Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cultures of War -- How Militarism and Groupthink Lead to Catastrophe

Cultures of War is one of those books that, according to reviewers on, people will either love or hate. Out of fourteen reviews, seven give it a five-star rating, six give it a one star, and one give it a three. Right off the bat, I'll tell you what my rating is: it is a very strong 5. Generally speaking, if you're a person who regards criticism of the U.S. and its policies as treason, you will hate this book. (One reviewer calls it "a hate-filled rant from an ultra left loon.") But if you're looking for one of the best analyses around on how militarism with its culture of war dumb-down analysis and result in "strategic imbecilities", as John Dower so eloquently puts it, then you will love this book. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, and author of Japan in War & Peace, historian John W. Dower challenges conventional thinking about Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9/11/2001 and our war in Iraq. It was conventional thinking that got Japan in trouble prior to and during World War II, and it was conventional thinking that got the U.S. in trouble following the terrorist attack on 9/11/01 with its global War on Terror and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For example, in the run up to World War II, racism played a significant factor in dismissing the clear indication that Japan's leaders "were clearly poised for war" (page 15). The same was true with the fatwa declaring holy war against "the Judeo-Christian alliance" issued by Osama bin Laden and other Islamist militants nearly eight years before the events of 9/11/01. Rather than take them seriously, U.S. officials and military commanders dismissed both threats as unimportant, because they came from people who were non-white (Japanese and Islamists). If you don't believe this, take a look at racist U.S. World War II propaganda and the fact that "[n[o one at the top levels of the Bush administration ... had the imagination to take these warnings seriously." "In domestic policy projections, terrorism was not even included among the 'top-ten' priorities established for the Justice Department by Attorney General John Ashcroft. '9-ll' surpassed the Pearl Harbor debacle in exposing negligence and inability to think outside the box at the highest levels" of our government) page 16).

Does John Dower have a point of view? Oh, definitely ... and here it is. Prejudice and group-think prevent clear thinking and analysis. Reality is defined in categorical terms (nonwhite foreigners are irrational; whites, because of our Enlightenment ideals of reason, order, civilized behavior and our Christian history, are rational). Thinking outside the box (Asians are bright, intelligent people, as are Arabs and other non-whites) is discouraged and sometimes not permitted at all. The result? Well, we've been through that often enough that we shouldn't need to revisit it ... but it is clear from recent history that we must.

John Dower is very hard on the administration of George W. Bush, and for very good reason. His administration relied on beliefs rather than sound analyses (Donald Rumsfeld's remark than we'd be in and out of Iraq in a matter of 6 weeks or so after toppling Saddam Hussein is one example; having no plans at all for an occupation is another) and, when legal questions were raised about things the administration was doing, Bush's lawyers jiggered the law so that what was illegal could now be defined to fit within the "Rule of law" (see Chapter 14:"Convergence of a Sort: Law, Justice, and Transgression"). What happened after Iraq was defeated was just plain disaster for everyone concerned, especially the Iraqi people. The main problems? No real planning. Whereas in post-defeat Japan plans for an occupation had been worked out in detail long before the war's end, in Iraq's case, no planning had taken place at all. The occupation was run by "market fundamentalism" -- that sacred cow of George W. Bush and his people -- with unbelievable levels of corruption on all sides that ended in a huge mess. Dower devotes a whole chapter (15: "Nation Building and market fundamentalism") to this subject.

The lack of preparation and outright lying about the two wars George W. Bush got us into are nearly beyond belief. John Dower does a wonderful job of drawing all this together in a very readable way, contrasting it with what went right in our occupation of Japan ... and how we have worked that occupation to serve our global needs, often at the expense of the Japanese people, something that I have witnessed first hand now that I live in Japan.

Put Cultures of War with James Carroll's House of War, Chris Hedges' War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Robert Scheer's The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America,  and Richard H. Immerman's Empire For Liberty, and you'll have a comprehensive history of what has happened to the U.S. over the past sixty years

John Dower's book is not a light read. Drawing on a lifetime of study and masses of information (there are 100 pages of reference notes), it demands concentration, patience and a willingness to have your thinking challenged. You may quarrel with it and even hate it. My recommendation is that you read it with an open mind. You will learn things about your country that you may not wish to hear, but are valuable nonetheless. If you think the book is "worthless", I challenge you to think again.

Rating:  ****

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From religious orthodoxy to spiritual freedom -- A story of spiritual liberation

Reading Dylan Morrison's journey through the forests of orthodoxy to spiritual freedom brings back many memories, few of them pleasant. Jesus of Nazareth, with his radical message of love and compassion is difficult to find in churches bound up in dogma that depict him as a contradictory figure who spouts words of loving kindness at one moment, and returning to earth "with a terrible swift sword" in the next. "Confusing" is only one of the adjectives I've used to describe my own experience. Reading Dylan Morrison's fine book was an experience down memory lane. 

At times painful, at times strange, deeply human, with a wry wit that often had me laughing, "The Prodigal Prophet" is a book I am glad I read. It is definitely one that I recommend to others who struggle with the contradictory messages of Christian orthodoxy and fundamentalism. Dylan Morrison is a man with a large heart and an eye that sees deeply. In the end, it really is a matter of connecting ... with the world and our fellow men and the person we love. I am reminded of a poem by Scottish poet Kenneth White: 

Road Fragment

My thanks for this handful of April days
for the white wind blowing
for the dark earth and the tangled grass
and the woman beside me walking

(in "Open World: The Collected Poems 1960 - 2000")

If you're struggling with your spirituality or know someone who is, and are curious about how one man and his wife dealt with their struggle, "The Prodigal Prophet" is a good book to read.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The magical adventures of Kaya Stormchild

Canadian writer Lael Whitehead has written an enchanting adventure story about a young girl who is orphaned when her parents fishing boat is capsized in a storm on British Columbia’s Salish Sea. Rescued by Kelpie the seal and pushed to tiny Tangle Island, she meets Grandmother, the bald eagle that mothers and raises her. When we meet Kaya, she is eleven years old, able to understand the birds and beasts around her, and savvy about living on her own. Piloting her red canoe to and from the nearby town of Campbell Harbour on Henby Island, she trades the fish that Grandmother Eagle catches for supplies for the home she has built in a huge old red cedar tree, a place so magical that I want to go there.

The drama begins when someone begins murdering eagles, porpoises and other creatures and selling their parts to foreign customers. Worse, the mysterious Omrith has disappeared from its place deep in the Salish Sea. Without it, the ancient rites of the Salish Sea cannot take place, which will have disastrous consequences for everyone. Kaya is drawn into the mystery because of her love for her creatures and a desire to help Grandmother Eagle find the culprits. You’ll have to read the book to find out what the Omrith is, how (and whether) it is related to what could be an earth-shattering calamity, and what happens in the end.

One scene that is that is just magical is a great coming together of all the sea creatures and all the birds in a central place in the Salish Sea. Fish, whales, porpoises, orcas, eagles, ravens – creatures of every description that would normally dine on one another, meet peacefully in such numbers that both the sky and sea seem to boil with them. A natural assumption that such a thing can’t be real … but it is. My wife and I watched it happen last year on a TV documentary in Japan. Gradually the creatures gathered, fell silent … and then suddenly began to leave until everything was calm again. I don’t recall what it was called, but it certainly was magical. Lael Whitehead brings it back to life again as one of the high points in her novel.

Will there be another Kaya Stormchild novel? This volume begs for at least one more, so tell as many people as you can about this one so there’s a demand for a second. Is it really that good? Oh, yes! Reading it I am reminded of Garth Stein’s Raven Stole the Moon and The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Scottish poet Kenneth White’s poems about the sea and seacoast of western Scotland. Another is The Old Man and the Monkey.

This is a five-star tale, the kind you’ll read over and over again and share with your children.

Paperback and Kindle, available from

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Because the Night -- A guest blog by Tim Roux

There has been an extremely interesting development in the book world – the prestigious hotel group Radisson Edwardian have set up a book club whereby they give all their guests at their Radisson Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel, London, a courtesy book of the month.

Why Bloomsbury? Well, based on the Bloomsbury literary group of the early 20th century, as you might suspect.

It a bit boggles the mind how the literary editor of the Radisson Edwardian Book Club, Chris Moss of trendy London guide Time Out, chooses a book to meet the tastes of all 14,000 guests who stay there each month, but it has to be a lovely idea for people like us who enjoy a good book and, it has to be said, a good hotel, starving authors that we are.

There you are, you arrive at the hotel tired and in need of instant relaxation, the TV doesn’t appeal, you’ve seen all the movies, what you need is a good book – hey presto, here it is and, if those guests are exceptionally lucky, it will be a Night Publishing book too.

Oh come on, nobody gets that lucky.

Funnily enough, though, that is why Night Publishing is so-called. It was originally set up to supply fun business books to business travellers in hotels – not the stuff that you hang on your wall as a trophy in the unlikely pretence that you have actually read it – all ten pages that matter out of 500 anyway – but really entertaining business-related books like Matt Beaumont’s ‘Company’ or Maxx Barry’s ‘Syrup’.

Well, that idea never took off – why would a hotel be interested in offering its guests books? – but it lingered on in the publisher’s name and in its Relax at Night book showcase brand.

Full circle. Here is the Radisson Edwardian Book Club keen to indulge its guests in a good book like T.S. Elliot’s poems (they really want you to have a good night’s sleep, those guys) or ‘A Room With A View’ (geddit?), and here is Night eager once again to step up to the mark to supply them at least occasionally with just the sort of book that will make their guests happiest, a naturally talented and tasty treat from a much cherished free range author.

Happy ever after.

And what books are Night suggesting first to the Radisson Edwardian Book Club? Well, there is Charlotte Castle's Simon's Choice, the broad appeal family drama which asks “Would you accompany your dying child to heaven?”

Then there is Danny Bent's You've Gone Too Far This Time, Sir!  chronicling the everyday adventures and misadventures of Danny Bent as he cycled 10,000 miles from London to Chembakolli in Southern India with a very sore bum and chased across mountain tops by a masked robber on horseback (headline - 'Vicious bum chases aching bum').

Third suggestion: The Bookie's Runner, Brendan Gisby's seminal portrait of a man of no importance - his father - who thought he had worked out how to get one big win on the horses before he died, and he was right, but …...

And then the truly outrageously good, as-Jane-Austen-would-have-written-it-if-she-had-been-born-in-Atlanta-Georgia, The Wilful Daughter, where a successful middle-class blacksmith is absolutely determined to marry off his five eligible and beautiful daughters to the right suitors in the appropriate order, and his fifth, most attractive and wilful, daughter is equally set on having it, and the man she loves, her way.

Finally a lyrical fable, a plea for friendship across races, however unlikely that might be, a book for all ages and all time, George Polley's The Old Man and The Monkey. 

Hell, I would stay in the Radisson Edwardian Bloomsbury Street just to read those books.

P.S. Actually I would like to add a personal story of my experience with the Radisson Edwardian hotel group. I used to live between France, Belgium and the UK, so travelled a lot into London Heathrow, London Luton, London Stansted and London Gatwick airports. One day I arrived at Heathrow desperate to get onto the Internet and to have some lunch. I had travelled past the Radisson Edwardian hotel at Heathrow many times and it looked really pretty, so on that basis alone I bowled in there and said “I don’t suppose you will accept this from a non-resident, but I would love to get on the Internet and I would love to have lunch, will you help me?” They were charm itself, they offered me my own office and a not expensive lunch, and I did everything I had to do in 3-4 hours. They are still my favourite Heathrow airport hotel (and I do have experience of a few others).

Anyway, if you think that the Radisson Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel might be worth a free book, here it is:

Tim Roux, Publisher, Night Publishing (UK)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Facing down death … and learning to live again – a soldier’s story

People return from war haunted by their battlefield experiences. Moody, jumpy, and unable to settle down, they drink too much, use drugs, are given to fits of rage and despair, and feel utterly alone and unable to connect with people who love them. What happened to them? Author and former career British Special Forces soldier Theodore (Theo) Knell knows from painful experience what it’s like. "As Special Forces soldiers,” he writes, “we were actively discouraged from talking about our feelings and the personal effects of combat on our mental health... Talking to a doctor could be perceived as [a] personal weakness, a flaw in our makeup... [S]o you learned to keep quiet, bottle it up and crack on.”

Away from combat when one’s mind is no longer preoccupied with staying alive, it “is left free to roam”. The old rule of bottling it up and cracking on, instead of keeping nightmares away or bringing loved ones closer, has the opposite effect. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) appears bringing horrific memories of battle unbidden at the most unexpected of moments, disrupting everything and sending the sufferer into a tailspin and pushing away loved ones who want to help, but can’t.

“Once inside [Starbucks] I grab at my coffee like a junkie with a long needed fix. I'll head for a corner, any corner, as long as I can get my back to the wall and still see the door.

Across the aisle sits a stranger hunched over a large black coffee, elbows on table, head bowed, pulling quietly at his unkempt hair. He has those same smoky eyes and that thousand metre stare.

There's nothing on earth that can open up old wounds like a mirror.”

When Theodore Knell’s From the Corners of a Wounded Mind was published, he quotes former soldiers coming up and saying: “I didn’t know you felt like that as well, I thought it was only me,” and wives telling him: “I just never realised, if only I'd known I would have tried to help more.” PTSD drives people away from loving relationships and friendships and into isolation and pain. Reconnecting brings life.

This book is a wonderful resource for men and women who suffer from combat-related PTSD. Had it been available while I was a practicing mental health counselor, it is a book I would have recommended without hesitation to the war veterans and police officers I counseled. Written in plain-spoken, compassionate prose and verse, it is a book that touches people where they hurt and helps them heal.

If you’re a combat veteran or police officer with PTSD, know someone who is, or are a mental health professional that works with combat veterans and police officers, and you are looking for a helpful resource, Theodore Knell’s From the Corners of a Wounded Mind is one that I recommend without reservation. 

Available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Without a doubt, a clear  ***** winner.