Book Reviews

A Rumor of War

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I picked out the book, ” A Rumor of War”, from the base library yesterday.  It is a well-known Vietnam classic, written by Philip Caputo,  a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. 

I’m only a short way into the book, but I’d like to make some comments because I sense where the book is going.  First, Caputo is an excellent and powerful writer.  He presents his experience in Vietnam with emotional impact–the best kind of writing.  But there is a cynicism from page one and it isn’t just a cynicism about how the war was fought, it’s  a generalized cynicism which has its roots in the anti-war movement of the time, which Caputo admits he was a part of. 

Caputo begins the book by saying that he joined the Marines as a way to escape the hum drum of life at home, where crossing the street was the most danger he’d face in a day.  I suspect that this is a normal reason that many young men join the military.  However, the best Soldiers and Marines are those whom find in their “job”  a higher purpose.  Soldiering is too difficult and trying at all levels for it to be just another job or a mere source of excitement.  It is also too important.  The higher purpose in everything a serviceman does must remain at the forefront of his mind, or else everything will seem useless and tedious.  It should be apparent to everyone that the Spartans did not stand to the last man at Thermopylae with the same motivation they carried while tilling their fields and the Athenians did not save Western civilization at the Battle of Marathon while merely punching a time card.

In reading some of the reviews of a Rumor of War on Amazon, many reviewers carry on about the horrors of war, and use the book’s theme to reinforce what I suspect they already believe; that Vietnam was a bad war, while WWII was a good war.  To me, the biggest difference between the two wars is that we lost in Vietnam and won WWII.  Our mission was essentially the same in both wars.  We felt no real threat to the American mainland during WWII, though Pearl Harbor set the United States in motion.  Still, our goal in both wars was clear: Prevent a totalitarian regime from crushing free nations.   And there is almost no difference as to the evils presented by the Soviets and Red China when compared to Nazi Germany.  Basically, the Soviets became what the Nazi would have become had they not been confronted early enough. 

Early in the book, Caputo has hinted at terrible changes he saw take place in soldiers over the course of the war.  Some of them lost their sense of compassion and found joy in killing the enemy.  Again, this is no different than in WWII. 

Caputo admits that he came to enjoy aspects of combat, a sentiment expressed by many soldiers, if only in hushed tones.  History bears witness that this is true.  What soldiers truly hate is not war per se, but losing at war.  Soldiers are supposed to fight wars, that’s what they do.  They are also supposed to win wars.  My own cynicism stems not from the Afghan war, not from any sentiment that Noam Chomsky would find heartening, but from the fact that most politicians are liars, idiots and scoundrels.  They have no idea what a good war looks like, no sense of strategic realities, and almost all of them can be classified as careerists worried more about losing the vote of the 21 year old undergrad than the life of a 21 year soldier sent in to battle for the vote the politico worries about losing.  I generalize, and to those government officials who do not meet these criteria, I commend you.  But speak up and be heard. 

The Afghan war has been handled more poorly than Vietnam. Fortunately the jihadists are amateurs compared to the hard corp communists of the 50s and 60s. In Vietnam there were real reasons for not attacking ,directly, North Vietnam.  The Soviet Union and China were very powerful militarily, ruthless, cunning and frankly, both had a large number of political allies in the United States.  In Afghanistan, we let Pakistan kill our soldiers because politicians are politicians.  See above.

As for the behavior of soldiers in war that Caputo speaks of, I can say that I never once saw any actions by US soldiers against our enemy that was illegal or evil.  In fact, our soldiers treated the Afghans better than fellow troops in most cases.  This did appal me.  Because of Hearts and Minds, soldiers shook hands with and smiled at  they knew helped the insurgency to kill fellow Americans.  The Afghans knew no consequences for actions against the US military in most cases.  There were benefits to helping both the insurgents and the Americans, but always the insurgents knew when to apply force and so in most districts, progress was an apparition.  When Americans weren’t around, things deteriorated very quickly.

Sometimes I have to book a book away

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I picked up the book, Jarhead, from my post’s library. The author, Anthony Swofford, is a veteran of the first Gulf war where he fought with the Marines.

Swofford is a talented writer. However, by his own admission, he was never meant to be a Marine. He says he knew it was a mistake from the get-go. I’m betting though, it made him a better and stronger person, despite the fact that he hated it. Hey, everyone hates Boot Camp. I despised it, and curse the existance of all Drill Instructors. But once your done, the rest of the Army can seem pretty easy by comparison. I guess there’s one good thing about it…

So Swafford’s book does what good art should: conveys emotion, making the reader feel like the author does. Unfortunately, Swafford is depressed and dislikes the Marines. Which of course makes the reader depressed and dislike the Marines. So I put the book down, and went on to reading Ralph Peters’ newest novel: The War After Armegeddon.

Some feelings are better left surpressed. Others should be cultivated. Being a depressed Soldier is even worse than being a depressed civilian. Read the Illiad and take a look at Achilles.

Top ten favorite fiction books

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1) Starship Troopers–Robert Heinlein

2) The Stand–Stephen King

3) Flow my tears, the policeman said.–PK Dick

4) Stormbringer–Michael Moorcock

5) A Scanner Darkly–PK Dick

 6) The Forever War–Joe Haldeman

7) Summer of the Monkeys–Wilson Rawls

8  Where the Red Fern Grows–Wilson Rawls

9) The Magus–John Fowles

10) Mystic River–Dennis Lehane

Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule

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Right now I’m reading three books at once, so as to satisfy my ADHD. I usually have at least two going. This has good and bad asset. On one hand, it keeps my mind fresh. Sometimes, when I continuously read one book or genre, it starts to grow stale. Like exercise, a little shift in gears can renew my interest in reading. The bad thing is sometimes I forget where I left off and I get off track, particularly if the book is very complicated.

One of the books that I’m reading is called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. I became familiar with Gladwell a few years ago when I read another book of his, Blink. Blink was about how most people’s decisions are based off first impressions and how powerful intuition is. Gladwell made some very powerful arguments.

In Outliers, Gladwell argues that the people we consider to be very successful, such as professional athletes, people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, are actually the beneficiaries of some very good luck to go along with their natural talent. I’ve always thought about this in terms of where people are born. A person of immense physical talent may be born in a country that doesn’t have a certain sport, and thus never has the opportunity for riches and fame. This torpedoes the Genetics is Destiny argument.

One chapter is dedicated to what Gladwell terms, the 10,000 hour rule. According to information gleaned from neuroscience, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class master of almost any skill. Gladwell cites a study of music students at a music school. The study divided the students into three categories: Those that played at an extremely high level, those of mediocre ability and those that only showed enough skill to maybe be highschool music teachers. The only thing that seemed to divide the students habits between groups was how much time they spent practicing. The low level group averaged 4,000 hours over their time in school, the mid-level, 6,000 and the highest performers, 10,000 hours.

Of course, 10,000 hours is a very long time to be performing any type of activity, but it seems that all of us may be capable of high performance if we just put in the time. The difference that I’ve seen in epxert athletes and very capable people is an almost rabid drive to practice and perform. I’ve always read biographies and autobiographies. I’ve always noticed that people we consider great had an early obsession with the endeavor we consider them to have a special talent in, and that obsession resulted in lots of practice.

Whatever you aspire to, do not give up just yet. I’m sure you have a ways to go before you hit 10,000 hours of practice time.

Al-Qaeda did it, not America

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I was at the book store flipping through blogger/journalist Michael Yon’s new book yesterday.

All I can say is: If you have an interest in the Iraq War–buy this book. Yon’s blog link is on my blog-roll and you can check out some of his other contributions to war journalism. I was stunned at some of the photographs Yon captured while in Iraq at the peak of the fighting. Photos of men in the mid-fall after being struck by 7.62 rounds. Puffs of powdered cement as bullets skipped of walls right next to US soldier’s heads.

Yon is a former member of the US Special Forces–and he’s virtually fearless. I like him too because he’s been criticized by both the Left and the Right. I can appreciate someone who doesn’t find it necessary to pander to carry on. As Yon says, if you want to make money writing, tell people what they want to hear. If the war in Iraq matters to you though,–tell the truth. Leftists hate him because he was the first to report that the surge worked and that US soldiers were not raping and pillaging. On the other hand, twice Yon has been kicked out of military units because he pissed off some colonel.

By readinfg this book, youll see that the Iraqis knew who destroyed Iraq--Al-Qaeda.
By reading this book, you'll see that the Iraqis knew who destroyed Iraq: Al-Qaeda did.

 

Yon is not an appologist for Bush. He does not hesitate to call Al-Qaeda what it is, though. Evil and in need of destruction. He documents over and over the un-reported events that show what Iraqis really think of America: That we saved them from a horrible regime.

One Iraqi who thought he was going to die , as he lay bleeding begged soldiers to cut his heart out and bury it in America. Iraqi boys dream of becoming US soldiers. One Iraqi man said: “Look what Al-Qaeda has done to my country.”

That statement caught me off guard. I knew it intellectually, that it was not America causing the violence. But to see the words from an Iraqi changed the meaning for me. Al-Qaeda, bent on establishing a Neo-Caliphate ruled by absolutists, recruited former Baathists and set about to ruin everything. And aided by our own media, they almost succeeded. Insurgents killed anyone they could in order discredit America. And yet we were blamed.

It’s a bit like blaming a woman’s rape on the fact that she wore tight pants or a short skirt.

 Now that Obama is president however, Time magazine is making statements like ” Afghanistan: Why failure is not an option.”

Slow learners them folks. But Afghanistan’s not as important as Iraq was and is. Time wants it to be because their president thinks it is.