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.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Cover of
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.

Shanghai The rise and fall of a Decadent City

She is referred to as the Ugly daughter, the  Bastard daughter and the Whore daughter; all very unflattering names for one of the worlds most historically fascinating cities. At her zenith Shanghai was more powerful and influential than either Peking or Hong Kong. Stella Dong has effectively and beautifully, captured the essence and excitement of China’s wayward Daughter in her book Shanghai The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City.

I am on my second reading of this book and it is so fascinating that it pulls me in like a novel. It is a wonderful book for research, or if you are like me a history dork. This book explains a lot of things about why China is like it is today; and the inherent unfairness of the international concessions foisted on a country at its weakest time in history. From humble beginnings in 1842, until  the surrender to the People Liberation Army in 1949 and everything in between is covered with unflinching honesty. The opulence, decadence and modernity of the city is in stark contrast to the heartbreaking poverty that exist on it’s periphery. Government corruption, fueled by the opium trade, forced on the people of China by the British is exposed as one of the Primary weaknesses of the fledgling Republic of China. This book is an eye opener and a must read for anyone interested in the History of China.

Like most people in the United States, as a child I was fed a steady diet of Pro Nationalist Chinese Propaganda. Of course this propaganda was the invention of Washington bureaucrats who were staunchly anti-communist, but failed to recognize that China was more than just a dupe of Soviet Russia. At one time the Chinese Communist were part of a Kuomintang coalition government. They were betrayed and purged from the government by KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek a man who was deeply flawed and corrupt. Chiang pilfered billions, in his final insult to his own country when he escaped to Taiwan.

The official version of Chiang’s story is that he was mentee of Sun Yat-sen a man who is widely regarded as the father of the modern Republic of China (pre- communist ). Chiang also founded the  Whampoa Military academy creating a modern, well trained cadre of professional officers. He defeated the war lords and unified most of the country by 1928. He ultimately became the Chairman of the National Military council, and the nominal leader of the Republic after Sun’s death in 1925.

Although the book is not solely about Chiang Kai-shek, we learn about the darker side of this famous defender of democracy. Simply stated he was a gangster, involved in bank robbery assassination, embezzlement of U.S. aid money and was knee deep in the opium trade as were many of his  cronies.

But Chiang is only a small part of the story of Shanghai. It was a major port city and home to thousands of European and Americans. It was a very cosmopolitan city and boasted many fabulous night clubs restaurants and hotels. There were also department store including one of the worlds first shopping malls, amusement parks race tracks, tennis clubs and movie theaters. The seedy side of the city included opium dens, bars, dance halls, brothels and gambling houses. It was also the home port of the famous Yangtze River Patrol or Yang Pat for short. The movie and novel The Sand Pebbles depicted Yang Pat sailors in al of their dirty patriotic glory, in the days of Gun Boat Diplomacy. They were the extension of the Asiatic fleet which protected American interest in China. This translates as protecting mostly American business interest.

The birth of the international and the French concessions are all revealed and explained as well as the ascent to power of the infamous Green Gang. Whoever controlled Shanghai virtually controlled the opium trade in the rest of China. The KMT were so intertwined with the Green Gang that the dope trade went unhindered until the take over by the Communist. There were plenty of legal entrepreneurs who enriched themselves in the thriving environment of Shanghai, along with large American, British and European corporations.  One of the most infamous of those corporations Jardine and Matheson, was responsible for the importation of Opium into china from India. Jardines as it is called is a fortune 500 company that still exist today and is listed on the London, Singapore and Hong Kong stock exchange.

Many other dark secrets are revealed,  not just about Shanghai, but about the dark side of Imperialism . If you wish to find out more read the book. I found it to be not only informative but fun, a great read for the history buff.

TITLE: SHANGHAI The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City

AUTHOR: STELLA DONG

PUBLISHED BY: PERENNIAL a Harper Collins imprint

Available on Amazon and Google Books

 

Apocalypse later

As a young veteran of the Vietnam war I was quite taken by the 1979 epic Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now; but as an crotchety old 63 year old veteran, my feelings about the movie have degenerated into complete dislike. It’s not unusual for our views to change as we get older;some people for the better and some for worse. However my anti-war feelings are not the reason why I dislike this movie classic. My reasons have to do more with the movies’s detachment from the reality of the war and my prejudice against its source material.First of all let me explain what I mean by detachment from reality.

In the opening scene we see Captain Willard awakened from a nightmare by an ancient ceiling fan, which evoked in him the familiar sound of a Huey helicopter. He is obviously in an alcohol induced state of irritation driven by guilt and war weariness; a common symptom of what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This is something that most combat veterans can and do relate to. after this we go to a briefing where the details are given by a very young Harrison Ford who is very convincing as a young Intel officer. His demeanor as an officer was pretty spot on, at least in my experience with this type.

If you haven’t seen the movie I will try not disclose the details of Capt. Willard’s mission. After the briefing we see a refreshed and renewed Willard in starched and clean fatigues ready and raring to go. From this point on the movie degenerates into a slow spiral into the absurdity and perversity of war. Sounds pretty good so far! This scenario is typical in anti-war movies. Then The river interdiction scene happens; this is especially disturbing for its portrayal of trigger happy and unprofessional river boat sailors. No self-respecting navy small craft commander would interrupt a mission to do a routine interdiction. When delivering special forces members it’s in and out as fast as possible. That’s the first detour from the reality of military protocol.After this it only gets worse. It’s amazing that with all of its attention to detail of uniforms, rank insignia and patches, that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to give a more accurate depiction of the workings of the chain of command and military protocol.

The further up river Capt. Willard goes the more chaotic the situation becomes. I know that this is supposed to be a metaphor but in the context of the movie it doesn’t reflect the reality of the war. There is a complete absence of any command structure in the bases that he stops at on his trip up river. We witness some pretty playboy playmates threatened by a mob of horny out of control soldiers who are undoubtedly bent on raping them to death. They are rescued by a helicopter just in time to escape with their lives. This scene is an insult to all service men everywhere and in any era. There has never been this kind of incident at any USO show ever not in the history of USO shows. Our service men are raucous but well behaved and certainly not prone to rioting at this kind of event.They are mostly appreciative for the fact that they are not forgotten by the folks at home.

The mud base could have been any firebase during the monsoon season, but again we have no chain of command. It appears to be mostly abandoned with no external security, no activity just muck and mess and the stranded playmates selling their bodies for chopper fuel, so they can get the hell out of there. By this time they are are bedraggled and unappealing and more than slightly pathetic. Okay! The late Bob Hope who did a show on Guadalcanal, while there was still fighting there, would tell you that the USO and the military would never put women or anyone else in such a precarious situation. So what was the purpose of this scene other than gratuitous sex and more harping about how screwed up the military is. Since the movie was made in 1979 it was still too close to the war to recognize such men as General Norman Schwarzkopf jr. and General Colin Powell both who served as junior officers in Vietnam. Without officers the whole thing would have broken down much sooner than it actually did; and that was more political than it was lack of leadership and incompetence which is what the movie insinuates.

The bridge to nowhere, (not the infamous pork barrel project in Alaska.) Was a bridge that was rebuilt daily and blown up every night. One of the reasons that they have Navy Seals is to prevent this kind of attack. I am pretty sure that the VC or the NVA, (North Vietnamese Army) would have a hard time trying to get to a critical life line such as a bridge, time and time again. They might have initial success, but would find it increasingly difficult once the element of surprise was lost. The panicky soldiers trying to escape this forward operating base is another portrayal of the unwilling unprofessional, often cowardly American soldier. To add insult to injury the scene of the dope smoking soul brothers hunkered down in the bunker was an indictment of black soldiers as useless drug abusers. The one bright spot in the movie was the black machine gunner and the squad grenadier who was obviously a seasoned veteran, who was an expert with the M79 grenade launcher. Taking out the enemy in the black of night just by listening; that was an awesome feat of skill. Once again we find Capt. Willard unable to find out who’s in charge here. The impression one gets is that the American officers of that era were a bunch of slackers who more often than not abandoned their post and their men.

The only officer up river that can be found is the slightly psychotic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. Music actually was the sound track of his life. Playing the ride of the Valkyrie over the loud speakers while making a helicopter assault on a village makes a great movie scene but wasn’t par for the course during wartime. The pattern of this movie is that, the only officers doing anything are the ones that are crazy or are going crazy; which brings me to Colonel Kurtz.

Colonel Kurtz is a rogue special forces officer who is the leader of a group of rogues and primitive bushmen that apparently have committed enough atrocities to come to the attention of the U.S. government. He is in such a black hole of depression that he welcomes death at the hands of Capt. Willard. This scenario is a departure from the original novella Heart of darkness but, it is also a departure from the fact that special forces officers are relieved from duty at the first sign of any irregular behavior and not assassinated. When Willard reads a report by Kurtz in the last scene of the movie he is horrified at the words Drop the bomb. This is the solution of bar room bigmouths and phony flag wavers, who have never even served in the armed forces, not of professional military men.

So as you can see my main grievance with apocalypse now isn’t that it’s a bad movie per se, but that many people who don’t know any better, think that it is the definitive Vietnam narrative. It is full of insulting stereotypes
of servicemen and really annoying in retrospect. considering the source material it doesn’t surprise me.

The movie is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about colonialist Africa; where Conrad worked as a river boat pilot. The story is full of unapologetic racism but not a condemnation of colonialism as some people seem to think it is. It is mostly a condemnation of the African continent for being so destructive and corrupting to the white man. Heart of darkness is not just a metaphor for the dark heart of man but a literal location, the heart of the Dark continent,the Congo river. As in Apocalypse Now the farther up river the hero goes the more decay and despair become the norm. After taking charge of and repairing a badly damaged river boat he is sent up river to retrieve station manager Kurtz. Kurtz is an ivory trading company agent and reputed to be one of the best. In the novella his success is based on raiding and murdering native tribes and stealing their Ivory. Kurtz is also an agent for the International society for the suppression of savage customs, (meaning the suppression of Africans.) Kurtz footnote of exterminate all the brutes. was mirrored in Apocalypse Now.

Despite the fact that Kurtz had gone native, having an African mistress and leading an African tribe he apparently thought that genocide was the only way to settle Africa peacefully. If Conrad was actually an anti-colonialist he never expressed it through advocacy of any kind. In fact he was a complete Anglophile and admired the British empire and the colonial system. Heart of darkness is a story told without true understanding of the nature of colonialism. The instances of blind hatred and brutality are merely incidental window dressing, told in a matter of fact and unsympathetic manner. The narrative is told from the perspective of the colonial exploiter as victim of the harshness of the African environment; just as Colonel Kurtz is depicted as a victim of the brutality of the Vietnam War. There is no clear delineation between Conrad’s real feelings about colonialism and the narrative.

I have read plenty of history books with anecdotal accounts about colonials, most of them about the English and not once was the N word bandied about like in Conrad’s novella. I know that there was no such thing as political correctness in his time, but for some one who aspired to be an English gentleman, his vocabulary was very low class. The harshness of the blatant racism in the story made it almost impossible to read, but between the lines I see a story of racism told by a racist, with no compunction about the brutality of colonialism. “The horror, the horror.”

The fact that this story has been so widely read and re-imagined onscreen as Apocalypse Now proves that it has merit to some. But I fear that this just means that people still don’t understand the awfulness of colonialism, and have rationalized this story as something that it isn’t. If Conrad had been an ardent anti-colonialist I would most certainly have felt differently, but he wasn’t and I don’t.

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