Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

December 10, 2008

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, the pioneering scholar of Arab women and the Middle East, has died.  We reviewed her excellent Guests of the Sheikh here last month. The Los Angeles Times has a sympatheic obituary:

[W]hen she left [the Iraqi village of El Nahra] two years later, she had won over the women and the village with her efforts to learn their language and culture.

In “500 Great Books by Women” (1994), reviewer Rebecca Sullivan wrote, “The story of her life among the Iraqis is eye-opening, written with intellectual honesty as well as love and respect for the seemingly impenetrable society.”

Here is Guests of the Sheikh on Amazon, and here is the quasi-sequel, The Arab World. Here are her pages on Librarything and Wikipedia. Dr. Fernea wrote several books about women and Arab society and served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas.

I spend some of my time in the rural areas south of metropolitan Baghdad.  Dr. Fernea’s book, which I read only a few weeks ago, opened a vital window onto rural Iraqi society.  Its acute observation and spare prose make it an American classic, like Dr. Fernea herself.


Journeys in Literature: The Places In Between

August 3, 2007

Inspired by this glowing National Geographic profile (via Instapundit) I’ve been reading Rory Stewart’s smashing account of his journey from Herat to Kabul, almost the whole of Afghanistan, on foot, in the snow and mountains of January 2002. The Places In Between defies description. I have rarely read anything so erudite, mournful, wry, and immediate. (Added later: It is as if Seven Pillars of Wisdom was written by Adam Nicolson, the author of Sea Room.)

* * *

The Places In Between put me in mind of other treks in literature: Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time (which, however, I’ve never read) and the fascinating but probably fabricated The Long Walk, by Slamovir Rawicz. What are others in this category? Lewis and Clark, perhaps, and Shackleton.

Review: In Praise of Commercial Culture

July 14, 2007

In his 1998 book In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen, the prolific co-author of Marginal Revolution, makes two arguments. The first, about the effects of capitalism on art, is convincing, but the second, about critiques of art, is not.

Dr. Cowen argues that production and distribution via market mechanisms benefits artists and art consumers. Competition and consumer taste do a good job of selecting the best artists and eliciting innovation and masterworks. Technological advances and increasing wealth open up new possibilities and greater independence for artists. Many great artists of the past, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, explicitly operated as businessmen in a market. On the whole, market forces have been salutary for art and artists; therefore commentators should not fear commercialism in film, publishing, music, or other art markets.

This is the primary argument of the book and Dr. Cowen supports it well. Recent applications of technology to facilitate “long tail” markets provide yet another illustration of the benefits of capitalism for the arts.

However, Dr. Cowen also spends a lot of space beating up “cultural pessimists,” which I found less convincing. Cultural pessimists seem to come in two flavors: those that say the market corrupts, homogenizes, or otherwise damages the production of art, and those that decry the perceived moral or political effects of certain artworks.


The Utility of Nuclear Weapons

July 8, 2007

Today is the 100th anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein’s birth. Heinlein inspired a generation of rocket engineers and space enthusiasts, wrote classics of science fiction, and advocated arms research as part of strong resistance to Communism.

Dwayne Day marked the day with an essay published at The Space Review (via Instapundit). He quotes liberally from a memo that Heinlein wrote for his colleagues when he retired from the Naval Air Experimental Station in 1945.

Heinlein was prescient about a lot of things; in a way he was right about the atom bomb, but not in the way he meant. His error helps explain the core argument from Gen. Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force, which I reviewed yesterday.

Here is Heinlein to his fellow aeronautical engineers:

Why we are out of business


Review: The Utility of Force

July 6, 2007

In The Utility of Force, retired British general Rupert Smith applies frameworks from Clausewitz and his own experience to the problems of today’s open-ended wars.

From about 1800 to 1945, the dominant mode of war was “interstate industrial war,” invented by Napoleon; refined by Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Bismarck, and Moltke; and brought to apotheosis in the Second World War. The essence of industrial war is the destruction of the enemy’s military and industrial capacity to resist, leading to a collapse of will. (Gen. Smith makes frequent use of the Clausewitzean trinity of military, state, and people.)

The antithesis of industrial war is war amongst the people. Napoleon brought us this as well, via his Peninsular campaign. Notable practitioners, after the Spanish guerrillas, include Lawrence, the Boers, Israeli paramilitaries, Lenin, Mao, and Giap. The essence of war amongst the people is the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist by employing strength only at the tactical level,

to constantly and expensively undermine the stronger army and to thereby break the will of the government and the people to make war.

Among the distinctive characteristics of war among the people:

  • The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard absolute objectives of interstate industrial war to more malleable objectives to do with the individual and societies that are not states.
  • Our conflicts tend to be “timeless” (open-ended) since the desired end-state is a condition.
  • We fight so as not to lose the force, like pre-Napoleonic armies.

Today interstate industrial war has effectively ended. (more…)

The Great Depression in Memory

June 25, 2007

In this week’s New Yorker, John Updike mounts a rearguard fight against Amity Shales’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Mr. Updike begins with a warning against “Great Depression nostalgia” but a few hundred words later he succumbs himself:

Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics. Business, of which Shales is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world.

These 95 words are a good precis of the core defects of twentieth-century liberalism. Government succeeds when people “feel” better, regardless of policies’ actual outcomes. Appearance of action is more important than the action itself. Business is “merciless” and “maximizes profit,” while government is “a human transaction.” (Mr. Updike should compare the experiences of shopping at Target and renewing a driver’s license.)


A Book I Would Like to Read

May 19, 2007

A thought crystalized while following Gen. David Patraeus’s Senate confirmation and subsequent progress: here the man meets the plan – yet his success depends crucially on his ability, on one hand, to convince any number of more or less hostile onlookers that he will succeed, and on the other hand, to negotiate the political and economic conditions for success from Congress and the Pentagon. In fact, generalship is politics.

I would like to read a history of the political-military interface, with equal attention to political molding of military action and military influence of politics and political outcomes. How do politicians and civilian policymakers impose change on military institutions? How do they set priorities and coordinate efforts in war? How do military leaders shape wartime policies – e.g. with regard to escalation? How do they shape the society in which the military is embedded – including its political and legal institutions? To what degree can “the military” be distinguished from society?

I wouldn’t confine this study to any one time or place, but American history abounds with political-military tension and perhaps deserves its own volume. A partial list of cases off the top of my head:

  • George Washington and the Continental Congress
  • Continental Army militia leaders in early U.S. politics and business – this could be a socioeconomic study in its own right
  • The Federalists (Hamilton), the anti-Federalists (Jefferson), the construction of the U.S. Navy, and the intervention in Tripoli
  • The presidential candidacies of Jackson, McClellan, Grant, and Eisenhower
  • Lincoln and his generals
  • Lee and the Confederate government
  • Teddy Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet
  • The influence of military thinkers and planners on early Cold War policy
  • Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Truman and MacArthur in Korea
  • Milton Friedman and the draft
  • Donald Rumsfeld, the revolution in military affairs, and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq

So on and so forth. Perhaps Robert Kagan could take up this topic once he completes the sequal to Dangerous Nation?

PREVIOUSLY on Zeal and Activity: Review: Dangerous Nation

Friday Mystery Author: Colin Fletcher

January 29, 2007

This week’s mystery passage was from “the hiker’s bible:” The Complete Walker, by Colin Fletcher. This was a favorite book of mine in my boyhood; I enjoyed the energetic, cheerful, pragmatic prose, the thoroughgoing organization, as much as I enjoyed hiking, and indeed under Mr. Fletcher’s influence I relished assembling my kit before an expedition. I remember following his lead by tearing the labels off tea bags to save weight. Truly, as the Amazon reviewer says: “800+ pages of the most useful, precise information i’ve ever read anywhere … eloquent, realistic, CLEAR, and mildly humourous…”

Yet Mr. Fletcher is also capable of the following (from the book’s coda):

When I open my mind and let the memories spill out, I find a many-hued mosaic. I remember the odd excitement and the restricted yet infinitely open world I have moved through several times when I have clambered up – very late at night, and following the little pool from my flashlight beam – to the flat, grassy summit of the hill on which I wrote at last the opening chapter of this book.


Friday Mystery Author: G.K. Chesterton

January 9, 2007

This week’s Friday Mystery Author was G.K. Chesterton, the rotund English writer of the early twentieth century. If you haven’t read Chesterton, start with his The Man Who Was Thursday, a nutty Christian apologia. Chesterton regularly crossed swords with George Bernard Shaw; it’s a shame he’s not here today to spar with Christopher Hitchens.

Our excerpt was from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, of which more soon.

As always, every Friday we post an excerpt from a more or less obscure author and challenge all comers to identify the source. Have a good week, and stop by again soon.

Review: Dangerous Nation

January 1, 2007

According to Robert Kagan’s new book Dangerous Nation, American isolationist and aloof in foreign affairs is a myth, a seductive component of America’s self-image that creates a potentially dangerous “gap between Americans’ self-perception and the perceptions of others.” Dangerous Nation was 10 years in the writing, but its subject couldn’t be more timely.

Mr. Kagan argues that in fact American is the opposite of isolationist: it has been restlessly engaged beyond its borders since before 1776.

To support his thesis, Mr. Kagan has assembled a history of American foreign policy from the mid-eighteenth century to the Spanish-American War. He includes a variety of matters that historians may not always have considered “foreign policy,” such as American demands for British intervention against the French in the Ohio Valley, policy of the new United States toward Indian nations and the colonies of Spain, and the decades of North-South maneuvering on slavery. Familiar episodes like Washington’s Farewell Address are subjected to new, persuasive analysis.

A few themes emerge: American foreign policy is informed by its nature as a liberal republic and its philosophical roots in the Enlightenment – “a universalist ideology… articulated in the Declaration of Independence.” In addition to powerful commercial and territorial interests, American foreign policy, including war-making, is therefore driven by moral and humanitarian concerns. America reacts sharply to incompatible “systems” such as French revolutionary tyranny and Southern slavery (and communism), in each case adopting a strategy of containment.

The reader will recognize the America of the 1930s oil and iron embargo on Japan, Lend-Lease, the West Berlin airlift, Vietnam, Grenada, and NAFTA – not to mention Desert Storm, September 11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Dangerous Nation is essential and fascinating reading.

MORE: An NPR interview with Mr. Kagan.