Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book review: Violent Politics, by William R. Polk

TitleViolent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq
AuthorWilliam R. Polk
Tagsnon-fiction, insurgency, guerrilla war, violence, colonialism, imperialism, geopolitics
Your reviewPolk is one of my favorite authors on history and politics. In this volume, he turns to the problem of violence in politics, specifically insurgencies or guerrilla warfare. Polk believes that insurgencies share common characteristics. Most importantly, they boil down to the natives vs. foreigners. Though the foreign invaders may seem to have a military advantage in superior arms, numbers, and training, the only way, in the end, to beat an insurgency is to commit genocide against the people native to that land. They know the land too well, will attack and then disappear where the invaders can't follow.

The insurgencies have followed other patterns. They usually start with only a handful of people, and few arms. They first disrupt the government, then begin providing government-like services themselves. They organize on the local level. They are generally responses to incredible levels of brutality and injustice by the foreigners. The foreigners respond with more brutality, which drives more of the populace to support the insurgents.

Polk covers a variety of insurgencies. Interestingly, the first one he chooses is the American Revolution, which he counts as a guerrilla war, though Washington kept trying to turn it into a regular war, and when he did he was beaten by the British, who were, again, superior in men, weapons, and training. Then he covers the Spanish resistance to the French under Napoleon. the Philippine insurrection, the Irish struggle for independence, Tito and the Yugoslav partisans, the Greek resistance, Kenya and the Mau Mau, the Algerian war of national independence, the Vietnamese struggle against the French, the Americans take over for the French in Vietnam, and the Afghan resistance to the British an the Russians.

All of these have their unique features and their similarities. Polk draws lessons for the war in Iraq, and he is also highly concerned about the neoconservative conception of the "Long War" that envisions many American wars for much of the 21st century, which claim to want to spread democracy and is anti-Muslim. The last chapter includes an interesting analysis of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, edited by David Patraeus and James Amos, and shows where analysis of insurgency shows the manual to be flawed. For example, the manual speaks glowingly of nation building. But, Polk argues, "Look at the American experience. American forces have been sent abroad to fight more than two hundred times since our country was founded. But in recent years only sixteen times have we attempted 'the core objective of nation building...regime change or survivability.' Of these sixteen, Minxin Pei and Sara Kaper found in a study for the Carnegie Endowment, eleven were 'outright failures'. Two, Germany and Japan, can be considered successes, while two others, tiny and nearby Granada and Panama, were probably successful. Considering this record, John Tierney asked in the May 17th, 2004, International Herald Tribune, how could neoconservatives or any conservatives 'who normally do not trust their government to run a public school down the street, come to believe that federal bureaucrats could transform an entire nation in the alien culture of the Middle East?"

Polk talks some about his background in the first part of the book. He was not only an academic, but part of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and saw much of the intelligence and other government documentation on insurgencies while there. He was particularly involved in Vietnam, Algeria, and Afghanistan. He tells a fascinating story of studying all he could find on Vietnam in 1962, and not finding any study of guerrilla warfare, not even a definition. So he took six weeks off to study everything he could find on insurgency, and was invited to speak to a graduating class of senior military officers headed for combat in Vietnam. He told them at the time that the war was already lost, because Ho Chi Minh had won the political issue by becoming the embodiment of Vietnamese nationalism, and had already so disrupted the South Vietnamese government it had basically ceased to function. His military audience was furious, but when in 1967 he told them much the same thing they were listening and hearing what he had to say.

Highly recommended.
PublicationHarper (2007), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0061236195 / 9780061236198

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Book review: Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris

TitleGrave Surprise (Harper Connelly Mysteries, Book 2)
AuthorCharlaine Harris
Tagsseries, fiction, paranormal, mystery, charlaine harris, harper connelly
Your reviewCharlaine Harris writes GOOD mystery series. My favorite is her Sookie Stackhouse series, about a telepath dealing with all sorts of supernatural characters. But it must be admitted that the Harper Connelly series, of which Grave Surprise is the second, beats any series for originality of conception. Harper was struck by lighting when she was 15, and since then has been able to know if she passes over a body and can tell what the cause of death for that body was.

In this outing, Harper and her stepbrother manager, Tolliver, are asked to do a demonstration for a college class on he paranormal. Harper finds the body of a little girl that she had failed to find a couple of years previously. The "coincidence" looks very bad, and Harper and Tolliver are forced to find the killer out of self-defense.

Good book, interesting plot.
PublicationBerkley (2007), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 320 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0425214702 / 9780425214701

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

TitleA Thousand Splendid Suns
AuthorKhaled Hosseini
Tagsfirction, Afghanistan, women
Your reviewThis was my bookclub's read for Feb. 2008. Hosseini's second novel is set in Afghanistan, and is about two women, Mariam and Laila. It starts about the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan until the early 2000s. Mariam is illegitimate, but sees her father once a week when he comes to visit. He has three wives and nine children at home, but she loves him fiercely, though her dour mother is less kind to him. But when Mariam wants to live with her father, he turns away from her, but her mother, afraid of being alone, commits suicide. Mariam is hastily married to a cobbler in Kabul, a country away from her native Herat. Her marriage starts out tolerable, but gets less so as her many miscarriages make her chances of giving her husband a son unlikely.

Laila is the daughter of Mariam's neighbors. She loves Tariq, a neighborhood boy who lost a leg to a Soviet bomb. As the country is torn apart by one war after another, she loses him, and is taken in by Mariam's husband, whom she marries. Laila has a child, then four years later finally the son so desired by the husband.

The husband's brutality is mirrored in the brutality of a land torn by so many years of war. In the end there is at least the hope of happiness for some, as there was in the Kite Runner.

Another strongly moving book. On odd days I find The Kite Runner the better book, on even days I prefer A Thousand Splendid Suns. On all days I celebrate that these books have sold so well, and give such a moving picture of life in another country, culture, and religion than our own.
PublicationRiverhead (2007), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 384 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN1594489505 / 9781594489501

Book revew: Smoke and Shadows, by Huff

TitleSmoke and Shadows (The Smoke Trilogy, Book 1)
AuthorTanya Huff
Tagsfiction, paranormal, fantasy, vampires
Your reviewThis is the first of a trilogy, though it uses some of the characters from Huff's Blood Ties series. The focal character is Tony Foster, the gay street kid from Toronto. He now lives in Vancouver, as does Henry Fitzroi, the vampire who started life as the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII of England. Tony is now working as a production assistant on a third-rate TV show about a vampire detective. Things get stranger than usual when Tony notices shadows behaving in an un-shadowlike manner. The plot involves a wizard and a Shadowlord from another world. Sounds cheesy, perhaps, but Huff is an excellent writer, and the characters and plot are up to her usual standards.
PublicationDAW (2005), Paperback, 416 pages
Publication date2005
ISBN0756402638 / 9780756402631

Monday, February 11, 2008

Book review: Medicus, by Ruth Downie

TitleMedicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
AuthorRuth Downie
Tagsfiction, historical mystery, roman britain
Your reviewMedicus is Ruth Downey's first novel, and if she continues this good she'll have an excellent writing career. It is set in Roman Britain in the year Trajan died and Hadrian takes over, which makes it AD 117. Gaius Petreius Ruso is a doctor serving at a Roman army hospital in Deva (later Chester) . He winds up buying a British slave girl from a slave trader who was abusing her. She, of course, winds up turning his life upside down. Meanwhile a couple of girls at the nearby bar/whorehouse have shown up dead, and somehow everyone things that Ruso is investigating the murders - possibly including the murderer.

Nice characters, a decent plot, gives a nice sense of time and place. Recommended.
PublicationBloomsbury USA (2007), Hardcover, 400 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN1596912316 / 9781596912311

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Book review: Founding Brothers by Ellis

TitleFounding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
AuthorJoseph J. Ellis
Tagsnon-fiction, revolutionary era, john adams, george washington, thomas jefferson, alexander hamilton, slavery, union.
Your reviewEllis has written an entertaining as well as educational book. It takes an unusual form. He takes a verbal snapshot of six moments in time, then filled in the context for that event. That context is necessary... most of us have an insufficient view of the past, thinking we know it better than we do, and looking from our current lens. The most important part of the context we need to understand now is how fragile the US seemed to that first generation. Rightly or wrongly, they saw many issues as having the potential to end the Revolutionary experiment. Ellis calls his chapter on slavery "The Silence". The moment in time was debate in Congress in 1790 over Quaker anti-slave trade petitions. The main upshot was an agreement to not discuss the issue, as it seemed the main issue that would fracture the Republic. And Ellis makes a good case that financially and socially there probably wasn't a workable solution.

Other chapters cover the Hamilton-Burr duel in 1804, Washington's Farewell Address, a dinner with Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison that helped cement a solution on the federal assumption of state debt and the settlement of the nation's capitol on the Potomac, the 1796 Presidential election, and the tumultuous friendship between Adams and Jefferson.

There are wonderful character studies along the way... Hamilton, Burr, Madison, Washington, and most especially Adams and Jefferson. This is the history I love, the stories of people, as well as forces, and how they interplay.

Wonderful book, highly recommended.
PublicationVintage (2002), Paperback, 304 pages
Publication date2002
ISBN0375705244 / 9780375705243