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Book Review: Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld prides itself on providing original and provocative reviews, however, there are times when it’s important to acknowledge that another reviewer nailed it so perfectly that there’s little to add. A high profile release such as Known and Unknown: A Memoir by Donald Rumsfeld will have no shortage of analysis and review, yet none have been as comprehensive, damning, and precise as the following review by Max Boot for which can be found here.

The aspect of both Rumsfeld’s memoir and Boot’s review that is worth a deeper look is, to what degree of failure is attributable to the limits of human knowledge? Specifically, was bad intel the primary reason for poor decision making in the Bush administration? Boot harshly writes:

In other words, all this mock-philosophical reflection is really a not-so-subtle plea on behalf of Donald Rumsfeld. I did the best I could based on the information I had; don’t judge me too harshly. Rumsfeld would be more sympathetic if he were to come out and just throw himself on the public’s mercy. But contrition and humility are utterly alien to the cocksure former Navy fighter pilot who is forever poking his finger in someone’s chest, literally or metaphorically. By invoking the limitations of human knowledge, he is merely providing an alibi for his own failures, without quite coming out and saying so.

Obviously Rumsfeld’s arrogance and lack of grace doesn’t win him many sympathizers, yet, it is the folly of hindsight to condemn decisions made without the same perspective. That Rumsfeld uses the limits of knowledge as an alibi, as Boot suggests, to excuse past decisions does not mean that the alibi has no merit. It does not seem disingenuous, even in hindsight, for Rumsfeld to assert that a major concern of the administration and of President Bush was to prevent Saddam Hussein from disseminating WMDs to terrorists, especially when their intelligence backed up that concern. Nearly eight years after the invasion of Iraq it might be a productive exercise to imagine a counterfactual in which the U.S. did not invade Iraq. Regardless of what one concludes from that exercise, it would be unfair to not imagine a possibility of a much more dangerous world without the Iraq War decision. Obviously that doesn’t absolve the administration from the poor execution, diplomacy, public relations, and further poor decisions made with better intelligence.

Ultimately, Rumsfeld won’t be able to escape the fact that even with the best intentions with regards to decision making, the implementation was often severely flawed. Rather than take responsibility and explain what went wrong on his part or his department’s, Rumsfeld often casts blame at the foot of others – most notably the State Department and Condi Rice. This is where the memoir particularly stands out as a clean up job.

Donald Rumsfeld has had a remarkable career, even with his failures in his second reign as Secretary of Defense. The memoir is filled with interesting anecdotes and notable names. It serves as a first hand perspective from one of the most influential figures in U.S. policy in the last 50 years. Despite Rumsfeld’s mendacity, Known and Unknown: A Memoir is still an important volume in the canon of the Bush Presidency and an entertaining flight through U.S. contemporary history.

Book Review: The Return by Daniel Treisman

America’s relations with former nemesis Russia are as important as they have ever been, yet to many in the West the view of Russia is often clouded with misperceptions and a quick to demonize attitude. China’s rise, global terrorism, two wars in Central Asia, nuclear containment – these are all issues that the U.S. is dealing with and will need the cooperation of Russia to succeed going forward. However, it will be difficult to engage Russia without having a clearer idea of their history and interests. Daniel Treisman authors an extensive work on Russia from Gorbachev to Medvedev which tears down some prevailing beliefs of the West and illustrates the factors and personalities which led Russia to its present day status as a returning power.

Treisman uses an odd format for presenting his book, ignoring a conventional linear layout and instead uses the first four chapters to highlight each of the four Russian leaders since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first four chapters briefly touch on the issues of 1990-2010 with the emphasis being more on the leader. He then returns to specific periods with more depth in the following chapters. At times this layout can be confusing and redundant, yet the first four chapters highlight what may be one of the most determinant factors in modern Russian history, the personalities and characters of the leaders.

The ninth chapter, “Falling Apart”, is where the book shines and is most compelling because it strictly relates the foreign policy between the U.S. and Russia. Treisman separates the chapter into the “View from Moscow” and the “View from Washington” giving each side a balanced perspective and reasoning for making the foreign policy choices it has.  Russia’s perspective, according to Treisman, is that:

  • The U.S. failed to provide economic aid to Russia after the breakup of the Union equivalent of other nations. More damaging was the refusal to forgive the loans that Russia alone was burdened with from the Soviet Union. The West did little to aid Russia’s transformation into a democracy.
  • NATO quickly expanded right up to Russian borders which was a clear betrayal of former promises. In addition to the betrayal it was seen as a threat and not as an action of a country that wanted to support the transition to democracy. Also, by expanding NATO so quickly into the Russian sphere it enhanced the chance of a war between the two powers. The issue with Georgia is along the same lines, with Russia upset at perceived American hypocrisy.
  • The leaders of the U.S. were strangely condescending towards Russia, a nation that still remained a global power.

The US perspective, according to Treisman, is that:

  • Economic Aid was not politically possible. Congress would not grant the aid, especially towards former Soviet soldier’s housing, when their own citizens and soldiers were living in subpar accommodations.
  • Including Russia in NATO was an impossibility because Russia would never agree to play 2nd fiddle to the Americans. Therefore, enlarging NATO to serve the U.S. interests was the rational and necessary choice.
  • Russia appears to often act in defiance of the U.S. for no other reason than to be difficult. This difficulty works against Russia’s interests in the West by redefining their identity to many as a state unwilling to cooperate, or worse an enemy.

Going forward it’s in both nations interests to have a working relationship and according to Treisman, Obama is beginning to open doors that were shut during the Bush administration.

The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev is an excellent narrative of modern day Russian history; in fact the chapter dedicated to the Chechen Wars is alone worth the price of the book. However, more than constructing a narrative, Treisman tries to shed some of the Western notions about Russia as an autocratic nation on par with the Arab states. He illustrates that when it comes to liberties, democracy, and economics, Russia is more similar to other emerging nations such as Brazil rather than Yemen as many would have you believe. Treisman’s writing style may be wanting for a little more color at times, but the depth and extensive material on Russia for the last twenty years is not at all lacking. Anybody interested in how Russia came to its present day status and its role in modern day global affairs would be well advised to check out The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.

Book Review: Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward

Politically what these guys don’t get is it’d be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, ‘You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we’re going to put in 10,000 trainers because that’s how we’re going to get out of there.’

– President Obama

Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward is as much about the political wars that are waged in the administration as it is about the Afghanistan War. Woodward continues where he left off with the Bush at War series as he chronicles President Obama’s dilemmas in dealing with the inherited morass of the Afghanistan War. The narrative begins right after the 2008 election and continues through to late 2010, throughout which the main focus of the book was the problems of Afghanistan, the proposed solutions, and the politics of the war. The heroes and villains of this modern history depend largely upon your worldview, however, there’s little doubt that President Obama is portrayed in a complimentary light as a calculating intellectual with a goal of reining in the mess of the Afghanistan War.

The comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam were taboo in both the military and in the administration, however, for many it rang uncomfortably true.  The situation in Afghanistan was extremely bleak when Obama took the reins as President. The overriding issue and concern was the problem of insurgents and al-Qaeda taking refuge across the border in Pakistan. The Pakistani government was centrally weak and could not only do little about the problem but also turned a blind eye to much of it as they hedged both sides. Pakistan’s obsessive concern is with India and their interests are solely shaded with that concern, to that point the US has not been able to align US and Pakistan interests and therefore the insurgency maintained safe haven in Pakistan. In addition to the Pakistan problem, was the fact that Afghanistan was a failed state with no competent government, massive corruption, and no real military or police, making the state almost totally dependent on the US military to provide security. Though there were several other issues with Afghanistan, those two were the overriding dilemmas.

As soon as Obama was into the White House he already had a standing order from the Bush Administration for 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Obama reluctantly signed it and ordered a full assessment on the Afghanistan War and wanted to see improvement of the situation before another deployment decision was to be made. Bush demanded his administration be lock step with little to no dissension, contrasting that, Obama encouraged much dissension and wanted options before making a decision. This style allowed several different camps to plead their case for solutions in Iraq and created a power politics situation which the military took full advantage. The overriding theme of Obama’s War is the decision whether to grant General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan in order to conduct a more effective CounterInsurgency (COIN) campaign which could last several years into the future. Admiral Mullen, Gen. Petraeus, and Gen. McChrystal were pushing hard for this option, whereas, others in the cabinet were highly skeptical of sending more troops into what appeared to be a hopeless situation, a la Vietnam.

The crux of the book is the documentation of the political battles that took place with regards to adding the 40k troops. The military brass, after rebounding from their emasculation from Donald Rumsfeld, became at times defiant. Vice President Biden counters the military quite well with an aggressive bent that Obama, as Commander in Chief, could not possibly do himself. Biden proposes a “hybrid” option of 20k troops that focuses more CounterTerrorism than COIN. Yet when the President asks the military for other options than the 40k COIN, they impudently try to box him in by not giving any other realistic option and stating that anything else will be a failure. Eventually the President asserts himself and asserts his power in an admirable manner. Obama decides to grant 30k and personally writes the terms and orders sheet which is highly unusual. Even after that the military still made plays to get more troops in with backhanded methods which infuriated Obama.

Woodward’s books rarely delve into motivation or analysis, instead chronicling and allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions. However, some interesting aspects are left out of Obama’s Wars that leads one to certain questions. First, the option to leave Afghanistan is totally off the table and the administration is in full agreement, yet why? This is perplexing, considering that Obama even used it as a threat to the military, see the opening quote above. Secondly, the motivation for the military’s stubborn insistence on a 40k COIN plan is never really discussed yet the issue is really the heart of the book. Most likely:

  • The military cannot and will not “lose” a war. Currently Afghanistan is a losing proposition. The military is inherently a win at all costs organization, hence, the need for civilian oversight.
  • General Petraeus is generally recognized as the father of modern COIN and any failure of a COIN operation reflects poorly on his legacy and career.
  • Unending war justifies the enormous military budget. Pull out of Afghanistan and what’s next, no funding for that new aircraft carrier? The military is enormously important, as is our national security, yet it must compete for it’s piece of the budget pie too.
Obama was elected by the American people to make change, both abroad and at home, but Obama’s real desire was focus on his domestic agenda. However, he inherited two wars and immediately had to take possession of the wars and the situation. Obama’s future and his legacy will largely be dependent on what happens with Iraq and Afghanistan and he’ll therefore need to be resolute abroad and within his own administration to make sure that his agenda and ideology is executed. Obama’s Wars illuminates how difficult that proposition is for the President, but it also illuminates a President that is intellectual, politically aware, not afraid of dissension, and ultimately resolved.

Book Review: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Even with the most gruesome and graphic depictions of war violence on film there is still a mental barrier between reality and fantasy. In his book The Good Soldiers, David Finkel brings the reader realistic depictions of the savageness of the modern day warfare and to some level the reader is given a glimpse of the dark state of mind that results from war. The Good Soldiers tells the story of the 2-16 Battalion from pre-deployment in early 2007 until they go home almost a year later. The 2-16 was part of the “surge” ordered by President Bush in 2007 to quell the mounting insurgency in Iraq. Finkel does not ignore the meta-political questions of the surge or the war in Iraq, however, the focus of the book is truly on the soldiers and their life.

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich is the leader of the Battalion and a large focus of the book as he tries to maintain a rah-rah attitude, while many of his underlings are coming to the realization that their efforts are not working and that their life is in constant danger. A poignant display of the overly optimistic attitudes that have plagued the Iraq War from the lowest authority to the highest authority of President Bush, is when LTC Kauzlarich is given an opportunity to brief General Petraeus. There was a heavy emphasis on strictly the positive news and not any negative news or views that may be considered negative or dissenting. Not to suggest that it was the time and place or even role for a dissenting view, however, somewhere along the chain of command reports have to reflect what’s happening on the ground. Finkel portrays an area of Baghdad that’s beyond help, while the command is solely focused on reporting successful operations.

The book’s acclaim comes from the insight it provides to the soldier’s life in Iraq. The depictions of the sewer stench, the overbearing dust and heat, and the randomness of deadly EFPs bring to life a living hell. The damage that these EFPs are capable of doing to young vibrant soldiers is gut wrenching. Finkel graphically describes how bodies are shredded, limbs are torn off, and how soldiers bleed out, all in a blink of a second. The toll this takes on the living soldiers is unimaginable, and Finkel does a wonderful job of addressing the unspoken injury of war, PTSD. Finally, PTSD is starting to be understood and accepted more, even in the macho driven armed forces, but not without some hesitation. The fine line between a visible physical injury and a mental injury is still a gap in a lot of people’s eyes. It’s obvious that there’s a lot of mixed feelings when Sergeant Schuman leaves for home with PTSD, and it’s apparent that he doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with it either. has spent a lot of time on the meta-political issues regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan War, however, it’s also important to recognize the day to day implementation of the war and the soldier’s perspectives.  Like another great book, In a Time of War by Bill Murphy Jr., The Good Soldiers shows the reality of modern day warfare and gives a glimpse into the lives of the modern day soldiers. Those stories and experiences are crucial to understanding the war in a broader context and crucial to empathizing with the soldier experience, which still too many citizens do not understand.

Book Review: The War Within by Bob Woodward

The fourth book of the Bush at War series by Bob Woodward, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, covers the years the final two years of the Bush Presidency and recounts the decisions and internal strife of that period. The War Within picks up where State of Denial left off, with Iraq declining into a violent cesspool of sectarian war and the U.S. with no decisive strategy. While State of Denial was condemning in accounts and tone, The War Within is a slightly drier account as the situation in Iraq goes from horrible to improving.

The focus of the book is the struggle of how to address the rising insurgency in Iraq that was causing such violence.  On one side you had the Defense Department led by Donald Rumsfeld and commanding General William Casey advocating a troop drawdown to make the Iraqis responsible for their own well being. The other push was for a “surge,” bringing more troops into Iraq to help quell the violence.  As we all know, the surge ended up happening and General Petraeus replaced Casey as the commanding General and Bob Gates became the new Secretary of Defense. What may be the most interesting tidbit in the book and that is not explored is that the real change of fortune in Iraq was most likely due not to the surge but instead a secret Manhattan Project like innovation (page 380). Unfortunately, due to its highly classified status, the reader doesn’t get anymore explanation than that.

Like State of Denial, Woodward once again describes an administration that is out of touch and ineffective, which stems from the President.  Bush’s unwavering optimism and certainty prevent any dissent which is necessary for rational debate or discussion.  The other criticism that can be levied against Bush is his public spin that everything was going fine in Iraq and his refusal to address, to the public, a necessary strategy change.  It’s a fine line between being an optimistic leader and being a deceiver. In fact, it was only until he failed miserably as the leader of the Republican Party in the mid –term elections of 2006 that Bush implemented any change. Woodward paints a picture of a President that has “displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions.”  President Bush surrounded himself with people that would show deference to him, not challenge him, in fact, it’s very noticeable how often Bush must remind people that he’s President or that he has the power.  It’s indicative of a sense of insecurity, as is his refusal to ask his father for any kind of input.

The Woodward quartet of books about the Bush Presidency is highly informative but will ultimately be just one source of information on the calamitous Presidency of George W. Bush.  As Bush himself often states, history will eventually judge his actions. I have no doubt the George W. Bush has no doubt that history will come down on his side. However, even if the Middle East does become a stabilized situation due to a Free Iraqi state, that will not excuse the incompetency of the execution of the War. Bush never seems to be able to grasp that there is more than just the decision, there’s also the implementation and history will judge him and his administration very harshly.

Review: A Better Congress by Joseph Gibson

Joseph Gibson, author of A Better Congress: Change the Rules, Change the Results: A Modest Proposal – Citizen’s Guide to Legislative Reform, begins his book with the assertion that Congress does not work well and that the incentives that drive the members of Congress are the problem. Very few people would likely disagree with that broad assertion, however, the causes of the problems and solutions to the problems are steeped in rhetoric. In A Better Congress Gibson lays out his views on the failings of Congress in Part I and his proposed solutions in Part II.

In order to better communicate the problems of Congress Gibson constructs a fictional Congressman named Rick Johnson and uses him as a model while illustrating the following reasons why Congress does not work well:

  • The enormous advantages of incumbency discourage competition among candidates
  • The tremendous ordeals of a campaign narrow the pool of candidates
  • The skills to win a campaign do not correlate with governing
  • The Congressional bubble divides the representative from his constituency
  • The minority party has little to no incentive to govern
  • The drive for reelection is all encompassing
  • The bias towards passing laws regardless of their need or effectiveness
  • The counterproductive overreaction to crisis and the inability to address entitlement reform

It becomes clear that the real underlying issue to all of the above is the drive for reelection. The incentives in the current system are to first retain power and then, perhaps, govern wisely. Yet it is clear that getting reelected and governing wisely are almost always in direct conflict. Gibson illustrates this clearly in the chapter about the minority party and their ineffectiveness. This is not an issue solely confined to Congress either; Scott McClellan referred to the permanent campaign and its effect on the Bush Administration in his book What Happened. Gibson addresses solutions to this problem in Part II but really the highlight of the book is in Part I where Gibson adeptly illustrates the problems of Congress through the use of his fictional Congressman.

Part II addresses solutions to the above problems and breaks it down as solutions for both houses and house specific. Gibson emphasizes in Part I that the system is complex and there is a lot of incentive driven behavior, but not in the way that was probably imagined by the creators of our Constitution. A lot of our past modifications, additions, and fixes to the structure of government have created this enormous growing blob of unintended consequences. Solutions, even with the best of intentions, rarely work out in ideal fashion and unfortunately it’s hard to predict how they’ll affect the system without them being implemented. So, for example, Gibson advocates changing campaign finance laws which were originally instituted as a fix to political corruption but have morphed, in Gibson’s view, into a system that gives incumbents enormous advantages. However, any drastic change to the campaign finance laws, like Gibson’s proposal of the lifting of any cap and mandating transparency, will almost without a doubt not work out as idealized and could possibly be more disastrous than the current system. Without a careful examination of these proposals, it’s difficult to really see the validity of them other than as conversation starters into the solutions.

It is not that Gibson’s proposals don’t have merit or that attempts to fix Congress should not be attempted because of unintended consequences, instead Part II just does not give a serious enough look at each solution and explore how it might play out. Also, some of the solutions are matter of ideological beliefs and not pragmatism. The solution to minimize the number of House members is based on how you view the function of democracy and government and how responsive they should be to their constituency; it is not a simple technical fix like say changing committee rules.

Gibson clearly states that this work is intended to provoke debate about why Congress doesn’t work well and to stoke the discussion on how to fix it. On that measure Gibson succeeds, even the most passive of readers will find the contents and proposals stimulating. Yet, it’s questionable whether the solutions set forth have any real practical merit. This book probably won’t appeal to the hardcore political junkie as its focus is quite broad and solutions very sweeping. The book’s real strength is in bringing to light how the Congress functions, or doesn’t, and what the problems are that prevent it from working in a more ideal way. This book is perfect for the average citizen who is frustrated by the inefficacy of Congress but may not quite understand why. Gibson’s plain English style and brief chapters make the Herculean task of fixing a dysfunctional Congress seem like an approachable subject and his book should appeal to a large swath of readers.

** Review Copy provided by the publisher.

Book Review: State of Denial by Bob Woodward

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward is a definitive break from his two previous Bush at War books which we reviewed here and here.  Finally, instead of being a dispassionate chronicler, Woodward takes a critical look at the bungled Iraq War.  Bungled is an understatement as Woodward illustrates gross incompetency, willful shifting of accountability and, as the title states, a denial of the reality of what was occurring in Iraq.  The style remains the same yet the tone has shifted to a building condemnation as Woodward uses his omniscient style to blatantly illustrate the problems among the political players and the military.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is the portrayal of Donald Rumsfeld as a megalomaniac.  The question arises about actually how accurate or overstated this picture is considering that Woodward does not reveal all his sources.  Yet even Rumsfeld’s sit down interviews with Woodward reflect the Secretary of Defense as evasive and non accountable, almost flippant, with regards to the bungled war.  The problem that is never really addressed is: What is Rumsfeld’s motivation to be an obstructionist, power hungry, micro-managing, military despising, prick, as he was portrayed by Woodward?  You never really get a sense of what drives Rumsfeld but it’s very hard to chalk up his poor performance to incompetence.  He takes on an enigmatic persona that never really gets cracked.

The most disturbing aspect of State of Denial is the rampant denial that occurs in Washington, whether a result of suppression or ignorance.  The denial begins at the top with President Bush whose certitude becomes an overwhelming weakness.  Bush becomes more of a cheerleader than a leader, always pushing optimism and taking any criticism or disparaging results as a betrayal of his decisions and policies.  The lack of open debate among the principals of government was appalling and a failure of government.  Furthermore, many of the interviewees of Woodward that provided him with so much critique had an opportunity to address the President with these concerns, and yet failed to do so.  Jay Garner, who was initially put in charge of rebuilding Iraq, saw the impossible task and the multitude of problems that they would face.  He faced the President twice and never expressed his opinions.  The level of deference given to the President and his misguided optimism and policies is shocking.  The President is a governing figure, not a King, and he needs to surround himself with dissenting voices as well.

State of Denial is the third of four Bob Woodward books on the Bush Presidency and of the first three it is the most revealing and the most honest.  I’m sure it will take decades for historians to sort through what really happened and the historical impact of the decisions that were made, however for now Woodward’s State of Denial is a good place to start.  The book provides, at the very least, a broad overview of the problems that the U.S. faced in Iraq and tries to give an inside perspective on how those issues were addressed, or not addressed.  The casual reader would be best off by skipping the first two books, Bush At War and Plan of Attack, and going straight to State of Denial which also provides a brief look back through all of the years of the Bush Presidency.

Book Review: Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward

Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq by Bob Woodward is the second installment of Woodward’s Bush at War series and picks up where Bush at War left off, that is after the initial entry into Afghanistan and prior to the Iraq War. Plan of Attack focuses mainly on the build up to war in Iraq after 9/11 at the Cabinet level of the Bush administration. As in Bush at War, Woodward maintains his role of a chronicler more so than an analyst. Woodward gives a good account of how events unfolded and the interactions between all the main players but never dives seriously into one aspect, such as the issue of the WMD intelligence. He instead provides a insightful but broad look at the period covered. An intrigued reader can no doubt find other sources for in depth analysis of the different issues that arise in Plan of Attack.

The over arching theme that can be gleaned from Woodward’s account is the inevitability of the Iraq War, not the inevitability that it was a must do for Global and American peace but that it was going forward regardless of justification. Plan of Attack begins with Bush asking Rumsfeld about the Defense Department’s Iraq War plans on November 21, 2001, only 72 days after 9/11. It is apparent, with hindsight, that at the time many were deluded into thinking that the choice to invade Iraq was a reaction of WMD intelligence or 9/11 reaction, even perhaps the President himself, when in fact it had been building for a while.

The inevitable march to Iraq began before the President had even taken office through his choice of foreign policy advisors and then cabinet members.  As a President with little to no foreign policy experience or even knowledge, Bush was malleable to the advisors around him such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and their sub-ordinates like Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. To understand and appreciate more on Bush’s cabinet, see our review of Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann. It’s fair to say that the war drums started beating early and Bush eventually bought in fully.

However, more specifically, Woodward illustrates that at a certain point the momentum behind the military planning made the war become inevitable. The striking part of this is that it created a conundrum and deception that Bush and the cabinet had to go forward with, it was impossible to say they were going to war without pursuing diplomacy yet the diplomacy was a charade because they were going to war regardless of what happened in the UN. Also, once the informal decision to go to war or the inevitability of war became a certainty, the intelligence, which always has a level of uncertainty, became certain, or a “slam dunk,” in the eyes of the decision maker(s). It’s obvious that Colin Powell and his staff had come to this realization and Woodward chronicles what is clearly a discomfort by Powell who is pressured to be the good soldier and stay loyal despite his misgivings.

Plan of Attack can at times be somewhat of a dry account as there is much of the Franks/Rumsfeld war planning and the diplomatic maneuvering that is necessary but not always exhilarating.  The second book also spends a good portion rehashing some of what was already addressed in Bush at War. Ultimately, however, Plan of Attack falls into the Woodward formula of presenting current events into  a journalistic-historical account which is a very successful formula. In fact, this type of writing should probably be classified into its own category, Woodwardian.  Woodwardian books succeed at chronicling the recent history from those who are its subjects.  The strength is the access that Woodward is allowed and his ability to report on it. The weakness is that there is little reflection or analysis and the accounts of those closest to the subject may often not be the most honest.  Considering Plan of Attack was published in 2004, it will be interesting to see how the next two books in the series may turn out as the general opinion on the Iraq War quickly soured. Continue to follow the Bush at War series and with our RSS Feed or Facebook Page.

Review: The Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow

So often it is easy to turn a blind eye to injustices that do not affect us.  It is even easier to turn a blind eye to injustices that affect only the most abhorrent people, or those that we, justly or not, have condemned as abhorrent, namely, death row inmates.  The Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow sucks you into this world and spits you out unable to turn a blind eye anymore.  This is a memoir by a Law Professor from Houston that solely works on death row appeals and as the author often reminds us, this can be a very bleak life at times.  The book should not be solely classified a memoir because it is more than that, it’s really a condemnation of the American death penalty and how it’s currently implemented.

Dow takes great measures to make sure that the lawyer-client privilege is not breached so many of the names and events are a mixture of different cases, yet one never gets the sense that Dow is fictionalizing anything or is subject to exaggeration.  The grit of the book centers around one of his clients who beyond any reasonable doubt appears to be innocent, yet despite that is still sentenced to die.  Dow explicitly recounts throughout the book how the legal system fails on every level from the initial trials all the way through to the Supreme Court and the appeals to the Governor.  It will probably be a shock for most readers to read about trial lawyers who sleep through most of a capital murder case, or appeals courts that abruptly close at 5:00 so Judges can go out at night, or Governors that appoint cronies to the Board of Appeals and instruct them to deny, deny, deny regardless of any merit an appeal may have.  The book is mostly an indictment on the execution happy State of Texas because that’s where Dow practices and that’s where the death penalty is the most egregiously applied, however, it really could be anywhere in America.  Dow does a wonderful job of highlighting the indifferent and barbaric system and the people in it who are complicit.

The fault of this book probably lies with the style and memoir aspect of the writing.  The author inserts himself as a subject, obviously because it IS his memoir, however he’s often not too appealing of a subject.  Dow comes off sometimes as overly self-aware and a tad pretentious, especially through some of his verbose tangents like his dream on page 81.  It’s somewhat difficult for me to criticize the author too much on this point because his message is spot on; it just comes in a slightly grating manner.  In Dow’s defense, this memoir was probably a very personal work as well, I’m sure he’s qualified enough to write a straight legal treatise on the problems of the Texas death penalty.

The Autobiography of an Execution leaves the reader feeling as Dow must every time one his clients is murdered by the state, hopeless.  Yet Dow keeps going on to the next case, trying to secure little victories and extensions, the reader might too try to secure little victories by exposing others to one of our nation’s dirtiest little secrets, the death penalty.  An argument can be made for the death penalty being just or moral; however, after reading this book it’s impossible to make an argument that the death penalty as currently implemented is either just or moral.

Book Review: Bush at War by Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward set out to write about George W. Bush’s first year as President, covering his tax cuts and domestic agenda, but when September 11th happened it changed the focus of his book.  Instead Woodward covered the Administration after 9/11 occurred and their implementation of the War on Terror, specifically on the Afghanistan front.  The book was published as Bush at War and it gives the reader an inside account into the National Security Council meetings as they planned the response to 9/11.  This began a series of four books that Woodward would write on the Bush II Presidency, all of which will be reviewed by

Bush at War threads a narrative together out a large number of interviews, notes and quotations about the tenuous time after 9/11 and the buildup to the War on Terror.  Woodward does an excellent job at making the reader feel as if he were present in the meetings described; now to what degree these accounts may be distorted is up to the reader to decide for himself.  Woodward also uses a very passive voice to strictly document the accounts but he rarely weighs in with a judgment of his own.  That passive role of the author probably does more to limit the book than give it any objective standard.  Woodward doesn’t need to give us his opinion on technical matters or decisions; however, it would probably benefit the narration if Woodward would stand out on a limb with his observations more.  For example, if Rumsfeld looked peeved explain to us readers why, in your qualified opinion as an observer.  Those opinions are of great value to a reader who cannot deduce what the author may be able to.

Some of the more interesting revelatory points in the book are as follow:

  • The role the CIA played in the Afghanistan War.  While the Defense Department and military were unable to react with any quickness, much to Rumsfeld’s dismay, the CIA was able to get paramilitary teams on the ground.  Those teams were able to use money to support the Northern Alliance force teams and coordinate air strikes.  George Tenet comes off very well in Bush at War, as does the CIA in general.
  • The logistic demands of waging a war in Afghanistan were mind boggling. Not only is the terrain and political situation extremely dangerous, but access to Afghanistan for the U.S. is limited.  Afghanistan is surrounded by states that are not very friendly to the U.S. even after the global outpouring of sympathy for 9/11.  A lot of diplomatic and military wrangling was needed to even gain access to Afghanistan.
  • The beginnings of the Iraq war were evident early as Rumsfeld consistently brought up the idea that the US should strike elsewhere too and not limit themselves to Afghanistan.  Cheney too started the dialogue about states with Weapons of Mass Destruction.
  • The divisions in the cabinet and NSC were evident in this book.  It was apparent that there was a large philosophical divide between Powell and Rumsfeld/Cheney which led to moments of tension.  Woodward doesn’t explain their histories or get too deep in their foreign policy beliefs, yet it was obvious that Powell was in the more militaristic moderate camp.  Rice, though perhaps the closest to Bush, did not seem to push the debate in any direction.
  • The book also details how vulnerable everyone felt to another attack, which cannot be understated.  The fact that it’s now 2010 and no significant terror attack has occurred on American soil since 9/11 makes it hard to remember the fear and uncertainty that was endemic in the months after 9/11, especially with the Anthrax scares.  This concern also played a large role in how the Bush Administration prosecuted the War and the urgency that both Bush and Cheney felt.

Finally, the Epilogue may be the best section of the entire book and may even be substitutable for the reading the book.  In the Epilogue Woodward briefly details the US successes in Afghanistan, the diplomatic efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Powell’s struggle to connect and influence the President, and finally, the buildup to the decision to invade Iraq.  That section of the book reveals more about Bush, his cabinet, and his Presidency than all the previous chapters.  Bush at War definitely gives an insider perspective that few books can rival, yet ultimately it is up to the reader to come to their own conclusion about the decisions, motives and personalities of all involved the account.