Monthly Archives: April 2015

Book Review — Through the Eyes of My Mind: A Collection of Poems

The sun so long above the mountain
Leaving behind its vanishing glory is now stooping low, about to set
My fluttering footsteps,
Not far away,
Will faithfully follow them all.
Fading Flowers

Through the Eyes of My Mind by Bimal Ghosh

Poetry comes from all people and all places, or so I have been told. To me, poets are those living, seeing, and thinking on a level slightly above the rest of the rational thinkers. I am at a loss to name a poet that did not belong to that lyrical class of writers or singers. It’s true that there are poems on about every subject written by enthusiasts –cyclists, sport fishers, even particle physicists — and though sometimes clever they are usually pretty bad or cutesy, as an art teacher once described it. There are brilliant writers on a variety of subjects and their brains seemed to be honed to their subject matter. I read my friend’s dissertation on molecular biology which was an amazing piece of work, however, I would never ask her to write a poem. Despite all my reviewing of poetry, if I tried writing it, I would probably make a Vogon* cringe.

This brings me to Bimal Ghosh, the poet responsible forThrough the Eyes of My Mind: A Collection of Poems. At the beginning of the book, there is a list of previous publications by Ghosh they include nearly a dozen books on human rights and migration. Reading further into his biography one will find that: He worked as the director of a UN/IOM global project on migration management: New International Regime for Orderly Movements of People (NIROMP); as a senior consultant to the United Nations and IOM; and as an external collaborator/ adviser to the Commission on Global Governance, the Council of Europe, Global Commission on International Migration and the German Technical Co-operation Agency, on migration, development and human security issues. Clearly not the resume of a typical poet.

His work surprised me. Although some of the collection deals with real world problems and real world people like Nelson Mandela, it, for the most part, is separate from Ghosh’s field of work. It was refreshing to see references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even Thomas Hobbes. He makes references to other writers like Wordsworth and Whitman, and when Ghosh is influenced by a historical figure he notes that too. The poems are are listed with a date and places where they were written or spoken. Some of the poems have an explanation to go with the poem or notation on how a verse he wrote was borrowed or modified from a historical writer or figure. Some of the notes are more personal like the poem to his daughter for her birthday when they were separated.

For me, as the reader, the first two sections of poems were by far the most appealing. The subjects are aging and death, but it did not seem morbid. There is the moving into old age, the twilight of life, where we wonder what it is all about and why time seems to move faster as we age. What happened to all we planned on doing with our lives?

The dreams of my youthful days of those better tomorrows, of a brave, new world,
where have they gone?
Where?
The Lost Dreams

But who will tell me what happens when our deeds remain half-finished, acts wait in store, never done, and the time is up and the hour gone?
Farewell to Earth

Ghosh puts together an interesting collection that covers a variety of subjects and themes. There is reflection, questioning, a touching ritual of cheating death in “The Last Round.” “Miles We Walked” reflects on our failure as mankind to each other and to the earth. The section “Glimpses of the Beauty of Change” near the end of the collection takes the reader to more uplifting poetry that compliments the edge of the early sections. A very well rounded selection of poetry from an unexpected source, written in an easy and comforting language

*http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Vog…

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Book Review — A Warrior’s Guide to Self-Defense

A Warrior’s Guide to Self-Defense by Kyle Swinehart

A Warrior’s Guide to Self-Defense by Kyle Swinehart is a practical guide to self-defence. Swinehart served for five years as a Marine Corps infantry machine gunner and martial arts instructor, and fought in Afghanistan twice in the Battle for Marjah. Since leaving the Marine Corps, he has dedicated himself to sharing his unique perspective on combat operations, and teaching practical self-defense tactics and principles that will actually be helpful in real world scenarios

When you think of practical hand to hand combat, it’s hard not to think of the Marines. In boot camp, I remember hand to hand combat, bayonet training, and pugil stick training. Hand to hand instructors taught us to use what was at hand as a weapon or how to take the opponent’s weapon and use it against him. Later on while in school for Embassy Duty and while serving we repeatedly trained on defending from knife, gun, and random weapon attacks. We practiced takedown moves as well as incapacitating moves and we learned the weapon was not the firearm, but the Marine.

Swinehart presents something a bit different than the mass market view on self-defense. There is no understanding your attackers mind, blowing whistles, or talking down your attacker. The primary premise is meeting violence with great violence. That is something not taught to civilians, but familiar to Marines. Marines in civilian environments, like Embassy Duty, are not trained to kill, but to immediately incapacitate the victim and end the threat. This means a variety of things as Swinehart mentions a few times of how to snap an attacker’s neck. Gouging eyes, popping eardrums, and sensitive parts of the body are mentioned. He also works on putting the reader in the proper mindset to realize the seriousness of the threat and the need to react.

Although Swinehart does not go into detailed moves, he tells the reader to practice and to practice enough so your training becomes a reflex action. Be aware of your surrounding. He tells the reader what to look for in his surroundings and how to look like you belong and are not “the weakest member in the herd.” A Warrior’s Guide to Self-Defense presents two main ideas. First, do not be a target. Second, meet violence with greater violence. The book is light on the actual mechanics of self-defense but makes up for that in what is needed first — confidence and knowing that you can react to a threat. A very realistic and practical guide.

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Thoughts on Henry Kissinger’s World Order

World Order by Henry Kissinger

Love him or hate him, Kissinger is a giant in international relations. I thoroughly enjoyed this book in the audio format. Kissinger centers on Europe and later America, but he includes the Chinese, Iran, and Islam in general. There can be little doubt on where the father of American Realism stands on history and the issues. Westphalia was perhaps the greatest milestone in Western history. Unlike China, which viewed itself as the center of the world, or Islam, which fought for homogenized society, Europe found a way to use differences to produce a stable system. The concept that nations act in their own interest and are prone to war when they advance their interests is used to create a balance of power. Nations will ally with other nations to form blocks and these blocks adjust to changes. Essentially, there are two major blocks of power. No single nation will go to war because first the cost of war would be too high fighting not only the country you invade but also its allies. Secondly, other nations in the block moderate the behavior of its allies. This seems to work well most of the time. It is claimed that alliances were a cause of the first World War, but NATO and the Warsaw Pact kept peace in Europe. It is not the alliances that cause the problem but rather the players.

Kissinger criticized the Liberal Theory using the League of Nations as an example. It is hard to convince nations to voluntarily go to war when it is not in their interest. Germany could have been stopped, but there was no will among nations to do so. Alliances create the will and the bond. The Cold War divided the world to such an extent that more than the future of nations were on the line with war, the future of life on earth was at stake.

I don’t always agree with Kissinger, but I recognize his brilliance. He credits the United States as a nation that is different from all other nations because it supports democracy and freedom with its foreign policy. Forgetting or neglecting his role in establishing Pinochet as dictator over the freely elected Allende in Chile or support for brutal dictatorships. He does mention the Jeane Kirkpatrick’s thinking that right-wing dictatorships tend to build democratic institutions compared to leftist dictatorships. In another section, Marc Anthony would have been proud of Kissinger’s I come to bury Nixon, not praise him section. I was surprised that he also sang the praises of Gerald Ford for much the same reasons as I do. He accidentally came to power without owing others outside of government favors. I was surprised, too, by his praise for George W Bush’s handling of Iraq. The US abandons a just war to NATO while invading Iraq on claims of weapons of mass destructions.

The closing was also surprising in a way that never really occurred to me. In the internet age Kissinger explains it is easy to be a researcher, but harder to be a thinker. Readily available information in convenient bite-size pieces ends discussions of ideas and well, looks like a politics bulletin board where soundbite plays against sound bite until one person calls or compares another to a Nazi and everyone storms off. The internet also releases information at a fast pace. If an event happens on the other side of the globe people pick it up on Twitter in real time and news sources relay the information as fast as government sources. People demand that a policy be made instantly. Previously, there was time for create a plan of action. Even in Kissinger’s Westphalia example, respective sides stayed in towns forty miles apart. It took time for information to move. The more time available the more rational the decision. Kissinger also presents the another problem of instant information — political campaigns and public policy. With the information collection from online use, instant trending of public opinion politicians and presidents might be encouraged to follow trends rather than formulate long-term plans.

The world has changed since Westphalia but according to Kissinger behavior has not. We still establish stability in the same ways. I remember after the fall of the Soviet Union, someone said, “One of these days you are going to miss the USSR.” The bipolar world was a source of stability. Granted there were enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, the chance of them actually being used were very slim. There was order. We kept our allies in line and the Soviets kept theirs in line. When hostilities broke out they were in peripheral countries with the major powers not coming to blows. There was a sense of stability, conflicts were limited and global warfare was seen as something from the past. Groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Bosnian ethnic cleansing, and even the first Gulf War probably would never have surfaced. Perhaps the lesson is that there is never a perfect world and unlikely one can ever exist.

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Book Review — Australia and Canada in Afghanistan: Perspectives on a Mission

Australia and Canada in Afghanistan by Jack Cunningham

Australia and Canada in Afghanistan: Perspectives on a Mission edited by Jack Cunningham and William Maley is a collection of essays concerning Canada’s and Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. The contributors range from academic to political and military.

As a student of foreign policy and a citizen of the United States, I take great interest in how other countries view the actions of my country. Canada is my closest neighbor and Australia very distant, but both sharing a common British heritage and language. Like many people, I do not agree with everything my country does, regardless of which party is in power. Seeing and understanding the views of neighbors and allies provides a different perspective for me.

Canada entered the fight in Afghanistan when Article 5 of the NATO charter was invoked for the first time. An attack on one member will be seen as an attack on all members. Canada dutifully rose to its position. I see this as a bit beyond what the original charter intended. Article 5 was directed at the Soviet Union and not a third world country. Canada took even more of a leading role in Afghanistan as a NATO member when the US concentrated its efforts in Iraq and left Afghanistan to NATO. Canada declined to participate in Iraq but felt the need to prove itself as a NATO member outside of Britain’s shadow. Canada has a long and proud history of peacekeeping, but Afghanistan proved to be different than previous missions.

Australia is connected to the United States by the ANZUS treaty (Australia New Zealand United States). Australia has sided with the United States before. They participated in the Vietnam War along the United States. They also became part of the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq contributing special forces and F-18 Hornets. Australia later became involved in the nation building process.

Two countries contributed to a war brought on by the attack of the United States. The attack, arguably, was brought on by US foreign policy in the region. Neither Canada nor Australia was threatened by Al-Qaeda and by siding with the United States would make them targets. There is the common belief that countries want to remain close to and in the good favor of the United States. The primary reason is security. Nations under the US security umbrella do not have to build huge militaries to protect themselves. It is a recent theory that China opened to the US in the 1970s as a way to relieve the pressure of forty-two Soviet divisions on their border. Smaller military budgets mean more money is available for other uses. Still, when called nations willing show up to do their part.

Afghanistan proved to be unique for both countries. The peacekeeping and public works projects to win hearts and minds were still being conducted in hot zones. Unlike most peacekeeping missions, peace had not been realized (and still hasn’t) in most of the country. Regional and tribal disputes and struggles for power hampered any reconstruction work. Problems with public opinion varied and changed in both countries. Perhaps reminiscent of World War I, no one expected a war with a third world country to last almost a decade and a half.

Australia and Canada in Afghanistan: Perspectives on a Mission provides several different opinions on the involvement and lessons learned in Afghanistan. It was a war that looked liked it was nearly complete, and then the country that retaliated for the attack on its own home soil became distracted and decided to fight another war leaving Afghanistan to NATO and other allies. Australia and Canada in Afghanistan: Perspectives on a Mission is informative and covers a variety of issues that go beyond war fighting. Although classified as “Contemporary Canadian Issues” by the publisher, it well worth the read for Americans interested in the effects and opinions of its foreign policy and its relationship with its allies.

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Book Review — The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire

The Guardians by Susan Pedersen

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen is a detailed account of the organization that formed after World War I as part of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Pedersen is a historian and James P. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. Pedersen focuses on 19th and 20th-century British history, women’s history, settler colonialism, and the history of international institutions. She received both her B.A. (1982) and Ph.D (1989) from Harvard University.

In the late 1980s, I worked in Geneva, Switzerland and every day walked past the League of Nations Building on my way to work. I thought of it as a grand experiment and a building that represented hope for the future as well as the seed that the UN and international organizations grew. It felt special to be that close to such a piece of history.

The League of Nations is probably best known for its inability to prevent the second world war and is seen by the Realist thinkers as the failure of the Liberal Theory of International Relations. Europe was able, for the most part, to keep the peace through a balance of power. Peace was not kept because nations decided to be peaceful, but because the cost of war was too high. The idea of the League of Nations is that enlightened nations want peace and that diplomacy and international law could solve any problems that arose. In reality, it was much more more complicated. Nations that joined were not required to stay members. Germany, Italy, Japan, The USSR, and most of South America left. What is surprising, however, is how many nations actually joined, or were brought in as commonwealths, colonies, or mandate. I was truly a worldwide organization with only The United States (and it territories), Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, and present-day Yemen and Saudia Arabia absent.

Pedersen looks at the formation of the League of Nations and, in particular, the area that many people do not associate with the league — the mandates. The League took over German colonies and non-Turkish Ottoman lands. Although the League members made efforts to appear as being all inclusive and all equal in public, it was essentially the white European nations that held power. France and England openly struggled for power and land. Those countries that did not like the results simply left the organization.

Some blame the failure of the League on the United States’ refusal to join. It is true that American involvement would have likely countered European desire for empire and the expansion of empire. The problem, however, was much deeper. European powers saw colonial lands and the mandates as unable to rule themselves. This attitude was also held by Wilson especially in Latin America. Ironically, after almost three hundred years of balance of power politics the sudden shift to a democratic league left the European powers unable to function beyond their own interests. Europe, from the perspective of a stable continent, was far worse now than it was with alliances.

The mandates proved to be a problem that Europe was unable to handle. They are still a problem today with Palestine being at the forefront of the news. Rwanda made the news in the 1990s for genocide from strife going back to the mandates and one would be hard-pressed to find a success story in the mandates.

Pedersen provides a deep, well-researched history of the League of Nations. The work is very well documented and uses a variety of source material. Just as there is more to the origin of World War I than many people understand, there is much more to the League of Nations than simply its failure to prevent WWII. Even with holding a master’s degree in international relations, I learned a great deal from this book. I now have piles of notes and new information to be used when discussing and writing about international relations. The Guardians provides an excellent history of the beginnings and unfortunately the failure of the Liberal Theory. An excellent book for students of foreign affairs and the history of foreign affairs.

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Book Review — Islam in Saudi Arabia

Islam in Saudi Arabia by David Commins is clearly written history of Saudi Arabia and the role religion plays in society and national and international politics. Commins is Professor of History. He earned his B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He has received Fulbright grants to fund Arabic study at Damascus University (1981-82), to research Islamic modernism in Ottoman Syria (1982-1983), and to study Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia (2001-2002).

I lived in Saudi Arabia for about eighteen months in 1984-1986 and served as a Marine Guard at the American Embassy. I remember the experience well and even then the conflicts between the proper religious behavior and reality. For example, there was a music store that sold bootleg cassette tapes of questionable quality for under a dollar. The store was allowed to function and most music was available. However, the religious pressures had the store remove Michael Jackson’s Thriller after the younger generation took to wearing a single glove and moonwalking in their thobes.

One thing that is very noticeable in Saudi Arabia and discussed by Commins are the high walls surrounding houses. People have a public and a private life. Inside the walls, many Saudis live Western lives — jeans, television, music. The religious authorities are not allowed to climb the walls and peer over them as that is a violation of the well-established Islamic law. Many use this same method to keep satellite dishes out of view.

Commins examines the many dichotomies of Saudi Arabia. It goes deeper than the public and life of the population. There is a very different interpretation of church and state in the country too. Both the religious (clerics) and the government (Saud family) struggle for power. Many times the confrontations are handled with dialog other times violence. Television for example (and later the internet) were brought into question. Islam prohibits any representation of living beings Television both use images of people which would generally be called idolatry under the Wahhabi Sunnism practiced in Saudi Arabia. Television was introduced in 1965 and ended with protests including a death of a nephew of King Faisal. The government bowed to religious pressure to allow the clerical class to determine all programming. The debate ended with a fatwa allowing television because the good of religious programming outweighed the possible bad. Now, with the addition of satellite TV and the internet, the religious authorities can no longer keep up with censorship.

The royal family divided government with the clerics to keep the most radical ideas out of foreign affairs and economics. The government gave control of religion and education to the clerics and remained in control of outward policies. This gives the US a friendly ally in Saudi Arabia officially while the population may contribute money and people to causes against the United States: Bin Laden came from a wealthy Saudi family. Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Wahhabism is a very strict form of Islam and if the country was controlled by the clerical class it would be a far different place. It is the moderation of the ruling family that allowed Saudi Arabia to enter the modern world and advance into the modern world of states. Much of this has been because the ruling family has stood up to the clerics by allowing infidels on the Islam’s soil first as oil workers and most recently in military bases against the Iraqi threat. Even in high-walled compounds to hide the visible presence of outsiders, it has not always gone smoothly — the Khobar Tower bombings, for example.

Islam in Saudi Arabia gives a detailed, but a very readable history of Saudi Arabia and the role of Islam throughout that history. I have only touched on a few points brought up in the book, most that related to either my time there or studies in foreign policy. Books like this that will go a long way in improving America’s understanding of Islam and Saudi Arabia. The battle inside Saudi Arabia is just as important to understanding its actions on the world stage and its relations with its allies. Saudi Arabia is in a struggle with itself. The struggle is growing more visible as modern technology is opening the outside world to the younger generation, but the clerics controlling the education. The struggle is also with its neighbors. Saudi has a Sunni majority while Iran is Shiite; an Iran hegemon would not be beneficial to Saudi Arabia. Islam provides the unity of the Saudi people, but it also creates divisions when defining issues of human rights, national interest, and even evolving culture. Islam in Saudi Arabia is well worth the read and is very helpful understanding the complexity of a pivotal nation in one of the world’s politically and economically strategic areas.

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Book Review — And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs

I “cheated” a bit with this book and used the audio edition. I started walking to work again and use the time to listen to a book. This version is read by Ray Porter. Porter changes his voice throughout the book reflecting the different authors. Kerouac and Burroughs alternate in telling the story of the death of Ramsey Allen.

Like many of Kerouac’s real life writings, the characters are real but their names are changed. Kerouac is Mike Ryko and Burroughs goes by Will Dennison. Ryko and Dennison tell the fictionalized story of mid-1940s New York City friends. Aside from the death, it is typical Kerouac writing and is typical of his usual fare. There is plenty of drinking. Some marijuana smoking and the attempt to escape problems by heading out to sea. There is also an openly gay character in the story who is well accepted, but also the motivation of the story.

The title has nothing to do with the story. It comes from the 1944 Hartford Circus fire. The paraffin coated big tops caught fire and 165 died and 700 were injured as a result. Burrough’s recalled the radio news story where the announcer said “and the hippos were boiled in their tanks.” This book was written in 1945 but not published until 2008 and was met with unimpressive reviews for its literary style. Overall, it is a good story of a group of friends who live fairly normal lives with perhaps an abnormal amount of drinking. Interesting people fighting the mundane.

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