America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew J. Bacevich

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House, 2016) 453 pages

AW by Bacevich

This is Memorial Day, so this book seems to fit right in. If I live to be 100, my fondest memories of growing up revolve around Memorial Day. In New York, that was the day the pools opened, the big Little League double header, and the day of the big parade (in New York, a lot of kids went away to camp, so the 4th of July parade was non-existent). We all trooped down to Village Hall and stood at quiet attention. There, after the high school band played the Anthem, in front of the statue of Dollar the horse and the War Memorial with the names of the dead, the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion (Mrs. Suda and someone else) brought wreath to the monument. Then came the highlight of the day: the firing of the salute…three rounds of three blanks into the deep blue spring sky, the kids scrambling on the ground for the ejected shells, still warm from the barrel. Yes, I still have a few, somewhere. Then, after the local minister or priest gave the blessing, the mayor gave a short speech, and then he read the Roll of Honor: the names of all the locals who had died in all the wars since the Revolution. I am old enough to remember the skinny but absolutely erect veteran of World War I who walked the whole mile of the parade without a cane of help until the year he died in the late 70s. By then, the names of the Vietnam Veterans had joined the rest.

Only when the last name was read did the crowd disperse to their cookouts and barbecues.

That is my memory. By the time I left town in my early fifties, about the time of the second Iraq War, many adults used their cell phones all through the service, their kids ran around the edges of the crowd shouting, and a lot of new residents from South America and Eastern Europe had no idea what was going on, if they bothered to show up at all. I won’t judge them or the times we live in, but books like this help to show where America went off the rails.

All you need to know about this book is on the flap and in the beginning:

From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. (p. 11)

Bacevich’s book explores how this happened.

Where is started to go wrong is open to debate. The early part of the book goes over a lot of history we have all but forgotten but should not. One key event is the overthrow of the vicious reign of the Shah of Iran by the religious mullahs who still rule the country today. U.S. support of Israel, even when the Israelis attacked U.S. vessels, cost this country the support of the Arab world.

Or maybe it happened even earlier. After Israel won the October War in 1973, the Arab notions retaliated by suspending oil sales to the United States. I still recall the days of gasoline shortages, when you could only buy gas on odd days if your license plate ended in an odd number, or even days for even numbers. (For those who wonder, A-L endings were considered odd, M-Z considered even…at least in New York.) That was when Nixon decided that oil was more important than almost anything else.

Bacevich, a West Point graduate, emphasizes the military aspects of our Middle East dealings, but he has good reminders about other events often overlooked. Everyone knows about how the Iranians took Americans hostage in their embassy in Tehran (p.24). But how many remember that the cause of the student’s action was the U.S. allowing the deposed and dying Shah to enter the US for medical treatment? The students feared that the U.S., which had the CIA kill the elected leader of Iran in 1953 to put the Shah in power in the first place, was plotting their old tyrant’s return. (In spite of repeated claims of conspiracy, there is no evidence that the hostage-taking was a well-thought-out plot.)

In any case, by the time Reagan came along in 1980, America’s policy in what Bacevich calls the Greater Middle East (roughly from Morocco to Pakistan) was founded on three key beliefs (p. 35):

  1. The Soviet Union would take over Middle East oil if we didn’t defend our right to buy it.
  2. Our allies needed the USA to defend them: they were too weak to do it on their own.
  3. Our military had to be strong enough to take the oil we wanted by force if necessary.

Following these tenets led to all kinds of odd things: support for Iraq, then Iran, then neither. Only the military and political mattered: that Sunni/Shia historical and social thing? Who cares! (p. 42).

The Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, which makes Hillary’s silly email problem seem like, well, a silly problem over email, meant that U.S. planes were in danger of being shot down by Hawk missiles that the U.S. had sold to one side or the other (p. 101).

The book slogs on through all the mistakes we made in the First Gulf War, then the Second, as well as our stumbles in Afghanistan and the Balkans (where, oddly, for once we were on the side of the Muslims), and our troubles with Arab revolutions in Egypt and Libya and elsewhere.

Throughout, the author focuses on our military failures, which compounded our shortcomings in the political (democracy for all, as long as you vote in people we like!) and social (get along with those Sunnis/Shia like we get along with minorities and illegal aliens!) arena. Basically, our biggest shortcoming has been to overestimate the impact of air power and modern mechanized warfare and underestimate the will of the people of the invaded country to resist our occupation in spite of a veneer of cooperation.

More than one book I’ve read recently points out that US casualties increased when the Iraqis stopped “fighting” with modern weapons and started using IEDs. And that didn’t start in earnest until the Iraqis realized that the US forces were not there to get rid of Saddam and go home: they were obviously digging in to stay while (and chasing rumors of those “chemical weapons” that had to be hiding somewhere).

The book ends on a depressing note as drone strikes are making a generation of new enemies for us in Libya and Syria (p. 325). And although we can save the lives of more and more of our wounded troops, we have created a large pool of people who will need care for the rest of their lives, not only because they lack arms and legs and faces, but because their ordeal has shattered their minds as well as their bodies.

No, Memorial Day is not the way I remember it. I hope the oil was worth it. I fear it’s not.


Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane by Paul Thomas Murphy

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy (Pegasus Crime, 2016) 270 pages


I love books like this, for some reason (and it has two colons in the title!). The notion of an unsolved mystery, even one where we are 99.99% sure who did it, intrigue me. I still hope I live long enough to find out who that Zodiac killer was in San Francisco, although I am sure he was a frustrated engineer or professor who killed only while in the area on business (which makes it hard to find a local to pin it all on). But I certainly don’t think the theory put forth by Trump followers that Zodiac was Ted Cruz is feasible, given their ages. 🙂

Moreover, although I am the most squeamish of people when it comes to visual depictions (or real ones) of blood or gore, I can read accounts of the most horrid events without blinking. And the crime in Pretty Jane is lurid enough to satisfy the most blood-thirsty reader.

This event preceded the much more famous Jack the Ripper murders by more than 15 years. In 1871, the city of London included districts in the southeast (past the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory and Blackheath) that were little more than muddy lanes running along ditches and rows of trees and bushes. And along one of these muddy cow traces on the way to Well Hall Farm and Shooters Hill before dawn on a Tuesday in late April, PC (Police Constable) Donald Gunn came across a woman sprawled in the road, her face bashed in so badly that her brain was exposed (p. 3).

Yet the woman, dressed in the “going out clothes” of a humble Victorian servant known as a “maid-of-all-work,” still lived and stretched out a hand to PC Gunn. Horrified, he ran to get help and, by the time he returned, the woman had slipped (thankfully) into a coma. She survived in a local hospital, against all odds, until that Sunday, when she died, her identity still unknown. An autopsy revealed that the woman was two months pregnant, suggesting a motive for the crime (p. 24).

As the police scrambled to find missing young women in the area, the site of the murder became a place of pilgrimage. The working poor of the area, and there were many, came to honor one of their own (p. 22). This show of support became a constant throughout the investigation and trial, and the book includes a picture, facing page 133, of the monument erected at the site of the victim’s grave.

Later that Sunday, a woman whose niece had gone missing provided the clues needed to identify the victim. She was Jane Maria Clouson, age 16, a servant at the home of Ebenezer Pook, a well-known printer in Greenwich. Detectives focused on his son Edmund, age 20, a quiet young man who suffered from epilepsy and blamed a fall for the blood stains the detectives found on his clothes. Unimpressed, the police arrested him, based on the added testimony of Jane’s family that Edmund had promised to marry Jane and had arranged to meet her that Monday night so they could run away together.

The police even managed to find the murder weapon, discarded on the grounds of Morden College, located between the scene of the crime and Edmund’s house. The weapon was a plasterer’s hammer, an odd tool with a hammerhead on one side for hammering nails and an ax blade on the other side for scraping away plaster from a wall. The police even found a shopkeeper nearby who had sold one only the week before the murder to a man who could have been Edmund.

It looked like a justified arrest and a solid case to bring to trial. But from that point on, things went quickly downhill for the prosecution. Ebenezer Pook has the wisdom or the good fortune to hire as his son’s lawyer a man named Henry Pook (no relation), a bulldog of an attorney who bombarded everyone involved with threats of lawsuits for slander and libel and often followed through. By the time the trial began later that year, lawyer Pook had managed to make Edmund seem to be the victim of a grasping young girl – and a not-so-good-looking one at that – who had set out to trap a husband from the first day of her employment.

In fact, the Pooks had to recently let Jane go. Why? The police wanted to know. Because, said Edmund, Jane was a “dirty girl,” a comment that could be read in as many ways then as it would be today.

I don’t think I need to tell you how this rich versus poor story turned out. Jane could no longer speak in her defense, and witnesses melted under lawyer Pook’s withering cross-examination. Edmund Pook lived out his otherwise dull life and died in 1920. Jane has the better memorial on her grave.

If you want to read this book – and I hope you do – you might consider reading it after you read about a murder that happened in England in 1860, at a place west of London called, oddly, Road. Together, the Road murder and this book show how early detectives struggled to fight for justice in the face of well-off families who could afford lawyers to fight off claims of wrong-doing among the upper-classes. How much have things changed, really?

There’s another reason I’m glad I’m talking about this book and crime and justice.

For a week and a half, from May 9 until May 17, I was part of the jury pool at Superior Court in downtown Phoenix. So, starting at 7:30 on Monday morning, fully 500 of us sat in a room and waited to be called upstairs for jury selection for one of the trials starting up that week. Most were simple, 3-day affairs with selection, trial, and decision rendered in the same week (yes, he did cause the accident). This is good, because there is no testimony for a jury on Fridays (that’s reserved for motions and lawyer-judge conferences). And if they don’t use you, you get sent home and excused for 18 months.

I lasted until about 3:30 PM that Monday. At first I was happy not to be called in the groups of 65, then I was wondering “what’s wrong with me?” Then they called 200 (!) of us to fill out a questionnaire that had more than 80 questions and we weren’t supposed to talk about until our involvement ended. We were “admonished” not to speak even to each other about the trial were being considered for, lest we poison the other jurors with our biases (the case involved the sexual abuse of children under the age of 10). So I ended up as prospective juror #126 for this case, which was expected to last for 20 trial days, or 4-6 weeks. Half of the people said they couldn’t possibly stay on a jury until the end of June, and the judge let them all go, on their word (“I have un-refundable plane tickets next month, Your Honor”).

The rest of us got to sit while we were interviewed, in numerical order, to find a smaller pool of 30, out of which would come the jury of 16 (12 and 4 alternates, but in Arizona, you don’t know the alternates until the trial is over). The first day, they interviewed 24 of us, and not all numbers were included due to the earlier dismissals.

Sitting and talking was boring, but with just enough distractions to prevent you from doing anything meaningful, including work, reading, or even playing stupid games. They got the 30 (actually, 29) they needed at #115, so I escaped by a mere 6 people. Considering it took almost two weeks to pick a jury, I’m kind glad I didn’t get roped into this for 4-6 weeks more.

I wonder if I should write more about my jury experience or not. (The case, if you want to follow it, is the Chris Simcox case in Arizona. I actually formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence, just based on my gut feeling when I looked into his eyes – and that look was across the room. I was surprised at the feeling, and a bit thrown off by it, so I won’t tell you what it was.)

Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Erhman

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior by Bart D. Erhman (HarperOne, 2016) 326 pages

JBTG Ehrman

This book was my Easter book, which shows you how far behind I am (or how fast I have been reading). Either way, I still have 6 or 7 books on the pile, and I might have to double up or something. Anyway, this is a religion book, but it’s by Bart Ehrman, an author I always try to read when he comes out with a new book.

Sometimes people who know my techie books are surprised to find that I have such a background in the Catholic Church. I wanted my children to have some idea of morality and religious experience until they were old enough to make up their own minds, so off to church they went to be baptized, communioned, and confirmed. Now, when I went to church as a child, my parents sent us kids and stayed home (that saga took years before I found out what the beef was). But as a parent myself, I progressed through the “lay hierarchy” and became a member of the parish council (advised the priests), a youth coordinator (so the children didn’t fight), a lector (readings at mass), Eucharistic minister (give out the host and the wine at mass), and they even wanted me to train as a Deacon (no thanks…you can’t serve in your own parish). I saw Pope John Paul II doing mass in Central Park, close enough that we could see without the TV screens. I even gave out ashes one Ash Wednesday (“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”), an event that eventually led to my “falling away” from the church.

This long introduction is so I can talk about Erhman’s book without you thinking that I am some kind of atheist. Not that I’m one of those people who think they are worthless sinners who survive each day only because of the love of Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you believe – although I don’t like it when people like that think *everybody* should be just like they are. I try to get along with everyone, regardless of faith, creed, religion, or belief.  🙂

Erhman’s latest book is a kind of answer to books that position the Gospels as a kind of “eyewitness testimony” to Jesus’ time on earth. I have a few of those (my “religion section” in my library is only a bookcase and a half – maybe 250 books or so – but I have some good ones), but I am mainly unimpressed by arguments that the Gospels, written some 40 to perhaps even 70 years after the crucifixion, somehow preserve authentic details about the life of Jesus.

It’s clear that, with a few exceptions that Ehrman carefully covers, that the Gospels were based mainly on a long oral tradition: stories passed down from someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew a guy who hung around with a guy who was related to an Apostle, or maybe even saw Jesus himself.

Why couldn’t stories passed down this way be accurate? Well, Erhman says, that process depends on memory and stories, so lets’ look at the science and research says about that way of preserving facts. (Let me say again that I have no problem with people who believe every single word of the Gospels is…well, the Gospel truth…but I don’t think that means you get to ignore people who don’t agree with you. Surely God will grant you the strength to resist the snares of unbelievers!)

As Erhman has pointed out in his (many) other books, the Gospels are contradictory, have gaps in space and time (they alter the known geography of Galilee, a surprise for people who were supposedly born and raised there), show signs of alterations and editing, and so on.

The biggest surprise, for me, in the book was when Erhman discusses other oral traditions, such as the works of Homer or the “Singers of Tales” in Yugoslavia (p. 181). Homer is bad example, because we don’t have any “recordings” of oral recitations of the Iliad or Odyssey from the ancient world (perhaps obviously). But from 20th Century “singers” we do. And both studies of the surviving texts of Homer and the Balkan “singers” show signs of variation from performance to performance (sometimes a lot of variation). For example, one song could be between 8,488 lines and 12,323 line long, depending on audience or time available (p. 186). Erhman also cites studies from court records and experiments that show just how unreliable “eyewitness testimony” is. He uses John Dean of Watergate fame as an example (p. 140). When compared to his recorded words, which came to light later, Dean’s memory is fairly horrible (but so was Nixon’s).

The evidence in this book shows that the Gospels were made up by unknown writers, based on a few scraps of “sayings of Jesus” (like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), the letters of Paul (although not much of that), some oral traditions along the lines of “someone told me that Jesus…”, and a whole lot of fantasy. The result in a mish-mosh of stories that many people jump through many hoops of fire to reconcile and “prove” that every word is true.

The best example I found in the book of that is a conversation Ehrman records that he had with Professor Harald Riesenfeld when he was a graduate student of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. It concerned the variant stories of Jairus and his daughter, which go like this (p. 69-70):

In the Gospel of Mark, Jairus tells Jesus his daughter is very sick and would like Jesus to come and heal her. But they are delayed and before they get to the house, Jairus’ daughter dies, so people come and tell them not to bother coming. But Jesus is not concerned and raises her from the dead (Mark 5:21-43). But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jairus tells Jesus his daughter is *already* dead. He wants Jesus to raise her form the dead, not heal her (Matthew 9:18-26).

How can both versions be right? asked Erhman. How can the Gospels be absolutely true and infallible?

Easy, Erhman says Riesenfeld said: Matthew and Mark were describing *two* different occasions when Jairus’ daughter needed Jesus’ help. The first time, she had not yet died, and the second time she had (!). I suspect that Ehrman, like many people, saw others tying themselves up in knots like this so often that he finally had to give up the illusion that the Gospels are more than a bunch of (ill-remembered) stories about Jesus.

And so it was, after I put ashes on the foreheads about 300 or more people in church that Wednesday, I realized that whatever it was these earnest, honest, eager people came to get, that wasn’t  being handed out at church that day. The priests and I were not saints handing out holiness on our right thumbs (I did not know that trick of putting olive oil on my thumb to make it easier to clean the ashes off, so my thumb was dirty for three days). We were just people, some of us trained to say and do certain things when a death occurred, or an accident, or a tragedy.

And I saw that the thing they were searching for and needed and wanted when I looked into those 300 pairs of eyes that day – yearning for hope or love or forgiveness – was something I didn’t have in those ashes…

Nothing Compares 2 Prince

I know I said I’ve been really busy the past two weeks, but if I don’t write something, I’m gonna go crazy. I have a pile of books to write about (naturally), but what I’ve been reading for the past two weeks is mostly about Prince. His death now looks like a drug interaction (note to self: do not mix Ambien for sleep with painkillers…) or just a straight Percocet (Oxycontin + Acetaminophen) overdose.

My wife Camille and I have really been torn up about Prince’s death. I sort of shrugged when David Bowie died, and I have lots more Bowie music at home than Prince. But this was like our brother died or something, and I’m not sure it’s merely because we spent three years living about five miles down the road from Paisley Park (we lived in Hopkins). Camille even met Prince a few times in the early 90s, when she would go clubbing in Minneapolis and Prince had like a booth in back at the Pacific Club (We’ve been the First Avenue too, I think).

I think it’s mostly mourning the passage of genius. Supposedly, when they asked Eric Clapton how it felt to be the greatest living guitarist, he said “I don’t know…you’ll have to ask Prince.” Now, anyone who knows anything about Clapton, who wouldn’t even give an inch to Jimi Hendrix, suspects a Prince fan made that all up. But I’ll leave it up to you: check out the solo Prince whips off during George Harrison’s tribute during While My Guitar Gently Weeps as Prince falls backward off the stage (and then Prince throws the guitar up in the air at the end and walks off the stage with that little grin of his that says “Top that…if you can.”

The 2004 video is here.

Prince comes on at 3:28, wipes the fretboard at 4:02, falls at 4:40 or so (and without missing a note: check out the glee on Tom Petty’s face as realizes what will happen), and “the toss” is at 6:09.

Prince supposedly found the sounds of the guitar “limiting” and often playing all instruments on his albums, except, famously, the saxophone. His drumming has been described not as flashy, but as solid as handclaps. Since I have a soft spot of multi-instrumentalists like Brian Jones, I think that explains a lot of why I’m mourning the loss of Prince. I admit a lot of his post-80s stuff was barely listenable, but there were some goodies in there, and once you’ve done it all, you basically having nothing more to prove and can do anything you want to amuse yourself.

Let me close with a word about Prince’s lyrics. Like Hendrix, I think Prince’s skill with words has been under-appreciated. I’ve been listening to Sinead O’Conner’s recording of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U a lot lately. Prince has a version too, usually a duet with men’s and women’s parts, but I think it works best as a soliloquy on the part of one person pleading with a former lover. Let me break it down for you so you know what I like about it (my comments in parentheses):

Nothing Compares 2 U

by Prince

It’s been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away
I go out every night and sleep all day
Since you took your love away

(Note the fault of the breakup: the other person “took” their love away. I’m blameless!)

Since you been gone I can do whatever I want
I can see whomever I choose
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant
But nothing
I said nothing can take away these blues
‘Cause nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

(Note the tone: the sky’s the limit without you, babe! And note the strict grammatical objective wording “whomever” instead of the more common “whoever.” Also, never mind that I never took you to a fancy restaurant when we were together…heck, I can do that now that I don’t have to pay for you too! I like the subtle way this subtext opens up the narrative, although it still hurts that you’re gone.)

It’s been so lonely without you here
Like a bird without a song
Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling
Tell me baby where did I go wrong?

(Ah! Maybe I *did* have something to do with the breakup, but I have no idea how you could have found me less than perfect. Where did I mess up? Give me a hint…)

I could put my arms around every boy I see
But they’d only remind me of you
I went to the doctor guess what he told me?
Guess what he told me?

(I love the challenge in the “guess what he told me?” line. The implication is that the doctor said we should still be together, if not for your health, then certainly mine! And the repeated challenge is pure genius. But the doctor’s advice was different…)

He said girl you better try to have fun no matter what you do
But he’s a fool
‘Cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you

(This is the payoff of the whole song: life is no fun since you broke up with me, and it will never be. We MUST be together, and if that stupid doctor can’t see that, then he’s obviously a fool.)

All the flowers that you planted mama
In the back yard
All died when you went away

(This is my favorite lyric in the song. See! Not only am I suffering, but you killed our flowers! It’s not clear why the singer could not water the stupid flowers. I can’t hear these words without thinking they are a metaphor for Prince’s legacy: the “flowers” he “planted” – I mean the songs he performed – will wither and die “when he went away”.)

I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard
But I’m willing to give it another try

(The song ends with the hope of reconciliation. Note that there is no sign anywhere that this return is possible, and likely is not. Just as well: it puts the blame firmly on the other person again…living with you was so hard, see? But, gosh, I could try again if you really ask me nicely…)

Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you
Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you
Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

(The song ends with the theme repeated over and over…)

Goodnight, Sweet Prince!

We’ll not see another like him for a long while.