THE TWILIGHT WAR by David Crist

I have followed US-Iranian relations for over forty years and David Crist’s work is the best that I have come across. It is a maticuously researched book that explores most diplomatic and military aspects of the American-Iranian relationship since the decline of the Shah and his overthrow in 1979. Crist explores the role of all the major players during the period and he raises important questions as to whether the deterioration of Washington’s relationship with Teheran could have been avoided are at least lessened significantly. The importance of this book can not be measured as Christ provides insight as to why Teheran has been the real victor resulting from the American invasion of Iraq. the twilight war may someday evolve into a “hot” war and policy makers and the general public should read this book very carefully. It is written in such a manner that the general public and the academic can benefit from. Based on current events Crist lays out some scary possibilities whether it pertains to the past or the future.

THE SYSTEM: THE GLORY AND SCANDAL OF BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

 

When I picked up THE SYSTEM: THE GLORY AND SCANDAL OF BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian off the shelf at my favorite bookstore I flashed back to the early 1970s when I was an academic tutor for the football program at a division one school. As I thumbed through the book’s pages it was a natural for me to purchase it as I wanted to explore how collegiate football had changed over the decades and see if the abuses I witnessed decades ago still existed. I am sorry to say many of the things discussed by the authors were similar to situations I had encountered. I worked for one of the top coaches in the collegiate game and I was responsible for tutoring football players in the “jock dorm” each night and I had double duty before midterm and semester exams. I was told on many occasions that “resources” were available to make sure players passed their courses. The purpose of this review is not to report on my experiences, but to see what Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian uncovered in their thorough and eye opening portrait of college football as the 2013 collegiate season commenced.
The book outlines many important issues that haunt college football. The authors cover well known scandals that have been reported in the last ten years. The “tattoo” problem at Ohio State under Jim Tressel in addition to other NCAA violations that led ultimately led to Tressel’s firing is explored in detail. The problems that enveloped Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky situation is presented very clearly as to who was to blame for the university cover up of sexual abuse of youngsters put in Sandusky’s charge. Events at the University of Miami that highlighted the problem of boosters and their influence and impact on college football programs are dissected and what emerges is a widespread problem that existed throughout the country and was not endemic just too a few schools. Recruiting methods reflect a college game that at times is out of control. Offers of money, sex, cars and other amenities are very prevalent but are to be expected when universities are forced to hire coaches, many of which are fully aware of what boosters and others are offering recruits, to compete in what has become a multi-million dollar industry.

The discussion of violations in the tutoring program struck home for me. I remember the words of the head coach I worked for; “Steve, I have this here linebacker and he has to pass” and the coach reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a wad of game tickets for me to sell and he also told me to charge the Athletic Department whatever amount was necessary to make sure his boys passed their courses. The authors delineate the problems of the tutoring program at a number of institutions and for me some of the issues dealing with academic cheating that were present in the 1970s remain the same. The authors offer a great of evidence as it explored the number of criminal acts that college football players commit. Rape, drugs, violent acts are all part of the picture. In addition, when football players commit some of these acts in many cases universities do not cooperate and try to avoid responsibility when dealing with NCAA investigations. What concerns me is that universities became aware of criminal records of recruits before they enrolled, and then appear surprised when these same individuals committed the same types of acts in college.
To the authors credit not everything in the book is negative. Benedict and Keteyian focus some of their attention on individual portraits of young men, coaches, and universities that present uplifting stories. The discussion of the BYU program under coach Bronco Mendenhall gives one hope that not all college programs are unethical. The discussion centering on Towson University is also exemplary as are other examples that are provided.

The book not only deals with events related to campus life but it has a wonderful chapter on ESPN and its “Game Day” program. The reader is taken inside the recruitment of announcers and how telecasts are put together. The authors also explore the financial commitment that the networks have made as well as how profitable it has become for the networks in addition to universities as the football programs bring in millions of dollars each year. The sums involved are enormous which explains why the college game has become so cut throat. The book closes with a chapter dealing with Nick Saban and his Alabama football team. The chapter presents a positive spin on how Saban developed his coaching philosophy and how it is employed at Alabama.

Alabama and the other 119 division programs are part of the national spectacle of college football and a game that has allowed universities to use the success on the grid iron as a source of revenue to benefit both athletic and academic programs. Though the book does explore some wonderful stories of achievement and success on a personal level by those involved in the game, the authors note a great deal of caution as they close the book by summing up the issues that still plague college football, “One could almost forget the unremitting pressure, the scandals haunting the sport-the bidding wars for top recruits; the booster payoffs; the horrific injuries; the academic cheating; the rising tide of criminal acts; the brute fact that the young men who sacrificed on the field were interchangeable pieces who have received none of the billions of revenue the game generated.” (386) For those looking for an inside look at these issues as the NCAA battles to try and weed out certain individuals and practices, THE SYSTEM is the perfect book for you.

THE SECRETARY: A JOURNAL WITH HILLARY CLINTON FROM BEIRUT TO THE HEART OF AMERICAN POWER by Kim Ghattas

At a time when the rumors surrounding the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 seems to permeate every news cycle Kim Ghattas presents the public with a marvelous book that describes not only her personal journey from the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s to the present, but allows the reader to enter the decision making process of the State Department. THE SECRETARY: A JOURNAL WITH HILLARY CLINTON FROM BEIRUT TO THE HEART OF AMERICAN POWER provides a unique perspective as the author, the BBC State Department correspondent shares with the reader her world- wide travels over hundreds of thousands of miles with Secretary of State Clinton. What emerges is an understanding of the motivations and the limitations of American power. Entering office the Obama administration set as one of its major goals a corrective foreign policy designed to repair the damage caused to America’s reputation abroad that resulted from Bush administration policies. In the book Ghattas described Clinton’s strategy, which at times differed from President Obama, in trying to restore trust in the United States among allies, and improve relations with those countries that were skeptical about working with Washington. Interwoven in this journey are the author’s memories and emotions related to her upbringing in war torn BeIRUT and how she relates her personal observations and emotions to American actions be they in Libya, Syria, dealing with China, or a myriad of other topics. The conclusion that Ghattas has reached is that Clinton has been successful in laying the foundation for the reorientation of American policy where “working with the United States is once again desirable” (333) It is no longer “you are with us or against us,” the mantra of the previous administration. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the intricacies of the development of American “smart power,” and the implementation of Hillary Clinton’s style of personal diplomacy.

THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN by Scott Miller

If you are a fan of narrative history that is well written and provides an engaging story with a tinge of analysis then Scott Miller’s THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN should be of interest. Miller has written a dual socio-political biography of William McKinley through his assassination in 1901, and the development of anarchism in the United States zeroing in on Leon Czologosz, McKinley’s assassin, and other anarchists including Emma Goldman. As you read the book many comparisons to contemporary problems emerge. Miller’s dominant theme centers around the idea that the election of William McKinley in 1896 and the policies pursued by his administration set the tone for the 20th century and set the United States on course to being the dominant power in the world. While a strong case is made in support of this viewpoint there is very little that is new in terms of historical interpretation. What is valuable is how Miller synthesizes a great deal of material in a very cogent and readable fashion.

What is most interesting in the book is the development of the Open Door Policy that has been attributed to Secretary of State John Hay. In fact the British approached the United States as a means of protecting their trade in China as they were engulfed in the Boer War from 1899-1902. For the United States the policy was designed to guarantee trade access to China at a time of political disintegration and foreign threats from Japan and Russia. The discussion is well laid out as are other diplomatic issues. On the domestic front Miller does his best work as he explores the origins of anarchism in America through the eyes of Albert Parsons, Johann Most, Emma Goldman and the revolutionary want to be, Leon Czologosz. The author takes the reader through the labor unrest of the 1880s and 90s concentrating on the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago and the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania. The main characters with their ideology and motives are delved into nicely and the plight of labor is reflected in a very sympathetic fashion.

McKinley is presented as a moral person who evolves into a proponent of imperialism. With the backdrop of the Depression of 1893 McKinley, who viewed himself as a god fearing man will justify the annexation of Hawaii, the Spanish American War, and the insurrection in the Philippines on moral grounds. McKinley reached the conclusion, (through the assistance of prayer!) that the American economy if it were to recover needed foreign markets. So “the man with no overseas ambitions….spoke of extending America’s footprint from the Caribbean to the farthest reaches of the Pacific.” (178) With the Spanish Empire available, McKinley prayed for guidance, then took the plunge resulting in war with Spain and the crushing of a bloody indigenous movement in the Philippines resulting in the death of 4,234 Americans as well as 2,818 wounded. On the Filipino side 16,000 native soldiers were killed and up to 200,000 civilians passed from famine and disease. For the United States this was the American version of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” Reflecting our racial superiority, Americans believed it was our duty to pacify and civilize native populations, as was seemingly preordained by the concept of America as a shinning “city on a hill” during the Puritan era.

In comparing the problems faced by the United States during McKinley’s administration and events of today it is interesting to compare what occurred in the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular it is important to contemplate these events and their outcomes as the debate rages in Congress as what Washington should do about the slaughter that is taking place in Syria. Other comparison might be made on the economic side as trusts dominate business at the turn of the century and how multinationals and other large corporate entities control our economy today. The Depression of 1893 and the 2008 meltdown may bring food for thought as do the “Robber Barons” of yesteryear and the “1%” today. Realizing that historical comparisons can overdrawn, but I give the author credit for suggesting that as George Santayana has stated “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” again food for thought.

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson has written a superb novel. The subject is the theater that is North Korea. Through the character of Pak Jun Do/Commander Ga the reader is taken on a journey through the depths of cynicism and horror that reside under the reign of Kim Jong IL. It is a political system were having one’s own identity is a crime against the state. Though this is a work of fiction it is a shocking portrayal of North Korean society and a grim reminder of what can happen in s country ruled by xenophobic megalomaniac who has scripted the everyday life of his people and has forced them into an existence of phony emotions and relationships. The author is able to integrate somewhat normal human interchange as he weaves his way through the travails of his characters. It is a riveting read and I would recommend it to Secretary of State Kerry as he tries to make rhyme or reason as to decision-making in Pyongyang.

GIANT IN THE SHADOWS: THE LIFE OF ROBERT T. LINCOLN by Jason Emerson

I decided to read Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln by Jason Emerson for the simple reason that I was curious what it would have been like to be the son of the “Great Emancipator.” Mr. Emerson did not let me down. The reader is presented with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his only surviving son and a wonderful and detailed narrative history of the Lincoln family from the 1840s through the 1920s. Emerson has written what I would describe as a “comfortable” book where the reader is invited into the mindset of Robert Lincoln. We see the many crises that “young” Lincoln suffered, the politics of the period, the expansion of the American economy and his role in it, in addition to his personal issues relating to both of his parents. We learn that Abraham Lincoln was an overindulgent parent in spite of the fact that Robert was mostly raised by his mother Mary since his father spent a great deal of time traveling the judicial circuit before pursuing a political career. The material that is presented on Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, the death of their children, and the political background is written in an engaging style and is concisely presented though many of the details are not new.
What are new are the details of Robert’s relationship with his mother. Emerson drawing in part on his previous work on Mary Todd Lincoln provides an intricate description of his mother’s mental health following the assassination of his father. The emotional collapse, debts, and wrenching familial details eventually forced Robert to have his mother committed. From 1865-1875 his mother’s mental state dominated a significant amount of time and Robert grew mortified by his mother’s behavior. Robert was deeply concerned about his family’s historical legacy throughout his life so dealing with a mother who was probably bipolar was a challenge. Robert went so far as having his mother followed by Pinkerton detectives as she continued to spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing, furniture, and spiritualists. Eventually Robert consulted his father’s friends for advice and all agreed she should be institutionalized. The reader is witness to this entire episode which focuses in part on the state of mental health treatment in the United States at the time. After a short stay, under pressure from Mary and fearing publicity Robert approves of his mother’s release and he comes to terms in dealing with his her sickness as best he can.
Robert Lincoln emerges as a remarkable man. One can hardly imagine what it must have been like to bury two brothers, a father and mother, and witness three presidential assassinations. In addition, Robert Lincoln was not a well man who probably suffered from Bright’s Disease in addition to experiencing repeated bouts of depression. Despite these obstacles Robert Lincoln became an exceptional corporate lawyer, a wise business man who amassed a fortune, ambassador to England, was appointed Secretary of War, served as the CEO of The Pullman Palace Car Company, among his many achievements to the point that he was seriously thought of as a presidential candidate in the 1880s. Emerson takes the reader through all of these aspects of Robert’s life and pulls no punches in evaluating his subject. The key dichotomy is how the son differed from his father and Emerson concludes that despite the son’s anti-labor (Pullman Strike) and pro-business stances he was not that different in outlook from his father.
A key theme that is followed throughout the book is Robert Lincoln’s concern for his father’s place in history. Robert refused to allow historians, except for John G. Nicolay and John Hay, his father’s former secretaries during the Civil War access to presidential papers and other documents until twenty one years after his death. He reasoned that there was too much information that could impact people in a negative way that were still alive. There was nothing too small for Robert Lincoln to become involved with if it related to his father. Whether it was the creation of monuments, paintings, museums and documents Robert was the prime decision maker. Robert Lincoln lived a remarkable life that Jason Emerson captures very nicely. I am certain this book will become the standard treatment of its subject for years to come and though it may be an esoteric subject for some, it is lively and well worth the time to read.

 

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SUGAR RAY ROBINSON by Wil Haygood

Wil Haygood’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SUGAR RAY ROBINSON is an almost literary portrait of one of the most revered boxers ring history. It is an intimate portrait of Robinson’s life and career blended with the cultural details of America during his lifetime. The reader is exposed to Robinson’s love/hate relationship with the “sweet science” as well as his desire to immerse himself in the world of jazz and the Harlem cultural scene. We are presented with the details of his major fights, though in a rather disorganized chronological fashion that at times leaves the reader somewhat confused. But Haygood’s blend of music, civil rights, and the generosity of his subject is well done. What is sad is that as Robinson’s boxing career should be ending, like others, he is forced to retire and unretired because of financial woes. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a truly in magnificent life that reads much more than a sports biography.

THE HOPKINS TOUCH by David Roll

David Roll has written an exemplary biography delineating the role of Harry Hopkins during the depression and World War II. Roll explores all aspects of Hopkins life beginning with a brief biography of his pre-Roosevelt administration life then he goes on to detail the relationship between Hopkins and FDR. Roll brings the reader into the White House during the depression and the Second World War. You are presented with the importance of Hopkins’ work assisting the poor in the 1930s and initiating and implementing FDR’s personal diplomacy during the war. Hopkins’ relationships with Churchill and Stalin were important to the success of the grand coalition against the Nazis and Roll does an excellent job dealing with FDR’s nuanced strategy to win the war and set up a peaceful postwar period. Roll has created the best work on Hopkins and it is sure to remain so for years to come.

THE HARD WAY by Lee Child

The HARD WAY is a typical Jack Reacher mystery. Great character development and a plot that keeps the ready interested. The twists and turns as Reacher deals with the usual psychotic opponent this time a former commanding officer, a Blackwater type, who had been outsourced to Africa with his unit. The usual political asides are subtly brought out, ie., gun control, Homeland Security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the tenth Reacher mystery I have read and it holds up to those that preceded it. If you liked Jack Reacher in the past you will enjoy this one. Jack Reacher is the real deal as opposed to Tom Cruise in the movie!

THE GUNS LAST LIGHT by Rick Atkinson

For those who are interested in the military history of Europe during World War II but do not enjoy dealing with the minutiae of military detail for each battle Rick Atkinson has done us all a service.  He has produced what has been labeled as the “liberation trilogy” which he has just completed with the publication of THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT THE WAR IN WESTERN EUROPE, 1944-1945.  Mr. Atkinson has spent the last fifteen years researching and writing his history of the war in Europe.  In 2002 he presented AN ARMY AT DAWN, THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA, 1942-1943, and in 2008, THE WAR IN BATTLE: THE WAR IN SICILY AND ITALY, 1943-1944 was published.  The project has been a remarkable undertaking and I felt a void in my own study of the war having not engaged these volumes until now.  After watching a series of interviews of the author the last few weeks I decided to undertake the joyful task of tackling the first volume dealing with the war in North Africa.  To say the least, I have not been disappointed.  Mr. Atkinson writes in a fluid manner, presents the necessary background, detail, and analysis of each confrontation, in addition to character studies of the important personages who led the allied armies, and leaves the reader with the feeling he has accompanied allied troops from the landing in November, 1942 to final victory in North Africa in May, 1943.

The reader follows the journey of untrained American troops who make up a somewhat ragtag army through months of fighting emerging as an effective fighting force that learns the key lesson for military success, the ability to hate.  The themes that the author develops are ostensibly accurate throughout the narrative.  He begins by arguing that the invasion of North Africa was a pivotal point in American history as it was the place where the United States began to act as a great power.  The invasion defined the Anglo-American coalition and the strategic course of the war.  The decision to invade North Africa found President Roosevelt going against the advice of his generals who favored a cross channel landing on the French coast.  Roosevelt, ever the political animal was facing the 1942 congressional elections saw the need for a positive military result and North Africa seemed like the safest bet.  By going along with the British Roosevelt made the correct decision because it was unrealistic to expect a successful cross channel invasion in 1942 or 1943.

Atkinson presents the infighting among the allied generals as plans for Operation Torch evolved.  The reader is taken into the war councils and is exposed to the logic of each position as well as the deep personality conflicts that existed throughout this period between the leading actors in the American and British military hierarchies.  The British made known their contempt for the fighting ability of American troops in addition to their disdain for American military leadership throughout this period.  The Americans reciprocated these feelings at the haughtiness and egocentric attitudes of British planners.  The vignettes dealing with Generals George S. Patton, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Omar T. Bradley on the American side and those of Generals Harold Alexander and Bernard L. Montgomery are brutally honest.  We see the development of Dwight David Eisenhower, who is periodically stricken with self-doubt into a confident Supreme Commander.  The relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt does not break any new ground but Atkinson summarizes their relationship nicely developing the most salient points relating to political and military decision making.

The most interesting part of the book involves American GIs.  From the outset Atkinson’s goal is to present the war from the perspective of those who groveled, crawled, marched, and died in the North African campaign.  The author’s discussion of the 34th Infantry Division provides insights into the problems of creating an invasion force without the requisite training.  The issue of “time” to prepare American troops has a lasting impact on the early conduct of the invasion and the attempt to push the Germans out of Tunisia.  The discussion of the “34th” is a microcosm of the war American troops faced and the problems that had to be overcome during the six months of combat that led to victory over the Germans in North Africa in May, 1943.  Perhaps the author’s greatest success is creating the “fog of war” accurately.  The needless death due to planning errors, the civilian casualties, the emotions displayed by the troops are all on display.  In all of these instances Atkinson provides unique examples to supplement his comments.  Whether he is describing the battle for Hill 609 in northern Tunisia, the landings in Oran, Algeria, or the fighting at the Kasserine Pass the reader cannot help but be absorbed in the narrative.  It is not a stretch to come to the conclusion that Mr. Atkinson is a superb writer of military history.

Another area that Atkinson excels is his discussion of wartime diplomacy.  The issue of how the French would react to the invasion would go a long way in determining the length and depth of the fighting and its ultimate results.  Portraits of the two key French figures; Admiral Jean Louis Darlan and General Henri Honore Giraud, both Vichyite collaborators and their negotiations with General Mark Clark and Robert Murphy reflect the tenuous nature of Franco-American relations during the war and by integrating the role of General Charles De Gaulle we have a portent of the problems that will exist during the war and after.  The competition between Patton and Montgomery and other officers is on full display throughout the book.  Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment was his success in dealing with the diverse egos he was presented with.  Eisenhower’s realization of his lack of combat experience and its impact on his decision making is used by Atkinson to explore his evolution as a successful military leader. The North African campaign provided Eisenhower with the training ground in his development as the man who would lead the allies to victory by 1945.

The depth of Atkinson’s work makes it an exceptional read.  He argues correctly that the key to the allied victory in North Africa and the war in general was that the United States was the “arsenal of democracy.”  As the British kept pointing out it was American industry and its capacity to produce that made up for any military errors the allies may have made.  What also separates Atkinson’s work from other histories dealing with North Africa is the human drama that explores the daily activities of the men who fought.  Whether describing battle scenes, the plight of the wounded, and the impact of casualties on the home front, and other aspects of combat Atkinson has done justice to his subject.  Whether talking about such diverse topics as the $26,000,000 life insurance policy purchased by an American division before battle, the role of General Edwin Rommel, or negotiations at Casablanca the reader can trust the material presented.  If you are a World War II scholar, or are simply interested in a narrative of what for me is the turning point for the United States in the Second World War, the first volume of the “liberation trilogy” is worth exploring and I recommend it highly.