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S Wood (Scotland)

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The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World
The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World
by Gabriel Kolko
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.50

5.0 out of 5 stars A Strategic Overview With Knuckle Rapping, 22 Mar. 2010
Long serving historian of Warfare, Gabriel Kolko, is certainly feeling a little war weary in his 2006 overview of the United States place in the world "The Age of War: The United States Confronts The World". Along with his weariness is a strong, but restrained, sense of exasperation: "All wars in the twentieth century both surprised and disillusioned world leaders, whatever their nationality. Given the political, social, and human elements involved in every conflict and the near certainty that these mercurial ingredients will interact to produce unanticipated consequences, leaders who calculate the outcomes of wars as essentially predictable military events are invariably doomed to disappointment. The theory and the reality of warfare conflict immensely, for the results of wars can never be known in advance."

The organisation of the book is somewhat haphazard, on occasion repetitive, but it contains a powerfully argued case about the dangers of the United States policy in the post World War 2 environment in general, and with regard to the then President G.W.Bush's "War on Terror" in particular. Kolko packs into this short book a great deal of history regarding the US experience, primarily in Korea and Vietnam but with regard to the larger regional and global entanglements it has found itself getting into. Other issues he looks at are the NATO experience in Kosovo, military alliances, the continuity of US policy neo-cons not withstanding, Iraq, Afghanistan, the "War on Terror" and the issue of nuclear weapons. While his analysis of the situation in Iraq could be characterised as overly pessimistic from the point of view of the US forces, only the myopic and the deluded could regard the outcome of the US's twenty year conflict with that country as a success. Unfortunately, given President Obama's decision to keep digging in Afghanistan it would seem that that there is still an ample supply of such persons involved in U.S. decision making.

A provocative book that provides more food for thought than it's relatively short size would suggest, it quite comfortably surmounts the shortcomings in the organisation of its content. Well recommended for anyone who is interested in global affairs and war, as is Kolko's magisterial and forensic analysis of the Vietnam War: Anatomy Of A War.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
A Case of Exploding Mangoes
by Mohammed Hanif
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Case of Damp Squibs, 22 Mar. 2010
I'm not the greatest fan of contemporary fiction, but I easily persuaded myself to borrow Mohammed Hanif's "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" from my local library. I had previous knowledge and interest in Pakistan, the regime of General Zia, and the period in which it was set during the Jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan, as well as a taste for sharp satire, which is what a quick reading of the inside fly-leaf lead me to expect.

There are certainly moments when Hanif's crisp prose and dry humour comes up with the goods, for example the occasional surreal lists that appear in the text can raise a wry smile. On the other hand, the book's intricate plot is too clever by half and verges on the ridiculous, propelled along it's convoluted path under the pernicious influence of what might be termed "Magical Realism", which for me has always been a bit short on magic, and devoid of much that can be meaningfully described as realism. There is little sense of time and place. The characters, historical and fictional, exist in two dimensions, unaccompanied by anything that might be described as insight. The cameo appearance of Osama Bin Laden at the American Ambassadors barbecue verges on the juvenile. It was not an enjoyable experience to read.

Its only when one thinks of how Joseph Roth in The Radetzky March, or Victor Serge in The Case of Comrade Tulayev approach the historical novel, that the frivolous and trivial nature of Hanif's work becomes painfully clear. If you want to find out anything about Pakistan's recent history, one had be better advised turning to Tariq Ali and his The Clash of Fundamentalisms or The Duel both of which contain more insight in a single paragraph than one will find in the whole of this book. And more laughs.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 13, 2010 3:00 PM BST

Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order
Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order
by Noam Chomsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Chomsky Down Under, 20 Mar. 2010
First published in 1996, "Powers and Prospects" appears to be a collection of talks that Chomsky gave while visiting Australia at the behest of the campaign against the Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor.

"Writers and Intellectual Responsibility" updates an earlier essay on the same subject. Chomskys point is that "[t]he responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them." He draws as examples the atrocities that occurred in East Timor and Cambodia at almost the same time and of roughly similar dimensions relative to population. The contrast between media coverage and moral outrage regarding events in Cambodia, and the media black hole that the events in East Timor disappeared into, is doubly disgusting when one takes into account that the Indonesian dictator was a US ally, supplied with US aid and weaponry (and when congress cut that other Western countries took up the slack). It would have been possible for the U.S. and the West to have brought to a halt the atrocities in East Timor (as in fact happened in 1999 though nearly twenty-five years after Indonesia invaded). Instead Government and media outrage was focused on Cambodia, where leverage was approaching zero, and the culprits were ostensibly Communist.

"Goals and Visions" reflects on the need to be pragmatic about distinguishing goals from what is, more or less, immediately possible in a given context, and the need to have a vision regarding how a decent and fair society might function. "Democracy and Markets in the New World Order" is a cogent summary of post "Cold War" developments in the economic sphere. "The Middle East Settlement: Its Sources and Contours" is a summary of the early stages of the "peace" process, prescient in that Chomskys appreciation what was happening and of how it would evolve has been largely, and rather depressingly, confirmed by subsequent events. "The Great Powers and Human Rights: the Case of East Timor" and "East Timor and World Order", the last two essays in the collection, are directly relevant to the situation in East Timor, and describe events there within a global context.

Prefacing all the essays outlined above are two essays on Language and Linguistics that frankly appear out of place. I suspect there is a minimal amount of correlation between an interest in global affairs and linguistics; it is certainly not necessary. No doubt someone who reads it for the linguistics will end up doing some interesting and unexpected reading. The majority who will read this primarily for Chomskys analysis of global affairs, and whose knowledge of academic level linguistics is somewhat spartan, will find themselves scratching their heads. That small criticism to one side, there are a number of excellent essays in this collection, some of a very high standard and well worth reading.

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (English Library)
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (English Library)
by Tobias Smollett
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Letters from Georgian Britain, 20 Mar. 2010
Written shortly before the author's death, "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker" is regarded as the novelist Tobias Smolletts best work. Smollett tells the story of Squire Matthew Bramble's excursions in the Britain of the early part of George the thirds reign. His entourage includes his irritable spinster sister Tabatha Bramble, his niece and nephew, along with assorted family retainers including the eponymous Clinker. The events are narrated via the letters of this cast, addressed to a number of off-scene recipients.

It's easily recognisable as an eighteenth century novel with its casts of eccentrics, a far rougher sensibility than Victorian era-novels, intricate and improbable plotting and an authorial voice which is not shy of expressing an opinion. To begin with I enjoyed the book, from time to time Smollett does hit the funny bone, and as a travelogue of Britain in the 1760's it has its moments of interest. Unfortunately the further I got into the book, the more a growing feeling of exasperation pushed enjoyment to the margin; the lack of depth and consistency in the characters, and the bombastic and narrow authorial voice, became major problems.

My initial feeling for the travellers dissipated and well before the finish they became little more than crude caricatures. The plot, such as it was, turned out to be lot less intricate and a good deal more improbable than I had hoped. The ostensible hero Clinker, is a pale shadow of Henry Fieldings contemporaneous hero Tom Jones, and barely figures in any meaningful way. The introduction to my aging Penguin English Library edition by Angus Ross claims that in this novel Smollett shows himself, in comparison with his earlier fiction, "not to be as eccentric and prickly after all" which given the qualities of this work hardly has me rushing out to read Smolletts other books. Not a great read, I'll be sticking with Sterne, Fielding and Defoe for my eighteenth century fiction in future.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 22, 2010 7:15 PM GMT

The First Crusade: A New History
The First Crusade: A New History
by Thomas Asbridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Christianity's Holy War, 18 Mar. 2010
This book by medieval scholar Thomas Ashbridge's is an attempt at a history of the First Crusade (1095-99) that draws on new developments in scholarship to create a narrative that is accessible to the general reader. Initially Ashbridge is concerned with presenting a picture of the medieval world in which the Crusade was rooted, with particular focus on the mentality of that world in general, and the doctrine of sanctified violence in particular which would seem to be somewhat at odds with Christian teaching. He moves on to an account of the council at Clermont, in which Pope Urban II made his call for a Crusade to "liberate" the holy land and Jerusalem from Muslim control, and the efforts he made to ensure that the Crusade actually happened.

Of particular interest, in view of some of the contemporary debate that issues from those who might be categorised as Islamaphobes, is the issue of the rational behind the Crusade. Ashbridge summarises the evidence, and comes to the conclusion that it was re-active rather than pro-active, rooted in religious politics of the Christian Western Europe and their prejudices vis-à-vis the Islamic other. He is worth quoting at some length on this matter:

"The Muslim faith acknowledged and respected Judaism and Christianity, creeds with which it enjoyed a mutual reliance on authorative scripture. Christian subjects may not have been able to share power with their Muslim masters, but they were given freedom of worship. All around the Mediterranean basin, Christian faith and society survived and even thrived under the watchful but tolerant eye of Islam. Eastern Christendom may have been subject to Islamic rule, but it was not on the brink of annihilation, nor prey to any form of systematic abuse."

Ironically, at the time of the first Crusade, the only place in the Mediterranean world where this tolerance was in question was in Iberia, thousands of miles away from the object of the First Crusade. The story of the Crusades itself is told in a workmanlike manner, starting with a pogrom of Jews in Germany, moving through the Byzantine Empire and into the Muslim East. Eventually, after a good few sieges, a good deal of in-fighting, battles, intrigue, pillage, massacres and some cannibalism, the holy warriors arrive at Jerusalem. The city at the "navel of the world" is besieged, captured, the Muslim population slaughtered, their goods stolen and the Christians sects in the city thrown out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to make way for their ostensible saviours.

The Crusades are not a subject I have any great knowledge of, so it is a testament to Ashbridges skill as a writer and scholar that I felt I came away from his work with some understanding of the medieval world and the events of the First Crusade. Obviously, given that he is writing about events nearly a millennium ago, there are elements of speculation and conjecture but these are always clearly signposted and accompanied with quotations from contemporary sources. Not a book to enjoy, unless your of a sadistic disposition, but one that certainly gives a comprehensive and fascinating account of a key event in early Christian-Muslim relations.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 1, 2011 7:18 PM BST

Toxic Sludge is Good for You
Toxic Sludge is Good for You
by John Stauber
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Manipulators Under The Microscope, 15 Mar. 2010
Public relations are the means by which power, whether economic or political, maintains and expands its privileges in a Democratic society. In "Toxic Sludge is Good For You" John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of the Centre for Media and Democracy deal with this issue in a commendably straightforward and readable manner.

The book deals with a number of issues including (i) the origins of the PR industry; (ii) the tobacco industries use of PR to minimize the effect of the links between smoking and cancer in order to protect their very profitable activity; (iii) the role of PR in the nuclear power industry; (iv) the corporate use of PR in the face of the green movement that rapidly grew from the late 1960's; (v) the Christian rights use of PR methods; (vi) foreign policy and PR; and (vii) how PR has affected the media, with particular regards to the growing use of PR materials in the media in lieu of the more expensive practice of investigative reporting.

It deals with the full gamut of PR activities from the press release to the more controversial use of spies and agent provocateurs, the formation of fake grass-roots movements (known as astro-turf) and the methods used to subvert and divide real grass roots movements. These processes, and much more, are illustrated with examples that make clear the damage PR has done to democratic participation in decisions about how our societies function.

The PR industry knows no borders, and has expanded across the globe even to "communist" China, so while the book is rooted in U.S. experience, it has relevance for readers everywhere. Essential reading if you are interested in immunizing yourself from corporate or political propaganda, even more so if you're an activist in any shape or form. For a book that is more specific to the British experience, but also deals with PR's U.S. origins, one can't go wrong with A Century of Spin. Nick Davies's excellent Flat Earth News includes a lengthy section on how PR gets in into the British media.

Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire
Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire
by David Barsamian
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Conversations With Eqbal Ahmad, 15 Mar. 2010
This book is a record of there conversations David Barsamian of Alternative Radio had with the remarkable political activist and thinker Eqbal Ahmad not long before his untimely death in 1999. Ahmad was born in colonial era India, made the thousand mile journey to Pakistan with his Muslim League supporting older brothers in 1947 when he was twelve, went to University in the United States where he had a full career in academia while still finding time to be involved in a number of the liberation struggles in the Third World, most famously in Algeria during its War of Liberation against the French between 1954-1962.

Ahmad deals with a wide range of issues in his dialogue with Barsamian. He is of particular interest regarding the Palestinian struggle, and the work he done with his close friend Edward Said (who writes a fine introduction to this book) in their attempt to move Yasser Arafats PLO on from arm-struggle to potentially more productive forms of resistance in the 70's and 80's. His critique of the Oslo "peace" process is principled, pertinent and scathing for reasons that are now all too clear. Ahmad talks succinctly of a variety of figures he has known and worked with including Noam Chomsky (US activist and writer), Malcolm X (Black American activist), Franz Fanon (the Martinique writer on the Algerian Liberation struggle), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (the Pakistani poet) and Antonio Gramsci (the Italian Marxist jailed under Mussolini). These provide excellent summaries of their thinking for anyone not familiar with their works, as well as a fresh angle for those who know them well.

Other subjects that Ahmad talks of include the partition of India, Kashmir, Algeria, Marx's legacy, Terrorism and Islamic Fundamentalism. A highlight of the conversations for me was his critical look at V.S.Naipul and his book on Islam Among the Believers that he mercilessly dissects for it's historical inaccuracies with regard to Islam and India, and Naipul's representation of the American backed dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq as Islamic, and supported by the people of Pakistan, despite the amount of Pakistanis who were in prison and exile during its existence. This is Ahmad at his best, committed to being honest about the complexities of any situation, and against simple minded and hateful misrepresentations.

Due to the nature of this work, essentially transcriptions of radio interviews, it hasn't the depth nor is it as comprehensive as the five hundred or so pages of his Selected Writings. Still it provides an excellent introduction to the thinking of one of the finest thinkers on world politics of the last century, particularly for those who are hesitant about starting with the larger Selected Works.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone
by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.11

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but Flawed, 15 Mar. 2010
This book from Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran's is essentially a compilation of writings that cover the lifetime of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad up until it handed over "authority" to the Iraqi's in summer of 2004; there is little on the military side of the invasion or occupation.

The book starts with the Jay Garnier fiasco and the eventual enthronement of Paul Bremer, a senior functionary from the right-wing foreign policy establishment, with links to Henry Kissinger, who had at one point been Terrorism Czar. Chandrasekaran moves the story on by re-counting anecdotes from his own experience in the Green Zone speaking to one or other of the assorted group of kids (both literally and metaphorically) who make up the staff of the CPA. At some level what he recounts is in the realms of black comedy: ideologues of the right, ensconced in a bubble of security in an occupied country, concoct quixotic solutions in accordance with a variety of right wing fundamentalist recipes. In the face of growing Iraq opposition on the ground, Grand Ayatollah Ali-Sistani's preference for democracy, and the autocratic and ideological nature of Bush and Bremers CPA, things rapidly go pear shaped.

While Chandrasekaran is excellent at describing the lunacy of the Green Zone in particular detail, his grasp of the general seems a little hazy. His repeated unqualified use of the word "socialist" to describe Saddam Husseins regime is as irritating as it is asinine. On the original rationale for the war he seems to be agnostic. There is certainly no explicit questioning or criticism of the fundamentals of the Bush policy for Iraq, the questions and criticism are directed at it's implementation, the caliber of those recruited by the White House and Pentagon for the CPA, the side-lining of the State Department and bureaucratic in-fighting in Washington. Chandrasekaran appears to be a firm believer in the cock-up theory of history, and doesn't seem to enquire into why the U.S. government decided it was going to invade an Arab country in the Middle East and turn it into a free-market "democratic" utopia. That this is outside the ambit of Chandrasekaran's book is hardly surprising given that his position is comfortably within the mainstream of the U.S. media discourse.

Still for it's account of the CPA, although more anecdotal than systematic, it is a clearly written and vivid account which will cause the most committed cynic's jaw to drop. Perhaps it would be best to read it in parallel with some of the more thoughtful writing on the Iraq debacle such as Tariq Ali's Bush in Babylon, Dilip Hiro's Secrets and Lies: The True Story of the Iraq War, Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command, Jonathan Cooks Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East and Dahr Jamails Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.

The Enemy within: Thatcher's Secret War Against the Miners
The Enemy within: Thatcher's Secret War Against the Miners
by Seumas Milne
Edition: Paperback

71 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Coal War, 11 Mar. 2010
Seamus Milnes book takes as it's starting point the 1990 Daily Mirror/Cook Report "scoop" regarding Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers associate Peter Heathfield. They were accused of embezzling monies to pay off their mortgages from donations made by Libyan Trade Unionists during the 1984-85 Miners Strike. The story led to Scargill and Heathfield being subjected to a number of lawsuits from their own Trade Unions executive, as well as a variety of Government bodies, investigations by the Inland Revenue and the Serious Fraud Office and left Scargills reputation in tatters. After months of official investigations, it turned out that the accusations were entirely false: one didn't have a mortgage, the other had paid his off out of his savings. Not only that, but the one person who had been involved in fraud (not counting the then Daily Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell who enthusiastically supported the false claims) was the Daily Mirrors and the Cook Reports single source: Roger Windsor, the leading non-elected officer of the NUM through-out the Miners Strike of 1984-85. The information that Milne collated for this book strongly suggests that Roger Windsor was an informer, or agent, for the security services whose head of Trade Union espionage during the Miners Strike was Stella Rimmington, later to be the first female head of MI5.

Milne goes beyond debunking the smear campaign against Scargill and Heathfield to looking at a variety of other issues surrounding the Miners Strike. The activities of the Media, the Conservative Party, the right-wing of the Labour Party, MI5, a disparate bunch of right wing loons (not to be confused with MI5!), Special Branch and GCHQ during the strike, and in the subsequent destruction of the NUM and the British Coal industry are forensically scrutinized. The story that emerges is an ugly one that reveals the reality of power in Britain's "Democracy", the systematic emasculating of the Trade Union movement during the 1980's, the beginnings of what became New Labour, and the subversive and undemocratic nature of the Security Services role in British political life (as was again made clear with regard to the role of MI6 in the campaign for the Iraq War in 2002-03).

Milne's book is dense with detail, clearly written and essential to a full understanding of the Thatcher period in particular, and the British political scene in general. As an example of investigative journalism "The Enemy Within" is exceptional, and one that I can't recommend highly enough to anyone who is serious about the real story of what was possibly the most important event in post-war British history.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 9, 2014 10:58 AM BST

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World
1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World
by Frank McLynn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.36

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The First World War?, 10 Mar. 2010
Frank McLynn is one of those history writers who get around a fair bit. No specializing on one period, or country, as the subjects of his previous books from Napoleon, Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution and Stanley: Dark Genius of African Exploration make amply clear. In this book it is not a historical personage who is brought under McLynns scrutiny but a year: 1759; and a conflict: the war between Britain and France which raged at sea, in India, the Caribbean, Europe and North America.

Each theatre of war is put into some context, with the events leading up to 1759 being summarized. Events covered include those in the Caribbean including the invasions of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the fighting between the French and the British (along with the Native Americans and Colonists on both sides) in North America leading to General Wolfe's victory at Quebec; the battle of Minden in the western part of Germany; the fighting in India around Pondicherry and Madras; and the battles at sea including those at Lagos bay and Quiberon bay. There are a number of maps, which unfortunately are less than brilliant: key places in the narrative being omitted, and one map (for Quebec) had me scratching my head a little until I figured out that the scale is out by a factor of ten!

McLynn is a supremely confident narrator, perhaps too confident and definitely a little bit too opinionated for my taste, but to his credit he does lay out alternative views of key incidents. A large part of the work is taking up with historical personages, including Pitt the Elder, the Duke of Newcastle, Louis XV, Madame Pompadour. He is particularly interesting on General Wolfe, not a particularly attractive chap; and there is an interesting chapter on Rogers, of Rogers Rangers, an early foray into the murderous world of special operations.

At the beginning of each of the eleven chapters McLynn sidetracks to consider the literature of the times, including such diverse writers as Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments), Lawrence Sterne (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy), Voltaire (Candide) and Samuel Johnson (The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia). These fascinating asides put the authors and their works into historical and literary context, and were one of the highlights of the book even though McLynn is a little po-faced about Lawrence Sternes masterly shaggy-dog story.

Undoubtedly 1759 was an important year in British and global history, but one is left feeling that McLynn overplays his hand with selling the books subtitle: "The Year Britain Became Master of the World". I think there is more of a case for calling it an important year on that journey, but that Britain's paramount global position wasn't achieved until after the Industrial Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars (1789-1815). A fluidly written piece of narrative history, that is skewed towards the historical figures and battles at the expense of a deeper understanding of social and economic factors. Still an interesting read.

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