Sunday, October 14, 2007

What I've Been Reading

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
by Thomas E. Ricks

note: The link to the title above includes a short interview with Ricks.

Jacket Blurb:
"Drawing on the exclusive cooperation of an extraordinary number of American military personnel, including more than one hundred senior officers, and access to more than thirty thousand pages of official documents, many of them never before made public, Thomas E. Ricks has written the definitive account - explosive, shocking, and authoritative - of the American military's tragic experience in Iraq."

Well-written and researched, and well worth the time if you're interested in understanding something substantive about the administration's failures in Iraq. Some - but not a great deal of - information about why the US invaded. Perhaps the "whys" are currently beyond the conclusive reach of any journalist.

Despite Ricks' talents and thoroughness, about a third of a way through the book (439 pages) monotony sets in. It's difficult to read about an endless string of arrogant blunders without becoming first incredulous, then angered, then irritated, and finally bored.

Last week, I made the mistake of watching fragments of the Atlanta Falcons v. Tennessee Titans football game. Joey Harrington, after throwing an interception returned for a touchdown, was replaced by Byron Leftwich, whose play only made clear why the Falcons had been starting Harrington to begin with. At one point, the Falcons had the ball, first and goal on the Titans' one yard line, from which point they repeatedly failed to score.

Reading this book is something like watching that first-and-goal series re-run in endless variation over the entirety of a three hour game. After a while, you're frustration sort of melts into contempt and indifference, leaving aside the absurdity of the whole undertaking. It 's not easy to read about people repeatedly fucking up over 439 pages.

David Petraeus comes off quite well in Ricks' estimation, probably better than anybody else associated with the US effort in Iraq. People like Rumsfeld, Brimmer, Gen. Odierno, and Gen. Sanchez (who recently called Iraq "a nightmare with no end in sight") don't, but then again, you wouldn't expect them to. Bush is strangely absent from most of the proceedings. I guess he just set the wheels in motion and then moved on to the crafting of other disasters. After all, the guy's only got eight years.


"What the hearing would be most remembered for was Wolfowitz's own attack - on the American press corps in Baghdad. There was a lot of good news to report, he insisted, but the reporters were too cowardly to get out there and cover it.

Gen. Meyers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that 'great progress' was being made in Iraq. 'I think we're on the brink of success' he told the House Armed Services Committee.

Several months later, Gen Myers stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In September, 2005, on his final day of Congressional testimony in that position, Sen John McCain questioned Myers's record of rosy assessments. 'Things have not gone as well as we planned or expected, nor as we were told by you, Gen. Myers,' the Arizona Republican said.

Myers responded that he had never been all that positive about the situation. 'I don't think that this committee or the American public has ever heard me say that things are going very well in Iraq,' he said, inexplicably."

Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush
by Robert Draper

Jacket Blurb:
"In this ambitious work of political narrative, Robert Draper takes us inside the Bush White House and delivers an intimate portrait of a tumultuous decade and a beleaguered administration. Virtually every page on this book crackles with scenes, anecdotes, and dialogue that will surprise even long-time observers of George W. Bush."

Lo these many years, I've developed a mild forensic curiosity as to the mind and manner of George W. Bush. My investment in this book represents an attempt to slake that curiosity, not that I believe that I'll ever fully "understand" or even wish to "understand" our president. Still, one can't help but wonder what cognitive mechanisms lie behind the dopey smile and peevish pout, which seem to be the two alternate extremes of the president's expressive range.

This book thus far has only strengthened my suspicion that Bush is pretty much the man he appears to be on TV, whatever you think that man is. Is Bush a verbal dyslexic with ADD, or a crafty politico working the system? Or is he just an unexceptional man with peerless ancestral Rolodex and a certain feral instinct for political combat?

In my opinion, watch the guy on TV, and if that's your idea of an intelligent or savvy or Machiavellian statesman, then I guess, for you, that's what he is. If he appears to be stumbling his way through endless verbal gaffes as he estranges everyone still sentient enough to realize that we're all (excluding of course the president and his circle of similarly situated worthies) going to wind up paying for these crimes and blunders someday, then for you, that's what he is. Nothing I've encountered in this book so far (I'm only on page 87) would contradict this conclusion.

There's some interesting and illuminating stuff here, but Draper's attempts at "colorful" writing are a constant distraction. He leans heavily on the adjectives, struggles with his metaphors (sometimes mixing them), and generally employs a prose style suggesting in its laborious "cleverness" that even he believes the revelations of his story, aren't - on their own - nearly enough to keep someone awake and reading on a weekday night. The book begins: "The motorcade lurched to life just after seven on the morning of Monday, June 14, 1999. Like an ungainly serpent, it negotiated its bulk through the studied quaintness of Kennebunkport, Maine, clogging the narrow artery of Route 9."

Or we might just say that the Bush motorcade made its way through the narrow streets of Kennebunkport.

Draper's "imaginatively-encumbered" prose style is a shame, because he did get Bush and his handlers to talk to him, and the portrait of the president that emerges (or is emerging, remember I'm still early into the book) is well worth the reading. I just wish Draper could have remembered that the title of his book is not, Painting Pictures with Words!


George W., speaking about his father:
"He knows as an ex-president, he doesn't have nearly the amount of knowledge that I've got on current things. I mean, I get briefed every day, twice a day sometimes. He knows that. And plus, once the president gets a strategy in mind - I mean, there's no need to argue about the Freedom Agenda! I'm sure he subscribes to a lot of it. Now, the rumors are that he and his people don't. But I don't necessarily think it's true. But look, you can't talk me out of thinking that freedom's a good thing!"

Draper on Bush campaigning for the New Hampshire primary in 1999, which Bush lost to John McCain:
"The local staff said he needed to do radio shows. During one call-in program, on a Keene station, a fellow grilled Bush on abortion. The governor recited his pro-life stance. The next caller grilled him further. 'I've said all I'm going to say on that,' Bush pushed back, 'my position's clear. I'd like to talk about education, some of the other things we've done in Texas . . . '
But because the press had been all over Bush about abortion and whether he would apply a Roe v. Wade litmus test to judicial nominees, the radio grilling continued, and Bush was unable to get back on message. In frustration, the governor flung the phone at a local aide. 'You got any more bright ideas, smart guy,' the governor snapped."

To which one wishes the aide had replied, "Yeah, I'm going to go work for McCain."

Draper on Bush's victory in the South Carolina primary:
"South Carolina had earned its reputation as a firewall that immolated underdogs."

Do firewalls immo- . . . ? Oh well, never mind.

Draper on Bush's spiritual anointing from his presidential predecessors:
"The White House could be a creepy place. . . On this particular evening, Poppy and Bar were away for the evening. For the first time ever in his life, Bush had the run of the White House. . . . The usher had turned out most of the lights. Bush took a few strides down the hallway and found his steps slowing. At the entryway to the Lincoln bedroom, he froze. Something? No. Nothing? No.
Ghosts. He saw ghosts - coming out of the walls!
Or were they portraits?
Or ghosts coming out of the portraits?
Rubber-legged, he retreated to his bedroom and shut the door.

When he told that story later to an acquaintance in 1992, George W. Bush had neither the ambition nor the wherewithal to be the future inhabitant of the White House. For the most part, he possessed a normal man's sensibilities and a normal man's resume. The ghosts in the Lincoln bedroom Bush took as further proof of Washington's inhospitability to normal life."

What is one to make of Bush's ghostly White House vision? That the president is:

a) the first ex-drunk in the history alcoholic recovery to have undergone D.T.s five years after laying down the bottle.
b) clinically delusional and in need of psychiatric care
c) so full of shit his eyes have turned brown
d) all of the above

The Camp of the Saints
by Jean Raspail

Jacket Blurb:
"This is an apocalyptic novel, a philosophical dissection of the erosion of Western civilization . . . . Rich and varied (and often discomforting) imagery, symbolism, and points of view amplify the theme, relating it to such 'lessons of the past' as the Book of Revelation, Paradise Lost, and the fall of the Byzantine Empire. This book will succeed in shocking the complacent, contemporary mind."

If you're going to write a tract, write a tract. If you're going to write a novel, write a novel.


"Then, after a while, there were too many poor. Altogether too many. Folk you didn't even know. Not even from here. Just nameless people. Swarming all over. And so terribly clever! Spreading through cities, and houses, and homes. Worming their way by the thousands, and in thousands of foolproof ways. Through the slits in your mailboxes, begging for help, with their frightful pictures bursting from envelopes day after day, claiming their due in the name of some organization or other. Slithering in. Through newspapers, radio, churches, through this faction or that, until they were all around you, wherever you looked. Whole countries full, bristling with poignant appeals, pleas that seemed more like threats, and not begging now for linen, but for checks to their account. And in time it got worse. Soon you saw them on television, hordes of them, churning up, dying by the thousands, and nameless butchery became a feature, a continuous show, with its masters of ceremony and its full-time hucksters. The poor had overrun the earth."

"To appreciate the West's opinion of the refugee fleet - or, for that matter, of anything new and unfamiliar - one essential fact must be borne in mind: it really couldn't give less of a damn. Incredible, but true. the more it discovers about such things, the more fathomless its ignorance, feeble its interest, and vulgar its own self-concern. The more crass and tasteless too, its sporadic outbursts, fewer and farther between. Oh yes, to be sure, it indulges in flights of sentiment now and again, but cinema style, like watching a film, or sitting in front of a TV screen, poised for the serial's weekly installment. Always those spur-of-the-moment emotions or secondhand feelings, pandered by middlemen. Real-world drama, served in the comfort of home by that whore called Mass Media, only stirs up the void where Western opinion has long been submerged. Someone drools at a current event, and mistakes his drivel for meaningful thought. Still, let's not be too quick to spit our scorn its way."

No, one wouldn't want to be hasty.

Venice, Frail Barrier: Portrait of a Disappearing City
by Richard de Combray

Jacket Blurb:
"Venice: 'The last complete artifact of a time when profit was translated into grace.' Now this beautiful and unique city is quietly disintegrating, and its poignant story is told in this remarkable volume. Cheerful, colorful, lively paintings - never before reproduced - by the previously unknown eighteenth century artist Gabriella Bella are juxtaposed against the somber and melancholy reality of the contemporary city as photographed by the author."

I'm not so much reading this book as reliving it. This book has been out of print for some time, but I made use of an Amazon gift certificate to acquire a secondhand copy.

When I was a kid in the 70s, I used to ride my bike up to the library, or pester my mom into giving me a lift there. Wandering the stacks, I coped as best I could with what I was then only dimly sensing would be an inescapable aspect of my looming adulthood. That is, of course, the boredom we can only sporadically evade, no matter how far we run, nor how many guises we adopt.

This is one of the books I happened across in that public library, and which I checked out so often and so frequently that I probably should have just gone ahead and stolen it. In my adolescent gloom and reverie, Venice, Frail Barrier and a tattered copy of National Geographic together supplied me with the necessary photographic and prose material to concoct a fantasy that routinely eclipsed in its insubstantial appeal everything actually going on at that moment in my real life. This fantasy was simply that my family had relocated to Venice as a result of my father having taken up architectural consulting work there (unlikely, to put it mildly), and I was thus coming of age surrounded not by stacks of books in a public library, but rather among the labyrinthine waters and mossy stones of The Most Serene Republic.

Pathetic, you may say, that a (seemingly) normal suburban lad would idle away his time spinning Venetian fantasies like some androgyne out of Thomas Mann. Yeah, well, fuck you. You had your back issues of Rolling Stone and your Aerosmith albums, and I had my Venice, Frail Barrier and my National Geographic.

My adolescence, like yours, was - if anything - too comfortable and secure. Sadly, comfort and security don't always suffice. Richard de Combray's enchanting book held out, to my uneasy, fifteen-year-old self, the possibility of something more.


"How slowly the gondola reaches you, with barely a sound. Another passenger appears from the shadows, steps on board, and steadies himself against your shoulder as the gondola rocks, turns, heads across the Grand Canal, across water now as black as the boat itself. The methodical slicing of the oar to tug you forward is a comfort. And there, just ahead, is Byzantium. No person, no one generation could have conceived of it; nothing matches, everything leans, the elements of accident and imperfection characterize it as they do every masterpiece."

"The men who collect the garbage go about their business cheerfully enough. So knowledgeable are they about the rudiments of the city that when there is an empty apartment available - if such a phenomenon occurs - they are the first to know. When they do their work, there is no hurl and clatter, no defiantly leftover debris as there is on the streets of New York. Theirs is a job, not a mischance of justice."

"Not long ago, during the course of a Venetian winter afternoon tea, I watched at Florian's two ex-monarchs, heavily furred, mother and daughter: the one briefly Queen of Greece and the other, the ex-Queen of Yugoslavia. They gossiped with mild animation next to beautifully dressed young French couple, either just married or its equivalent who could not cease caressing each other's hands long enough to hold their teacups. Outside, it was snowing, and across the Piazza a gaunt Christmas tree, with an archaic system of pulleys, was gradually assuming a perpendicular position. The harmony was of such perfection, so timeless, that when a newsboy came in thrusting the latest headline into the air, everyone jumped.
The waiters at Florian's do not smile. They set down their trays as efficiently as nurses, the little chit tucked discreetly underneath the crystal water carafe. It is a place that has often given me an intense, graceful pleasure."

"Gradually, the seams of how you behave in your society give way. The concern over where you have been, what you have done and what you are now doing lifts. These things are of no interest here. You think of the monologues endured at smart gatherings in other cities, the opinions aired, the inside information accumulated, the climb to the summit and the ultimate conquest, like the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima, of the most clever, the best-informed, the most stylish persons at that gathering to claim as their personal triumph. Here, you are asked to recount an excursion to Burano.
On your way home, you find yourself nodding to acquaintances, stopping to chat, wondering idly whether it would be possible to erase the tape of your life and start over again, knowing all the while that you have a return ticket to somewhere in your bureau."

I've been to Venice twice, once alone and once with my wife and daughter. I know about the hordes, and the prices, and the mediocre food, and the stage set atmosphere. I watched with mounting distaste from a restaurant booth as drunken divorcee from Texas embarrassed her teenage son into a besieged silence - much like a scene from a John Cheever story - before she absentmindedly, or perhaps intentionally, walked out on the dinner bill.

I've checked my email in an internet cafe overlooking a murky canal, and listened to the orchestras play into the chill September night at the Piazza San Marco. On my last trip there, my wife and I encountered an enormous ship tied up near the Doge's Palace, which we took to be a marine research vessel and only months later learned, while watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, was actually Paul Allen's 416 foot personal yacht, Octopus.

I realize that Venice is today less a city than a cross between a museum and a water park, and that it embodies in its bridges and its stones a tragic dissolution that Jean Raspail can only thinly, though apocalyptically, allude to in his "The Camp of the Saints." I know that, other than in vestigial and purely commercial terms, Venice stands nearly purposeless in the modern world. But I also know that, well after sunset, sitting near the back of the vaporetto as it follows the turnings of the Grand Canal through an improbable spectacle of darkness and water and light, you may, at that moment, recognize yourself for what you are, a transient witness to the most exquisite artifact ever fashioned by man.


Anonymous said...

Here is the condensed version of a reply I tried to make last week (but, as so often, failed to press the right buttons).
The gist, however, was this:
While your reading list is impressive, it suggests that you are a man with too much time on his hands. Although the blogosphere can be - and often is - a satisfying place in which to air one's views, it is, at best. a poor substitue for REAL writing.
I then had the temerity to suggest that you should get off your arse (ass), put down your book, take up your pen and demonstrate your true erudition to a rather narrower audience which, perhaps, is in even greater need of your insight.
In other words; keep blogging, but trade the time currently devoted to reading to a worthier cause.

Black Sea said...


Thanks for the words of encouragement and chastisement.

Am I man with too much time on his hands, or a man with no sense of direction?

Perhaps time will tell.

Anonymous said...

On reflection, I'm not sure whether my 'words of encouragement' were really meant to chastise you; at the time I wrote, I seemed to be going through a period in which - in order to expiate my own guilt at my utter 'rudderlessness' - I needed to find a scapegoat who's 'sins' were even greater than my own.
Given the evidence revealed by your reading list, it seemed that you were both an easy target and a sitting duck. Although the sentiments I expressed were genuine (i.e. I DO think you should get off your arse and do some'proper' writing), I apologise for using your case as a screen on which to project my own psychological (and personality) hangups. Mea is very probably culpa.

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