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Book Review: 1491 by Charles Mann

Charles Mann begins his book with a section describing “Holmberg’s Mistake” which basically assumes “that Native American’s lived in an eternal, unhistoried state.” Mann spends the remainder of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus dispelling that myth and opening the reader’s mind to a barrage of new revelations backed by academic work. Though Mann is a journalist and not an historian, and this is sometimes all too apparent, he paints us a picture of the past in America with stunning vivacity and illuminates the fact that the Indians did indeed have rich civilizations. Mann’s book is somewhat disorganized as it hops from different spots on the continent, different civilizations, and different ages quite frequently. However there are some main points that he addresses that make up much of the thesis of the book.

First, Mann spends a great deal of the first half of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
discussing the period of time after the Europeans first encountered the Indians. It is important that their interpretation was looked upon with a different light because the Europeans accounts are what have shaped our thoughts on the Indians up to the present day. Mann asserts that the Indians had been ravaged by disease as a result of the Europeans arrival and because of that they were unable to fight against the colonialists. This fact is readily agreed upon by most, however, Mann takes it a step further by saying that disease destroyed multiples of what was previously estimated, tens of millions more. As a defense against the charge of revisionism Mann counters that the real revisionism took place earlier and that early accounts of Indians reflected the true numbers.

Mann goes on to discuss the arguments of how and when the Indians arrived in America. Going over several different theories in the end Mann lays out a speculation that the Indians were in America much earlier than conventional history has allowed for. Not only were they there earlier but they also had thriving cultures that were responsible for the bioengineering of the food staple maize, had complex irrigation, writing and architectural achievements. In other words, they had cultures and civilizations that were as rich as their European counterparts at the same time. All of which is intriguing, however, Mann tends to lay out some of the most speculative theories and yet the reader is only briefly warned of it near the end.

Finally, a major contention of Mann’s is that rather than the Indians being passive minions of the land, they were actually active landscapers, molding the land all around them. There is even the contention that the great Amazon Rainforest is actually man made and not a product of a chaotic nature. Several of the scenarios laid forth in the latter part of the book do resonate as quite believable, others really test the reader’s internal BS detector. Though far from an expert on any of the matters discussed, it seems that Mann often presents some of the most speculative and grand theories available in order to bolster the main thesis, all of which is really unnecessary.

In the end Mann achieves the goal of displaying that the Indian did not live an unchanged an unvaried existence for several thousand years. Instead they had a deep and rich history and culture that deserves to be studied and appreciated more so than what we are left with in high school text books. The academic work in this area is constantly being updated and revised and it is extremely interesting to even the non experts among us. There are several mysteries to be solved and historical work to be done and I am sure soon we will have a new view of what happened on this continent before Europeans encountered it.

Review: War Law by Michael Byers

If there is one area in the political and legal realm where the average US citizen is more inept than normal it is most likely International Law. Most still struggle with understanding or even memorizing the Bill of Rights let alone bothering with the UN Charter. Fortunately Michael Byers has produced an excellent book, War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict, which not only is relevant and informative but is easily read by the laymen among us and also very enjoyable.

War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict breaks down modern international law with regards to the use of force, more specifically instances outside of the UN Security Council’s authorization. Byers split the book into four different parts, each with 3 chapters.

In Part I, United Nations Action, Byers gives a brief historical background of the UN and customary International Law, touches on the differences between treaties and resolutions and explains the powers of the Security Council and its expanding powers since the end of the Cold War. In the introduction we are told that much of the book focuses on the US because of its immense military might unrivaled since the Roman Empire. The most interesting aspect of Part I may be Byers’ chapter on Implied Authorization and Intentional Ambiguity where he accuses the US of being intentionally ambiguous versus the rest of the world that desires a textual anchor.

The book peaks in Part 2, Self-Defence (Byers is Canadian, hence the spelling). Essentially the only time force is justified legally without Security Council Authorization is in Self Defense. War Law visits the controversial issues of “necessity and proportionality”, the limits of self defense, self defense in the face of terrorism and finally pre-emptive strikes as self defense. These are the issues that will shape the world in the future and what has driven recent history. In this Part, Byers uses several examples from recent history but focuses on the US and Israel, framing their self-defense justifications in a precarious light.

Part 3 examined if there is basis in law for a unilateral intervention on the justification of Pro Democracy or Humanitarian interests. He concludes that there are no real precedents after examining some historical instances that some propose. Part 4, International Law during Armed Conflict, is probably the most damning section on US Policy. The section asserts that the US has violated international law on numerous fronts including against civilians, unlawful treatment of enemy combatants (Guantanamo Bay), the Abu Ghraib incident, and its non cooperation in International Courts.

In the epilogue Byers solidifies his ongoing assertion that the US essentially ignores international law when it does not serve its immediate interests. The US therefore further destabilizes international law and increases the likelihood of states using force. Byers makes a compelling 3 prong case of why the US attitude is the way it is and why it is unlikely to change in the near future.

Whether one agrees with many of the assertions that Byers states, it is hard to argue that War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict is not well written and easy to read for the non legal mind. If looking for a primer on international law, especially with regards to current day events, be sure not to miss this book.


Review: In a Time of War by Bill Murphy Jr.

Though this blog is named “Political Books”, we like to use a very broad definition of politics.  After all, essentially everything is related to politics in some semblance.  In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002 would be best categorized as a human interest story first and a political book second.  However, no matter how one decides to categorize In a Time of War, it is outstanding.

Murphy follows the stories of a selected few of West Point’s Class of 2002.  The first class to graduate “in a time of war” (George Bush’s words) after 9/11.  The book gives an insight on the tradition, the way of life, the punishing schedule, the heavy demands and the honor that is part of being a West Point Officer to-be.  Murphy continues to follow the members of the class after they graduate and head into their active duty, at this point the story leaves the idealism of West Point and enters the grittiness of war.  It also illustrates the Officer’s accelerated transformation from a group of idealistic, optimistic youth to disillusioned adults.

It’s tragic and inspirational at the same time but most importantly it highlights just how different of a life one leads in the military than as a civilian.  Quickly they go from young kids to officers leading men in war.  This is illustrated in their personal life also as many of them marry relatively young and have children young.  In many respects the military life is a culture of its own, yet by the end of their five mandatory years of service most of the subjects wanted to leave the military and join civilian life.  This is a problem for the Army, keeping experienced officers.

Though the underlying context of the book is political, namely the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the subjects of the book do their duty and do it well without much expression of political ideology.  Nor does the author paint the stories in a manner that may strike the reader as partisan.  At many points throughout the book the stories could have been used to expound on a viewpoint, thankfully Murphy Jr. has chosen to just relate the soldiers’ stories.

In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002 is almost unbearable to put down once started.  The book hops from subject to subject and keeps the reader wondering what their plight will be.  I cannot think of a better book to recommend to people interested in a soldier’s life during war and it should be required reading for all young men and women trying to decide if the military is for them.

Review: Interventions by Noam Chomsky

Interventions by Noam Chomsky is a compilation of selected Chomsky articles from 2002 up to 2006.  All articles were syndicated by the NY Times Syndicate but rarely ever published in the United States, as most of the mainstream media would consider Chomsky’s views too dissident.  If you’ve read the author’s prior works then you will not be surprised by anything in Interventions.  Chomsky tends to focus on three arching subjects which make their way into most of his articles and arguments.

First, the danger that Nuclear Weapons pose to the existence of mankind as we know it.  “Dr. Strangelove Meets the Age of Terror”, published April 28, 2005, highlights a common Chomsky assertion that reigning nuclear powers, especially the U.S., are doing nothing to eliminate nuclear weapons.  The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is being weakened or ignored by States such as the U.S. who are pursuing their misguided interests.

Chomsky’s ideal worldview, the one that he preaches, is Universality.  The common individual probably would agree wholeheartedly with the concept that we treat others as we expect to be treated, or equal justice for all.  However, our government, according to Chomsky, violates this premise repeatedly through the use of might.  Examples are abound in the book in which the U.S. subjects other nations to radical policies, interferes with their autonomy, and inflicts punishment on their citizenry.  Yet these actions would never be tolerated if another country were to attempt to inflict them on the U.S. or a friendly state of the U.S.  The U.S. government is justifying this through their military and economic power and selling it to the people with political catch phrases such as “spreading freedom and liberty.”

Finally, Chomsky highlights the rogue nature of the U.S. government’s foreign policies.  In particular one only needs to look at the voting record of the U.S. in the United Nations.  Not only are their several instances where the U.S. was clearly outvoted, but it went on to ignore the UN dictates.  The U.S. has determined the UN irrelevant and only helpful when they agree with the course the U.S. foreign policy has decided to take.

Chomsky can become very repetitive at times because he stresses many of his same ideas over and over but in new political contexts.  Yet despite that, he is often using brilliant logic and has a clear view of foreign policy.  I think one could easily disagree with Chomsky on his views of Universality in foreign policy but it would be deceptive to ignore how often the U.S. foreign policy practices what many would consider immoral courses of action.  The biggest shame is that Chomsky is, for the most part, not even part of our national dialogue.  As a citizen, I tire to hear the same old recycled arguments by both parties about the hows instead of asking the whys.