Monthly Archives: December 2016

“Counter Jihad – America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” by Brian Glen Williams

319 pages, plus preface, notes and index. Three good maps of Afghanistan, but none of Iraq and Syria. University of Pennsylvania Press.

I have so much to say about this book! First of all, the copyright date is 2017. What’s with that? For the record, I got the book from the library’s new arrival shelf. Amazon reports it as being published in October of 2016. Citations include information as recent as April, 2016. This book is about as up to date as a hardcover publication can be.

The first and last chapters of this book are the most important. Chapter 1 (Planting the Seeds for a Global Conflict) covers crucial history of the Middle East, much of which is unfamiliar to me. There’s so much detail, I had to take an occasional break from reading. Williams obviously intends to be fair and even-handed. Can anyone achieve this? Language poses so many pitfalls. Consider the ways one can announce multiple deaths:

  • Murder
  • Killing
  • Massacre
  • Cold blooded massacre
  • Slaughter
  • Execution

How does an author decide? “Cold blooded” was the term that made me pause, since it describes a state of mind. The whole point of this book is to let us know how little we understand the “state of mind”, the history, culture, languages, customs, etc., of the Middle East.

Enough quibbling. Williams works hard to be fair, and is well worth reading.

The events of Chapter 2 (the invasion of Afghanistan right after 9/11) were mostly news to me. Where WAS I while all this was going on? How did I miss so much?! Two youngsters at home, one getting ready for college… I caught a bit of news here and there. So Chapter 2 was an eye opener. What stood out?

  • That we fought the kind of high tech, “precision” war that (I think) the military has been hoping for.
  • That we had some unusual allies, including a tribal warlord with troops on horseback.
  • That women (for the first time?) adopted the mostly male military model to defend themselves and their land against Taliban religious oppression. One such woman, Niloorfar Ramani, a highly trained Afghan fighter pilot, is currently seeking asylum in the US because of cultural biases in her country of birth.

I skimmed over Chapter 3 (Hype: Selling the War on Iraq to the American People) because I knew the bad news. We were conned.

Chapter 4 (The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq) was also basically familiar. The unexpected wrinkle for me was to learn that General David Petraeus, who led some of the Iraq War’s most successful counterinsurgency fighting, to some extent ignored the orders of Coalition Provisional Authority governor Paul Bremer to fire all members of the Baathist Party from their jobs. This destroyed Iraq’s civil government. Bremer also mandated the disbanding of the Iraqi army. This left about half a million men “armed and unemployed”. Petraeus evidently managed some level of compromise, and he engaged (with considerable success) in the type of “nation building” that Bush and his closest advisors scorned. Petraeus also codified the “take, hold, build” model for counterinsurgency. We may eventually look back on him as much more than a general who made a mistake and was forced into retirement. Bremer’s occupation policies already look like a total disaster with consequences that could last generations. And I believe he was warned at the time, most particularly by the military.

The last two chapters of Williams’ book bring us to the present and distinguish ISIS from its predecessors. The extremist call to generalized violence against “non-believers” has borne bitter fruit. Most recent was the bombing of a “Christmas Mart” in Berlin, in which 12 people died and 56 were injured.

ISIS now controls territory and aspires to the status of a state. Potential jihadis, some radicalized by the social media, travel to areas of ISIS control. Their return to their homelands with plans for independent violence is a very serious concern. By late 2015, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 “volunteers” from 90 countries may be in this pipeline. The FBI describes some of the attacks in the USA as “homegrown terrorism”, and calls for a “new approach” to Homeland Security, but there is no clarity about what preventive measures can be taken.

This is a sobering book, but if you, like me, want to know what’s going on and how your tax dollars are being used in the implementation of foreign policy, I suggest you read it.

Advertisements

The Fifty Cent Boy – Newspapers in my life

When I was four years old, I would hear the doorbell and run to see who was there. Often I would dash off and report to my mother or father “It’s the Fifty Cent Boy!” They knew exactly what I meant. We received two newspapers daily, the Hartford Courant in the morning and Hartford Times in the evening. Each was delivered by a teenaged boy, and the fee was fifty cents (each!) per week. That money was collected with meticulous regularity. I believed in the Fifty Cent Boy. He was much more real than Santa Claus.

Newspapers were important in our household. I used to wonder how my parents could stare for so long without turning a page. Must be very interesting! I got hooked by the time I was ten. Predictably, my first obsession was the “funnies”. I read them lying flat on the floor. The ink was cheap and blackened by elbows. I got in trouble if I was wearing a light colored, long sleeved shirt. If bare armed, I was nagged to wash my elbows.

We used to argue over who got which section first. Usually there were three of us arguing over four sections, but no one was really going to preempt my Dad. My sister soon developed an interest in “Dear Abby”, so she would settle for the women’s section. Where WERE the comics? Was it at the back of the sports section? Or the back of the classified ads? Wherever they were, it was consistent. It took me a while to develop an interest in the front page and the editorials, but over time, it happened.

I missed the familiar papers when I went away to Michigan for college. Mom (a faithful correspondent) mailed me the occasional comic strip. When the bomb squad got called to my high school (due to an error in ordering chemicals for the science lab), Mom sent me the news article.

But there was a newspaper at Michigan State University! Called, I think, the Michigan State News and billed as “Michigan’s Largest Morning Daily”. I think the only higher-circulation paper in the state was the Detroit Free Press, locally known as “The Freep”. I was charged two dollars per semester for the Michigan State News. Once at registration, I was approached by a friend who had a full tuition/room and board scholarship. She had come to registration without her wallet. She needed two dollars to pay for the newspaper, or she wouldn’t be able to complete registration. I helped her out.

I liked the Michigan State News, though I don’t remember much detail. Later, I went to graduate school at a university that also published a daily paper. This is an advantage of a large institution!

Next, I fetched up in York, PA. There must have been a newspaper, and I did read it. But did I have it delivered? By the time I got acquainted and felt an interest in local issues, I was gone. Two years is a short time to live in a community.

Then I moved to New Jersey. Two newspapers competed for my attention, the Press of Atlantic City and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Getting both seemed silly and (in those pre-electronic days) generated too much waste paper. At what point did I start worrying about conserving paper? Maybe 1980?

For a time, I assumed I needed the Press, since I worked for local (county) government. Why didn’t a copy automatically turn up at work?? The Inquirer fell by the wayside.

For a few years, we supplemented the Press with the Washington Post Weekly, a compendium that emphasized editorial content. I liked it. But almost every week, the cover showed an enlarged version of the most controversial or amusing editorial cartoon. Have you ever tried to explain editorial cartoons to a bright and curious six year old? Week after week, we confronted symbolic and allusional graphics. Why is that man waving a coat hanger? What’s bad about the elephant? Who knows what misconceptions my hasty explanations may have been planted in my son’s impressionable brain?

Then followed my long and ambivalent relationship with the Press of Atlantic City. Why did they insist on sending me the Cape May edition? If I lived on the other side of the street, I would have gotten the more relevant Atlantic County edition. Eventually, we switched to electronic delivery, but the problem about which edition did not disappear. Our subscription got scrambled, and now I’m limited to a few articles a month. I seem, however, always to have access to obituaries.

Parallel to all of this, two other news sources have been valuable to me – the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times. The electronic version of the Chronicle is available to me at work, fully enabled for prime content. Yea! I try to limit the amount of (work) time I spend with it. High quality writing, links to good blogs (I like the one called Lingua Franca), issues that matter to me (like campus climate and incidents following the election).

Then there’s the New York Times. Always there. Stockton University (my employer) has an educational deal with the Times, so any student can get an on-line subscription, and free print copies are delivered to campus five days each week during the academic semester. The expectation is that some faculty members will use the Times in their classes. I certainly would if I was still teaching. Their coverage of climate change is high quality. I really should give in and send the Times the few dollars they request for an on line subscription. Meanwhile, I enjoy the print copies, though to some extent I had to “relearn” how to read the Times after spending too much time on line with CNN and other “lite” news sites. Times articles are sufficiently complex that you don’t always realize from the headline that you will find the article worthwhile.

So where does all of this leave me? I don’t watch TV news. I check CNN on line daily. I get news from Facebook. The age of newspapers as my “major” news source is over.

What stimulated this flood of reflection? This morning I walked into my local diner, and my husband picked up the Press of Atlantic City. “Look, an artifact!” he exclaimed. A print copy! Print circulation is dwindling away. Farewell to my favorite news medium.

“Beethoven for a Later Age – Living with the String Quartets” by Edward Dusinberre

This book is for the serious lover of classical music. Does that include me? Not quite, though I enjoy music and generally lean towards the classical. I wasn’t able to listen to the quartets as they were discussed in the book, nor was I close enough to a piano to pick out the measures included for illustrative purposes.

Why did I keep reading? Because this is one musician’s story, and I love autobiography. Edward Dusinberre joined the Takacs Quartet as a young man in 1993. The group originated in Hungary and now has its home base in Boulder, Colorado. They travel all over the world for many months of each year.

What’s is like to work with the same group of four people over years and years? How do they decide what to play? What to record, which is quite a different experience? How do they evaluate their performances? How often do they play something totally unfamiliar? In addition to discussing these interesting subjects, Dusinberre provides a great deal of information about Beethoven. Why did he write quartets? What else was he writing, and for whom? What happened as Beethoven suffered the loss of his hearing?

The title of the book reflects a comment by Beethoven, in response to criticism of his Opus 59 quartets. “They are not for you, but for a later age!” What on earth did he mean? Do we hear and understand music differently now?

I reflected a great deal on the difference modern recording technology has made for performers and audiences. At the time of Beethoven, very few people had any control over what they heard. The very richest citizens had musicians among their servants, and could arrange a concert at will. Most people would be lucky to attend a performance now and then. Perhaps they heard most of their music in church.

I can listen to whatever I want, almost anywhere. Sometimes I have chosen to listen to a piece over and over, to learn it for a choir performance or “just because”. Hayden’s “Creation” got me through a difficult time in my life. I put it on the car stereo and just let it cycle. There is beauty in it that wasn’t apparent on the first few hearings.

So who knows what I might hear if I did the same with the Beethoven quartets? I would try it, but my car stereo died…

If I ever face enforced immobility, I’ll return to this book and lose myself in the music.

“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” and “Why We Chose This Way” by Turiya S.A. Raheem

Here I go again, writing about books I didn’t read, on the excuse that I met the author. Turiya Raheem gave a talk on her recently published book “Why We Chose This Way” at the Northfield (New Jersey) Public Library the first weekend in December.

The original announcement of Raheem’s book talk attracted some negative attention in Northfield. A few people objected to a public lecture by an African American Muslim woman writing ABOUT African American Muslim women. The Library declined to change its plan, and the lecture was very well attended – standing room only.

Raheem, who teaches English at Atlantic Cape Community College, first attracted media attention after HBO aired the made-for-TV period crime drama “Boardwalk Empire”, starting in 2009 and running for five seasons. The book “Boardwalk Empire” by Nelson Johnson had been followed by “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City”. Reporters wanted to talk to people who remembered the Northside in its best days, when it was a hub of African American culture, a miniature Harlem, perhaps. After Raheem was interviewed extensively, she realized she had a potential book in her sights, and “Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” emerged.

In her lecture, Raheem said that she found out that she loves the genre of creative non-fiction. (Readers of this blog may remember that I’ve expressed uncertainty how it is defined.) She decided to exercise her skills on her own demographic niche – she is an African American woman who converted to Islam as an adult.

The first requirement for this writing project was that she guarantee complete anonymity to the women she interviewed. She did this by changing names, locations, numbers of children, and other details, and by sometimes combining the stories of more than one woman. Her goal was to “normalize” these women, who may be thought of as different or exotic by those who don’t know them. She interviewed 30 women, all over age 50. Only one had been born into a Muslim family. Clearly these women find their lives richly satisfying.

The conversation at the lecture covered many topics. Muslim women make various decisions about their distinguishing dress, which makes them so much more conspicuous than Muslim men. This is a matter of choice and custom, not religious requirement. Raheem pointed out that only a limited number of practices are universal in Islam – the “pillars” like prayer and pilgrimage, and abstaining from alcohol or pork. All the rest (much of what we see) is cultural and depends on culture of origin.

Certain themes ran through the discussion – social justice, social class and the nature of community. Community and sisterhood seem chief among the reasons these American converts to Islam are content in their chosen identities.

I’m very glad I got to meet Turiya Raheem, and I’m looking forward to reading her books, which are available on Amazon.

“The Rosie Effect” by Graeme Simsion

See my blog post of August 7, 2016, for information about Simsion’s earlier novel.

This is the second novel about the autistic genius Don Tillman and his brilliantly flamboyant wife Rosie. Don is still trying to figure out “normal people” and emotions. His wife’s unexpected pregnancy throws both wife and husband for a loop.

Simsion draws out the confusion extensively – hey, that’s what romantic comedy is all about! Along the way he creates some great characters. There’s Bud (baby under development), and Aaron the Air Marshal ( assigned to determine if Don’s autistic behavior means he’s going to blow up a flight to LA) and the B-team, three researchers dedicated to explicating the reactions of babies to lesbian mothering.

This book is wildly funny. Read it for good laughs! I hope for a sequel.

“Tommy” by Pete Townsend of The Who

I remember the sixties! Rock-n-roll! I saw a few blockbuster performances (“Jesus Christ Superstar” comes to mind) but I missed the rock opera “Tommy”. I think I owned the LP record. I know the music well.

“Tommy” was made into a movie in 1975 and a Broadway show in 1993. There have been occasional productions since that time. It’s the story of a child who witnesses a murder and becomes unresponsive, “deaf, dumb and blind”.

The recent Open Circle Theatre presentation keeps the wonderful music and most of the original plot, but reconceives the whole meaning of the story.

How? For starters, the production is bilingual in English and ASL. It’s NOT a musical with interpreters. The interpretation is fully integrated onto the stage and into the action, with each major character “shadowed” or “mirrored” so the plot is fully accessible to the hearing impaired. Tommy is actually played by four actors – two children (Tommy at different ages), deaf actor Russell Harvard in the leading role and my amazingly talented nephew Will Hayes as the narrator and “voice” of Tommy, who sings some of the iconic music of the piece.

Open Circle Theatre is a wonderful troupe dedicated to “demonstrating that inclusion of people of all abilities can make a production MORE intriguing, MORE innovative, and MORE beautiful by combining the talents of all of humanity.” The cast of “Tommy” included performers in wheel chairs.

“Tommy” was reconsidered from the point of view of the handicapped, who (I think) couldn’t really identify with the “miracle” of Tommy’s sudden complete recovery. In this version, Tommy recovered to a different kind of normal, that of a fluent speaker of American Sign Language. It works!

I wish this musical was still in production, so I could tell everyone to see it. I won’t be surprised if it’s repeated. Maybe on Broadway! The performance at Black Box Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, took place in October and November of 2016. For a detailed review, see the Washington Post, October 31, 2016.

Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.