I bought this book after seeing the author on The Rachel Maddow Show a while back talking about the recent scandal regarding the USAF's missile comman...moreI bought this book after seeing the author on The Rachel Maddow Show a while back talking about the recent scandal regarding the USAF's missile command. Unfortunately, I was hugely disappointed. I would have been less so if the book stuck to the Damascus Accident and gave me way less of the only peripherally relevant background. Lengthy discursions into salty anecdotes about nutty old Curtis LeMay, cranky Truman and grandfatherly Eisenhower seem non-illustrative and not particularly well treated here.
Every mainstream writer on a technical topic like this has to ask: To wonk or not to wonk? The author of this volume chose not to wonk, about what is perhaps the wonkiest topic on the planet... a topic IMPOSSIBLE to comprehend or even conceive of without wonking the living hell out of it.
The result is like a NBC suit washed in warm water.
The problem is that the Titan II accident in Damascus was fundamentally different than other nuclear weapons accidents, and is, in fact, enormously atypical. The author goes into so much detail about the propellant handling specific to the Titan II program that it becomes super-confusing just what his point is with regard to the broader schema of "command and control." Most of the broken arrow incidents cited outside Damascus stem from misrouting or mishandling of warheads or mishaps aboard airplanes (particularly B-52s, by dint of numerological likelihood), not ICBMs. The author's own assertion (that "this happened a lot") establishes that Damascus is not an illustrative example of the dangers of handling nuclear weapons.
That fundamental cognitive dissonance required the author to stray too far from the events of the Damascus Accident, and make numerous points which really had little to do with Damascus. The author didn't do a stellar job of connecting the dots, in my opinion. There ARE those connections, but it would have taken a fairly huge revision of the book to fit them in.
I believe the author needed to answer one question: Is this book PRIMARILY about 1) the command and control of nuclear warheads, or 2) the hazards of their delivery vehicles? If it's about both (which it is, or tries to be), then the fundamental connections between those two need to be stated more clearly, with a more succinct expression of the nuclear fundamentals and less reliance on the reader's "awe" of technology to produce an emotional response.
Here's what I mean: because the author does not appear to be a nuclear engineer (or even a physics nerd), it never felt clearly established to me what the core differences between nuclear and conventional weapons are from a command and control perspective. It may seem obvious, but it's actually only obvious from a non-wonk perspective. I know this probably makes me sound like a zany Buck Turgidson whack-job, but hey, it's not the first time. Wonks make policy. Wonks decide how to handle nuclear weapons. Wonks run the scenarios on what will happen if nuclear weapons are ever used. Wonks may be geeky to a fault, but they're who ACTUALLY give a damn about extreme scenarios like nuclear war or nuclear accidents. In writing what SHOULD have been a colossally wonky book, the author showed his tendency to think of both the military and nuclear worlds from a "mainstream" (non-wonk) perspective.
One example is that the hazards of nuclear detonations are portrayed in an overblown, hand-wringing fashion. BECAUSE I REALLY NEEDED THIS GUY TO TELL ME THAT NUKING THE WORLD IS A BAD IDEA. There's a subtle form of hysterical pretension throughout that I found both problematic (from a policy perspective) and dull (from a reading-pleasure perspective). Honestly, the difference is kind of slight between realistic evaluation of worst-case scenarios and pseudo-journalistic hysteria, but something about this book's tone seemed well outside realism and into facts stated as shock value.
The underlying issue from a writer's perspective is that nuclear accidents and nuclear detonations (actual or potential) are particularly susceptible to "correct" facts being blurted out with the intent to shock. Nuclear reactions (weapons-related or power-related) are unfamiliar and counter-intuitive to most if not all humans (even nuclear engineers, physicists and chemists, etc.).
But the chemical reactions involved in large-scale rocketry, like that used in ICBMs and in the Titan II program specifically, are just as unfamiliar...therefore, just as prone to correct facts being delivered with the intent to shock.
I felt like the author indulged in a lot of that "shock treatment," resulting in a somewhat uneven tone. I thought he never really stopped "gee-whizzing" about how wacky the technology is long enough to get around to a cogent policy analysis or even a sense of what policies were being changed (or not).
There are some valuable lessons in here, for which I am grateful, but with its uneven tone and unclear goals, this book was a slog to get through.(less)
This is a reasonably well-written book about submariners in World War II. It suffered from the same malady as many popular World War II histories -- l...moreThis is a reasonably well-written book about submariners in World War II. It suffered from the same malady as many popular World War II histories -- lack of historical analysis. It's not so much that I begrudge the author for not providing a historian's eye, but it makes for less of a vivid story. There were far too many discursions into letters home for my tastes. As a straightforward rendition of World War II history, though, it does what I like the most and focuses on individual sailors' experiences. For what it's worth, I read it mostly for the science/technology elements key to this particular raid. That coverage isn't exactly magnificent, but it's information that as far as I can tell would have been relatively hard to find elsewhere outside of industry or military publications. It's worth a read for anyone interested in submariner experiences in World War II, or in the pre-nuke technology of subs. I wouldn't say it's a standout, but it's a solid entry in the genre.(less)
I was actually really annoyed by this book. It gets three stars only because it is a reasonable road map to further studies on the subject. But this i...moreI was actually really annoyed by this book. It gets three stars only because it is a reasonable road map to further studies on the subject. But this isn't history. This is a series of book reports. It consists entirely of anecdotes culled from the memoirs of hunters, travelers and tourists, and brings nothing new to the table. There is no true synthesis whatsoever. The author occasionally tosses in an "As was typical in the African millieu of the time..." or "At the time, it was uncommon for..." but there is virtually no commentary or valuation. It's like he sat down with a bunch of memoirs and typed out the weirdest bits. In fact, it comes across like he didn't retype, but clipped this stuff from Gutenberg and then paraphrased it. That seems likely, because of how intolerably long some of the anecdotes go on, long after it's become clear they're nothing more than anecdotes.
This approach is no more effective here than it was in Victor Ostrovsky's By Way of Deception, which I detested even more. Herne has done a much better job than Ostrovsky of relying on first-hand, supported accounts, and in qualifying them where they might be less than factual. But then, the events related in Herne's book are less critical in the details, since they're presented as "rousing good tales." I found them both rousing and good in quantities of one or two...as an entire book, they're neither.
It's a shame, too, because the topic of white hunters in Africa could be given a very interesting approach that incorporated synthesis of the times. Unfortunately, "the times" would have to be defined, which Herne doesn't bother to do. The book's marketing implies we're talking about Victorian and Edwardian hunters, but then Herne careens all over the 20th century, even into the modern era. Huh? If he was going to do that, he should have written AN ACTUAL HISTORY of white hunting in Africa, instead of a series of anecdotes. Otherwise, he should have stuck with one general era or a couple of them, and drawn parallels that help define the times. Instead, he just blathered on indefinitely, unable to pick out the unifying threads in what he'd written (or perhaps had his research assistants read for him).
In the social sciences, I am fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. And the plural of anecdote is also not "history." The plural of anecdote is "mind-bending boredom."(less)
I found this to be a very terrible book about a very interesting event. The author didn't have sufficient information to really tell the story, so he...moreI found this to be a very terrible book about a very interesting event. The author didn't have sufficient information to really tell the story, so he speculated endlessly. "What Annie must have been thinking at this time?" "Whether she actually did this or that is not known, but..." He fills in the rest of the pages by quoting endless newspaper stories that say exactly the same thing, over and over again. It seems quite clear to me that this gentleman sold the book on proposal and then could not dredge up sufficient verifiable AND interesting information to provide an entire book on the subject. And so he went with 25% verifiable, 25% interesting, 25% completely speculative and 25% totally irrelevant. Of course, that only covered about 20,000 words, so he just repeated them over and over again. This could read as a textbook on how NOT to write a popular history. I found this book truly awful.
For Victorian history obsessives, or complete early-bicycling-history wonks, it should get two stars out of five, instead of the one star (or no stars if that was allowed) I gave it, because it has a few brief passages of interesting information about the development of women's riding clothes. However, even there, the author implies that the protagonist's adoption of certain clothes existed completely in a vacuum -- as if she invented this stuff. He offers NO documentation for this, and in fact appears unclear on the details of bicycling history. He seems to be operating with an extremely narrow focus that does an utter disservice to the topic. The author's knowledge of bicycling technology seems fantastically absent; he doesn't cover much of the interesting aspects of the way bicycles were invented, and that seems far more relevant than other things discussed repetitively (and largely without insight). It is actually bizarre to read a book so unbelievably un-insightful, pretentious and self-important all at the same time. There is a dearth of information on some of these topics, but on other areas it would have taken relatively little research to provide important details about other aspects of the bicycling world at the time, and placing this in larger context.
Instead, the author wrote a book that reads like a term paper written by a lazy student, who's incapable of thinking big. A trivial and unimportant book about an invigorating time and an inspiring string of bicycling developments, viewed with myopia by peering at the fragmentary string of events that are not isolated, but seem so because of the author's unbelievable flatness of affect. A REALLY disappointing book.(less)