Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965

by Yuen Foong Khong, 1992, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

This is one of the books that my son, Peter, had as a result of his master’s studies at George Washington University.  I went through the box and picked out some of them that looked interesting.  The book sat in another box for a few years until I picked it up this summer because there weren’t any other books in our RI condo that I hadn’t read.

The subject of this book holds a certain fascination for me as I was convinced that the government was lying to the American people about the motives of the intervention in Viet Nam (as well as what was occurring during the intervention).  I did not, however, have a very good understanding as to exactly what the motivations were.  This book went a long way toward providing some insight.

Khong analyzes, from a human psychological perspective, two decisions of 1965, the February decision to bomb North Vietnam, and the July decision to introduce ground troops.  Khong’s assertion is that analogies from prior historical events play a large role in making current decisions.  He also finds that using these analogies from prior historical events can lead to major mistakes in policy decisions and, once the wrong decisions are made, these same analogies invariably lead to the decision makers’ hanging on to their original thinking despite mounting evidence that they are on the wrong course.  The three analogies that were most commonly used were the Korean conflict, Munich, and Dein Bein Phu.  It appears that the analogy of the Korean conflict was the one most used in supporting the two decisions of 1965 that were examined.

One of the findings is that, in the absence of current information, the decision maker may fill in missing information with the facts from the prior situation, facts that may not necessarily be pertinent to the current situation.  The author points out that many of the decision makers in the Viet Nam era were some of the brightest and most well educated persons in our society.  Despite their smarts, they tended to make some grievous errors in judgement and tended to not listen to arguments that were in opposition to their way of thinking.

After reading this book, I could sympathize somewhat with the difficulty these individuals had in making the decisions that they did.  My particular sympathy is with President Lyndon Johnson as he agonized over these decisions and repeatedly sought opinions from all of his advisors as well as this military leaders before making these decisions.  From the questions he asked, it appears that he had the best interests of the United States at heart when he finally came to the conclusions that he did.  It is unfortunate that he didn’t get better advice.

The book also indicates that one of his advisors, George Ball, was on the right track when he used the analogy of Dien Bien Phu in predicting the disastrous outcome that would come to pass some years later.  My sympathy is with Mr. Ball because his very accurate predictions were ignored in the face of opposition from almost all of the other advisors.

While I have less sympathy for the other advisors, I can now, as a result of reading this book, better understand how they came to their positions.  Several of these advisors later admitted that they were mistaken and regretted the advice they provided (William Bundy and Robert McNamara are two such individuals).

Although I have a better understanding of the thought process that surrounded these decisions, I still can’t forgive individuals such as Walt Rostow and General William Westmorland who never recanted their views despite overwhelming evidence that they were greatly mistaken.  These are individuals who should definitely share the blame for the loss of over 58,000 American lives as well as the lives of countless Vietnamese.

Analogies at War is an insightful work.  The author researched his subject carefully and it shows.  His writing and sentence structure are very clear and he forcefully presents his arguments.  The only downside of the book, I found, was that, because of the arguments put forth and the information provided, it tended to get somewhat repetitious.

The book was written in 1992, prior to our involvement in the Iraq wars.  It would be interesting to read an updated version that would examine the decision making that went into those two wars.

4 stars

Washington Square

by Henry James, originally published in 1880 as a magazine serial, Audiobook read by Lorna Raver, 2008, Tantor Media, Inc.

This is a novel about a young girl living in New York City about 1830 and her affair with an unworthy suitor.  The novel itself is a bit dull but the reading by Lorna Raver is well done.  Her portrayal of Catherine’s aunt as a nosy busybody is superb!

I was hoping that the novel would give a little bit more insight into New York’s culture and society in those times, but the novel was so focused on Catherine and her relationships with her father, her aunt, and her suitor that it didn’t leave much opportunity to dwell on other aspects of life in New York at those times.

I think the novel would have been a bit dull to read, but I really enjoyed the audiobook.4 stars

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh

by Jeff Shaara, Audiobook, 2012, Narrated by Paul Michael, Random House Audio

We listened to this audiobook on our semi-annual trip from Florida to Rhode Island.  The audiobook was 18 CD’s so it consumed about 2 1/2 days of our three-day trip.  Even though it was long and, at times, seemed even longer than it was, the author made it interesting.  By writing this in novel format he made the individuals seem to come to life.  At the same time, however, the historical contents were well-researched and accurate.  The narration was also very good.

We had no prior knowledge of the battle or the circumstances that brought the two armies together and this was a much more enjoyable means to gain that knowledge compared to a dry, blow-by-blow history of the battle.  I would recommend this book. 4 stars

The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown, 2013, Viking Penguin Group

This book is meticulously researched, well-written, and the author obviously has a great love for his subject.  It’s about the crew from the University of Washington that won the nine-man rowing Olympic medal in Berlin in 1936.  The story is interlaced with background information on the various members of the crew and, in particular, the life of Joe Ratz prior to his attendance at the University of Washington.  Some of the details are pretty grim, but, nonetheless, they add to the story of how they went about winning the gold medal.

Daniel James Brown also provides an accurate portrayal of what was occurring in Nazi Germany at the time and how Goebbles wanted to show the new Germany to the world through the Olympic events.  Very scary stuff.

This is a really good book, even if the reader doesn’t have a great deal of appreciation for what’s involved in the sport of rowing.  The author even gets caught up in the excitement of a race that took place almost eighty years ago.4 1/2 stars

An Officer and a Spy

by Robert Harris, 2014, Vintage Reprint Edition

I think this is an excellent book!  It is an historical novel about the Dreyfus affair and one of the officers in the military who was involved in the arrest of Dreyfus.  He later has doubts about Dreyfus’ guilt and launches his own investigation.

The book is written in the first-person, present tense so it feels as if whatever is happening is happening right now, even though the events depicted happened over one hundred years ago.  The book is very well written, the characters are superb, and the plot flows well.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone.4 1/2 stars

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

by Stephen Kinzer, 2014, St. Martin’s Griffin

This book traces the lives and careers of John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen.  It is interesting in that the author contrasts the personalities of each of them and shows how they reacted to various events during their careers.

In the case of John Foster Dulles, the book illustrated to me how someone who is so certain about his beliefs that he doesn’t seem to be able to synthesize information that runs counter to those beliefs. This level of certitude can lead to significant errors in judgment and, in the case of John Foster Dulles, to complicity in the deaths of 57,000 young American men and many, many more Asians.  After painting the impact of this man, the author does indicate that the environment that John Foster Dulles lived and worked in may have had an impact on his decision making.  I, on the other hand, would tend to find him fully accountable for his actions.

Does this mean that individuals like John Foster Dulles are evil?  I don’t think so.  It’s just a sad commentary on the state of human affairs that someone with his psychological makeup can exert such an influence and create such disastrous results.

The personality of Allen Dulles, on the other hand, seems to be just about the complete opposite of John Foster as he was a much more social person.  Kinzer describes in detail how Allen’s personality and predispositions affected his decisions as head of the CIA.

The net result of reading this book was to make me angry that these individuals, through there mistaken assumptions, caused so many deaths and so much destruction.  Their intentions were mostly honorable so they can’t be classified as evil individuals, but it is a testament to the power of ideology and certitude that can produce so much havoc in our world. 4 stars

Birds Without Wings

by Louis de Bernières, 2004, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York

This book was recommended by Johanna Hanink, a classics professor at Brown. who accompanied us on our cruise, Pearls of Antiquity, to Greece and Turkey.  I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Greek and Roman settlements in the Greek Isles and Asia Minor prior to going on this trip.  Virtually all of our lectures focused on Greek mythology and art and most of our excursions were to ancient Greek and Roman ruins.  At the same time I could see that I was in two vastly different countries and I had very little understanding about either of them, particularly given the current turmoil that each of them is experiencing. This book helped me to gain a great deal of knowledge about them and insight into their more recent histories.

The book is primarily about the lives of some of the common people living near what is currently called Fethiye on the west cost of Turkey starting prior to World War I.  During that time ethnic Greeks and Turks (Christians and Muslims) lived pretty much side by side in the Ottoman Empire without a great deal of discord.  The book highlights the events that took place and how they affected both the Christians and the Muslims living in the small town.

The author’s prose is extremely readable and the story is compelling, although a bit brutal at times.  Despite this, I found the reading to be somewhat of a chore at times.  Perhaps this was due to the very small print which made the book seem to be much longer than its 554 pages.  The characters in the book, although fictional, seemed to capture the essence of the place.

The combined effect of our trip to Greece and Turkey and the reading of this book causes me to wonder about the impacts of civilization.  With so much philosophy, art, architecture, etc., generated in this region of the earth, why is it that the only way that a people can live in harmony is by getting rid of everyone who is different from them?  It seems that no amount of culture can deter the human race’s ability to inflict mayhem on other human beings.

Although I have arrived at a somewhat depressing conclusion, this is a very good novel and I recommend it to anyone who has the perseverance to read it through. 4.5 stars

Private Svoboda, Hope is the Last to Die

by Steven R. Roberts with Alexander von Svoboda, 2013, Rouge River Press, Dearborn, MI

This story is about a youth who was drafted into Hitler’s army and survived incredible hardship.  At the age of 15 Alexander Svoboda was sent to the Russian front to defend the motherland from the oncoming Russian army.  His unit was severely outnumbered and, although many of his schoolmates in the same unit did not survive, Svoboda was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia.  He then escapes and makes his way back to his home in Austria (walking much of the way), only to find out that the Allies have cut a deal to turn over his part of Austria to Russian control at the end of the war.

I think the author really hit his stride in the telling of this story.  The story is told by Alexander in first person, present tense.  The story unfolds as if it is happening at this very minute rather than 70 years ago.  With each page there is something new and interesting happening and the story never drags.

Although I really liked the book, I do have a few comments that I thought could have made the book just a bit better.  In the first place, I didn’t like the font the book was printed with.  It was published using a sans-serif font which I believe is more suited to a poster or notice of some kind.  I am much more accustomed to reading a book using some kind of serif font such at Times-Roman.  After reading a while it didn’t seem to make much difference, but it took a little getting used to at first.

As I read the book, I got the feeling that the story was being told by a much older individual than a boy of fifteen or sixteen.  I am sure that the war would age someone quickly, both physically and mentally, but the story was related with far more wisdom, insight, and maturity than someone of that age could possibly possess.  It’s understandable that this would occur as the story was told to the author many years after it occurred, but it took away some of the immediacy of the book.

I noticed in a couple of places where there were some grammatical errors in the case of a pronoun (using the accusative “me” instead of the nominative “I” with an intransitive verb).  In English these errors are frequently heard and seen as we typically use different cases only with pronouns, but  it is unlikely that a schoolboy who is trained in much more structured German would be making the same kinds of grammatical mistakes that we typically do in English.  This is a pretty minor criticism, but as I was reading along, it was a bit jarring to see a typical English grammatical error uttered by a German schoolboy.

Lastly, there were a couple of places where the author switched from active to passive voice and back that seemed out of place.

These small items didn’t detract from the overall impact and impression of the book.  I liked it very much. 4 stars

The Swamp, The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

by Michael Grunwald, 2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks, New York

Prior to reading this book, I really didn’t understand the reasons why the Everglades are such a critical component of the South Florida ecosystem.  The bottom line is that, without the Everglades, it is doubtful that this area would be able to support the levels of human population that currently live here.

My wife and I took our kids into the park back in 1981, but we had absolutely no idea that the Everglades were so threatened at that time.  The author provides a great deal of history of the development of South Florida.  He then goes on to provide a more recent history and how the politics and interests of the developers have impacted the Everglades and the environment.

There are some projects currently underway to, hopefully, help restore the Everglades.  Long stretches of bridges are being built to raise portions of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami in order to restore the flow of the Everglades to the ocean.  There are also battles going on the control the release of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Chattahoochee River.  This book provides perspective as to the importance of these events.  However, because the book ends in 2006 and it is now 2014, there is quite a gap between what was going on then and now.  I will need to find some more recent material to bring me up to date on what has transpired since the book was written.4 stars

Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us

by Michael Moss, 2012, Random House, New York

Our men’s book club did this book and I was initially skeptical that I would get much out of it.  I was wrong.  The book provided me with a great deal of insight regarding the foods I eat and also gave me some incentive to avoid some of them.

I was amazed at how much the consumer can be manipulated by the ingredients of our modern-day processed foods as well as the marketing schemes used to promote them.  On the other hand, I was also somewhat heartened by the fact that consumer preferences for healthier foods are also forcing the food companies to change, albeit in extremely small steps.  One thing that I learned that was valuable to me was that the taste buds can be modified over time to prefer less salt (although the same can’t be said for sugar or fat).

While the author seems to wander a bit at times, he has done a great deal of research and investigation which shows up throughout the book.  His tone is very even and he avoids the kind of accusatory rhetoric that is emblematic of some other authors such as Michael Moore.4 stars