Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: War (2010) by Sebastian Junger.

My dad and I attended some basketball games at the university he taught at. One season, the school's team featured a player who was listed in excess of 7'5". He looked good on paper or walking through an airport terminal, but his performances on the court didn't live up to the promise. My dad characterized his play as "flashes of brilliance". Implied in the compliment, however, was that outside of the fleeting flashes, his play bordered on pedestrian.

Unfortunately, Sebastian Junger's War earns a similar backhanded accolade. There are undeniable moments of brilliant observation, flowing out of Junger's authentic experience periodically embedded between June 2007 and June 2008 with an Army unit in an especially dangerous part of Afghanistan. (p. xi.) For example:

"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. ... War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of." (144.)

Explaining the counterintuitive dearth of religion at the front line, Junger observed: "The platoon was the faith, a greater cause that, if you focused on it entirely, made your fears go away. It was an anesthetic that left you aware of what was happening but strangely fatalistic about the outcome. As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever." (210.)

Junger contrasts war from combat: "War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is a smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly." (234.)

Given these overriding themes about courage and the community of soldiers, Junger rarely gets into the politics or causes of the Afghanistan war. However, Junger drops this bracing, controversial comment (largely overlooked or ignored by the MSM) almost as an aside: "The men know Pakistan is the root of the entire war, and that is just about the only topic they get political about. They don't much care what happens in Afghanistan.... You didn't have to be in the Army to notice that Pakistan was effectively waging war against America, but the administration back home was refusing to even acknowledge it, must less take any action." (249.)

Perhaps the book's unevenness flows from the fact that Junger embarked on this project as both a book and a documentary (entitled Restrepo) (xi), unlike his earlier The Perfect Storm book that was later adapted into a movie starring George Clooney. For this reason, the book doesn't quite stand alone, as if the writer was distracted by making two disparate pieces at the same time. His division of focus unfortunately manifests as an inconsistent book, flashing its brilliance only like lightening strikes against an otherwise gray sky.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Book Review: Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (2010) by Karl Rove.

If this book were human, it would have a tripartite personality, not unlike the "United States of Tara" or "Cybil".

Karl Rove's Courage and Consequence is part personal, political, and polemical. Each chapter essentially falls into one of these "personalities". And depending on which personality turns up, one can predict how it's going to go.

The personal chapters outdistance the others. First, Rove delves into his complicated upbringing and tragedies in his personal life, including his mother's suicide. He also deals with his climb up the ladder of the College Republicans, meeting some interesting folks along the way including Lee Atwater (with a hilarious story about running out of gas), Jeff Sessions (who later became an Alabama senator), and George H. W. Bush (who holds Rove's reverence throughout).

Rove's discussion of his harrowing experience as a "subject" and then a "target" of a grand jury investigation should be required reading for anyone in law school thinking of a career in white collar criminal defense and probably everyone else considering a field in the law. He lays out the high stakes "dance" between the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and Rove's attorney, Bob Luskin, in fascinating detail--a story that I don't believe has been told before.

The political chapters provide insight into the strategies that put Bush into the White House following the 2000 and 2004 elections. Additionally, Rove ably dissects the 2006 mid-term election and what went wrong (and right) for Republicans. These chapters demonstrate a keen political mind, powered by a sharp eye of the electorate. Not as strong as the personal chapters, but these chapters more than fuel political junkies' engines.

Finally, the polemical chapters anchor the book, and not in a good way. Chapter 21 entitled, "Bush Was Right on Iraq", encapsulates the personality of these chapters where Rove vigorously defends various Bush decisions, conduct or inaction. This is where the book takes on almost a litigator's tone where Rove argues a certain position as if he were an advocate for Bush. In fact, the first part of the book's title is about Bush not Rove, "I am proud to have been part of the long journey of a man of courage and consequence who sought to provide conservative reform of great institutions in need of repair and kept America safe in its hour of peril." (520.) These chapters are tediously long, dismissive of other points of view, and selectively deal with the evidence.

Overall, I was surprised how good this book was, despite its "schizophrenic" tendencies. Recommended.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Marital Harbinger?

I attended a wedding recently aboard a yacht. The ceremony and reception took place as we cruised the gentle waters of Newport Harbor.

My seat abutted the rail, so I could look over to see the water. During the vows, I glimpsed the ocean to see a dead fish floating. Then immediately thereafter, a drunken fisherman in a little dingy motoring next to the yacht serenaded the wedding party with his boom box and vocal chords bellowing Heart's "Crazy on You".

I doubt that's how the wedding planner drew it up.