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Tag: "books"

Grounded!

[ 84 ] August 12, 2013 |

I have a piece up at David Axe’s joint on military institutions and the USAF:

With the Iraq War over and the fighting in Afghanistan winding down, why does the United States need to maintain two large land armies, the Army and Marine Corps? The question seems perfectly reasonable given the apparent absence of large terrestrial threats, but it leads us down the wrong path.

The United States military is all about redundancy; in addition to two armies, it also fields two navies — the Navy and the Coast Guard — and five or six air forces, depending on how you count the aerial arms of the various branches.

The real problem isn’t that the Army is marginally more or less useful that it was 10 years ago, but rather that the institutions that were designed in 1947, when the Army and Air Force split, are insufficiently flexible to negotiate the modern security landscape.

This also serves as a backdoor announcement that the book (Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force) will be published by University Press of Kentucky this spring.

I’d like to take this opportunity to promise that this site will not become a platform for nearly constant book promotion. I’d genuinely like to take that opportunity.

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John Graves, RIP

[ 2 ] August 2, 2013 |

The great Texas writer John Graves has passed. Goodbye to a River, about a float trip down the Brazos before it was dammed, is a truly wonderful book.

The Death of Sherwood Anderson

[ 51 ] July 29, 2013 |

I just finished re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for the first time in many years. While I’ve been in Mexico, I’ve reacquainted myself with the literature of the Gilded Age, largely because I am using the Kindle feature on my ipad for the first time and so I didn’t want to invest in newer books until I knew I liked it. It’s been a useful exercise. Read Great Expectations for the first time since high school. Read A Doll’s House for the first time. Same with Wister’s The Virginian (a very silly novel but useful for me as a teacher of the period). Found Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham fascinating in the first time I’ve read it since college. Total Gilded Age fantasy that capitalists wanted to tell themselves about making moral decisions when everyone else (including themselves) were swindling as many people as they could. Some other good stuff as well. So it’s been great. But reading Winesburg, Ohio again was like a slap in the face. What a brilliant piece of literature. So true and direct. Talking about sex and loneliness and obsession in a real, straightforward way that previous American authors really couldn’t do.

Anyway, I was reading Anderson’s Wikipedia page and came across this, a truly unfortunate way to die:

Anderson died on March 8, 1941, at the age of 64, taken ill during a cruise to South America. He had been feeling abdominal discomfort for a few days, which was later diagnosed as peritonitis. Anderson and his wife disembarked from the cruise liner Santa Lucia and went to the hospital in Colón, Panama, where he died on March 8. An autopsy revealed he had accidentally swallowed a toothpick, which had damaged his internal organs and promoted infection. He was thought to have swallowed it in the course of eating the olive of a martini or hors d’oeuvres.

I’m not sure how one swallows the toothpick off a martini olive unless you were very drunk, which is always possible. That’s a pretty tough way to go. I mean, I don’t mind too many martinis killing me, but I’d prefer the slow death of liver destruction to puncturing my innards with a bloody toothpick. Let’s at least hope the olive was good.

Also, I feel there’s a non-zero chance that this is the way Farley will go out.

One Way to Celebrate July 4 is to Take Action Against This Travesty

[ 115 ] July 4, 2013 |

And by this travesty I mean the threat of Steven Spielberg directing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath, a movie I would like to think exactly 0 people would find necessary or interesting, but then again Esther Zuckerman seems excited about it in the linked article so I just don’t know what’s wrong with people.

I mean really, a Grapes of Wrath distanced from the political connotations but wrapped in more sentiment? Gross.

In less disturbing artistic news, here we have a list of the 100 greatest American novels written between 1893 and 1993, with a limit of one book per author. Good for argumentation. I’d question the inclusion of Goodbye Columbus as the Philip Roth entry over Portnoy’s Complaint. Or about 7 or 8 others actually, though I have nothing negative to say about the book. Some of the more recent books feel a bit questionable to me. Is Roots that great of a novel? Or is it just very important? Of course, given that The Fountainhead is on here, it’s clear the list is emphasizing important above good. Or readable.

Best Selling Books, August 8, 1969

[ 72 ] June 14, 2013 |

I found this interesting.

FICTION
1. Susann, The Love Machine
2. Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
3. Puzo, The Godfather
4. Nabokov, Ada
5. Crichton, The Andromeda Strain
6. Davis, The Pretenders
7. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
8. Macdonald, The Goodbye Look
9. Woiwode, What I’m Going to Do, I Think
10. West, Except for Me and Thee

NONFICTION
1. Peter and Hull, The Peter Principle
2. Talese, The Kingdom and the Power
3. White, The Making of the President ’68
4. Hellman, An Unfinished Woman
5. Ginott, Between Parent and Teenager
6. Baker, Ernest Hemingway
7. Martin, Jennie
8. Salisbury, The 900 Days
9. Guiles, Norma Jean
10. Craig, Miss Craig’s 21 Day Shape-Up Program for Men and Women

Given the cultural importance of so many of these authors, titles, or at least subject matter, I thought it was worth reprinting. It’s also remarkable that Vladimir Nabokov had the #4 book on the best-seller list. And it’s not like Ada is a light beach read either.

Got this from Time Magazine.

LG&M Podcast: Ari Kelman & Erik Loomis on A Misplaced Massacre

[ 4 ] April 2, 2013 |

[ERIK SAYS] This podcast discusses Ari Kelman’s new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. It explores how different groups contest the historical meanings of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. We then go on to talk about the contested memory of Howard Zinn and the contentiousness within discussions of his famous A People’s History of the United States.

[SEK SAYS] There is an outtake at 1:12:00 and that is all.

Download Erik and Ari’s this podcast here.

….EL–The Zinn stuff starts at about 45 minutes if anyone is interested.

Sunday Book Review: Viper Pilot

[ 36 ] December 2, 2012 |

DoD photo by Senior Airman Greg L. Davis, U.S. Air Force.

Dan Hampton, author of Viper Pilot, doesn’t sound like a pleasant man.  This requires qualification; I suspect he’d be a lot of fun for a night of drinking, but he doesn’t sound pleasant to work with for a prolonged period of time. It’s not just that Hampton has contempt for people who aren’t pilots; he has contempt for just about everyone who doesn’t fly an advanced, single seat fighter-bomber specializing in “Wild Weasel” or SEAD missions. The reviews over at Amazon are interesting to read; some of the one stars seem to be written by people who disliked Hampton personally. If you’re fine with this (and frankly, the arrogance is mildly charming) then Viper Pilot is a pretty interesting read.  Hampton is convincing on the point that it is extremely, extremely difficult to become a single-seat fighter pilot in the United States Air Force today. As simple arithmetic this isn’t surprising, but Hampton explains how he made it through ever cull along the way, and explains why it was necessary to use such a fine toothed comb.

The Wild Weasel plays one of the most critical roles in modern airpower operations, the defeat of enemy air defenses.  In context of a balance of technology and military power that heavily favors modern Western airpower, advanced air defense systems, most often purchased from Russia or China, represent the only effective defense for second-tier states. The most important enabler for modern airpower operations isn’t the air superiority fighter, because modern Western air forces rarely have to fight air-to-air combat. Rather, it’s the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) team, which kicks the door open and holds it open long enough for all the other elements of an air operation to do their jobs.

Hampton’s battle accounts are genuinely gripping.  He never becomes involved in actual air-to-air combat, but he’s very convincing on the danger and excitement of the Wild Weasel mission, not to mention the close air support runs he occasionally has to make.  Moreover, Hampton’s battle accounts connect well with his earlier discussion of training.  An F-16 pilot needs to be able to conduct an enormous number of intellectual tasks simultaneously, from managing his fuel to assessing threats to organizing her command to paying attention to where all the weapons are going, all while flying an aircraft that, aerodynamically, would prefer to be on or in the ground. Hampton suggests that flying an F-16 under combat conditions is akin to playing several musical instruments at the same time, which sounds about right. Hampton’s accounts of non-combat missions (coordinating the landing of a squadron during a sandstorm, test-piloting a poorly maintained Egyptian F-16) are equally compelling.

At the same time, Hampton admits not the faintest grasp of or interest in grand strategy or international politics. He only occasionally comments on the geopolitical realities of the wars that he fights in, and then usually without much insight. In this he fits the stereotype of the Air Force fighter pilot who is interested, above all, in flying fighter aircraft in wartime conditions.  The rest (why he’s there, what he’s doing) is relatively incidental. He enjoys utilizing the killing power of the F-16, even on missions (such as close air support) that the Air Force as a whole is altogether unenthusiastic about.

Viper Pilot is a quick read; Hampton is a good writer, with a sound grasp of what should and shouldn’t become part of the narrative.  He knows that no one has bought Viper Pilot to read about family. There’s a fair amount of interesting trivia about the Air Force and about F-16s; I’ll confess that I had never quite understood the Viper vs. Fighting Falcon debate, or the role that the original Battlestar Galactica plays in that conversation, but it makes sense in context.  If you like fighter pilot narratives, you’ll probably like this book.  If you don’t, you won’t.

Roth

[ 67 ] November 9, 2012 |

Philip Roth, the greatest American writer of his era, claims to have retired.

In the end, this might be a good thing, assuming he really retires. While his 90s and early 2000s resurgence was brilliant, his last novels were, uh, not very good. I had a couple of hours to kill in a library this summer and so I grabbed The Humbling off the shelves. To say the least, it was the worst Roth I’ve ever read. I mean, it’s one thing to be a misogynist in a brilliant novel. But in a bad novel, the misogyny is just unacceptable. That doesn’t take anyway from his 10-15 very good to amazing books. But maybe it is time.

Dunham

[ 86 ] October 11, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct. The attacks on Lena Dunham as the ultimate purveyor of white privilege in the arts are utterly bizarre. This isn’t to say Dunham doesn’t benefit from white privilege or shouldn’t think of casting non-whites in her show, but she hardly benefits more than anyone else and is hardly more guilty than anyone else.

The Evolution of Blood Meridian

[ 11 ] October 10, 2012 |

Must reading for all you McCarthyites out there.

Graduate Reading List for The American West

[ 68 ] September 7, 2012 |

This fall, I am teaching graduate students for the first time. I am teaching our senior capstone course, which graduate students can sign up for. My course in on the history of the American West. Usually 1 or 2 graduate students sign up, but I have 6 for whatever reason–my charming personality no doubt. So I’m having them meet separately (in part) for a mini-seminar. As Farley does with the Patterson reading list, I thought people might be interested in the readings I chose. Some of you will disagree with some of the readings, or I hope so anyway.

In a normal graduate seminar, I’d assign a book a week. This isn’t quite that, so some weeks there are books and other weeks a couple of book chapters or articles.

The theme of the course is power. Of course power relations define all history, but because of aridity, racial tension, and the dominance of the region by extractive capitalism, power relations in the West take on a special tone. I can’t truly provide a comprehensive history of the topic in a semester, but this is what I have. There are only 11 weeks of readings because of holidays and plans on other days, so it’s more limited than I’d like.

Week 1: Overview
Richard Etulain, Did the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?
This is my coverage of Turner’s frontier thesis and his critics. Get it out of the way and move onto something more interesting. I always hated dealing with these debates but it’s inevitable I suppose.

Week 2: The Indigenous West
Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire

Week 3: The Incorporation of the West
William Cronon, “Annihilating Space: Meat” from Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Richard Maxwell Brown, “The Gunfighter: The Reality Behind the Myth,” from No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American Society
William Robbins, “An ‘Equilibrium of Chaos’: External Control and the Northern West” from Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West

Week 4: Tourism and Conservation
Theodore Roosevelt, “The Vigor of Life,” “In Cowboy Land,” and “The Natural Resources of the Nation,” from An Autobiography
Chris Wilson, “Romantic Regional Architecture, 1905 to 1930,” from The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition
Louis Warren, “’Raiding Devils’ and Democratic Freedoms: Indians, Ranchers, and New Mexico Wildlife,” from The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America

Week 5: The Working-Class West
Richard White, “Workingmen” from Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
Cecilia Tsu, “’Independent of the Unskilled Chinaman’: Race, Labor, and Family Farming in California’s Santa Clara Valley,” Western Historical Quarterly Winter 2006
Gunther Peck, “Manhood Mobilized,” from Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930

Week 6: Water, Natural Resources, and the West
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

Week 7: The Gendered West
Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken, Home Lands: How Women Made the West

Week 8: Urbanization and Suburbanization
Read: John Findlay, “Sun City, Arizona: New Town for Old Folks, from Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940
Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” from Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
Quintard Taylor, “Facing the Urban Frontier: African-American History in the Reshaping of the Twentieth-Century American West” Western Historical Quarterly Spring 2012

Week 9: Postwar Social Movements in the West
Josh Sides, Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco

Week 10: Environmentalism and the Modern West
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p. 1-67
Darren Speece, “From Corporatism to Citizen Oversight: The Legal Fight over California Redwoods, 1970-1996,” Environmental History October 2009
Jake Kosek, “Smokey the Bear is a White Racist Pig” from Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico

Week 11: Migration and Borders
Monica Perales, Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community

Week 12: The West Today
Students search out recent articles and make short presentations connecting to the historical themes of the semester.
Given that this is the last day of classes, I don’t feel I can really assign real readings in this week. Particularly since they will be in the hell of writing their 20-30 page historiographical paper for me.

I see the strengths of this syllabus as a real focus on the relationship between diversity and power and that the major themes are woven through the weeks and not just confined to one week.

Weaknesses include not enough on Native Americans in the second half of the course, the lack of a specific week on the rise of conservative politics (if I had one more week, I’d solve this problem), and not enough works by women, which is annoying and snuck up on me as these things will. But what would I cut out?

Thoughts? I’m actually open to suggestions since I don’t have to teach until Monday afternoon and won’t print off the syllabus until a couple of hours beforehand. The books can’t change obviously, but the articles and book chapters certainly could.

Book Review: Pakistan: A Hard Country

[ 4 ] July 30, 2012 |

This is the third in an eight part series on this year’s Patterson School Summer Reading List:

  1. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  2. CJ Chivers, The Gun
  3. Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country

Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country tries to change the extant Western narrative on Pakistan. Lieven has travelled extensively in Pakistan over the course of several decades, and is familiar with virtually all of the major political factions. Lievan’s most important point, made repeatedly for emphasis, is that the social structures that undergird Pakistani society (primarily kinship structures, along witha  melange of tribal and ethnic affiliations) are far too robust for either radical Islamists or the Pakistani state to disrupt. While Pakistan may in some ways resemble a “failed state” (itself a dreadfully over and mis-used term), there is little prospect for any kind of transformational change of state structures. Pakistan is here to stay, and will likely remain genuinely “Pakistani” for the foreseeable future.

Lieven makes clear that a surface analysis of Pakistani politics, even one that takes into account the interplay between the major political parties and ethnic groups, lends little understanding as to how the political system actually functions. He makes clear that party politics fails to adequately describe the interactions of the Pakistani political class, and that the extant parties are themselves little more than broad-based patronage networks with a thin ideological veneer. Not all parties are equally part of this system, although most of those that see any kind of prolonged success find themselves in a system which strongly rewards a kinship-patronage based program. This makes it difficult for political parties to take advantage of broader identifications, including ethnic attachment or class consciousness. These attachments surely exist, but their impact is muted by the deeper social structure. For example, even parties interested in agrarian reform have rarely had much success penetrating the networks of obligation, and have earned enduring hatred from what amount (in some ways) to feudal agrarian lords. However, Lieven makes clear that the feudal model also misses much; rural conditions are less drastic than statistics indicate because the upper classes are themselves bound by these systems of obligation.

State capacity problems extend to tax collection, infrastructure projects, management of the local police, and basic governance of the more restive provinces. Nevertheless, Pakistan has managed to construct a well trained, technological advanced, competent army, albeit one that consistently rejects civilian supremacy. Pakistan has also managed to build itself ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, both of which are centralized, capital intensive endeavors. Consequently, Pakistan only approaches being a “failed” state on certain metrics of domestic governance; its central government can consistently draw on the resources necessary to projecting a powerful international image.

Lieven rejects the argument that Pakistan is likely to fall to the Taliban, or to undergo an Islamic revolution similar to Iran’s.  It’s not just that secular institutions are too strong, although in the case of the Army this is surely true.  More importantly, the network of identities that bind Pakistani society together are too strong for revolutionary forces to tear apart.  While the Taliban has prospered in some parts of Pakistan and has periodically won certain forms of official sanction, it has also discovered hard limits on its appeal, not to mention the tolerance of Pakistani security institutions. The Army and intelligence services have been happy to make limited use of the Taliban and Taliban allies to conduct proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but have moved quickly to crush any serious threats to the Pakistani state.

Lieven repeatedly returns to concerns about climate change.  He argues that climate change could destabilize Pakistani society in ways that neither the state nor the Taliban can match, by undermining the fundamental economic substructure. Indeed, next to climate change Lieven sees only a US or Indian ground invasion and occupation as events that could bring about revolutionary change in Pakistan.

The weak state, strong society dynamic helps explain the problematic nature of Pakistani civil-military relations.  Built on a British model perfected during the Raj, the Pakistani Army is a strong institution, capable of managing itself in a more or less meritocratic fashion, of building a security strategy that informs (and to some degree constitutes) Pakistani foreign policy, and of commanding all of the resources necessary to a modern, effective military organization.  It is nearly the only institution in the country that operates on such a Weberian logic. Thus, the military tends to hold a great degree of legitimacy (although this varies across region), and tends to have strong attitudes about the nature and conduct of the civilian Pakistani state.  At the same time, the civilian state remains remarkably corrupt and incapable of reforming either itself or life in the countryside.  Consequently, the military often had both an interest in political intervention and the social capital to undertake such intervention.

Lieven notes on several occasions that the Pakistani public sphere is rife with conspiracy theory.  These include a widespread belief that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks, that the United States and India support Al Qaeda, as well as a few others.  Lievan makes a good case that these beliefs go beyond what we might account as typical nationalist/political paranoia (such as American beliefs on climate change, President Obama’s religion, etc.) and have a detrimental effect (although perhaps not a significant detrimental effect) on Pakistani public life and foreign relations.

Pakistan: A Hard Country isn’t quite “everything you know about Pakistan is wrong,” but rather “most of what you know about Pakistan needs to be viewed in different context.” To be sure, while Lievan makes certain that his readers get the point, the argument occasionally comes across as repetitive. In part this is because Lieven previews certain discussions in the course of engaging other topics; given that national political problems are often inter-related, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. However, there’s a degree of truth to the claim that you can get most of Lievan’s argument from his first chapter. You’d miss out on a tremendous amount of supporting evidence and detail, but nevertheless could probably get a grip on his key assertions. Altogether, it’s a worthwhile volume.

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