Monday, July 23, 2007

What I'm reading/How depressed am I today?

The problem for me, after any decent period of non-blogging, is knowing what to start with. So I suppose I'll start with what I read on the 14 hours of flying I did over the last week:

First, I finished Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? Extraordinarily well-written, though it would be charitable to say this book isn't exactly an academic treatment, and it doesn't try to be. What it is, is a short but very broad look at some of the core similarities between Rome and America, the problems they both face/faced, and some brief prescriptions at the end on how to avoid Rome's fate. Murphy suggests mandatory national service, a concept I keep going back and forth on. Many of the arguments I find totally daft. The idea that a US President would be less likely to order a conscript army to war than a volunteer one is simply stupid, and the idea that the US Armed Forces should be expanded so that America has the means to do bad things in the world, like the labour-intensive occupation of hostile countries, seems to me similarly dumb. (Hint: the solution isn't a bigger army, it's to stop occupying hostile foreign countries.) I would, highly, reccomend Murphy's book, because I think he avoids getting bogged down in making too-detailed a comparison between Rome and the US, and deals with it more thematically. The book is nothing more, and nothing less, than what it sets out to be, and as I said it's very well written. If you're looking for something a bit more substantial in your Americo-Roman comparisons, there's more substance in another book out there -- something I'll return to in a later post.

The second book I'm still reading is The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. The capsule review for this book is a quote by Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme." Halberstam couldn't have known it when he wrote TB&B in 1971, but Bush-Cheney have followed the march of folly so closely, you'd swear they were using his history of the Vietnam War as an instruction manual. Every time you read, in Halberstam, of Asian experts being ignored and ridiculed for being soft on Communism, think of the hostility and McCarthyism towards Middle East Studies experts today. (Ask Juan Cole for details, if you like.) Every time you read of French, and later American, Generals warning of the folly of trying to occupy Vietnam, think of Eric Shinseki. (General, and later Marshal, Leclerc warned the French government "It would take 500,000 men to do it, and even then it couldn't be done." And was ignored, of course.) When you read of dissenting voices in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations being silenced by McNamara and Bundy, think of the roles played by Rumsfeld and Cheney. And of course, what becomes clear is the incredible staying power of civil servants when they've decided on a course of action -- absolutely nothing could convice McNamara, Rostow, or Bundy they were wrong. Years later, after McNamara had finally changed his mind on the war, he asked John Paul Vann why it was that Vann's damning statistics had never made it to his office. Vann told McNamara that it was his own damn fault -- he'd made it impossible for dissenting information to make it to himself or the President.

The comparisons are easy -- maybe too easy -- but it's an incredibly depressing book to read. No less depressing than the reality we live with today, of course. I'm a firm believer in individual agency -- people aren't moved by vast, impersonal forces, but play an active role in the world they make. (In this sense, I'm very much like the men who blundered in to Vietnam. Yikes!) But reading Halberstam makes me more deterministic by the page, by the paragraph even. You can't help but feel we're trapped in cycles from which we can't escape -- some kind of awful Hindu cycle of reincarnation, with Kali the Devourer waiting at the end.

No comments: