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The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece
The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece
by Victor Davis Hanson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $28.97
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How and why the Greeks fought - and what it means for us today, September 19, 2009
The classical interpretation of Greek hoplite battle was that the citizen-army gathered to defend their crops against foreign plunder. Professor Victor Davis Hanson, who was raised on a farm in central California, believes that the damage to Greek agriculture by these raids was minimal. He knows from first-hand experience how difficult it is to destroy grape and olive vines.

Rather, Hanson argues, hoplite battle was all about an idea, a principle. It was a rational response to the concern over trespassers and the concept that one should not violate another's land that provided the motivation for the pitched battle. The hoplite clash was actually a means by which both sides could limit the carnage by engaging a single act to settle the issue. Hanson maintains that it was the Peloponnesian War and Pericles' citadel strategy that undermined the two century tradition of the pitched hoplite battle. Henceforth, siege trains and mercenaries would destroy the age of the hoplite battle and supplant it with wars of increasing length and civilian suffering.

Hanson claims that the western world inherited a burdensome legacy from the Greeks: a craving for a clear military decision in a decisive battle and a disdain for those who fought at a distance or in an unconventional manner. He argues that western conventional military might has effectively put itself out of business by so strongly dominating the direct engagement of massed forces. No non-western power would willingly meet a western power on its own turf - the decisive set piece battle.

The concepts of war and battle were quite distinct for the Greeks. Set piece battles were uncommon, even during major wars clashes of great magnitude were rare. For instance, Hanson points out that during the twenty-seven years of the Peloponnesian War there were only two large hoplite clashes - Delium (424 BC) and Mantinea (418 BC). The Greeks didn't love war or battle at all, Hanson says. Rather, they settled on the structured hoplite style as a means to contain war and shield women, children and private property. The author maintains that the Greeks depicted wars so often on vases and in art more because of how infrequently happened and the close family ties associated with battle. Combat had no romantic qualities in ancient Greece and displays of militarism, such as physical training or maneuvers, played little role in daily life (Sparta was the exception). The Greeks perceived the clashes of the phalanx as economical and practical, and owing to the remarkable uniformity of battle over several hundred years it provided continuity and heritage to communities, although it was never glorified.

The Greek hoplite clash was "rational" in the sense that it could keep losses within acceptable limits (estimated as 5% losses for the victor and 15-20% for the defeated). The great tradition of a one-time, winner-take-all clash ended, Hanson argues, because the Greeks came to consider even 5% losses in a victory prohibitively high, so they sought other ways to resolve decide conflicts. Why it evidently took the Greeks centuries to come to this realization Hanson does not say. But he does make clear that future wars - that included large armies, mercenaries, specialized troops and siege warfare - exacted a much greater toll on life and property than the hoplite clash ever did.

All told, this is a convincing reinterpretation of the motivation behind ancient Greek warfare and a spellbinding tour of the actual experience of hoplite battle.


The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War
The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War
by James J. Wirtz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $29.95
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When you know too much, September 8, 2009
Sometimes, it can be dangerous to study your history and have better intelligence than your adversary. That is the paradoxical conclusion in this excellent academic piece by James Wirtz, which focuses on the Tet Offensive, the one event most responsible for the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

An intelligence advantage - including the thoughtful, objective analysis of your adversary's previous actions - is usually a critical success factor in business, sports, war or any other competitive endeavor. But what happens when the enemy embarks on a totally unexpected course of action because, primarily, they do not have as accurate a picture of the situation as you do? In that case, the enemy may act in ways entirely unanticipated - with equally unanticipated outcomes - owing to an inaccurate reading of current events. Such was the case, the author argues, in January 1968 when US and South Vietnamese forces were attacked in an all-out communist assault that was destined to fail militarily in the tactical sense, but ultimately had the most far-reaching and unexpected strategic impact.

The communist plan was simple, yet fundamentally flawed: a widespread guerilla offensive would capitalize on the element of surprise, ignite a general uprising against the US forces and their South Vietnamese puppets, isolate and defeat feeble ARVN units, precipitate the collapse of the Saigon regime, and force the US to settle for a coalition government. US intelligence received advanced warning of the attack, but its make-up and motivation was so out-of-character and inconsistent with reality on the ground that the threat was simply dismissed as hollow propaganda.

There were many mistakes made on both sides, Wirtz says. Superior US intelligence led analysts to dismiss the warnings of a major assault as mere bluster meant for domestic and international consumption. Rather, US military intelligence was focused on the "real" threat: a communist attack in the border region, particularly Khe Sanh. This interpretation fit better with US perceptions of the VC's current strategic position and accommodated the anticipated "rational" response it would generate - the attack of US forces because they were most threatening and inhibiting to communist activities. On the one hand, the communist miscalculation of popular strength for their cause significantly enhanced their diversionary efforts as large numbers of US forces were moved from the intended urban target areas to the more remote border regions, such as Khe Sanh. On the other hand, while their miscalculation certainly enabled "surprise", it also ultimately led to the annihilation their offensive as the general uprising failed to materialize.

In Wirtz's opinion, there was no shortage of evidence that the communists were sincere in their belief in the efficacy of an all-out offensive. He cites Giap's "The Big Victory, the Great Task" (September 1967), captured Tet attack orders, NSA SIGINT intercepts, "Qoi Nhon" tapes to be played over captured radio outlets encouraging the population to revolt, POW interrogations, and premature attacks as all sufficient warning of the how, when, why, and where of the Tet Offensive. US analysis of the situation, however, was much more suspect. With the notable exception of the reports from the CIA's Joseph Hovey and some last minute assessments from Generals Weyand and Davidson, US intelligence failed to accurately predict the size, scope or intensity of the attack - especially its focus on the urban centers.

The US and allied response was dulled for several reasons, according to Wirtz. First, half of the ARVN forces were on personal leave for the Tet holiday. Second, US forces were on high alert only about 50% of the time. Third, Westmoreland's warnings and actions ahead of the attack were not particularly unusual or forceful.

Interestingly, Wirtz concludes that US intelligence got it about half right. For instance, Tet was a result of Hanoi's realization that they were losing the war and unless they "used it" they would certainly "lose it." This concept of declining communist capability was detected and enthusiastically disseminated by US intelligence. Thus, US intelligence understood and in some ways anticipated the communist response to their military demise - a Battle of the Bulge-like last gasp, combined with a Dien Bien Phu-like hope for gaining a strategic psychological victory to influence the forthcoming peace negotiations. What was not perceived by US intelligence was the offensive nature and focus of Tet. Specifically, the US did not anticipate the attempt to isolate ARVN units with the intent to destroy them and then exploit the fractured US/Allied command.

In a sense, Tet represented a strategic innovation in response to US troops fighting in Vietnam - a response the US intelligence apparently completely failed to recognize. For instance, Westmoreland was convinced that the US troops would be the focus of any forthcoming attack and was therefore concerned mostly with a Christmastime attack. In the allied mind, it made no sense for the communists to attack during Tet because the US forces did not celebrate the holiday and they were the assumed target. Also, any infraction of the holiday would be near sacrilegious in Vietnam or so it was assumed. The potential vulnerability of the ARVN forces over Tet was never considered, according to Wirtz.

In the end, Wirtz argues that US intelligence failed on two critical issues. First, once a mental image of the communist situation emerged US leadership tended view any new information in a way that validated that perspective. Second, it never occurred to US intelligence that the communists might actually misunderstand the nature and extent of their popular support in the South that could lead them into making an enormous tactical military miscalculation.

This is an excellent, thought-provoking analysis that deserves close consideration by students of the Vietnam War and intelligence studies.


Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Psi Classics of the Counterinsurgency Era)
Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Psi Classics of the Counterinsurgency Era)
by David Galula
Edition: Paperback
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sound, practical and hard-earned advice, September 4, 2009
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"The best writing on counterinsurgency share with the best sex manuals the fact that their authors generally have some personal experience of their subject matter." So writes John Nagl in the foreward to this classic 1964 irregular warfare piece by the French military officer David Galula. Needless to say, Galula was "experienced" - and so, too, now are Nagl and his fellow officers in the US and NATO militaries.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) is all the rage these days. The apparent success of the Surge in Iraq has elevated COIN operations - often associated with the unpalatable practice (from the American military perspective) of "nation building" - from the necessary but regrettable to the necessary and winnable. In the process it has pushed once obscure, scholarly military officers, such as Nagl, David Kilcullen, and Kalev Sepp, into the limelight and, in a certain sense, into the driver's seat of US national security policy.

One tangible piece of evidence that the US military is taking COIN more seriously was the 2007 publication - to much fanfare and critical acclaim - of the US Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The concepts the Galula developed first-hand from tours in French Indo-China and Algeria and which he so cleanly and directly lays out in "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice" form the foundation of the new Field Manual. Indeed, it is shocking just how broadly and deeply Galula's perspective permeates US military doctrine half-a-century after it was first written.

Galula has much to say that carries with it lasting relevance. There is much to commend in this book; however, I will highlight just two central points in this review.

First, Galula addresses the question: what makes for a successful insurgency? He argues that four factors are critical. First, the insurgency needs a great cause - one that has broad appeal and cannot be easily co-opted by the government. A notable example would be rural land reform in Vietnam and the Philippines. This cause serves as the main narrative from which the insurgents can sustain and build a powerful political operation. Second, the initial strength of the insurgency is inversely related to the strength of the government forces. An unpopular regime with a weak and/or corrupt local police force is especially susceptible. Third, the physical geography of the region is important. As Galula states, "the ideal situation for the insurgent would be a large land-locked country shaped like a blunt-tipped star, with jungle covered mountains along the borders and scattered swamps and plains, in a temperate zone with a large and dispersed rural population and a primitive economy." (About 80% of that description applies to Afghanistan, unfortunately.) And, finally, outside support is important, especially in the middle and later stages of the insurgency.

Next, once an insurgency has taken root, what is the most practical course to defeat it? Galula emphasizes the political nature of the contest. "What is at stake is the country's political regime, and to defend it is a political affair...Thus, a mimeograph machine may turn out to be more useful than a machine gun, a soldier trained as a pediatrician more important than a mortar expert, cement more wanted than barbed wire, clerks more in demand than riflemen." Moreover, Galula stresses the political, military, and economic dimensions of the COIN operation must be tightly integrated and mutually reinforcing. He argues that these separate efforts are multiplicative in nature and not additive. That is, in a multi-variable multiplication set, if any input is zero then the final answer is always zero regardless of the other inputs (e.g. 80 x 0 x 50 x 20 = 0).

Galula then lays out an explicit step-by-step approach to conducting a successful counterinsurgency campaign. It's a bit formulaic and is tinctured by the Cold War perspective in which it was conceived, but the basic premise and cadence is sound.

1. Expel the insurgents from a defined geographic area. This will likely result in civilian deaths and property damage, which the government should move quickly and aggressively to make reparations.

2. Deploy a static permanent presence unit. This force is meant to hold the cleared area and develop a rapport with the local population.

3. Contact and control the population. Re-establish government authority in the area by isolating the population from the insurgents by conducting a thorough local census and establishing check points in and out of the region. In the meantime, be relentless with intelligence collection and propaganda efforts to address attentisme, where the neutral majority simply waits out the conflict or hedges their bets.

4. Destroy the insurgent political organization. This is a police operation, first and foremost. Galula suggests a wide catch of minor players and the subsequent rolling up of local insurgent cells based on their disclosures. He also says that the government forces should use amnesty offers prudently at this stage.

5. Hold local elections. This is the critical point in getting the local population to step-out and commit the counterinsurgency forces. Galula argues that the openness and freedom of elections needs to be stressed, but that the resulting government is only provisional. He also says that it is a bad sign if only older men are elected as it is likely the younger men who are supporting the insurgency.

6. Test the local leaders. Elections are not enough. Those elected must be given real responsibility and held accountable for their performance. It is essential that the new local government representatives demonstrate their commitment and competence, both to the counterinsurgency forces and, more importantly, the local population that elected them.

7. Organize a political party. Parties are the instrument of politics and counterinsurgency is a political battle. The importance of developing this political organization and platform cannot be overemphasized, Galula says. Only a strong, local political apparatus will make victory and progress permanent.

8. Suppress the last guerillas. As the counterinsurgency force takes root, Galula calls for reverting to the first stage of large-scale military operations to keep the remaining insurgents on the run and away from the population. The goal is to turn the last hold-outs into a roving band of criminals. It is at this point that more generous amnesty offers can be granted, he writes.

A lot has been written on counterinsurgency and a river of ink will certainly be consumed in future efforts on the subject, but there is still no better place to begin (or end) than with this tightly crafted, thoughtful classic.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 17, 2014 12:39 PM PDT


War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province
War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province
by Jeffrey Race
Edition: Paperback
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All insurgencies are local politics, August 27, 2009
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Legendary Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once quipped that "all politics is local." And Clausewitz famously wrote that "war is politics by other means." From these observations, one might extract a syllogism that applies quite well to the nature of modern warfare: "all insurgencies are local politics."

It is unlikely that you will find Jeffery Race's "War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province" on the shelf in your local bookstore next to "We Were Soldiers Once..And Young" or "The Best and the Brightest" - but it may be one of the most insightful pieces ever written about the Vietnam War. Moreover, it may be the most historically relevant case study to the US refocus on Afghanistan in 2009. The inescapable conclusion from "War Comes to Long An" (although Race does not say so directly) is that the US lost the war even before the first Marine combat units splashed ashore China Beach in March, 1965. Insurgencies are virtually never won by superior firepower. Rather, it is superior policy and a more integrated framework for approaching what is in essence a political and/or social schism that wins the day. Race's core message is that the communist forces fully understood the nature of the conflict in the South while for Saigon and Washington the fundamental social context of the struggle forever remained a "blank area of consciousness."

The focus of this book is a single South Vietnamese province (Long An: "Prosperous and Peaceful" ironically enough) in the period "between the wars" (i.e. the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 ending the post-colonial battle with the French and major US intervention in the mid-1960s). One of the special things about this book is the broad, deep and fresh perspectives that Race relies on. The material for the study is almost exclusively primary source, both direct interviews and official documents. He begins with three chapters of extended exerts from conversations with province officials, anonymous villagers, Viet Cong fighters, defectors, American military advisors and the like. The author makes almost no commentary or assessment on the feedback; he simply lets the actors tell their story from their unique perspective. However, a few themes quickly emerge from this mix of viewpoints. And these themes help explain, in Race's view, why the Party or "revolutionary" forces ultimately prevailed.

To begin with, there was a large, yet unrecognized disconnect between the Saigon government officials - often well-educated elites from central Vietnam (Hue, mainly), who took a generally paternalistic view of the relationship between government and the people - and the villagers of the province of Long An whom they served. The primary source materials reveal that the government officials genuinely believed that they were "close to the people" and that the people were content. If the government was so close to the people, as many Saigon-appointed district officials believed, then why did the revolution continue to grow? In the words of one Long An province chief, Bui van Ba, in 1968: "That is something that I have never been able to figure out."

Race argues that post-colonial Vietnam was ripe for social revolution. He employs the metaphor of a man with poor eye-sight. He may have been resigned to a life of squinting and discomfort when he knew no other way. But after he has had eye-glasses and has experienced the world around him in its full clarity and vibrancy he will never go back to the old way again. Race says that the period during the French war when peasants farmed the land of absentee landlords without paying rent and for the first time took some role of authority in their local communities was such a period.

The communists were able to exploit this fissure while the Saigon government officials and their American backers never even recognized that it existed. The Party developed a National Front (ostensibly non-communist) that operated from a simple, crisp narrative with broad appeal, and included an associated action plan that relied on a set of "contingency incentives" (i.e. ongoing benefits required ongoing VC local control): 1) want to keep your land, which the VC had worked to redistribute fairly and without alienating the landed peasants? Then fight the imperialists and feudalist band; 2) Want to fight the imperialist-feudalist band? Then pay your VC-imposed taxes and send your sons to fight with the VC. This program could only be successful if the Party had a firm grip on the lowest echelon of administrative control, the village council (ban hoi), and that body was granted the authority to make decisions that directly effected local life. In the words of one former Vietminh cadre: "You have the central government, then the province, district, and village. But the lowest of the four is the level that lies with the people. If the village level is weak, then I guarantee you, no matter how strong the central government is, it won't be able to do a thing." Race also claims that the communists downplayed the importance of armed force in establishing control. "We must rely on a seething mass political struggle movement, progressing from lower to higher forms...Armed activities only fulfill a supporting role for the political struggle movement." (March 1960 communist letter from the Regional Committee to the village level operation)

Saigon took the precisely opposite approach, vesting nearly all physical and bureaucratic power at the top of the pyramid. The aid programs the government did offer, such as new schools or roads, were not contingent on continuous government control of the area. Moreover, "the Saigon and the American governments ignored the redistributive issues and concentrated instead on 'development' and on certain suppressive and intelligence functions." Race argues that these development programs were certainly humanitarian but were "comprehended simply as a highly organized public-welfare or public-works effort" that were "irrelevant to the fundamental issues involved" in the conflict, namely the social reorganization of the entire nation at the village level.

The government forces in the south completely misunderstood both their success and failure, Race writes. For instance, there was a widespread belief that Saigon had been too passive in rooting out the communist organization in the south after the Geneva Accords in 1954, when in fact the VC were on the verge of liquidation by 1959. Secondarily, the leadership in Long An felt that there major shortcomings were insufficient military strength and the inability to use terror tactics like the VC ("Thus legality is our strength but also our weakness - our weakness because the people do not fear us."). In reality, Race says, the government forces always maintained overwhelming conventional military superiority over the communist insurgency and often behaved more brutally and impudently with the local population than the supposedly terroristic VC. Thus, the government forces erroneously saw themselves as getting buried under avalanche of foreign (i.e. North Vietnamese) manpower that co-opted the generally happy locals by the use of force and intimidation. According to Long An province chief (1957-1961) Mai Ngoc Douc: "I completely deny the view that the communists are strong here because they gotten the support of the people...the people are simply forced to follow the communists because of the threat of terror." Race stresses that the government never grasped that they faced a "coherent social process" of revolution. "The lesson of Long An is that what was attacked was a particular form of social organization, and only consequentially the government itself."

This failure to appreciate the true nature of the conflict led to the development of entirely inappropriate metrics, best exemplified by the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES). Race notes that the whole HES metric system was based on two critical factors that the anti-communist forces consistently misunderstood: security and development. For security the objective was the suppression of opposition not the absence of opposition, which Race argues would have been a more accurate and relevant measure. For development the author maintains that the conflict in the south was always about the redistribution of social power and values, not the incremental improvement of the poverty condition of the mass peasantry.

In closing, this a thought-provoking and sobering study - and one that should be read with care by contemporary policymakers and military officers.


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
by Jared Diamond
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars CSI: Indiana (Jones), July 31, 2009
With "Guns, Germs and Steel" Jared Diamond achieved something that most mainstream academics only fantasize about - a Pulitzer Prize-winning, multi-million dollar profit generating, sophisticated cocktail party conversation piece.

Diamond's much anticipated follow-up effort, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," deals with the other end of the power spectrum: once flourishing societies that suffered severe decline and, in some cases, have vanished all together. It is a subject that is arguably more urgent and relevant than understanding why the West came to dominate the globe. Yet, "Collapse" fails to deliver on the same level and scale as "Guns, Germs, and Steel."

First, let's quickly consider Diamond's analytical framework. He claims that there are five basic contributing factors to societal collapse throughout history: 1) deforestation; 2) climate change; 3) shifting trade relationships; 4) hostile neighbors; and 5) poor policy choices. Some case studies exhibit just one or two factors, while others include all five. There's nothing too earth-shattering there. This relative lack of sophisticated reasoning, which may be perfectly legitimate (after all, simple answers are often correct), is one reason that "Collapse" seems to lack the gravity of "Guns, Germs and Steel."

The most fascinating and educational part of this book for me was to learn about the modern scientific methods and insights that can shed light on distant, vanished civilizations. For instance, palynologists (those who study pollen) can determine with great accuracy the type and density of plant life in any given area based on pollen samples in the soil. Alternatively, the study of packrat middens (essentially fossilized rat feces) in the American Southwest can pinpoint to the year the specific plant life that grew in the immediate vicinity centuries ago. Carbon isotope analysis (the measurement of bone composition) "can calculate the ratio of seafood to land-grown food that the human or animal owner of those bones had consumed over the course of a lifetime" (I wonder what mine is). And, of course, ice core samples in Greenland can provide detailed information on global weather patterns over several millennia. All of this reminded me of a combination of the swashbuckling Indiana Jones with a cerebral CSI side-kick providing essential clues along the journey.

Moreover, I found that this scientific evidence added powerful credibility to Diamond's narrative on the collapse of various civilizations separated dramatically by both time and space. All told, these case studies - especially Easter Island, the Maya and the Anasazi - and the supporting scientific evidence were the most satisfying part of the book.

Where "Collapse" fell flat for me was on the implications for us today and in the not-too-distant future. Diamond can evidently tell us with astonishing accuracy the population of conifer trees in modern day New Mexico a millennium ago, but he cannot provide much specificity on the state of the regional ecology in the present. For instance, Diamond might comment that "a significant portion of a community's protein is provided by seafood" and that "the marine population is in serious decline." So what does that mean exactly? Does seafood provide 90% of a community's protein or 30%? Both could be deemed "significant." And what does "serious decline" mean? Are we rapidly approaching zero? Diamond doesn't explain; everything is explained in sweeping generalities. I understand that it is probably unrealistic to expect Diamond to have these answers. However, the sudden downshift in specificity and analytical rigor is jarring to the reader and, to a certain extent, undermines the author's attempt to create a sense of dramatic urgency.

There is one other point I found curious. Climate change is obviously an issue of enormous consequence and visibility today, and Diamond certainly accentuates its role in threatening modern society with ecological catastrophe. However, he also rather convincingly argues that significant climate change has been a part of human history for at least the past three thousand years. Frankly, I always thought that pre-industrial climate change happened in "geological time" (i.e. over millions of years as in "the earth cooled"), not over the course of centuries or even decades, which is what Diamond claims to be the case in many of his examples, Norse Greenland being the most noteworthy.

Overall, this is a fun and generally informative read. But, be warned: if you read and loved "Guns, Germs and Steel" you may be a bit disappointed.


The Great Crash of 1929
The Great Crash of 1929
by John Glabraith
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars What goes around comes around, July 23, 2009
It's never a good sign when this book reappears on bookshelves across the country. First published in 1955 during a sharp recession in the Eisenhower era, "The Great Crash, 1929" has been republished during or after nearly every major market disruption ever since (1961, 1972, 1988, 1997 and now 2009).

John Kenneth Galbraith is, as I discovered, a skillful writer, especially so for a mid-twentieth century Ivy League economist. His style is fluid, sharp and often sardonic. Some may claim that his tone is too smarty, but it is difficult to look back on 1929 without poking an eye or two. Over the course of his review of that fateful year, Galbraith coins several tongue-in-cheek phrases. For example, "preventative incantation" is when elites try to talk up a failing market by emphasizing the "fundamental" soundness of the economy in general or a company in particular. "Organized support" is a euphemism that the author equates to the unquestioned faith many put in leading financial institutions to prop up a market simply because it is in their best interests to do so. And perhaps most cynical of all, the author credits president Hoover with developing the "no business meeting" that gives maximum public visibility to inane strategy sessions between senior government officials and a soigné cast of corporate titans. It is a public relations device, Galbraith says, that has been perfected over time by Hoover's presidential successors. (It should be noted that Galbraith is generally quite positive on Hoover, the man most vilified by history, noting that he was a consistent skeptic and mild critic of the 1920s bull market.)

Galbraith also spotlights many of the great myths of the era. To begin with, he claims that less than one percent of Americans were actually involved in the stock market in 1929, although the cultural obsession with Wall Street gave a far different impression. And when the end came, he argues, there was no spike in suicides in New York or elsewhere and there was certainly no increase in those who tossed themselves off of tall buildings. What the economic meltdown really exposed, he says, was corporate embezzlement. In a statement that rings true in the Bernie Maddoff era of 2009: "Should the American economy ever achieve permanent full employment and prosperity, firms should look well to their auditors. One of the uses of depression is the exposure of what auditors fail to find."

And just as the recent crash had its archetypal villain in Maddoff, the Depression had its symbolic figures of comeuppance. None were more prominent than Charles E. Mitchell, head of National City, indicted but ultimately acquitted of tax evasion charges in a sensational 1933 trial. And then there was Richard Whitney, the pauperized NYSE chief, who was convicted of grand larceny in 1938. Galbraith writes that Whitney, in particular, was to the liberal, anti-Wall Street, New Dealers as Alger Hiss was to the conservative, anti-communist, McCarthyites of a decade later: the perfect symbol of all that was suspect and hated. (As an historical aside, the federal prosecutor for both cases was future NY governor and GOP presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey.)

So, what did cause the stock market crash of October 1929 and, more importantly, the resulting decade-long Depression? To begin with, Galbraith completely dismisses one of the most common arguments: that loose credit drove reckless market speculation via margin purchases. He says that other periods had much looser credit and yet no speculation spiral developed. However, the author does concede that margin loans were "good business" - so long as stocks continued to rise (the same could be said for sub-prime mortgages circa 2006). During the bull market margin loans were the perfect bet: they offered a solid rate of return - usually over 10% - on a loan collateralized with a highly liquid asset.

More culpable in the economic collapse, Galbraith says, were highly unequal income distributions, poor corporate governance practices, limited regulatory oversight of the market, and, above all, the utter absence of government economic policy. Interestingly, the author spreads the blame on this final point fairly broadly, politically speaking. For instance, he cites the Democratic Party platform and FDR speeches during the 1932 campaign that explicitly rejected various forms of government action in either fiscal or monetary policy.


Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team's Passion, Creativity, and Productivity
Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team's Passion, Creativity, and Productivity
by Michael Lee Stallard
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Light, but inspiring material, July 16, 2009
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I don't usually go for business books like this, with relatively large font, short sentences, and wide margins. But first appearances can be deceiving. And "Fired Up or Burned Out" was a bit deeper and more thoughtful than I had anticipated.

What struck me most was the breadth of the biographical case subjects, which ranged from the contemporary celebrity CEOs one would expect to find in a book like this (Andy Grove, Jack Welch, Warren Buffett) to historical figures like Frederick the Great, Aztec king Montezuma and the Marquis de Lafayette. The vignettes are all a bit light and breezy, but enjoyable and occasionally insightful nevertheless.

Will this book leave an indelible impression, fundamentally changing the way you think and lead at work and in life? I doubt it. Will you discover a few inspiring anecdotes or insights that may help shape your professional development? Most likely.


Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid
Edition: Paperback
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101 of 112 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Timely but flawed, July 16, 2009
As the Obama administration rolls-out an ambitious new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan teeters on the edge of political collapse this detailed account of recent events in "the region" by the veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid could not be more relevant. Unfortunately, it is marred by the author's biases, naÔveté, and hyperbole.

Although I take issue with many points in this book, Rashid's central argument is a valid one. Namely, that the US never took Afghanistan seriously after the Soviet withdrawal and consistently underestimated the threat from both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Rashid's biggest gripe is the Bush administration's federalist "warlord strategy" for initially stabilizing Afghanistan and the lack of meaningful nation building efforts since 2001, especially after the invasion of Iraq. He is an unabashed proponent of building a strong central government in Kabul and stripping the regional ethnic bosses of their power, both military and political. But most of all Rashid is disappointed - almost personally offended - that his voluminous writings and recommendations for how to fix Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently "ignored" by the Americans, his presumably erstwhile friend Hamid Karzai, the hated Musharaff and his cronies, and, to a lesser extent, the international community. After the first few hundred pages, his whining self-promotion really starts to grate.

More surprisingly, one gets the sense that Rashid is every bit as ignorant of realities on the ground and a prisoner of his own worldview as the Bush administration neoconservatives that he attacks with such scorn and relish. Consider his take on the early days of Afghanistan invasion: "Yet this was not an occupation, and the Afghan people were literally on their knees begging for a greater international presence so that their benighted country could be rebuilt." Rashid proceeds to paint a vision of a future Afghanistan that practically amounts to Tajiks and Pashtuns grilling franks together on their backyard BBQs. He roundly condemns the US for being naÔve and arrogant, and then suggests that only the US can fix a country like Afghanistan. The US could not handle Hurricane Katrina, cannot stem the flow of drugs or illegal immigrants across its borders, and cannot keep up with the rest of the industrialized world in primary education, yet we are expected to build an economy from the ground up in Afghanistan, eradicate poppy production and the heroin trade, and educate a population whose literacy rate is roughly one-in-three?

Rashid is also personally disgusted by the lack of coordination and planning between and among international aid organizations, government development agencies, and the UN, all of which has contributed to the inept civil reconstruction effort. There is no doubt that many mistakes have been made and there is plenty of waste and inefficiency in nation building projects. However, as a business executive in a company of slightly less than ten thousand employees I know all too well how difficult it is to keep different teams on the same page and not working at cross purposes - and that's in a relatively confined, secure environment. That coordination across organizations of such size and diversity is nearly impossible is a perspective that Rashid does not consider; he does not even appear to be aware of it.

Finally, Rashid writes with a flair that often dips into obvious exaggeration, which calls his many other claims into doubt. Consider this gem: "Up to twenty pickups or Toyota Land Cruisers armed with missiles and rockets that could bring down helicopter gunships would travel at 150 miles per hour across the sands." It sounds more like the script for a Ridley Scott movie. Just for the record, the top speed of a 2008 V8 Toyota Land Cruiser on a closed test track is 130 miles an hour - I checked.

In closing, it should be noted that Rashid writes that "this book is an attempt to define history in the making rather than a scholarly reappraisal years after the event." In that sense, he should be given a certain license to promote his version of events, but he takes it a bit too far, at least for this reviewer.
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Peter the Great: His Life and World
Peter the Great: His Life and World
by Robert K. Massie
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly the Great, July 13, 2009
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Robert Massie may be the best popular narrative historian of his generation, and "Peter the Great" is his greatest accomplishment to date.

Peter Romanov, as described by Massie, was a dynamo. "The most accurate image...is of a man who throughout his life was perpetually curious, perpetually restless, perpetually in movement." His energy and enthusiasm reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill - a man who genuinely wanted to be in the action and preferably at the hottest point possible.

The central event of Peter's life, and thus this book, was the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against Sweden and his royal nemesis, King Charles XII, who was every bit as gifted, eccentric, and aggressive as the tsar. From the humiliating defeat at Narva in 1700 to the Stalingrad-like destruction of the vaunted Swedish army at Poltava in 1709 to the Treaty of Nystad in 1721 that cemented Peter's hold on the Baltic coast, including his new capital, St. Petersburg, the contest with Charles shaped both his life and legacy.

Personally, Peter was a complicated individual. On the one hand, he was modest, progressive, loyal and mirthful. He eschewed royal pomp and ceremony and often attempted (mostly in vain) to travel incognito to better engage and learn from commoners, especially the various crafts associated with shipbuilding. He was solely responsible for transforming Russia from a remote, semi-barbarian outpost to a nearly first-class European naval, military and economic power in a single generation. Only the Meiji in late nineteenth century Japan could claim such rapid success. Part of that success owed to the fact that Peter valued innate ability and demonstrated competence in his subordinates above nobility of birth. He consistently promoted talented men of humble and/or foreign origin (General Patrick Gordon, Francis Lefort, and Alexander Menshikov, to name the most prominent) to the most senior positions in government and resolutely backed them despite strong resistance from the Russian nobility. Such disregard for personal origin and deep, lasting affection extended to his personal life where an illiterate Lithuanian orphan went from Peter's mistress to his devoted wife and ultimately crowned Empress Catherine I. The tsar was also a drinker and reveler of epic proportions. The boisterous activities of Peter's close group of merry makers, the self-proclaimed Jolly Company, and the alcohol-sodden rituals of their Mock Synod would put any college fraternity to shame.

On the other hand, the great tsar was mercurial, suspicious, and violent, even sadistic. Peter did not hesitate to crush with brutal severity any threat to his power, especially those affairs with even a whiff of involvement from the disbanded Old Guard militia, the Streltsy, their co-religionist supporters, the Old Believers of ultra Orthodox Church, and their favored member of the Romanov clan, the deposed former regent Sophia, Peter's half-sister. Peter was often present and may have personally participated in torture, including roasting over pits, knoutings, and beheadings. The most fascinating and poignant chapter of Peter's eventful life, I found, was his estranged relationship with his son, the tsarevich Alexis, which ended in international flight, arrest, trial, torture and death. That episode showed the powerful tsar at his best (compassionate and loving) and worst (paranoid and vindictive).

One final point on why I loved this book and others by Massie. He tells interesting stories and often delivers sharp apercus about society in distant times. Here we find King Frederick William of Prussia admiring his special ornamental military regiment of seven-foot giants, take a peak inside the secret world of the harem at Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III's Seraglio, and learn that in the late seventeenth century "[e]very great noble wanted a dwarf as a status symbol or to please his wife, and competition among the nobility for their possession became intense."


An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
by Robert Dallek
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A suffering president, June 17, 2009
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Robert Dallek claims that "An Unfinished Life" is not intended as another myth-busting expose on John F. Kennedy and the Camelot legend. The author's claims notwithstanding, this 2003 national bestselling biography of the 35th president is wincingly honest. For better or worse, the reader gets a complete and unvarnished portrait of a major historical figure.

There are two dominant themes in this deeply researched and wonderfully written piece: 1) Kennedy's lifelong battle with a host of physical ailments; 2) and his love of foreign policy and international affairs.

Kennedy's adolescence is described as an interminable series of medical observations, extended hospital stays, humiliating enemas and partially effective pharmaceutical cocktails (part of the problem, Dallek explains, is that JFK was pumped so full of cortisone his body began to deteriorate at a rapid pace). All of this was endured stoically in the cold shadow of the "two Joes" - his cocky, all-star big brother and his domineering, business titan father. Evidently, Jack was able to find some distraction and solace from his medical troubles and social pressures by indulging in frequent co-ed shag parties, a habit he could not break even when such behavior imperiled his presidency.

After an absurdly privileged youth, Kennedy sauntered into a hotly contested Congressional seat largely bought by his old man's money and influence, or so Dallek argues here. Moreover, the author suggests that Kennedy's years in Congress were anything but a profile in courage. For instance, JFK rather shamelessly avoided confronting or even questioning the methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy, mainly because the firebrand Wisconsin anti-communist was popular with Kennedy's Boston Irish Catholic constituents. In a foreshadowing on his presidential term, Kennedy also generally refused to take any leadership position on civil rights during the 1950s for fear of the political backlash.

Indeed, nearly all of Kennedy's purported strengths and notable achievements are cut down to size by Dallek. For example, he hints that it was Kennedy's carelessness that led to the sinking of PT-109; he claims that Kennedy's senior thesis at Harvard on British appeasement ("Why England Slept") was an average college paper at best that was published with great fanfare only because of Joe Kennedy's status and advocacy; and he writes that Kennedy was for most of his career an awkward and aloof speaker and far from the contemporary image of the political legend who inspired millions. That said, Bobby Kennedy comes off even worse - an insufferable little jerk completely out of his league on the world stage.

By the time he reaches the White House, JFK is described as a cripple and, one might say, a prescription drug addict. At one point during the lead up to the 1960 presidential election, the Democratic candidate's inner circle was thrown into crisis mode when it was learned that Kennedy's bag of prescription meds had been left behind at a campaign event, thus threatening to expose the true state of his medical condition, especially the insistent public denials that he suffered from Addison's Disease. Indeed, given the decrepit state of Kennedy's health his priapic prowess is all the more astounding.

The one passion that drove Kennedy (besides sex) was foreign policy. Well over half of Dallek's narrative on Kennedy's thousand days in office deals with the Bay of Pigs, early US engagement in Vietnam, the Berlin Crisis, diplomatic jousting with Khrushchev, the nuclear test ban treaty, and, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, Kennedy's perspective on the importance of foreign over domestic issues is best captured in his own quote in the immediate aftermath of the crisis: "Who gives a s*** if [minimum wage] is $1.15 or $1.25 in comparison to something like this?" Finally, Dallek argues that Kennedy developed a low opinion of the uniformed services leadership during WWII and remained deeply suspicious of and disappointed in the counsel he received from the service chiefs throughout the course of his presidency.

All told, this is a highly engaging, insightful and (I believe) honest book. However, it is likely not for everyone, especially those who still have a deep and abiding fondness for Kennedy.


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