Dirty wars (The world is a Battlefield) by Jeremy Scahill

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If you want to know how we got to this point in history, this era of perpetual war, this is a must read book. I had my own views on this subject, but I had no idea that my instincts were right on the money. This book is an absolute mind blower for anyone who is war weary and fed up with U.S. involvement, in the quagmire of middle eastern politics and war. These aren’t the ravings of some conspiracy nut; this is a thoughtful and insightful tome, which pinpoints all of the key moments and key players involved in our present day predicament. Many of the names in the book are familiar to anyone over thirty, especially Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. There are also names that are still in recent memory, like Generals Mike Flynn, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.

Scahill weaves a tale of sketchy and illegal tactics, duplicity and evading congressional oversight. We learn a new vocabulary, the vocabulary of Orwellian double speak, softening the harshness of torture, assassination and assorted war crimes. now we have high value targets, extraordinary renditions and that old standby collateral damage, which translates to, kill, torture and oops we got some civilians.

The rise of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC.) as Rumsfeld’s private army; and it’s incursion into what was once the private domain of the CIA, is quite chilling. Hiding behind the mantra of National security Rumsfeld has perpetrated some of the most deplorable abuses ever committed by a so called civilized nation. We have all heard the stories and seen the photos from Abu Ghraib,Bagram and Guantanamo and of course the higher ups never had anything to do with any wrong doing. Even though all of the evidence points to the leadership for initiating the horrendous methods used against prisoners; national security was used as a reason for hiding evidence from any congressional oversight and answerable only to Rumsfeld and the white house. In this way Rumsfeld was able to not only ignore international law but to misuse executive privilege. These policies were not restricted to the bush administration, but continued through eight years of the Obama administration. Dirty Wars, is a policy primer, instrumental in bringing about an understanding of our present day situation.

I’M STAYING WITH MY BOYS (The Heroic life of Sgt. John Basilone, USMC.)

9780312611446
St. Martin’s Griffin New York http://us.macmillan.com/books/9780312611446
Anyone who has ever been in the Corps, (meaning the Marine Corps), knows the story of Manilla John Basilone. Most of us didn’t know that he started off his military career in the Army. That fact is conveniently left out by the Marine Corps instructors, for shame. But he did learn to be a master machine gunner in the Army. He also got his first experience of jungle warfare in the Pre-war Philippines Chasing Bandits. He had a lot of criticism aimed at the prewar Army including, lack of training, poor logistics, morale and strategic planning.

He did however, give kudos to General Douglas MacArthur for trying to turn things around as Marshall of the Philippine Army and Commander of US. forces on the island nation. According to the book Basilone knew that the battle would be lost if there was a Japanese invasion.

The Book starts where it also ends, on the last day of Basilone’s life on the Island of Iwo Jima, and works backwards to his early years in Raritan New Jersey. John’s story is the story of a restless youth looking for direction after dropping out of high school. He finally decided on a career in the military, which he decides is his true calling. While in the Army he takes up boxing and earns the nick name Manilla John. It turns out that he was right about his calling but in the wrong branch of the service.

less than two years after his discharge from the US.Army war breaks out when the Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor. Basilone immediately takes up the call to arms, this time enlisting in the Marine Corps.His previous experience as a machine gunner in the Army pays off and allows him to advance rather quickly. After a long period of training 1st Bn. 7th Marines (1/7) is sent to reinforce Guadalcanal. There the eager beaver young Marines quickly learn the realities of war. The battalion is sent to plug up holes in a line that is spread to thin, on the infamous Bloody ridge. Bloody ridge defends the all important Henderson field and the line must hold or lose the field and possibly the Island. It is here were Basilone and his men prove their mettle holding back wave after wave of tenacious Japanese attacks.

Unlike most biographies the story is told in a first person perspective and reads like an adventure novel. The exhaustion,fear, frustration and chaos of battle are all revealed in graphic detail. What happens after the battle and the real cost of war is laid out with compassion and objectivity. The reader comes to know Sergeant Basilone as a real human being rather than a legend of mythic proportions. He gambled, got drunk and chased women just like other young men, making his sacrifice even more poignant. This is a story of men who put the welfare of others above their own survival, something that most people would never do. The only criticism that I have, is that the book never reveals if John’s Brothers George,who was also a Marine and Alphonse a tanker, survived the war. George was a veteran of the Saipan and Tinian landings. Alphonse was with the Second Armor Division in Europe. This book was a great page turner and a history lesson all in one. I’d recommend this to anyone curious about the man and the legend Sergeant John Basilone.

THE FIRST TO LAND: By Douglas Reeman

FirsttoLandMDS125http://www.douglasreeman.com/Douglas%20Reeman%20Novels/default%20-%20DRNovelsUS.htm

I am such a research nerd that I can not read a historical novel with out a handful of reference books by my side and my iPad warmed up on stand by.  So right from the star I had problems with this book. The Plot is based on actual events that took place in China around the turn of the century, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion; a virulent anti-foreign and anti-christian movement. Anyone foreign or christian, including Chinese christians were in grave danger of being slaughtered. Enter the Royal Marines to the rescue, more or less.

The Hero of the story Captain David Blackwood, must embark on a ridiculous mission that really makes no sense, except in a cheesy Romance novel sort of way. He is ordered to escort a beautiful German Countess (naturally she’s beautiful) into dangerous Boxer occupied territory. I know that this is necessary to the story, but Historically the German Navy had its own Marines (the Sea Battalion) who should have been tasked with this mission. To be fair they were mentioned in the book. but I really doubt if the  British government would be willing to put a foreign dignitary into to harms way so haphazardly, just because the Germans weren’t there on time.

The next stumbling block for me in this novel, was the Hoshun river. In order to get a handle on what area the book was referring to, I decided to google it more specifically google earth.  What I found was some very interesting restaurants, one of them in New Orleans and one near me in Minnesota, but I found no reference to an actual river called the Hoshun.  So I checked my atlas, several books and wiki and nowhere did I find any river or even a creek named the Hoshun. Well this wasted about twenty minutes to a half hour for me so I abandoned my search and got back to reading. I really have nothing against making up fictitious places in fiction novels, but historical fiction should be about details especially places.  For example the fine historical novel of the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is very specific about every part of the battlefield especially place names. Now I know that it is slightly unfair to compare a pulitzer prize winning novel with a hack action series, but you get the point.  The characters don’t have to be actual people, but the places should be real places.

So putting the presumably fictional Hoshun river aside, I trudged on and hit another obstacle to enjoyment, the tactics employed by Captain Blackwood a Victoria Cross winner and a supposedly competent officer.  The primary mission of the Marines of this era, was that of ship’s security and if necessary landing parties. On their way to the German trading mission, the little Coastal steamer Bajamar (a civilian ship employed for the journey) stops for the night, because of river hazards, that make the river unnavigable in the dark.  Captain Blackwood for some inexplicable reason deploys pickets ashore in the dark. He has limited manpower to start with, and he decides to put them in an untenable position, deep in enemy territory where they can be picked off piecemeal. This tactical blunder predictably cost the life of a young Subaltern who is captured tortured and beheaded. Any Marine worth his salt should have known, that the best way to protect the ship is to double the watch and have everyone on board ready to defend against boarders. This was an especially stupid move because he had not reconnoitered the area first so he was flying blind.

When they finally arrive at their destination, the trading mission has been abandoned and evidence of heavy fighting is unmistakeable. The poor Countess who was supposed to meet her husband at the mission, has been put in danger for nothing and the steamer and the Marines must turn around and beat a hasty retreat back to HMS Mediator, fighting for their lives, their objective a failure. This isn’t where the story ends though, Captain Blackwood and his company is now tasked with being the vanguard of the Seymour Expedition, the famous but failed relief of Peking. This part of the book really had me scratching my head. Having read a lot of  military history books about this period in history I know when something doesn’t sound right. First of all I tried to reconcile the action in the book with the actual path of the Seymour expedition. It caused me a lot of consternation because somehow Blackwood’s vanguard ends up behind Seymour’s multinational force,which is holed up in the Xigu Arsenal .  Blackwood’s company ends up in the besieged city of Tientsin Where once again he encounters the beautiful Countess and of course they make whoopee.

The last part of the book is actually pretty good and fits into the category of Ripping Yarns.  The action is detailed and fast paced and the descriptions of violence are graphic and horrifying. All through out the book the action is exciting and engaging, it draws you in as Reeman examines the thought processes of the characters involved. We discover that although outwardly Captain Blackwood has the typical stiff upper lip and nerves of steel of a Royal Marine, on the inside he is as frightened as any green recruit.

While in the midst of all this action Captain Blackwood has to contend with a stodgy commanding officer (an Army guy) and a petulant snobbish younger cousin named Ralf under his command. Cousin Ralf is not what you would call a stellar officer like the rest of the Blackwood clan, he is an unlikable weasel that likes to torment his older cousin. He hates the men under him, refuses to listen to the wisdom of his Platoon sergeant and shows bad judgement and a lack of a backbone. In the opening chapters of the book Cousin Ralfie is packed off to China by Mean old uncle, general Blackwood.  He is a gambler and an unrepentant skirt chaser, and the general hopes to bring him into tow by exiling him to the far east. In the last part of the book Ralf redeems himself showing bravado and moxie but I fear he has learned nothing.

It is a fun read and the action sequences are excellent. You are drawn into the thoughts and fears of men engaged in combat very realistically. The descriptions of action and violence are graphic and taut with anxiety for the hero, as he fights for his life, repelling wave after wave of fanatical Chinese warriors. The price of empire is paid for by it’s soldiers, with blood spilt on foreign soil. and no one knows this better than Captain David Blackwood. This book is definitely one of my Guilty pleasures.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

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Cover of The Girl Who Played with Fire (Vintage)

I’m not into fiction that much, but once in a while I will read books that are recommended by family members, or that I stumble upon at my local book store or Barns & Noble. So far I have not been disappointed. So when I discovered a Steig Larsson book on the back seat of my ex-wife’s car I asked if she was still reading this. She said take it and give it back when I was done. I saw the movie the girl with the Dragon tattoo and decided that I wanted to check out the book. I never got to that point, so when I had a chance to read the sequel I jumped at it.

The book starts out very slow and strange with a new and improved, less punk Lisbeth Salander in the Caribbean.She is living off a pile of money that she apparently embezzled by hacking the secret account of corrupt Billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. The action at the beginning of the book is incidental, but demonstrates just how crafty and self reliant that Lisbeth is, When she rescues a woman from her murderous husband, in the middle of a hurricane.

Meanwhile back in Sweden Mikael Blomqvist The hero of the first book, wonders and frets over the disappearance of Lisbeth Salander.  After a year of traveling around the world Lisbeth returns home to the apartment bequeathed to her by her mother. We learn about Mikaels new found celebrity after publishing a book about the Wennerstrom affair, and the rise of Millennium magazine where he works. Millennium’s newest project is a series of articles on sex trafficking in Sweden, by a young freelance journalist named Dag Svensson . The series is based on a  yet to be published exposé by Mia Johanssen who is publishing her doctoral thesis on the sexual exploitation of underaged eastern European girls. The research that Mia has done, has unearthed a hot bed of corruption. Government officials, policemen and judges are on a list of Johns who regularly partake of the taboo fruit. Mia and Dag know that they are sitting on a powder keg but decide to go ahead and publish anyway.

Lisbeth being the naughty little hacker that she is gets involved when she hacks into Mikael’s computer and discovers the files which mentions the mysterious Zala, a fearsome underworld figure with seemingly no criminal record. Some time in Lisbeth’s past she had the misfortune to make Zala’s acquaintance. I won’t give away the secret, but the mere mention of his name sets off alarm bells in her head. She goes to Mia and Dag’s house to warn them and maybe ask questions. This is were things start to go south.

Mia and Dag are brutally murdered and all fingers point to Lisbeth Salander.  A third victim Nils Bjurman Lisbeth’s sexually abusive guardian is also found murdered. His weapon is missing and was recovered at the first murder scene. Lisbeth’s finger prints are all over the gun. Rather than do a thorough investigation cheesy journalist run with the circumstantial evidence. Soon Lisbeth’s picture is all over the media. She is branded a psychopath, a satanist,ex-prostitute and a mental defective. The people in her life all know better. Mikael Blomqvist and her former boss Dragan Armansky dig up the dirt to prove her innocence. Two cops are also not convinced of Lisbeth’s guilt, Inspector Jan Bublanski and detective Sonia Modig. The discrepancies in Libeth’s case file as a juvenile do not match the opinions of the people who have a professional or personal relationship with her.

This book is a joy to read just on a technical level. I take it that editors in Sweden aren’t the useless bums that they are in this country. I didn’t find a single typo in the entire book. Who ever translated the book also did a fantastic job it read smooth and flawless. The prose reminded me of my love of fiction and my love of the written word. Stieg Larsson excites me like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or modern masters like Neil Gaimen and William Gibson. The plot is full of ups and downs  and twist and turns and literally had me in a state of anxiety at the suspense levels, (I hate suspense). I am not a fan of murder mysteries but I am a fan of Stieg Larsson. I am presently reading the sequel The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s nest That’s how much I loved The Girl who played with Fire and Stieg Larsson. He will be missed by all of his fans, because writers like this only come along once in a life time. I highly recommend the entire Millennium trilogy.