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Book Reviews- political and religious
Topic: Book Reviews- political and religious (Read 5692 times)
Book Reviews- political and religious
November 03, 2006, 12:34:15 PM »
Now for the hard part: Looking stabilization square in the face
BY ALAN GROPMAN
Old vaudevillians say dying is easy but comedy is hard. For American armed forces, conventional warfare is relatively easy, but stabilization and reconstruction operations are hard.
George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate" and Bernard Trainor's and Mike Gordon's "Cobra II" describe the difficulties America is having in Iraq, and although neither book is perfect, these two volumes have been the first to cover the tragedy in Iraq in anything like a comprehensive, professionally accomplished, well-written manner. These books are the very best sort of journalism, truly the first take on history.
Packer, Trainor and Gordon resist simplification and look the difficulties square in the face: All three authors argue that the Bush administration, Defense Department and U.S. Central Command used fallacious assumptions, which were based either on poor intelligence or the tendentious selection of information regarding the international political position of potential coalition partners or the political status of the various Iraqi peoples, to map their post-conflict strategy.
Finally, and most important, from the outset, all the players above shunned a major U.S. effort in nation building. There was no political will, Packer, Trainor and Gordon contend, to remain in Iraq for any appreciable length of time. There was an exit strategy based on U.S. military forces remaining in Iraq for only months after the expected military victory.
Conventional wisdom dictates that success in stabilization and reconstruction of a war-torn society takes five to seven years, but even this traditional understanding can be overly optimistic. The U.S. occupied the former Confederacy for 12 years and did not succeed; Reconstruction in the South lasted from 1865 to 1877, and after the U.S. Army left, the Old Confederacy was ruled by a single party, freedom of the press was often circumscribed (especially on racial matters) and blacks lived in terrorized peonage for almost a century. The U.S. government also occupied and ran Haiti for 19 years from 1915 to 1934 and failed utterly to reform that society. Disappointment in such endeavors is the norm.
The postwar planning done for Iraq by CentCom and others (excluding the State Department) allotted weeks and months to the task. We need to examine carefully all of the generalizations one reads about stabilization and reconstruction and all of us ? readers of this journal, war college faculty and students, legislators, bureaucrats in the executive branch ? would profit enormously from reading Packer's and Trainor and Gordon's essential reports on Iraq.
Packer is a deeply experienced journalist who led Iraq coverage for The New Yorker magazine. He has traveled all over Iraq, has interviewed most of the decision-makers and is a long-term acquaintance of some of the leading characters in this drama. His sobering account rings with verisimilitude.
Packer believed in Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. He considered the war a necessary enterprise because he knew Saddam Hussein was an international menace and a despot dangerous to Iraqis of any religion or ethnic group and whose son and likely successor Uday was a monster. Packer has less trouble, therefore, with the decision to eliminate Saddam (although he believes the case made by the administration was deceptive) than with the planning for the war, its execution and especially with the strategy for the occupation after the fall of Baghdad.
Packer argues: "The campaign of persuasion [of the Congress and American people before combat began] proceeded by rhetorical hyperbole, by the deliberate slanting of ambiguous facts in one direction, and by a wink-and-nod suggestion that the administration knew more than it could reveal. Conflicting and inconclusive intelligence about Saddam's weapons programs was selected and highlighted for the worst-case analysis favored by the White House."
The deception by key decision-makers, as Packer sees it, was born essentially from the notion that the war would be over quickly and the occupation would be measured in short months ? 90 days, according to Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first reconstructor sent to Iraq by the Pentagon. The problem with the planning was the slant the decision-makers put on the tendentious intelligence they emphasized. Missing the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction was of much less significance than the notion that American forces would be welcomed as liberators.
Packer asserts the administration relied much too heavily for intelligence from Iraqi exiles described by the author as: "hundreds of mullahs, monarchists, ex-officers, party bosses, businessmen, intellectuals, and schemers." One of these exiles, a man very close to Packer, was Kanan Makiya, whose story is woven through the narrative from beginning to end. Makiya, author of "Republic of Fear," had not been in Iraq for 35 years, yet the White House relied upon him for its post-invasion picture of Iraq.
Packer writes that Makiya told President Bush and Vice President Cheney that the invasion "would transform the image of America in the Arab world, that war could be a force for progress, for democracy. 'People will greet the troops with sweets and flowers.'"
Packer cites the numerous organizations that disagreed with the administration's idea of how Iraqis would greet the American military ? the Council of Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Rand Corp., Army War College, United States Institute of Peace, National Defense University ? but "none of the forecasts penetrated the Pentagon or the Oval Office."
Gullibility, according to Packer, caused the administration to send a small force into Iraq to conquer it and then to stabilize it. All pundits writing on this subject argue that security is the first prerequisite for reconstruction and the fewer than 150,000 troops sent to remove Saddam would be enough to provide security only if America were greeted with "sweets and flowers," but not if the reception was rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.
To secure the country and then build an economy, the occupiers must have an intimate knowledge of the society one is planning to reconstruct and neither Jay Garner nor his replacement, L. Paul Bremer ? nor the generals commanding the nation-building forces ? were qualified in that regard, according to Packer.
Packer's final assessment is severe: "I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence," he writes. "Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq war was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive."
In "Cobra II," Gordon and Trainor tackle similar issues, but from a different point of view. The authors ? the longtime military correspondent for The New York Times and a retired Marine lieutenant general ? previously collaborated on "The Generals' War," the best book on the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and are authentic experts on military planning and operations. They focus on the operational aspects of the conflict, both planning and execution. They conclude their work with a concise and cogent 10-page "lessons learned" chapter that serves as an effective "executive summary" for the 507-page volume.
Gordon and Trainor's work, exhaustively researched and thorough, is much more a traditional campaign history than Packer's work. It includes exceptionally useful maps and a 40-page appendix containing a constructive chronology and key documents. "Cobra II" focuses in on operations, and Trainor and Gordon brilliantly describe the fighting. Gordon was embedded with several combat units, and the narrative is helped by his experiences. The book, however, pays less attention to the contributions of air power in Operation Iraqi Freedom than it deserves, much less than in "The Generals' War," and practically no attention to the British campaign; the U.S. had seven times the British number of combat troops in Iraq, and the British suffered one-quarter of the battle deaths.
There are practically no civilian heroes in "Cobra II," although Trainor and Gordon cite President Bush favorably for asking the right questions, and repeatedly. But the authors insist the president did not get the right answers from his civilian advisers or from Gen. Tommy Franks, the CentCom commander. Nobody escapes criticism, including Secretary of State Colin Powell for not fighting the Defense Department and its bureaucracy for control of the nation-building part of the operation, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, for not ensuring the president got all sides of the story and not balancing battling bureaucracies. The authors are most critical of the Defense Department leadership and Franks for their lackadaisical approach to the stabilization and reconstruction part of the operation.
Trainor and Gordon argue that the administration made five fundamental errors in ts approach to the war, beginning with the most grievous of all, misreading of the foe. "Rumsfeld and his generals," assert Trainor and Gordon, "misread their foe by viewing the invasion of Iraq largely as a continuation of the Persian Gulf War." During the 1991 war, Saddam's Republican Guard was his best-equipped and most loyal force, and Franks and "his generals continued to regard the Republican Guard as their principal adversary." Allied ground forces "expected to run roughshod over the [Republican] Guard units ? and drive directly to Baghdad. Bypassed Iraqi units would be left to die on the vine. As it turned out [however] ? the paramilitary Fedayeen ? represented the principal challenge ? [and it] fought tenaciously." Misunderstanding the foe "reflected a failure of intelligence. The CIA in particular was not only wrong on WMD, but failed to identify the importance of the Fedayeen or to uncover the tons of arms that had been cached in the cities and towns of southern Iraq." The defense secretary and CentCom commander, moreover, believed "their victory would be sealed with the seizure of Baghdad ? identified as Iraq's 'center of gravity.'" But the attacks by the Fedayeen "demonstrated that the American-led coalition was contending with a decentralized enemy that was fanatical, not dependent on rigid command and control, and whose base of operations was dispersed throughout the towns and cities of Iraq."
Second, the Pentagon leadership relied too much on technology. During the march to Baghdad, high technology combined with a lean and fast force was effective in reaching the city in exceptionally rapid time and with relatively few casualties. "But after the fall of Baghdad ? mass, not speed, was requisite for sealing the victory. Military technology was less decisive against an opponent that faded away into Iraqi cities to fight another day."
Third, CentCom failed to adapt to developments on the battlefield. "There were numerous indications in the first days of the war that the United States was involved in a different war than it had anticipated. ? The first Marine to be killed in action died at the hands of an Iraqi dressed in civilian clothes who fired from a pickup truck, not a tank. Moreover, the Americans encountered primitive roadside bombs, suicide car bombs, foreign jihadists, and guerrilla-style ambushes, hallmarks of the insurgency to come. ? But the American war plan was never adjusted on high."
Fourth, the American military structure was dysfunctional. In the Iraq war, Rumsfeld and Franks dominated the planning; the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pushed to the margins, and largely accepted their roles.
Fifth, the administration had a disdain for nation building. "Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tommy Franks spent most of their time and energy on the least demanding task ? defeating Saddam's weakened conventional forces, and the least amount on the most demanding rehabilitation of and security for the new Iraq."
There are, and there will be, myriad reasons to study both the triumphs and failures of the American military experience in Iraq. The first rough drafts of history produced by Packer, Gordon and Trainor will not only serve the needs of staff and war college students, but today's soldiers and strategists. The story of Iraq, thus far, is that our initial successes are inseparable from our current trials.
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #1 on:
November 06, 2006, 04:26:11 PM »
This book was recommended to me by someone who has done unusually serious work in Iraq.
I've just ordered it.
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #2 on:
November 12, 2006, 10:18:24 AM »
Sense of Ummah
These books are essential to understanding Islam.
BY KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE
Saturday, November 11, 2006 12:00 a.m. EST
1. "Islam" by Vartan Gregorian (Brookings, 2003).
Because the world is locked in a prolonged struggle with terrorists brandishing the banner of Islam, it behooves us all to know much more about the Islamic religion, with its 1.2 billion adherents, only 15% of whom are Arab. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Foundation, has produced the perfect primer. At 135 pages, it is simple but not simplistic. Subtitled "A Mosaic, Not a Monolith," the book traces Islam's origins, when the Prophet Muhammad received the religion's tenets from Allah, the only God, and its long evolution since. As both spiritual leader and temporal warrior, Muhammad forced Arabia's polytheists to worship Allah instead. Over the next seven centuries, the religion spread rapidly, from the Middle East and North Africa to Spain and Russia. Islam's more recent history has been marked by deep divisions between modernists and traditionalists--rifts that are likely to remain, Mr. Gregorian argues, unless Muslims are prompted to unite by the West's misguided insistence on lumping them all together as "the enemy."
2. "Muhammad" by Karen Armstrong (HarperCollins, 1992).
To understand Islam, one needs to understand the central role played by the Prophet Muhammad in the religion's creation and propagation. Orphaned at a young age, he was a successful trader when the divine revelations began. In Karen Armstrong's sympathetic and sometimes academic profile, she argues that, unlike Jesus, who could be a pacifist because he lived during Pax Romana, Muhammad faced warring tribes across Arabia. She paints a portrait of a very human prophet who is expedient and clever, who loves women and--despite having multiple wives--even mends his own clothes. But at his death, divisions over succession lead to the murder of three of the first four caliphs, or leaders, who followed--setting in motion the Sunni/Shia struggles that continue today.
3. "What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (Oxford, 2002).
How did a civilization, one that for centuries led the world in science, medicine and the arts, fall so low that it now lags in these areas while devoting its energies to fratricide, terrorism and despotism? In this slim volume Bernard Lewis, our foremost scholar of Islam, provides historical insight and nuanced answers. In sum, he says, the problem is that Islam mixes church and state, to the detriment of both. What is more, Islam has found itself--after its conquests were stopped in the 17th century--unable to live with and learn from those it cannot conquer. Instead of examining the religion itself for answers, all too many Muslim leaders blame outsiders, especially the West.
4. "The Koran Interpreted" translated by A.J. Arberry (Macmillan, 1955).
This translation is recommended by Bernard Lewis. Reared reading the Bible, I found much in the Koran that was familiar: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses and Jesus (as a messenger of God, not his son). Like the Bible, the Koran urges believers to do good or "fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for unbelievers." But the Koran is repetitive, often contradictory and, most frustrating to those outside the faith, insufficient to an understanding of Islam. One must also study the sunna (a collection of Muhammad's words and deeds) and the hadith (thousands of examples of his teachings). Given all this, it becomes clear that--for good or ill--one can pretty much interpret Islam as one wishes.
5. "Wahhabi Islam" by Natana J. Delong-Bas (Oxford, 2004).
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the l8th-century jurist, preached a back-to-basics form of Islam: Live daily according to the precepts of the Koran and hadith or be damned to hell. This book is an excellent introduction for the serious reader to Wahhabi fundamentalism, which is flourishing in Saudi Arabia today. Natana J. Delong-Bas explains the Wahhabi views of women, marriage and jihad. Regarding jihad, she argues that Osama bin Laden has radically distorted the founder's teachings. One is left wondering why Wahhabis don't speak out against bin Laden and his barbaric brand of Islam.
Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Middle East.
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #3 on:
November 13, 2006, 12:20:52 AM »
Re:Sense of Ummah
These books are essential to understanding Islam.
I haven't read them all, but I can tell you that Karen Armstrong is the Walter Duranty of the global jihad and everything I can find about Natana J. Delong-Bas suggests that she is pretty much of the same ilk.
I'd recommend Bernard Lewis' book though.
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #4 on:
November 13, 2006, 01:38:00 PM »
Umm, forgive my ignorance-- Who is/was Walter Duranty?
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #5 on:
November 13, 2006, 04:34:05 PM »
After 70 years a Pulitzer committee is reexamining Walter Duranty's Stalin whitewashes in the New York Times. How bad were they? See for yourself.
by Arnold Beichman
06/12/2003 1:40:00 PM
AT LONG LAST a Pulitzer Prize committee is looking into the possibility that the Pulitzer awarded to Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent whose dispatches covered up Stalin's infamies, might be revoked.
In order to assist in their researches, I am downloading here some of the lies contained in those dispatches, lies which the New York Times has never repudiated with the same splash as it accorded Jayson Blair's comparatively trivial lies:
"There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be."
--New York Times, Nov. 15, 1931, page 1
"Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."
--New York Times, August 23, 1933
"Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please. Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin's program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding."
--New York Times, December 9, 1932, page 6
"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
--New York Times, May 14, 1933, page 18
"There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition."
--New York Times, March 31, 1933, page 13
I would like to add another Duranty quote, not in his dispatches, which is reported in a memoir by Zara Witkin, a Los Angeles architect, who lived in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. ("An American Engineer in Stalin's Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932-1934," University of California Press ). The memoirist describes an evening during which the Moscow correspondents were discussing how to get out the story about the Stalin-made Russian famine. To get around the censorship, the UP's Eugene Lyons was telephoning the dire news of the famine to his New York office but the was ordered to stop because it was antagonizing the Kremlin. Ralph Barnes, the New York Herald Tribune reporter, turned to Duranty and asked him what he was going to write. Duranty replied:
Nothing. What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is exaggerated.
And this was at a time when peasants in Ukraine were dying of starvation at the rate of 25,000 a day.
In his masterwork about Stalin's imposed famine on Ukraine, "Harvest of Sorrow," Robert Conquest has written:
As one of the best known correspondents in the world for one of the best known newspapers in the world, Mr. Duranty's denial that there was a famine was accepted as gospel. Thus Mr. Duranty gulled not only the readers of the New York Times but because of the newspaper's prestige, he influenced the thinking of countless thousands of other readers about the character of Josef Stalin and the Soviet regime. And he certainly influenced the newly-elected President Roosevelt to recognize the Soviet Union.
What is so awful about Duranty is that Times top brass suspected that Duranty was writing Stalinist propaganda, but did nothing. In her expos? "Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times's man in Moscow," S.J. Taylor makes it clear that Carr Van Anda, the managing editor, Frederick T. Birchall, an assistant managing editor, and Edwin L. James, the later managing editor, were troubled with Duranty's Moscow reporting but did nothing about it. Birchall recommended that Duranty be replaced but, says Taylor, "the recommendation fell by the wayside."
When Duranty of his own volition decided to become a special correspondent on a retainer basis for the New York Times, the newspaper published an editorial reassuring its readers that his reputation as "the most outstanding correspondent of an American newspaper during all the years of his faithful and brilliant work at Moscow will remain unimpaired in the slightest degree by the change now made." This about a man whom Malcolm Muggeridge, the Manchester Guardian correspondent and Duranty's contemporary, described as "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism."
Duranty was one of a gaggle of Stalin's intellectual admirers. Muggeridge, whose centennial we celebrate this summer, wrote about them in these lapidary words:
Wise old [Bernard]Shaw, high-minded old [Henri]Barbusse, the venerable [Sidney and Beatrice] Webbs, [Andre] Gide the pure in heart and [Pablo] Picasso the impure, down to poor little teachers, crazed clergymen and millionaires, driveling dons and very special correspondents like Duranty, all resolved, come what might, to believe anything, however preposterous, to overlook nothing, however villainous, to approve anything, however obscurantist and brutally authoritarian, in order to be able to preserve intact the confident expectation that one of the most thorough-going, ruthless and bloody tyrannies ever to exist on earth could be relied on to champion human freedom, the brotherhood of man, and all the other good liberal causes to which they had dedicated their lives. ("Chronicles of Wasted Time," pages 275- 276.)
Let's all give a great encouraging cheer to the Pulitzer committee for undertaking a task 70 years late. And perhaps the Times will now a look back at the Herbert L. Matthews coverage of Cuba and the man he so admired, Fidel Castro.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for the Washington Times.
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #6 on:
November 13, 2006, 06:48:45 PM »
This is the URL of the above post:
Re: Book Reviews- political and religious
Reply #7 on:
November 20, 2006, 03:32:25 PM »
November 14, 2006
Steyn's New Book Combines Humor, Accuracy, Depth
BY DANIEL PIPES
The political columnist and cultural critic Mark Steyn has written a remarkable book, "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It" (Regnery). He combines several virtues not commonly found together ? humor, accurate reportage, and deep thinking ? and then applies them to what is arguably the most consequential issue of our time: the Islamist threat to the West.
Mr. Steyn offers a devastating thesis but presents it in bits and pieces, so I shall pull it together here.
He begins with the legacy of two totalitarianisms. Traumatized by the electoral appeal of fascism, post-World War II European states were constructed in a top-down manner,"so as to insulate almost entirely the political class from populist pressures." As a result, the establishment has "come to regard the electorate as children."
Second, the Soviet menace during the Cold War prompted American leaders, impatient with Europe's (and Canada's) weak responses, effectively to take over their defense. This benign and far-sighted policy led to victory by 1991, but it also had the unintended and less salutary side effect of freeing up Europe's funds to build a welfare state. This welfare state had several malign implications.
The nanny state infantilized Europeans, making them worry about such pseudo-issues as climate change while feminizing the males.
It also neutered them, annexing "most of the core functions of adulthood," starting with the instinct to breed. From about 1980, birth rates plummeted, leaving an inadequate base for today's workers to receive their pensions.
Structured on a pay-as-you-go basis, it amounted to an intergenerational Ponzi scheme under which today's workers depend on their children for their pensions.
The demographic collapse meant that the indigenous peoples of countries like Russia, Italy, and Spain are at the start of a population death spiral.
It led to a collapse of confidence that in turn bred "civilizational exhaustion," leaving Europeans unprepared to fight for their ways.
To keep the economic machine running meant accepting foreign workers. Rather than execute a long-term plan to prepare for the many millions of immigrants needed, Europe's elites punted, welcoming almost anyone who turned up. By virtue of geographic proximity, demographic overdrive, and a crisis-prone environment, "Islam is now the principal supplier of new Europeans," Mr. Steyn writes.
Arriving at a time of demographic, political, and cultural weakness, Muslims are profoundly changing Europe: "Islam has youth and will, Europe has age and welfare." Put differently, "Premodern Islam beats post-modern Christianity." Much of the Western world, Mr. Steyn flat-out predicts, "will not survive the twenty-first century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most European countries." With even more drama, he adds, "It's the end of the world as we know it."
(In contrast, I believe that Europe still has time to avoid this fate.)
"America Alone" deals at length with what Mr. Steyn calls "the larger forces at play in the developed world that have left Europe too enfeebled to resist its remorseless transformation into Eurabia." Europe's successor population is already in place, and "the only question is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be." He interprets the Madrid and London bombings, as well as the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, as opening shots in Europe's civil war and states, "Europe is the colony now."
The title "America Alone" refers to Mr. Steyn's expectation that America ? with its "relatively healthy demographic profile" ? will emerge as the lonely survivor of this crucible. "Europe is dying and America isn't." Therefore, "the Continent is up for grabs in a way that America isn't." Mr. Steyn's target audience is primarily American: Watch out, he is saying, or the same will happen to you.
Pared to its essentials, he counsels two things: First, avoid the "bloated European welfare systems," declare them no less than a national security threat, shrink the state, and emphasize the virtues of self-reliance and individual innovation. Second, avoid "imperial understretch," don't "hunker down in Fortress America" but destroy the ideology of radical Islam, help reform Islam, and expand Western civilization to new places. Only if Americans "can summon the will to shape at least part of the emerging world" will they have enough company to soldier on. Failing that, expect a "new Dark Ages ... a planet on which much of the map is re-primitivized."
Mr. Pipes (
) is director of the Middle East Forum and author of "Miniatures" (Transaction Publishers).
Review of Jared Diamond's "The world until yesterday"
Reply #8 on:
January 06, 2013, 12:36:10 PM »
Let Your Kids Play With Matches
Modern society is safe and supporting, but we could learn a thing or two from traditional cultures.
By STEPHEN BUDIANSKY
It must say something about the deep human longing for big ideas that explain everything that books like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1997) or Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat" (2005) do so well. Nobody could possibly read them for literary pleasure: Books of this sort are invariably ponderous, plodding, even deathly dull, their authors attempting to leaven the proceedings with gimmicks (lists, cutesy acronyms) and hand-holding authorial intrusions ("let me explain . . .") as a substitute for good writing. They sell like hot cakes.
The World Until Yesterday
By Jared Diamond
Viking, 498 pages, $36
"Guns, Germs, and Steel" transformed Mr. Diamond from an obscure ornithologist and physiologist (his original specialty was the gall bladder) into a star among "public intellectuals." That book's basic premise—which earned Mr. Diamond the enmity of academics in both the humanities and social sciences and from both ends of the political spectrum—was that the global domination of Western societies was mostly geographic and environmental happenstance. Favorable climates and soils and the availability of animal and plant species suitable for domestication largely determined everything that has occurred in the 11,000 years since the rise of agriculture: Food surpluses due to more efficient cultivation led to higher population densities, political centralization and advanced technology.
Mr. Diamond's theory had the virtue of offering a neat explanation for cultural differences that did not rely upon any suggestion of inherent racial superiority of one group over another. It had the vice of embracing an environmentally deterministic idea of cultural evolution that most anthropologists view as naïve or ridiculous, and of ignoring altogether the role of human agency. Leftist social historians pointed out that Mr. Diamond completely swept out of the picture moral choices such as colonialism and enslavement that kept many parts of the world in subjugation for centuries. Conservatives complained that the author discounted the importance of Western moral and political philosophy, particularly the concepts of individual liberty, property rights and free markets, in making scientific and material progress possible.
In "Collapse" (2005), Mr. Diamond extended the idea of environment as a cultural driving force to explain the sudden demise of civilizations, such as the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Easter Islanders, and sweepingly argued that their fate will be ours unless we reduce human population and resource consumption. In "The World Until Yesterday," however, Mr. Diamond backs away some from the search for pat, all-encompassing answers. The book is a much more personal and anecdotal account that draws heavily on his own experiences among the primitive tribes of New Guinea with whom he has lived for extended periods since 1964 while carrying out field work on the ecology and evolution of birds.
Although his stated purpose, as the book's subtitle declares, is to find out "what can we learn from traditional societies?," Mr. Diamond is appropriately cautious about romanticizing the primitive world or suggesting that traditional customs always reflect innate environmental, medicinal or spiritual wisdom. One of the most admirable qualities of this book is, in fact, a refreshing skepticism toward simple explanations. Mr. Diamond notes early on that, while some traditional beliefs and practices may reflect effective adaptations to environmental conditions and social needs, others are more about maintaining internal power hierarchies, while still others have no sane reason for existing at all: They are just unique products of the infinite vagaries of human imagination and the quirks of history.
To take one particularly bizarre and grisly example, up until 1957 the Kaulong people—one of a dozen similar tribes living in identical environmental circumstances on the island of New Britain, just east of New Guinea—practiced the ritual strangulation of widows. None of the adjacent tribes did, and, as Mr. Diamond observes, there is no evidence that "Kaulong widow strangling was in any way beneficial to Kaulong society or to the long-term (posthumous) genetic interests of the strangled widow or her relatives." It was just one of those things, yet it was so firmly ingrained as a custom that the widows themselves perpetuated it, insisting that a male relative strangle them when their husbands died, even taunting or mocking his manhood if he quailed at the task.
Mr. Diamond offers some intriguing evidence to suggest that traditional societies may have a thing or two to teach us about raising children, however. He notes that in most hunter-gatherer cultures children are nursed on demand until age 3 or 4, sleep with their parents, are comforted instantly when they cry, and play together in multi-age play groups. They also are rarely punished and allowed far more freedom than we are generally comfortable with. Among the !Kung and Aka pygmies of Africa, children are never physically disciplined, on the grounds that they "have no wits and are not responsible for their actions," Mr. Diamond writes. "Instead, !Kung and Aka children are permitted to slap and insult their parents." In one tribe in the New Guinea Highlands, Mr. Diamond noticed that most of the adults had serious burn scars. It turned out these were mostly acquired in infancy: The adults made it a practice never to interfere with a baby, to the point of not preventing them playing around or touching a fire. (Other groups let small children play with sharp knives.)
Westerners who have lived with these small-scale societies are "struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children"; they are responsible, articulate and competent, and the "adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren't an issue." But Mr. Diamond admits that all these impressions "are just impressions," hard to measure and prove, and his ultimate verdict is nuanced: "At a minimum . . . one can say that hunter-gatherer rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren't disastrous, and they don't produce societies of obvious sociopaths."
One advantage of Mr. Diamond's anecdotal approach in "The World Until Yesterday" is that the details can be interesting even when they do not offer any larger lessons. This is especially the case when it comes to the many bizarre and varied superstitious traditions he describes, such as elaborate food taboos (eating kangaroo tail, according to one Aborigine tribe, causes premature baldness), and to some of the more hair-raising practices that apparently were the norm in the primitive world. Infanticide, he notes, is a not uncommon practice in traditional societies, a way of disposing of deformed, sickly or simply excess children that would be an unsupportable burden on their parents and the group. In hunter-gatherer societies, the overriding fact of life is a limited food supply, and a woman who is still nursing an older child may abandon or deliberately neglect a newborn so that the older will live; likewise she may abandon one of two twins. Other primitive tribes similarly do away with the old and sick; this is sometimes done by leaving them behind when shifting camp, sometimes by more active means—like encouraging them to jump off cliffs.
The problem with combining a sort-of-anecdotal memoir with a sort-of-big-idea book, however, is that Mr. Diamond insists on trying to milk significance out of everything that happens to him, with considerably varying degrees of success. Although the book has been nominally organized around a series of topics (war, religion, children, danger and accidents, health, language), it really is at heart a ramble. That could be fine, too, except that Mr. Diamond suffers from an all-too-familiar syndrome, albeit one that normally afflicts academic scientists only after they have won a Nobel Prize; he is convinced that everything he has done and every thought that has occurred to him not only is interesting but contains a valuable insight worth sharing with the world. (This includes Mr. Diamond's experience of having recurrent diarrhea in the jungle, from which he draws a considerably less-than-profound conclusion regarding the importance of personal hygiene.)
It also results in much unevenness of coverage. He expends dozens of pages belaboring the utterly obvious—the Western diet has too many calories and leads to high rates of diabetes—while inexplicably devoting little more than a sentence to the entire subject of sex, courtship, love and marriage, offering the single observation that, in most traditional societies, "willing sex partners are almost constantly available." I am sure I am not the only reader who might have been interested in hearing a little more about that.
People who write in order to write a good book, as opposed to those who write to impart their great wisdom, know that the first rule is that most of one's thoughts are not even worth writing down, and a good many that do get written down deserve to be ditched before anyone else sees them. Mr. Diamond's prose, which shows little evidence of ever having been subjected to such discipline, is at times almost comically inept. He frequently sounds like a caricature of a particularly tedious professor, pausing every few paragraphs to interject, "Now, let's consider," "Let's begin by," "Before answering this question," "In the preceding section we discussed," "Having thus addressed the question . . . ." In other places he sounds like a tedious professor lecturing to morons: "There are differences among people of the same age."
The sense of having stumbled into a middle-school textbook is reinforced by the gratuitous inclusion of numerous clunky color photos depicting the obvious, such as a fat American eating a box of fried chicken to illustrate our unhealthy modern diet. He spends pages on didactic definitions of terms: "war," "religion," "tribe." He describes, in mind-numbingly unnecessary detail, the physical appearance and technological amenities of a modern airport in New Guinea (ATM, baggage conveyor belt, X-ray scanners) to make the point that a modern airport in New Guinea now looks the same as a modern airport in the rest of the world. I think we get it.
Some of the "lessons" Mr. Diamond draws, moreover, border on the fatuous, or at least strained. Raise our children bilingually; respect the elderly; have stimulating dinnertime conversation instead of watching TV or playing videogames. "Diet and eating habits are an area in which there is a lot that we can do as individuals to help ourselves," he informs us. No, really? Do we need to read 500 pages about primitive societies to reach such cookie-cutter self-help prescriptions?
But when Mr. Diamond gets done trying to distill everything into a few talking points suitable for a publicity release, he ends with more interesting and subtle observations. I was particularly struck by what the New Guineans themselves had to say about the benefits of having entered the modern world in the decades since their first contact with Westerners in 1931. While they valued much of the technological convenience of the Western lifestyle—matches, clothes, soft beds and especially not having to worry constantly about having enough to eat—it was the non-material benefits that loomed even larger, above all the end of tribal warfare.
"Life was better since the government had come," one Western anthropologist was told by members of the Auyuna tribe, since a man "could leave his house in the morning to urinate without fear of being shot" by an arrow from a hostile neighboring tribesman. In 1931, Mr. Diamond notes, a New Guinea highlander living a few dozen miles from the coast would never have seen the ocean in his lifetime: The idea of traveling even 10 miles from his village "without being killed by an unknown stranger . . . would have been unthinkable."
And one New Guinean woman told Mr. Diamond that what she valued most of all about life in the U.S. was its "anonymity," the freedom to be alone, to have privacy, "and not to have one's every action scrutinized and discussed." As Mr. Diamond insightfully notes, this is simultaneously one of the greatest disadvantages of the modern world, the loneliness, alienation and tension of constantly being among strangers. One wishes that the author's willingness to confront complexity and avoid simple answers had informed more of this disappointingly uneven book.
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