Book Flashback: The Iraq War ‘Gamble’

American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)

American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)

thegamble-coverAs the ISIS campaign to topple Iraq’s government roars on, it seemed worthwhile to look back at the many books written on Iraq to see what predictions had been made about what could happen after the last American unit moved out.

I posted “The 2009 Book that Foretold the (Possible) Collapse of Post-American Iraq” at Re:Print:

For years, especially after the American troop drawdown, it seemed as though Iraq would muddle along in a chaotic but eventually stabilizing way familiar to many Middle Eastern countries with oil wealth. Although the bombings continued, it was possible to believe that the conflict was in fact done. What the recent events have proven is that [Thomas Ricks’s The Gamble] was right: the 11-year-old Iraq War is far from over…

New in Books: ‘The Sixth Extinction’

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

book-sixthextinction-kolbert-cvr-200According to scientific writer Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophoe), there have been five waves of mass extinctions in Earth’s history. They all had natural causes. In the current epoch — called by some researchers the Anthropocene in recognition of humanity’s transformative effect on the planet’s ecosystems — there is another wave of species disappearing, and it’s because of us.

The Sixth Extinction is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:

In Kolbert’s account, the Anthropocene is marked by accelerated change and disruptions recalling the natural calamities of the past. In other words, humankind is the new asteroid. There’s the ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide concentrations destroying everything from frogs to coral reefs (increased “biotic attrition” in one of the book’s more memorably clinical terms) … Interlocking webs of travel networks make continental boundaries meaningless, mixing flora and fauna together at higher rates of speed, dooming even more. The result, Kolbert writes, is much the same as the pulses of “megafauna” extinctions that started occurring some 40,000 years ago when humans began sweeping across the Earth and wiping out megaherbivores like Cuvier’s North American mammoths. “It might be nice to imagine there once was a time when men lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert notes dispassionately. But “it’s not clear that he ever really did”…

You can read an excerpt of The Sixth Extinction in Audubon magazine.

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)

New in Theaters: ‘Omar’

Training to kill in 'Omar'

‘Omar': Terrorists or freedom fighters?

Omar-posterIn the Oscar-nominated thriller Omar, a young Palestinian man in the West Bank is faced with two challenges: First, how to convince his friend that he’d be a good bet to marry the friend’s little sister? Second, and more importantly, how does he escape the law after helping to murder an Israeli soldier?

Omar opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

For such a razor-sharp thriller, the West Bank-set Omar smuggles a dense packet of ambiguity into its compact running time. This shouldn’t be a rarity, given how many stories there are about the conflict between occupiers and occupied, the dueling taxonomy of “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” But too often these clashes are related in absolutes, where one narrative is bought into more than another. Hany Abu-Assad’s skillful story wrestles with those grey moralities without spoon-feeding one or the other to the audience. It’s a story about people, not ideologies, but it knows how inextricably the former intertwine with the latter…

Between a rock and a hard place.

Between a rock and a hard place.

Here is the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: ‘This Town’ and the Gilded Trough

this town-coverAlmost the best thing about Mark Leibovich’s new Washington, DC tell-all This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital is what’s not in it. He didn’t include an index, thusly avoiding the tendency of Beltway types to cruise into bookstores and flip instantly to the index for any reference to themselves. Given the high-pitched response to his book from the corridors of power, a surprising number of those people have actually been reading the thing. It’s worth it.

My review is at PopMatters:

Mark Leibovich’s This Town is angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16 years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives”…

You can watch Leibovich on The Daily Show here.

New in Books: ‘The Way of the Knife’

Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007

Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007

Suddenly, about midway through the twelfth year of the post-9/11 conflicts, America decided to have a conversation about drones and the forever war. Books and op-eds were written, opinions voiced. Then all that was forgotten.

book-wayofknife-mazzetti-cvr-200In April, though, Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Mazzetti delivered The Way of the Knife, a precise little guidebook to all the secretive ways that America has been waging war without borders or oversight just about anywhere in the world we darn well please.

My full review is at PopMatters; here’s part:

When people of the future look back on America’s first wars of the 21st century, they will study the flash-bang invasions and slow-death occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in the decade-and-a-half following 9/11. Lessons to be learned are many and complex, though occasionally quite simple. Don’t invade countries without an exit strategy, for example. Avoid using vengeful locals or untrained and unsupervised National Guardsmen to run prisons; that would be another. Train at least a few guys to speak something besides English—preferably the langue of the country they’re occupying.

It’s less clear what lessons will be gleaned from America’s third undeclared and so-far nameless war; since we’re still right in the middle of it…

You can buy The Way of the Knife anywhere. Here’s an excerpt.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in China

finneganswake1There’s something about James Joyce’s last and arguably unreadable novel Finnegans Wake that has always attracted the obsessive. Fans range from Marshall McLuhan—who, one critic quipped after reading his manic interpretations, was possibly the only living person to have read every single line of the book—to those various reading clubs that have popped up where people read a couple pages each meeting over the course of many years.

Now, after one woman spent eight years doggedly translating what Joyce’s wife termed “that chop suey” into Mandarin, the book has proven to be surprisingly successful in China. Per the Wall Street Journal:

A newly affluent nation that prizes black Audi sedans and Louis Vuitton handbags has made a literary status symbol of what may well be English literature’s most difficult work. Thanks in part to a canny marketing campaign involving eye-catching billboards and packaging, “Finnegans Wake” sold out the first, 8,000-volume run shortly after it was released in December. The book briefly rose to No. 2 on a bestseller list run by a Shanghai book industry group, just behind a biography of the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern-day boom.

Perhaps it’s a sign of increasing affluence that people have the inclination to acquire status novels that they have little intention of actually reading.

New in Books: ‘Invisible War’

invisiblearmies1Earlier this year, up-and-coming military writer and think-tank-er (if that’s a term) Max Boot published a pretty incredible piece of writing. Invisible Wars: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present is one of the best, most thoughtful books on military history for a general readership to come along in some time. (Even if calling itself “epic” in the subtitle seems a touch hubristic, though correct.)

Don’t let its length and breadth of scope throw you, this is as readable as any magazine essay, and definitely worth your time. My review is available at PopMatters:

In this grand survey of what one could term irregular warfare, spanning from the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD and earlier to the present day, Boot shows that a good reading of the historical record leaves little room for old stereotypes. He has no truck with the romantic heavy-breathing that writers of his ilk can slip into when talking about generals and battles. He also doesn’t waste time in this book repeating the old army-groupie saw about how some particular war might have been won if only the media/politicians/concerned civilians had just gotten out of the way and let the guys with guns take care of the problem…

You can read an excerpt from the book here.