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A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East-David Fromkin

OttomanIdeology is sometimes as powerful of a tool as violence and in some cases has been the direct cause of violence. In the Middle East, ideology has maintain a stronghold as it finds itself on a crash course with modernity.   Those who live outside the Middle East are at times confused and mystified by the traditions and events that occur throughout the Arab nations.   In fact, many of us here in the United States do not know how the modern-day Middle East came into existence.  To them, I say that the key to understanding the Middle East is to retrace its history to see why and how it developed into what we know it to be today.  David Fromkin lends us a helping hand in this incredible historical investigative account of the fall of the legendary Ottoman Empire and the creation of a region that would never truly know peace.

I find it a bit ironic that the title is called A Peace to End All Peace because when the reader has finished the book, he or she will see that is far from what happened.  But the question is why not?  To find that answer, we revisit Constantinople, headquarters of the empire, prior to the outbreak of World War I.  Iraq and Jordan (formerly Transjordan) had yet to be created.   Iraq was then known as Mesopotamia and Jordan was still part of Palestine.  The Zionist cause was still in its early stages and it would be several years before the signing of the Balfour Declaration. Regardless, these nations were caught in the middle of a bitter conflict as Britain and Russia took on the German Republic for control of the Ottoman Empire.  But as casualties mounted and victories were won, what was really transpiring behind the scenes?  And who were the major players?  As we step back into time with Fromkin, we are re-introduced to long-lost figures such as the famous Winston Churchill (1874-1965),  former Prime Minister Lloyd George (1864-1945),  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)(1888-1935).   Lawrence has been transformed throughout the years into a larger than life character but Fromkin provides a good biographical sketch of him and investigates his true role in the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the British goal of conquering the Middle East.  However, as Fromkin shows us, the heart of the entire stories lies in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret pledge between Britain, France and Russia to partition the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Germany in World War I.  The agreement shaped relations between the nations for decades to come.

The story is an incredible from start to finish and after you have completed the book, you will better understand why the Middle East is the way it is today.  You will further understand how the Zionist cause for a homeland grew in strength due in part to the actions of the British Government.  The story of Palestine is especially important for the effects of the actions then are still being felt today.   Fromkin has done an excellent job of researching the topic and it is evident in his writing.  The book reads like a historical novel full of intrigue, mystery and ultimately tragedy.  Further, the relationship between Russia and the nations of the U.S.S.R. are examined highlighting the cultural diversity that once encompassed the Soviet Union.   The Bolshevik revolution is discussed but not at great length.   Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) make appearances but their story is only discussed regarding its relevance to the current topic.  And throughout the book, developments in other nations are mentioned but the author never strays off topic.   Like a master professor, he keeps us on course throughout a critical time in the history of the world that was complicated to say the least.

The book ends before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the start of World War II.  And it would not be until 1948 that the nation of Israel was formally created.  Readers may be surprised to reach the end of the book only to find that the story does not continue in the next decade.  But the reality is that was never the intention and is irrelevant to the story at hand.  True, the events in this book would affect the future in many different ways but that is a topic for another discussion.  For those who wish to understand how an Empire came crashing down, the development of the modern-day Middle East and how several nations underestimated the power of the Islamic faith, this is a great place to start.  And for others who have an active interest in the Middle East, this book is a much welcomed addition to any library.

“To the victor belongs the spoils” – New York Senator William L. Marcy

ISBN-10: 0805068848
ISBN-13: 978-0805068849

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Ice Man, Captain America, and the New Face of American War-Evan Wright

gkFourteen years have passed since the United States military invaded the nation of Iraq and deposed its former ruler Saddam Hussein.  President George W. Bush had declared Iraq America’s number one enemy and vowed to remove Hussein from power.  Hussein fled but was captured in December, 1993 and eventually executed for his crimes against his own people.  For many Iraqis and Americans, his death was long overdue and they bid farewell to one of history’s worst dictators.  Critics of the war remain and remind us that our military is still in Iraq and no clear permanent solution to establish true democracy is in place.  The war is as controversial as those that precede it.  But for the men and women that served in the war,  their stories are often unnoticed.  However in this phenomenal story, Evan Wright brings their story to light for the world to see what warfare was like for thousands of troops.  In March, 2003, he accompanied the First Reconnaissance Battalion as the invasion begins.  The group becomes known as First Recon and is tasked with clearing town after town until the Iraqi army capitulates.   Baghdad eventually falls, Hussein escapes and the marines have done their job for the time being.  America celebrates and Bush stands stoically as the armed forces once again succeed.  The infantry soldiers return to civilian life or choose to remain enlisted.  Their stories fade in time and their names are often never heard of by the mainstream public.  But just who are these brave souls and why do they voluntarily put their lives on the line?  Wright explores this and more in the book that became a New York Times Bestseller and inspired the HBO hit series of the same name.

I forewarn those readers looking for a feel good story to stop before they purchase the book.  There is no glorification of war in this story, this is the life of a grunt and all of the ugliness that comes with it.  The Marines are quite young, most of them under twenty-five years of age.  But they are hardened and they are seasoned with one command, to kill whatever is hostile.  Readers that dislike profanity or crude talk might do well to prepare ahead of time for the dialogue contained within the pages of the book.  They’re Marines in a foreign land embroiled in a deadly conflict.  Pleasantries sometimes go out of the window.  To Iraqi troops and foreigners who have come to Iraq to fight the Americans, the Marines are a mass of invaders and nothing more.  But as we travel with the group next to Wright, we learn their stories and talk to each man to get his view on the war and his own life.  Their stories are fascinating and as we get to know them, we come to like them more and more and nervously wait until each battle is over, hoping that there have been no casualties.  Sadly, there are casualties in the book but that is a part of war.

The saying that war is hell is entirely appropriate throughout the book.  As I read through it I found myself having enormous empathy for the Iraqi civilians that the group encounters.   Some of them are severely or fatally wounded and others are mentally unbalanced because of the sudden invasion.  Their loved ones, land and animals are destroyed by American weapons but yet they truly believe in the removal of Saddam.  Their ability to continue even in the face of crippling adversity is beyond admirable.   The deaths of the civilians and their deplorable conditions affect the Marines and we see how each one wages his own personal battle knowing that his actions and those of his fellow soldiers have permanent effects on their lives. Sgt. Brad Colbert is the most recognizable and plays a prominent role in the book.  In him particularly, Jung’s concept of the duality of man is put on display.  He is joined by other Marines whom we meet one by one as the story progresses.

If he were alive today, I think Gustav Hasford (1947-1993) would be proud to read Generation Kill.  In fact, there are times in the book where I am reminded of his classic The Short Timers, the book that served as the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s (1928-1999) Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987).  Cowboy, Joker and Animal Mother would be in awe of Espera, Gunny and Manimal.  The war is different but the Marines are the tough lot of characters they are expected to be.  The battle scenes in Nasiriyah, Al Gharraf and Al Muwaffaqiyah are vivid and pull the reader in refusing to let go.  I have never been in active combat but as I read the book, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up each time the platoon reaches a new destination, unknown to them and potentially a kill zone.  Incredibly, the men perform as if on cue even as they are under heavy fire.  I cannot say enough about the courage they display in this book.  And regardless of personal opinions readers may have about the war,  the efforts of the soldiers and conditions under which they exist, deserved our full support and understanding.  Wright has done a great service to these Marines and the many others that have proudly put their lives on the line in defense of the United States.

ISBN-10: 0425224740
ISBN-13: 978-0425224748

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein-John Nixon

saddamOn March 20, 2003, the United States military invaded the Republic of Iraq.  The invasion marked the second time US and Iraqi forces faced off in armed conflict.  Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq was deposed and fled into hiding.  He was captured several months later on December 10, 2003 and three years later, executed by hanging.  Over 10 years have passed since his death and Iraq continues to struggle with stability in the face of internal factions divided along tribal and religions lines and the emergence of ISIS intent of claiming their portion of territory across the Middle East.  After he was captured, he was debriefed by American forces. The man who many Americans had seen as a powerful dictator on television, was reduced to another captured fugitive on a most wanted list.  His appearance before cameras with a full beard and unkempt hear, remains one of the most popular images from that decade.   However, it was a stark contrast from the man who allegedly had his mind-set on the destruction of America.  But is that was Saddam Hussein really wanted? And what were his thoughts leading up to and during the invasion?  John Nixon served as a former Senior Analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency and was tasked with debriefing the fallen dictator.  This book is a recap of his career and the conversations he had with Hussein following his historic capture.

I believe that in order to truly enjoy this book, it is necessary for the reader to abandon any pre-conceived notions he or she might have about Hussein.  While he was in fact a brutal tyrant, he did serve as Iraq’s head of state and provides insight to the decisions and non-decisions prior to the U.S. invasion.  Prior to reading the book, I knew that Hussein was one of the worst rulers the world had seen. But I was curious as to what he truly thought about U.S. foreign policy towards his country.    His answers a lot of questions and also clears up a few long-standing rumors.   After finishing the book, I did not come away with a favorable impression of Hussein. Neither did I feel any more antipathy towards him.   I do empathize with the men and women of Iraq who suffered under his reign.    And I do feel that he was either unable or unwilling to see the error in his ways.   At one point during the book he makes it clear that ruling Iraq was no easy task because of several factors and fears.   Perhaps he is right, after all he would know better than any of us. I did find it easier to understand why he did not fully prepare for the invasion but found it increasing difficult to find any justification for the invasion.  I never believed in the invasion and after reading Hussein’s answers, it seems even more bizarre and highlights a terrible moment in U.S. foreign policy.

It may sound ridiculous to some but during the book, it seemed absurd that the Hussein that is captured was the leader of Iraq.   Perhaps his capture served to humble him slightly but I had trouble looking at him in the same way.   Was he naive about some things? Absolutely.   Was he also defiant? Yes he was.  But the real question is was he a threat to American security and did he plan to kill both George H.W. Bush and the daughters of George W. Bush?  Nixon touches on those topics and the answers just might surprise you. Nixon did an excellent job of remaining unbiased throughout the book.  At no time does he praise of show disdain for Hussein.  He does point out errors in Hussein’s answers and does make comments about his character but he gives a balanced account and lets the former ruler speak for himself.

Saddam is by far the highlight and main topic of the book. But where the book also piques interest is in Nixon’s account of the meetings with President Bush.   His memories help shed light on what the White House was thinking and willing to believe as the events were taking place.  And although I’m sure the book was heavily vetted by the CIA and perhaps the Obama administration, Nixon is quite frank in his assessment of both cabinets. He also points out where the ball was dropped and the difficulty America has in understanding our counterparts in the Middle East and in particular, Iraq. The book is not the end all account of the story of the invasion but it is a great read to understanding the mind of Saddam Hussein.

ISBN-10: 0399575812
ISBN-13: 978-0399575815

 

Mayada: Daughter of Iraq -Jean Sasson

51sGUtZB2GL._AC_UL320_SR190,320_Many years have passed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq but the effects continue to linger.  The conflict continues to rear its ugly head and provokes fierce debate.   When Saddam Hussein was finally captured and subsequently convicted, many Muslims in Iraq and other nations breathed a sigh of relief.  The region continues to deal with social and political issues, but the days of Hussein and his power-hungry sons are long gone.  Stories of their inhumane treatment and the barbaric conditions of the country’s prisons are never-ending.   Exiles from the country have opened up and revealed what they remember from their time under the brutal Hussein regime.  This is the story of  Mayada Al-Askari, a divorced mother of two who ran a local printing shop and was wrongfully accused of spreading anti-government. She was arrested, incarcerated and tortured on a regular basis by prison officials determined to find the source of the anti-regime literature.  She was eventually released when it was determined that a subordinate of hers was the real culprit behind the printings.

After becoming friends with Jean Sasson, the noted author of multiple books about the Middle East including Growing Up Bin Laden, she tells the story of how and why she was arrested and the many horrors she heard and saw during her incarceration at the infamous Baladiyat prison.   Finding herself crammed into a cell with a large number of other women, most of whom are also imprisoned on false charges, she forms friendships with several women who server as a keeper for one another fearful of the barbaric nature of the guards assigned to their floor.   In the effort to create a sadistic and deadly environment, a daily regimen of physical and psychological abuse is enforced to break the spirit and mind of every inmate.  From executions to severe beatings, the savagery and merciless abuse reveals a cultural mindset bent on submission at any price. The stories in the book are tragic and horrific and they served as a reminder of the dark side of the Hussein regime.  The number of atrocities committed by Hussein are well-known and repulsive.  Mayada’s story helps to give a voice to thousands of other woman and men who were falsely imprisoned in Iraq and forced endured treatment of the worst kind.

ISBN-10: 0451212924
ISBN-13: 978-0451212924

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