate storyline but leaves it room for continuation. A very enjoyable read and well worth the effort. Great science fiction.

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Book Review — Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland

Where the River Burned by David Stradling

Among the worst of them all is the 80 mile-long Cuyahoga. Some River! Chocolatey-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gasses, it oozes rather than flows. ~ Time Magazine

Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland by David Stradling and Richard Stradling is a history of Cleveland in the late 1960s. David Stradling is a professor of urban and environmental history at Cincinnati University. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Richard Stradling is an editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

I grew up in Cleveland in a Polish neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. My neighborhood was very ethnic with many of the older residents still speaking the language of the home country. I enjoyed growing up there and although I have not been back in over twenty-five years, Cleveland is still my city. What was so great growing up there? I would be hard pressed to say anything more than sentimental reasons. We had the worst school system in the state. We had a marginal football team and baseball team that never seemed to break 500. We used to fish for jumbo perch near off the 72nd Street pier, but pollution killed the fish. The steel mills and Municipal Light and Power seemed to darken the skies with pollution. But as kids, we played football and baseball on the red brick streets and there seemed to be something magical about growing up on Vineyard Avenue on the southeast side of town.

Yes, the Cuyahoga River did catch on fire in 1969. It was a major news outside of the city. Those in Cleveland knew the river had caught fire several times in the past. Cleveland grew fast and with fast growing cities there is rapid development and little planning until there are problems. Problems caught up to Cleveland in the 1960s.

Cleveland is now, and was then too, very segregated. Even in white neighborhoods it was segregated ethnically. The main problem, however, was black and white. Blacks were located in several poor areas of the city including Hough which was the site of rioting. Hough was at a time a very nice neighborhood, but people moved out, the tax base was reduced, businesses followed and eventually it became a ghetto. Race issues and poverty became a major problem for the city. One program with some success was the rat eradication program. The poorer areas of the city were heavily infested with rats.

Pollution was another major problem. I have memories as very young child of swimming in Lake Erie’s Edgewater Park, before the pollution closed the beaches. Imagine a city on a lake, but without any water recreation because of the pollution and algae blooms. Coliform bacteria make the water unsafe for swimming and recreation. 1000/ml was the coliform limit that closed beaches. Some areas along the shore reached 110,000/ml. Mayor Carl Stokes wanted to open beaches again he fought to clean up the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie. He had some success, but nowhere near enough. The city came up with a plan to open beaches. Essentially an area (White City Beach) was sectioned off by pontoons and weighted plastic curtains. The area was treated with chlorine nightly, 350lbs/night, to keep the bacteria count low enough to open the beaches. Stokes and his staff were there to swim along with the public. This approach was called “a pool in the lake” and was something the city was quite proud of. In hindsight, this sounds rather ridiculous. Essentially it is dumping poison into a lake to kill other poisons. On the positive side, it did open portions of the lake to the public and was much cheaper than the billion plus dollars of cleaning up the lake — Money that no one had.

Earthday plays a large role in this book also. The air pollution and water pollution were major problems. On the first Earth Day in 1970, Cleveland school children wrote the mayor about pollution. I was in kindergarten at the time and we drew posters that were going to be sent to the mayor. I drew a rocket, billowing smoke as it was taking off. After drawing and coloring it, I was told rockets used hydrogen and oxygen as fuel so it wasn’t really pollution, but rockets were cool.

Where the River Burned concentrates its history on Mayor Carl Stokes terms as mayor. It was a critical time in the city’s history and Carl Stokes was energetic and determined to fix the city. He seemed to be that rare honest person who cared more for his city than he did for politics. He was from that poverty stricken east side and he rose to become the first black mayor of a major US city. He reminds me of President Ford who walked into so many problems when he assumed office and diligently worked to fix them. It was a superhuman task in both cases, but the men put their duty ahead of personal gain. These were not only men of integrity, but politicians with integrity. Not perfect but they did their best. Stokes turned down a request from LBJ to come to Washington for an MLK memorial, Stokes, chose to stay in Cleveland in potential hot spots personally working to stop any violence or rioting. Compare that to the next mayor of Cleveland, Perk, whose wife turned down a request First Lady Pat Nixon, because the event was on her bowling night.

Yes, the joke about the river catching fire did get old, and yes I still get asked if the river really did catch on fire. It does not bother me anymore. In Cleveland, they fully recovered from it and take it in stride with a Burning River Pale Ale from a local brewery. The book for me is full of memories, places, and names of Cleveland’s movers and shakers. It is a virtual time machine to my much younger days. This is an absolute read for any Cleveland native or those interested in urban pollution and the history of race issues and poverty. Simply outstanding.

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Book Review — Russia in Private

Russia in Private by Richard Yatzeck

<i>Russia in Private</i> by Richard Yatzeck is a personal account of several travels to the Soviet Union and Russia. Yatzeck has been a member of the Lawrence University faculty since 1966, teaching courses on 19th and 20th-century Russian literature and Russian literary traditions. He spent a year in the former Soviet Union studying at Moscow State University after graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also earned his Ph.D. In 1997, he directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s off-campus study program in Krasnodar, Russia.

As an undergraduate, I loved Russian history. As my honors project, I documented and re-assessed the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The “terrible” actually better translates to awe-inspiring than anything negative. Czarist history was a fairytale that continually when wrong. The Soviet Union had much more in common with totalitarian rule than actual communism. It was one on the most interesting histories I have ever read or studied.

I was expecting much from this book. I was looking for an outsider’s look at what the average citizen thought of the Soviet system. Perhaps a few touching stories from the locals or discussions with the true believers in the system. Instead, the book read rather like a travelogue. It combined several trips of information and fairly dry reading. Even parts that could have been exciting were told in a very stoic manner. Several old jokes were brought up again:

The collective’s harvest pile high, up to God.
But you don’t believe in God.
It’s OK because I don’t believe in the harvest either.

Perhaps I have read too much on the subject in college and graduate school to appreciate this book. I feel that for someone without a background in the Soviet Union, it would be very informative regardless of the writing style.

There is plenty of information on historic cities and sights. Yatzeck takes time to include stories and selections from Russia’s famous writers and poets. Also interesting is something usually not found in most texts, food. Everyday food and special food for westerners are covered in the book.

I liked the early part of the book where Yatzeck was a believer in communism and his evolution to a self-described anarchist. I found his earlier years much more interesting than his later travels. It seemed to have more personal substance. Without a doubt, Yatzeck is a man with many stories and it wold be a great experience, personal and educational to sit down and talk to the man over some Armenian cognac. The book, however, seems more of an academic record of events than a personal story telling.

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Book Review — Cut-up Apologetic

Cut-up Apologetic by Jamie Sharpe

Cut-up Apologetic by Jamie Sharpe is his second published collection of poetry. Sharpe’s writing and art have appeared in magazines throughout Canada and the U.S., and he is editor of the Associative Press, a literary and arts journal. He recently moved to the Yukon, where he is working on an MFA through the University of British Columbia’s optional residency program.

Poetry can be difficult to review, especially very good poetry. The shorter the review, the better the collection rates in my reviews. We spend our lives in Plato’s Cave Allegory. We see things and describe what we see in a fairly ordinary words. Occasionally, someone will add colorful language and it will become great prose. A few people manage to escape the cave and see more than the shadows on the wall and see the original, perfect items and describe them. These are the poets. For the rest of us, we read and try to understand something that is like an extra dimension. We might understand it but if asked to explain it back we are at a loss. It must be experienced, not explained.

Sharpe does capture some of this, but most of the work captures a contemporary setting and sometimes sarcasm. UBERSWEET(tm) looks at what we eat. In the poem “Mutable,” Borges’ modifying the desert may be our life’s work. “Greensborough” lets the reader in on a secret in lowering the asking price of a house. Perhaps my favorite poem was “Internal Affairs.” It is a lesson in the universal currency and the universal currency of impotency.

Sharpe’s writing is not high art. It is a look at our society and individuals, and individuals fears and dreams and the irrational — is the Hubble telescope watching me when I shower? “The Oscar Myer Process” is a clever and contemptuous. “Foreign Exchange” takes the reader into the bizarre. Sharpe may not have made it out of the cave, but he certainly sees things at a different angle than most. Cut-up Apologetic is a twisted look at today’s world, very enjoyable and recommended.

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Book Review — Study for Necessity

Study for Necessity by Joellen Kwiatek

<i>Study for Necessity</i> by Joellen Kwiatek is her second published collection of poetry. Kwiatek is a professor in the English department at SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY. She is the winner of the 2014 Iowa Poetry Prize.

I look forward every year to the reading the collection that won the Iowa Poetry Prize. I see it as the high water mark for the year in poetry. The collections are always excellent or, as last year’s choice, very challenging. My background is not in poetry or even literature, but I do appreciate good poetry. My review is not going to be as flowery or as educated as the judges views for this collection, but rather as seen from an educated outsider.

A poet’s work is one of those things you know you are going to like or dislike very early on in the reading. I knew I was going to like Kwiatek from the opening lines of her first poem “Sea Below Rocks.”

What does the sea see–? Something awful. It has the roving
thwarted glance of a mare in blinders, something awful facing her stall.

I immediately caught the obvious sea and see and then found glance (see) and mare (Latin for sea). I knew then, intentional or not, this was going to be a great collection. Throughout the collection phrases seemed to leap out at me “a stone calved from the underworld” and the “radium of twilight.” The word usage and imagery is outstanding. Line breaks create different meanings A horse that ran out into the field is “Home” but the next line begins “less”. There are several creative breaks in the line structure that take the meaning in different directions.

Poetry is difficult for an outsider to review. Bad or mediocre poetry is easy to pick apart and leads to longer reviews exposing poets trying too hard or even “cutesy” themes. Good and great poetry collections tend to get short reviews from me. They say everything they need to say, and say it so it clicks in my mind as “Exactly!” Although I understand clearly what is being said, I have difficulty repeating it in my own words. It seems that the poet delivers something so perfect, I don’t have the words to describe it myself.  That is what I believe the essence of poetry is and this collection is one of those cases. Outstanding.

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Book Review — From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone

From Field to Fork by Paul B. Thompson

From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone by Paul B. Thompson is a different look at food ethics. Thompson is a philosopher currently teaching at Michigan State University, where he holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics. He earned his B.A. at Emory University before going on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Thompson is a philosopher and his arguments follow a philosophical reasoning. I took plenty of political philosophy in graduate school and was familiar with his references. His three “M”s of philosophy are Marx, Mill, and Malthus. Mine were Marx, Mill, and Morgenthau so it was not a far leap for me. Mill and Kant, however, make up most of the European philosophy Utilitarianism and reason and perception. Amartya Sen is used in some modern thinking, and Vandana Shiva is used in some of the GMO discussion.

This might be a complex book for average American thinking because in general Americans look only at the surface and like their arguments simple. “It’s wrong to kill an animal for culinary enjoyment,” vs “We have canine teeth to tear meat.” “Farm subsidies support farmers,” vs “Majority of the subsidies go to Con-Agra.” We like clear cut, one or the other choices, like our two party system of government. Thompson does not take sides but examines reason and utility to form arguments and then checks it against itself. Utilitarianism can be quite brutal in itself.

The arguments and ideas are interesting and people, including myself, miss some of the points. By not eating that piece of meat on the plate in front of me, I am not preventing that animal from suffering. I could not want to eat meat for very selfish reasons, like my health. Does a food donation from “Big Tobacco” nullify its benefits because of its source? Is obesity an individual’s problem or it a public problem. If my insurance rates go up to cover the cost of obesity related medical conditions, doesn’t that make it my problem or society’s problem? What happens if what you do for one purpose becomes a benefit for another? Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” to bring about changes in labor. People losing limbs and falling into bins to become part of the sausage were his concerns. Instead, the book is known for what it did for food safety. Sinclair said he aimed for the people’s heart and hit their stomach.

I picked this book up because as a strict vegetarian I thought it would be about animal rights. I was only right in a very limited sense. Thompson covers food ethics in an all-encompassing way. He looks at the history, the arguments, what helps and hurts farmers, what works for some people and what doesn’t for others — indigenous people in the arctic can not develop a plant-based diet. He looks at food as an ethical and moral issue. If people are starving it would seem to be the right thing to send food aid to alleviated the suffering. But then what happens to all the subsistence farmers that sell part of their crops to buy things they need but can’t produce? Suddenly their crops lose value with free food flooding the market. What if the starvation is not the result of not enough food, but no infrastructure to transport it? The Soviets had that problem. Food rotted on train cars and people starved. The problem of starvation may be something deeper than what it appears to be.

Perhaps taking his lesson from Sinclair, Thompson aims at the entire food infrastructure. Not taking any chances, instead of aiming with an arrow, he aims with a Claymore and hits everything in his path. This is a deep, comprehensive, and balanced, work that is as much about philosophy as it is about food. We tend to tread very shallowly in today’s world. Sound bites took over for news discussions. Game consoles have taken over pick up baseball games. Newspapers have all but disappeared, and all information on the internet must be true. As much as Thompson’s book is about food, it also about deeper and fuller thinking of the world around us.

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