Apr 04 2008

B. Mac’s Bookshelf of DOOM

Published by at 10:37 pm under Book Review

A reader asked for my suggestions on reading material. I fumbled the question by saying something like “it really depends on your taste.” He responded (paraphrased) “obviously, if I had thought that your tastes were incomparable to mine, I wouldn’t have asked you.” Touche!

So, mainly for the benefit of said reader, I have decided to post a photograph of about half of my bookshelf.
My tastes are very eclectic

Of these, I would really recommend only Weapon, Starship Troopers and Black Powder War for the average sci-fi or fantasy reader. (With the caveat that BPW is the sequel to His Majesty’s Dragon, which should obviously be read first).

For readers that are a bit more artsy and literary, I recommend The Best American Short Stories of 2007 (not seen above), which has five stories that I found commendable. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”  was extraordinary, “Sans Farine” was distinctly excellent, and “The Boy in Zaquitos” and “The Bris” were pretty good. And, if you’re more literary than I am, you’d probably like most of the other stories, I think.

My next book is CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, which has not arrived yet. I’m not sure what to expect. I’m a minor CSL fan and memoirs have always interested me. It looks to be very religiously influenced, but I’m basing that entirely on the front-cover.

I think someone with a casual interest in politics would enjoy Jack Goldsmith’s Terror Presidency and John Mueller’s Overblown. TP is Jack’s memoir about his time as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel. (I hate dropping names, but I feel obliged to offer a personal disclaimer here. I was once one of John Yoo’s coworkers, in one of the remotest senses imaginable, and Jack’s book treats Yoo like a minor villain. My recommendation of this book should not be construed as an endorsement of Jack’s legal opinions or his feud with Yoo. I simply enjoyed his style of writing and think he provides an interesting perspective on legalism and the legal side of the war on terror).

Overblown is a more conventional argument piece. Mueller’s main thesis is that the risks of terrorism have been hyped and that it’s more appropriate to try to mitigate the damage of terrorist attacks rather than try to overspend on defensive measures that are unlikely to be 100% effective. I thought most of this book was well-argued and interesting. (Again, this is not an endorsement of his politics: off the record, I disagree with probably 75% of the book, but that’s immaterial to its quality). I did take issue with what I thought was an exceptionally questionable point about Pearl Harbor, though. (If you’re interested in that, please keep reading).

(*He claims that it would have been more productive and cost-effective for the United States to “contain” Japan rather than “militarily engage” it after the Pearl Harbor attacks. On 170, he says…

In the case of Pearl Harbor, the alternative policy… relying mostly on aggressive, if patient, containment and military buildup and harassment rather than on direct military confrontation—might have been accepted in time. There was no overwhelming public demand to get it over quickly [sic], particularly if American casualties could be minimized by a more patient strategy.

He claims two things here.

  1. We should have contained Japan. Political scientists would call this a normative argument– essentially, it’s a judgment call. I don’t agree with his judgment (like most Americans, probably) but it’s worth arguing over, I think.
  2. “There was no overwhelming [public] demand to get it over [with] quickly, particularly if American casualties could be minimized by a more patient strategy.” This is a highly questionable, if not absolutely absurd, factual claim.

Point 2 sounds more like an annoying intrusion of his own beliefs rather than any reasonable historical interpretation. Not only does he offer no evidence on this point, what kind of evidence could you offer to suggest that the US public was willing to accept a less forceful response to minimize casualties? I’m having trouble operationalizing this, myself, but I’ll offer these anecdotal evidence that suggest that concern about casualties was not significant. 1) I’ve skimmed through FDR’ speeches and newspaper articles published in the month following the Pearl Harbor attacks and I haven’t found a single mention of the minimization of US casualties as a major objective.

Interestingly, I think Mueller’s argument is somewhat similar to the arguments offered by then-Representative Jeannette Rankin, who explained her vote against the declaration of war by saying “We are all for every measure which will mean defense for our land, but taking our Army and Navy across thousands of miles of ocean to fight and die certainly cannot come under the head of protecting our shores.” She was the only Congressman to vote against the war. If there was some support for a more cautious approach to Japan, it was probably not very deep.

Finally, I’d like to look at the New York Times front page of December 8, 1941 (the day the US public learned of the attacks).

Cheering crowds lined Pennsylvania Avenue to see them [ranking Congressmen] arrive, another evidence of the national determination to defeat Japan and her Axis allies which every official is confident will dominate the country from this moment forth.

What were the crowds cheering for? Probably not containment.

No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply