Origins of a Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe, by Warren Zimmerman, 1999, Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York

Warren Zimmerman was the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Balkan War broke out in the 1990’s.  The book relates his meetings with the leaders of the various  republics (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia) that split from Yugoslavia and he provides his assessment of their personalities and ideologies.  In fact the book is a little bit like a memoir in addition to a historical work.

This book was a very hard read for me as the names were hard to keep track of and I didn’t know much about these countries or their histories.  Although I have rated this book fairly high due to its content, I found myself having a hard time staying with it  In fact, I usually started to fall asleep while reading it after only a few pages.

The most startling conclusion that I came to after reading this was the damage that certain individuals can inflict on their fellow countrymen when they implement their intentions, particularly when their intentions are fused with a extreme nationalistic ideology.  In our recent presidential campaign here in the U.S. one of our candidates has professed strong nationalistic views, i.e., America First.  As I read this book I was struck by how similar the personalities and ideology of Slobodan Milosevic and  Donald Trump seem to be.  Both seem to have had a strong dislike of foreigners, want to control the press (media), and harbor feelings that they have been somehow wronged by their enemies.  These are all the characteristics of a demagogue.  Scary.

While I greatly appreciate Zimmerman’s analysis of what caused the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, it was a bit depressing to read while at the same time our own presidential election was underway.  Both of these together was a bit too hard to take.

4 stars

The Allure of Immortality, An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet

by Lyn Millner, 2015, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, FL

This book is a history of the Koreshan movement and its settlement in Estero, Florida.  The movement was founded by a very charismatic individual, Cyrus Teed, who taught that followers who believed in him and his beliefs would somehow achieve immortality.

An added interest in the book for me is the close proximity of the Koreshan State Park to our current residence in Florida.

Ms. Milner, who is a professor at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University, treats her subject with respect and she has done an incredible amount of research on her subject.  Her writing is good, and my only negative comment is that sometimes the amount of detail she provides can get somewhat tedious.

I particularly liked how she brought the subject up to date at the end of the book with a detailed account of the current situation, both for the state park as well as the College of Life Foundation, which manages the left-over assets of the Koreshans.  I also liked her afterword in which she described some of her own thoughts and emotions as she researched and wrote the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in cults and how they come into being as well as anyone who has an interest in Southwest Florida history.4 stars

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr, 2014. Scribner, New York

This book, about a young blind girl and a German boy genius whose paths cross in WWII, starts a bit slow and seems a little disjointed in the beginning, but it really comes together in the end.

The author utilizes very short chapters that alternate back and forth between the blind girl and the German boy.  I found that it took a little getting used to, but this technique really adds to the overall book. 4 stars

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