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Showing posts with label Alex von Tunzelmann Red Heat. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alex von Tunzelmann Red Heat. Show all posts

Thursday 28 August 2014

Review: Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This is the second Junot Diaz I have read - his This Is How You Lose Her was the first (it's reviewed on this site 28 December 2013)). It's a weightier book which weaves in and out of the terrible history of the Dominican Republic under the US-backed barbarism of Trujillo and since. It could be read in companion with Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat - a terrifying history of Caribbean dictatorships (reviewed on this site 9 June 2012).

It is verbally spectacular and at the same time very raw and direct. There are no euphemisms. The title is actually a little misleading insofar as there are several main characters whose story is told - the story of Oscar's mother Beli is developed at length and is perhaps the most emotionally powerful of the narratives though some readers might select the story of Beli's father, Abelard.

Written in English, a fair amount of text and dialogue is in Spanish. I am not the sort of reader willing to sit with an urban dictionary or to constantly Google. It may be that English - speaking readers in the United States can handle the Spanish but that won't be true of English - speaking readers in other countries (like my England). Maybe there should have been a separate edition for those readers with glosses or translations to make things smoother - after all, Diaz provides English when occasionally he uses French or Latin and it is not disruptive if done intelligently. I wondered if the Spanish - language edition leaves chunks of text in English. If not, then by parity of reasoning nothing would be lost by making this book more accessible to English readers who don't have (much) Spanish as a foreign language

Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat : American Foreign Policy as it was and may always be

This second book by Alex von Tunzlemann, like her first (Indian Summer) is well written, fascinating, troubling and - this time round - chilling. It basically tells the story of how through the 1950s and 1960s, America screwed up over Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti and in doing so ensured that life in the last two of those countries remained nasty, brutal and short. In Haiti's case, it has never recovered from the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The US repeatedly sided with the worst actors in the Caribbean's tragedy - the murderous regimes of Batista, Trujillo and Duvalier; it made policy on the back of pathetically inadequate intelligence-gathering and analysis; and it never managed to get to the position where the left hand knew what the right was doing. It's scary.

Von Tunzlemann doesn't link past to present in more than a minimal fashion, but it's not hard to expand from her history into contemporary politics.

The obsession with the Communist Threat blinkered and distorted information gathering, analysis and policy. Worse, bad practices such as appointing ambassadors for political services (and donations) rendered rather than their diplomatic skills meant that some of them actively distorted reports to Washington as they cosied up to dictators and furthered their own personal interests.

Today, obsession with the Terrorist Threat - Al Qaeda and all the rest - has been marked with more or less identical failings, of which George W Bush's desperate need to believe Saddam Hussein in bed with Osama bin Laden is just one example. Bush's taste for appointing cronies to positions for which they had no qualificatins or talent condemned (among other things) the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to dismal failure (chronicled in such works as Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an out of control and morally blank CIA did enormous harm. Von Tunzlemann chronicles it working with organised crime syndicates, pouring money into subversive groups lacking any popular support, plotting criminal acts aimed against the USA itself (and potentialy involving civilian deaths) with the aim of blaming them on Castro, all the time unperturbed by the horrific tortures practised, often personally, by its favoured friends.

That legacy of the CIA is still with us. It led - for example only - to Colin Powell going to the General Assembly of the United Nations with a cock and bull slide show about Iraq's mobile WMD capacity - all of it made up for the occasion with the help of an unreliable "informant", the now notorious "Curveball".

Goodness knows what the CIA is up to today in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and a host of other countries. Of only one thing we can be sure, it is unlikely to bring increased personal security or economic well-being to ordinary citizens of those blighted countries.

The world described in Red Heat is unremittingly masculine. Women have only bit parts. The men chomp on cigars, shoot from the hip, are insufferably vain when they are not paranoid and megalomaniac, demand that women service them (JFK), and so on and so forth. Maybe the only change fifty years on is that there is Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.

One other - perhaps smaller - thing. The Kennedy brothers - JFK and Robert - come out of this book very badly even though von Tunzelmann does not aim at that. Neither appears to have been fit for high office, any more than Johnson or Nixon. Both appear to have been without guiding principles, political or moral. JFK took crucial decisions under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Robert was prepared to contemplate murder and mayhem in pursuit of impulsively-chosen goals. Both appear to have had some links to organised crime. Perhaps it is not so surprising that they were both assassinated.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Rodric Braithwaite, Afgansty: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

American ambassadors are political appointees, rewarded for financial contributions to election campaigns, and they are often enough stupid or crooks: try the examples in Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat for proof.

British ambassadors are career appointees and often enough clever and honourable. Sherard Cowper-Coles who wrote Cables from Kabul is a good, recent example. So too is Rodric Braithwaite.

His book is partly an unspoken ("diplomatic") critique of the current NATO occupation of Afghanistan. Every chapter of his book about the Russian Occupation of 1979 - 1989 allows parallels to be drawn with the current disaster.

The book is remarkable for its clear-headed portrayal of the horrors of war, and especially, the horrors of wars of occupation. Perhaps surprisingly for a former ambassador engaged in high diplomacy, Braithwaite dwells at length on the experience of ordinary Afghans and ordinary Russian soldiers and technical advisers. He writes a very humane book, readable from cover to cover. But quite often, it is disturbing reading.

At the same time, Braithwaite presents the leadership and higher authorities (military, intelligence, civilian) of the Soviet Union as less sclerotic and less vicious than is often imagined. At times, I guess that what he writes will make people in the Foreign Office think that he is just another of those ambassadors who "went native". (He was Ambassador to Moscow, 1988 - 1992).

The Soviet Union got itself into a mess in Afghanistan, found it hard to get out, and when it did so left a legacy of bitterness both in Afghanistan and in Russia where veterans of the war and parents of dead soldiers felt betrayed.

15 000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan; somewhere between 600 000 and 2 500 000 Afghans: no one was counting and perhaps 1 million is the safe guess. See pages 346-47 for the number crunching.

In due course, when we have left, writers will tally the figures from the current war.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do