Recommended Reading: Ghost Wars

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A few weeks back I finished Jon Krakauer’s latest, Where Men Win Glory, which focused on the life and death (and subsequent coverup) of Pat Tillman. Like other Krakauer books, the text is engaging and (at least to me) moving. Some of Krakauer’s back story regarding the Afghanistan war with the Soviet Union seemed familiar, mostly from my reading of Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, (which, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit were the closest I’d come to histories of the region).

Fortunately, Krakauer described one of his resources on Afghanistan, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Beginning in 1979, Coll’s study spans two decades, detailing the worldwide rise of Islamic fanaticism and, more importantly, the complicity of the world’s intelligence apparatus in fostering that fanaticism (especially during the Soviet invasion and its aftermath). Coll is extremely detailed in his account: I’m more than 1/3 of the way through and the Soviet invasion is just barely ending. The details are grounded, however, in a fluid narrative that passes from Islamabad to Kabul to Moscow to Washington to Riyadh and back. I wish the most shocking element was how much money passes between those locations in the 80s. Unfortunately, what’s most surprising is how many opportunities there were for intelligence agents, lawmakers, diplomats and administration officials to recognize the threats posed by their handpicked allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and I’m only 1/3 of the way through!).

Coll’s book was published in 2004, a few years prior to the release of The Looming Tower, which is considered by many to be the preeminent history of the 9/11 attacks. I’m going to pick it up next, but thus far I’m incredibly impressed with Ghost Wars. It’s an elaborate, if chilling, history of the events leading up to some of the most important events in our lifetimes.

P.S. If you haven’t read Where Men Win Glory, I also recommend it. Krakauer is one of those writers that people seem to love or hate, but if nothing else the Tillman story serves as a stunning reminder of the depravity of the Bush Administration. But more than that, Krakauer shows the power of the Freedom of Information Act while casting a new light on recent events (I feel no sympathy whatsoever for Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s downfall following Rolling Stone‘s controversial interview). Above all, Tillman is revealed as loyal friend, brother, son and husband, and a ultimately a true patriot.


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After almost a month, I finally finished reading Nixonland last Thursday. It’s truly a remarkable book.

For starters, I never learned about this stuff in school — not in American history or civics during high school, or during any of the political science courses I took during college (granted, the WNMU courses weren’t geared that way, but still). Yeah, the major stuff was covered: it’s kind of hard to skip the Kennedy and King assasinations, Vietnam, McCarthyism, and Watergate. However, while I’ve picked up a lot of the themes over the years, never before have I had such an excellent resource on the era. Rick Perlstein lays it all out in meticulous detail, but in a narrative so lively you don’t want to stop reading.

The book is 748 pages long, and aside from some time on the beach I read it exclusively during my 45-minute commute: first on the bus, then on the blue-line train. Often, I just kept it out for the 7-block walk to the office, reading while avoiding pedestrians and traffic. It was that good.

Nixon is the plot device Perlstein uses to explore the radicalization of the left and the backlash of the right; the lies used to sell an unpopular war; and the racial tensions that led to riots and the rise of the Southern Strategy. The story is about so much more than Nixon, but he’s inexorably the focus: he played such a role in shaping the debates of that time (and today) that you can’t tell the story but through the Nixon lens.

The parallels between that generation and my own are stark yet unsurprising: the political forces have remained unchanged, while the players may have changed. Still, familiar names (especially on the GOP side) like Pat Buchanan, Karl Rove, and George Bush are spread throughout the tome.

Though I kept reading about the origins of todays political debates, I finished the book thinking the next generation will have moved past them. So many of my personal and professional relationships are completely online: I’ve never met these friends and colleagues, and yet my “collected life” is but a foreshadowing of those being built by teenagers across the country. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I think things like race will play less of a role in the future as more people interact over new media.

I might have more on this later, but for now, take my word on it: read Nixonland. You’ll come away from it with a better understanding of our history, and why today’s political conversations are framed the way they are.

The Ultimate Harry Potter Spoiler?


Boy, I can’t wait to hear the right wing go nutso over this revelation:

After reading briefly from the final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” [Rowling] took questions from audience members.

She was asked by one young fan whether Dumbledore finds “true love.”

“Dumbledore is gay,” the author responded to gasps and applause.

Now, there isn’t a whole lot of context in the article, so I’m not sure whether Rowling is insinuating that being gay precludes your from finding “true love,” but I imagine that’s not the case. Regardless, I’m sure Congress will launch an investigation by the end of the week.

I firmly believe…

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that Chuck Klosterman’s “23 Questions I Ask Everybody I Meet In Order To Decide If I Can Really Love Them,” can, in fact, unlock the secrets to the universe.


Naomi Wolf in Shirlington Monday night

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Author Naomi Wolf will be at Shirlington Library Monday night reading from her new book, The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot.

As a “late bloomer” in the world of progressive politics and feminism (I was totally uninvolved before 2003), my first encounter with her work was “The Porn Myth.” It was an intriguing premise, and definitely worth your 10 minutes if you’ve never read it.

Anyhoo, back to End of America, Wolf’s examination of the methods employed by the federal government in an effort to take aim at our freedoms. AlterNet has an excerpt online right now:

When you are physically detained by armed agents because of something that you said or wrote, it has an impact. On the one hand, during these heightened searches of my luggage, I knew I was a very small fish in a very big pond. On the other hand, you get it right away that the state is tracking your journeys, can redirect you physically, and can have armed men and women, who may or may not answer your questions, search and release you.

There’s one hitch, at least for me. Wolf begins her reading at 5 p.m. However, I’m starting my new gig tomorrow (more on that later) and our office hours are 10-6. So, I may not make it.

If you’re in the area ((I fully realize most of my readers at this stage are in New Mexico, but there you go)), though, you should try to attend. You can download the introduction to End of America from the book’s publisher, Chelsea Green Publishing.