This is the second book I've read on the Iraq war. It's not that I've not followed the progress of the Iraq War extremely closely, because I have. It'...moreThis is the second book I've read on the Iraq war. It's not that I've not followed the progress of the Iraq War extremely closely, because I have. It's that hitherto, all the books on the Iraq war stuck me as being written by parties removed from the daily affairs of the war, observing it at a distance as I was, and engaging not in the writing of history but in punditry, self-justification, spin, and axe grinding. Authors seemed to feel quite free to write books based on anonymous sourcing, innuendo, unrecorded conversations, rumors, and media coverage of doubtable competency and even veracity. So it's not that I didn't want to read the details of what was happening in Iraq, but that I did that largely kept me away from the dross being cranked out and inflicted on a certain class of willing consumer.
Thus, it was with great relish that I picked up Peter Mansoor's account of his first tour of service in Iraq. A brigade commander is uniquely placed to serve in the role of historian. The perspective that it provides is sufficiently high up that the larger picture can be discerned, but not so high up that you are observing the events from a distance.
Peter Mansoor lacks pretension. Rather than attempting to write a history of the Iraq war, he writes simply an account of his experiences. Writing an account of the Iraq War is at this point probably impossible because of the lack of creditable material. Writing an account of Iraq War at this point is too high of an ambition for anyone, much less someone who wasn't centrally placed in it. To my mind, Peter Mansoor was as centrally placed as any author thus far, and it’s to his credit that he doesn't pretend to be able to tell the whole story.
Col. Mansoor opens the book with a brief, candid and endearing biography. He spills his life story in a few brief pages. It is self-effacing. It is honest, and we know it is honest because no one who wanted to impress us would write so unglamorously. This sets the pattern for the entire book.
Humility is the rarest trait in a gifted soldier. Commanders are generally ego-driven, highly competitive, and ambitious individuals. Narcissists and self-trumpeting blow-hards, even incompetent ones, often achieve high rank: the humble man however skilled rarely does. The shelves of military biographies are filled with useless self-serving tracts written by men with a gift for judging others, but no gift for examining themselves. This is the rarest sort of autobiography of all - the one that will be worthy of study because it’s not afraid to admit to failings.
There is way too much in this book to write about in such a short space, and I'm chagrined that I did not attempt this review when the material was fresher in my mind. Col. Mansoor deserves better, but this will have to do.
Pundits on either side of the aisle with have a difficult time dealing with Peter Mansoor's account. For myself, reading the book I got the uncanny feeling that everyone, whether critics or proponents of the war, was in fact describing the same war. I got the feeling reading the text, that whether you were for or against the war, that many of the central claims being made were largely true. I don't know why this should startle me and force me to reevaluate my thinking, because my mantra is, 'The truth is never simple.', but on this subject it did. I guess I found it impossible to reconcile the conflicting accounts and ideologies behind the positive and negative spin and imagine that such two disparate accounts could be describing the same entity. One or both had to be wrong; but, what I discovered reading the text is that did not have to be the case. The both could be right. Everyone trumpeting a simple truth was no better than one of the blind men groping the elephant.
Another thing that really drew me into the book from the beginning was my ability to follow along with almost all of the major events in the book, and compare them to how I had experienced them as an observer getting most of my news by sifting through various stories in the media. As I said, I followed the Iraq war very closely, following along with the different changes in strategy, the minor operations, and the major campaigns. Peter Mansoor however was in the thick of it, responsible for a section of Baghdad that was repeatedly in the news during that first year.
Mansoor's account of that trying year is somehow exhausting, inspiring, and heart-breaking at the same time. I promise you that around page 228, this book will kick you in the stomach, stick a knife in you, and twist it repeatedly. I don't know how soldiers cope with it. I really don't. It hurts me from here all the way across those miles and years. I don't know what to say except that my admiration for the strength, courage, and honor on display is very great indeed.
Peter Mansoor's account is very tough reading. He is open and forthcoming about the mistakes he made that got people killed; and the things that he did that saved lives and - at this point I think we can safely say although he doesn't - helped win the war. He is unsparing on himself, and lavish on the praise of those he served with. He doesn't however sugar coat things and pretend that everyone always used the best of judgment. Prisoner abuse and mistreatment of Iraqis was an ongoing problem that comes up repeatedly in the book. He makes a full accounting of the stupidity he encountered and the disciplinary steps he was forced to take, while keeping the persons involved anonymous.
He is circumspect but suggestive about the failings of those in higher positions. Those in charge of planning and running the war do not get off without criticism, and its difficult for me to imagine from the text that he actually supported starting the war. He definitely supports winning it. His sometimes exasperation with and sometimes deep love for the Iraqi people also comes clearly through. Few groups, however, get quite as scathing of a review or are as consistently associated with incompetency in the text as the media, which comes off as being less than useless. Given the typically vast disparity between events as they happened and as they were reported, I think that this assessment will go down as fair.
It's still hard at this point to know, but in the future I think the most important part of the text will be judged to be the documentation it provides of the growing interpersonal relationship between the American military on one hand and the Iraqi public on the other. Peter Mansoor, as an American of Arab descent, was in some ways somewhat well positioned to be at the forefront of this deepening understanding between the occupier and the occupied, between the liberated and the liberator, and between the conqueror and the conquered. I think this relationship must be described in this way because I think it was somehow simultaneously all of those things. But also and more importantly, I think it is important to see that for all that complexity, ultimately it was simply face to face relationships between two individuals who were forced by the circumstances to rub elbows, share a life, and try to work together.
And although it would be looking well ahead beyond the events of this book, it ultimately turns out that these personal relationships - and not any weapon of war - that are the decisive factor in the outcome of the war. Ultimately, and perhaps not surprisingly, you win a war against a low level insurgency by being better at making friends than the insurgents are.
Fortunately, in this case, given all the mistakes we made, that didn't prove to be particularly hard.
There are a few things that disappointed me. Really, it must be admitted that it is still too early to begin writing even such unambitious texts as 'Baghdad at Sunrise'. There are a number of points where it seemed that Col. Mansoor deliberately turned away from the train of thought he had been following because of the fact that the war is ongoing. There are times when he says simply, 'We devised a strategy', where I very much would like to have heard the details. As a textbook - and I've little doubt this will become required reading at a war college somewhere - the book would be much improved if the writer didn't have to be so careful to avoid operationally useful information. Likewise, there are times when I think the book would be improved were Mansoor retired and better able to speak his full mind. This is not to say however, that I hope his retirement comes soon. His country still needs men like him.
Because of his frankness concerning his mistakes, Mansoor gets away with trumpeting his own efforts from time to time. He relates how he became to be something of a cult figure to the Iraqi tribal leaders, and how he found himself on Al-Qaeda’s most wanted. But always he does so somewhat sarcastically, comparing his own modest self with the fantasy version of himself others created. Near the end of the book he allows himself a little more latitude describing commands he gave and responsibilities he undertook during the Karbala campaign for which he is in my opinion justifiably proud. Those events in March and April of 2004 I recall as the darkest and scariest days of the whole war - the closest I ever came to feeling that we might lose. It was so welcome to see an inside account of these critical events.
Someday I hope there will be movies about Iraq that are worth watching that portray the war in all its ugly glory without any motivation other than tell a story which is at least mostly true and one would hope central to the larger story. It probably won't be any time soon. It would be too much to hope that Hollywood would pick up 'Baghdad at Sunrise' or Lt. Col. Neil Prakash's equally fascinating and important account as a screenplay. But I hope that it is not too much to hope that Col. Mansoor honors us with a sequel.
I first encountered this book in college, sitting forgotten and forelornly on an academic shelf. This is certainly not the proper setting for this boo...moreI first encountered this book in college, sitting forgotten and forelornly on an academic shelf. This is certainly not the proper setting for this book, which is hardly heady intellectualism but rip-rollicking good adventure stories disguising what in other hands might be dull history.
As such, this is one of my favorite overviews of the Age of Sail, and in a perfect world would be in the hands of every elementary aged school kid as a way to get them to 'eat thier brocolli' and enjoy it. The book is a fairly comprehensive survey of the period's naval history, and I especially liked its coverage of lesser known wars like the four Anglo-Dutch wars and somewhat forgotten but inspiring commanders like Michiel de Ruyter.
The writing is gripping and strikes a narrative tone suitable for popular history. I found the books account of the major campaigns every bit as exciting as any modern thriller, and the personalities of the great commanders that are the focus of the book are fascinating and inspired me to read a few more detailed and well-rounded (and definately drier) biographies.
**spoiler alert** A couple of gamer geeks made good.
About 30 pages into this story, I turned to my wife and said, "This guy has done all the same rese...more**spoiler alert** A couple of gamer geeks made good.
About 30 pages into this story, I turned to my wife and said, "This guy has done all the same research I've done." As it turned out, this only makes sense - we are both game masters.
It's hard for me to review this book. I can't separate my thoughts about the book from my biases the way I feel that I am usually able to. I don't know if the book was really a triumph or merely a mediocre space opera that I like more than I should because I'm sympathetic to the setting, authors, and failings of the story. There are so many things to like that I want to overlook the somewhat serious flaws. So, lets start by getting the serious flaws admitted and then I'll talk about my biases and what this book really does right.
One of the most serious flaws in most recent sci-fi is the problem of childishness. By that I don't mean that the writers are childish, or that the genera is childish, but the genera has begun to reflect the trend toward irresponcibility of the larger society. In sci-fi this turns up as the trope that sometime in the near future, whenever it would be hard to solve the difficult problems of space travel, humanity helpfully encounters some alien artifact or species that gives Earth the technological jump start it needs to overcome the more intractable problems. Where once sci-fi celebrated a can do attitude and engineers with thews of steel, we now have space travelers as intellectual and moral coach potatoes waiting around for their parent to do all the hard work for them. It's annoying when it shows up, and though it's a minor element of this book, it still manages to invade this story as well.
Another problem with this book is the basic plot structure can be described as: "An alien species which parasitically infests its hosts is encountered which is extremely lethal to earth life, so much so that it threatens to destroy humanity if unleashed. An attractive female is infected early on, and ultimately it turns out that the real bad guys are a degenerate corporation that wants to weaponize the alien species." If that doesn't sound familiar to you, it should. So, while there is a lot of good research in the story and a lot of creativity on display, ultimately, there isn't nearly as much originality as there should be. It's standard trope bad guys and trope threats and all the twists are rote and predictable.
Lastly, the plot of the story suffers from several glaring gamerism which will probably be jarring to anyone who isn't a gamer, and which breaks suspension of disbelief from time to time for any one who is. One of the most obvious ones is that the protagonists enjoy PC level plot protection that manifests in their ability to cut a deal with any smart NPC because the smart NPC ultimately recognizes the PC's hero status as the only characters capable of saving the world. If you didn't understand that, what it means is that the protagonists though apparantly lowly and unimportant nonetheless are able to on the basis of no real evidence whatsoever convince really important individuals in the setting to trust them implicitly, to hear them out, and to agree to their seemingly fool hardy plans.
My biases in this of course are that as a gamer, I'm fairly willing to forgive gamer tropes. Sure, there are plot holes in the story, but compared to many authors, a writer with a gamer background is going to pay a lot of attention to certain sorts of plot holes and work harder to fill them. The setting is tight, internally consistant, and well thought out. The heroes are cunning and resourceful and the plot doesn't depend on the heroes doing stupid things, and there aren't obvious alternate strategies that the reader wonders why they don't employ. While you can occasionaly see twists coming that the characters in the story are oblivious to, you don't want to throw the book across the room because the characters haven't seen the problem yet because you can sympathize with how the characters are being emotionally manipulated.
There is so much though that the novel gets right. It's smart and often witty with several bits of dialogue that could show up in a Hollywood Summer blockbuster. The characterization is great, and the two principle protagonists are some of the more sympathetic and well realized in all of science fiction. The setting is Earth's glorious solar system, and the technology is believably a few centuries removed from our own in all areas but artificial intelligence (the absence of which is not really explained). The space combat is almost spot on best guess for the available technology level, and the military strategy, economics and physics are well thought out and explained. This is one of the best 'hard' (or at least semi-hard) space operas you'll encounter.
The story telling is artful. One of the things a good author will do when they know that they have a weak twist is layer the more obvious twists on top of each other so they climatic twist is hidden by the others. This strategy counts on your most sluethful readers to guess the first couple of twists within the first few pages, and then - cocky and sure of themselves - to underestimate the author and to not keep looking. Sure enough, they caught me perfectly in this trap (one I've fell to before, so I should have been looking for it). I was well on top of the twists, but they managed to successfully conceal the last twist not through having a really original twists, but by having enough twists along the way that you aren't looking for the last one until the same time it dawns on the protagonist. I love being outsmarted like that. Thanks guys. You made my day.
It's also probably the best collaborative novel I've read. Normally collaboration on a novel is a disaster, but here it works perfectly and seamlessly. I attribute this to gamer backgrounds of both authors, as they are clearly used to sharing a story with another author and make the most of their collaboration.(less)
I read scores of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books and similar 'text based adventure' series during the craze in elementary school and junior high.
Thi...moreI read scores of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books and similar 'text based adventure' series during the craze in elementary school and junior high.
This one, which casts you as a resistance fighter conducting an alpine raid against the Nazis, was always one of my favorites.
IMO, A good 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book has the following qualities - lots of oppurtunities to make choices, a large number of possible endings, a few surprising twists that add readability, and some sort of internal logic that lets you correctly guess at least most of the time which path leads to the most satisfying rewards. 'Sabotage' succeeds on all counts.(less)
John Ferling has done excellent service as a writer and historian in this volumn. It is an excellent and extremely readable survey of the military his...moreJohn Ferling has done excellent service as a writer and historian in this volumn. It is an excellent and extremely readable survey of the military history of the American Revolution, and in particular is maybe the best treatment of the late war years you'll encounter. It is a thick book, but not as thick as advertised. It runs only 575 pages - the remainder of the book being extensive bibliography and indexes. I enjoyed it immensely.
For a new student of American history, much of what Ferling writes will be revelatory. For those more studied, it will offer fresh takes and insights. There is nothing here however revisionist or driven by churlish motivations. The men and women of the period are made to appear simply as they were, both good and bad, without hypocritical judgment or a too reverent and unskeptical awe. As such, those looking for contriversy or self-serving validation of one modern belief system or the other will need to look elsewhere, as Ferling does not bother endulging his audiences prejudices.
If there is one point on which Ferling departs from orthodox interpretation of the documents, it seemed to me that it was in his portrayal of the relative skills of Franklin and Adams as diplomatic envoys to France. Ferling reverses the usual role of Franklin as the cunning and skilled diplomat, and Adams as the bumbling, niave, and abrasive fool. Instead Ferling portrays Franklin as the all too pliable dupe of his cunning French hosts whose charisma never persuades the French to provide anything that they had not already planned to give anyway to further thier own interests. Adams he paints as the far seeing and wise statesman who enrages the French principally by refusing to sacrifice his nation's interests in the futherance of thier imperial scheming. Since I'm a great admirer of both Franklin and Adams, but hitherto had held the French posting to be unsuitable to Adams temperment this left me much to think about and desiring to do further research.
There are only two things which prevent 'Almost a Miracle' from garnering from me five stars, and in fairness both of these are personal preferences rather than serious attacks on Ferling's methods or scholarship. The first is that Ferling is I think too loathe to employ the long quotation in his narrative. His short quotations - rarely more than sentense fragments - greatly reduce the burden of reading such a tome and keep up the brisk pace of the text, but at the same time a certain amount of weight to me seems proper in a history text. A richer experience of the characters in thier own words is I think at times proper.
The second is even more minor. Having read several other accounts, I am acquainted with a bit more of the details of certain events in Ferling's narrative which Ferling is content to pass over in a sentense or two. While he is quite willing to admit in passing that "No one was as lucky as Washington" and that "the gods of war" were on the side of Greene, had Ferling stopped to explore those occassions in greater detail, he might readily have dropped the 'Almost' from the title. Still, since I'd much rather our secular brothers and sisters read this book than discount it or be offended by it, I'll be content with the excellent work as it is.(less)
My impression of the book is biased by the fact that I've been following the work of Yon - and similar bloggers in the field like Totten - for years n...moreMy impression of the book is biased by the fact that I've been following the work of Yon - and similar bloggers in the field like Totten - for years now. Had I not already seen a good deal of this material in one form or the other, I probably would have given the book 5 stars. If you are yourself a member of the military blogosphere, and have been following Yon's narratives on his blog for the most part this book and its impact on you will be minimal because you've heard it all before.
But if you aren't a regular reader of Michael Yon, and in particular if your only information about the war in Iraq is third person accounts coming through the main stream media then Yon's book will hit you in the stomach like a jackhammer. It's not reading for the faint of heart, nor is it easy reading for someone who has thier mind already made up and is comfortably ensconsed in one of the two easy ready made political positions about the war. This is a challenging first person narrative of one of the few journalists that has an extensive first person experience of the war and the men who are fighting it up close and personal. It very deftly destroys the pretensions of both the pro-War hawks and the anti-War peace activists.
If you care at all about the Iraq war, one way or the other, and if it is informing your political choices, one way or the other, I strongly encourage you to read this book. (less)