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.


The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Riverhead Books, 2011) 243 pages.

WF Ahmad


Before I get into this little gem of a book, let me say a few words about why I hadn’t posted the past few weeks, and something else entirely, which involves the voyage of self-discovery that these essays have stimulated. Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Piper House writing conference at ASU called Desert Nights Rising Stars (DNRS: I keep thinking there should be a comma in the middle). Although the three days ended on a Saturday, the last thing I wanted to do that Sunday was sit and read or write. Last week, we had relatives in from the Midwest that my wife and I had not seen for years, so we spent a full weekend in their company, and even into Monday.

I also learned that I had become so accustomed to writing these essays during football games on the weekends that, after the Super Bowl, I had a hard time sitting down and concentrating without hearing complaints about refereeing. But that’s part of the process. I obviously wrote some of these book essays last spring, without the clash of helmets as a soundtrack. The entity that is Walter reader/writer lurches forward; the path is not always smooth.

And who cares, anyway? The last issue of the New Yorker (March 7, 2016, page 62ff) contains an essay by Nathan Heller about the whole procedure of “reviewing” books, in this case Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott. True, we have professionals who review movies, plays, music, and even food and places (I mean like Rome or Greece), but, as the article points out, “What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews?” Do books become bestsellers anymore, or movies become blockbusters, because a professional reviewer somewhere says they should? Unlikely, I think.

To be fair, the article starts from just the opposite: professionals have essential skills that “Blogging Bob” does not. Critics “know more,” they “can give a fair encapsulation of a work,” and are “decent writers” (!). But in the end, Heller thinks that organizations which dispense with professional critics in favor of a herd-like response to one work or another are shortsighted. A noble thought, but one not necessarily shared by Blogging Wally.

Then again, this is why I don’t call these things “book reviews.” They are…well, different. Writers don’t create words, I like to say: they create themselves. And now I see that readers don’t just passively absorb the thoughts of others: the very process of thinking about the words changes you in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes radical.

Was this a long way to get to this slim book? I guess. I found it in a list of books put together by another web commentator (I wish I remembered who) around New Years. The intent was to recommend books not set in the USA, but set in places all around the world, in cultures alien to the normal USA-based society based on the Bill of Rights and English Common Law.

But if we take away our rights and civil law, what do we have left? We have tribal rule and religious law, and that’s what many of the books on the list were about. Naturally, in the USA, we see our way of civil life as superior to the old tribal ways. But perhaps it’s not that simple. Our attempts to impose good old American values on other parts of the world have mostly ended in disaster. Are these people just stupid? Or is there something else going on that we just don’t realize?

The author of this book doesn’t think people are stupid, I can tell you that. Jamil Ahmad was born in 1931 (making him 85 in 2016) and spent many years in Pakistan’s Civil Service in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A lot of the tension in the book involves attempts before the Soviet invasion in 1980 to impose modern civil rule on the nomadic tribes that summered with their flocks and camels in the mountains and migrated to the plains to survive the winters.

The story follows a child (the “wandering falcon”) born from the union of the second wife of a tribal leader (a sardar) who is carried off by a wandering member of another tribe because he has fallen in love with her (p. 14). The fugitives seek refuge with soldiers in a border fort, and the first clue we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, is the distinction made by the local commander (the subedar), as he gives the pair water, between refuge and shelter. Offering refuge would offend the laws of the tribe, and the commander “will not come between a man and the laws of his tribe” (p. 6). Shelter is okay, however, and the couple can stay in an old abandoned building and be fed. However, it’s clear that if the woman’s family shows up, the couple and their newborn son are on their own.

Which is what happens, of course. After a chase, the “lover” kills the woman. Then the woman’s father, a tribal leader, and other tribesmen stone the lover to death (p.20). They won’t kill the boy, however, since he is the leader’s grandson. They leave him with the corpse of a camel at a waterhole. If God/Allah wills it, the boy will live.

The young Falcon is rescued there by a group of seven Baluch tribesmen on four camels (p. 27)who are rebels and outlaws because the “officers” (the government) of the district wanted power over the tribal chiefs, a right previously held only by the tribes themselves (p. 37). As a sign that times are changing, the seven think they have been invited to “talks” to defend their killing of government officials. But this “invite” results in a quick trial to condemn them to death (p.42). Confused because these strangers swear on a Koran instead of by a chief, and stunned that defending their way of life and killing those who challenge it is now taboo, the men regret only that “what died with them was part of the Baluch people themselves” (p. 47). And so the young Falcon ends up adopted into yet another FATA tribe.

One of the most poignant of the tales involves the closing of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the nomads. It sounds so simple to modern ears: you need documents to pass from one country to another. But when the nomads, numbering more than a million in total, try to winter in the warmer and wetter plains, the government turns them back to the cold mountains because they have no birth certificates or identification or health records (they don’t even have counts of animals) (p. 74). Naturally, conflict ensues and the only choice is to die quickly or slowly (p. 79).

These detailed episodes give the flavor of the book. As the Wandering Falcon grows to young manhood and marries at the end of the book, surprises await on every page. The tribes often lapse into violence and killing, true, but there are also built-in safeguards to prevent things from getting completely out-of-hand. For example, to raise money, you and some buddies might go into town and kidnap someone who will pay the $20,000 ransom (in local money), probably a doctor, a schoolteacher, or street cleaner (p. 128). The streetcleaners apparently have a union that will provide the, and how could the town endure being without their prized teacher?

But when my friends show up with only $18,000, there must be a week-long feast while we negotiate. Only then will you decide that $20,000 it must be, but with a $2,000 discount given because you are such a magnanimous spirit and it is a worthy gesture.

By the end of the book, I was convinced that we all, even in the USA, often obey not only civil rules, but tribal and religious rules as well. These can be established by our peers in school, or our circle of friends, or our minister or priest or rabbi, or our motorcycle gang, or our political party. But we break the rules governing our expected behavior only at our own peril.