Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Russia was an enigmatic Communist nation when I was a kid.  What little I knew of the USSR centered around the lack of freedom the people had.  I vividly remember my one-time conception of how the centrally planned economy and complete lack of freedom would result in some people being condemned to a lifetime of emptying garbage cans in some forlorn office building somewhere in the Soviet Union.  Reality, as I understand it, was slightly more forgiving.  One thing that fascinated me was the state-sponsored oppressors or the secret police that seemed necessary to keep the Russians (I knew nothing of the almost two hundred ethnic groups in the Soviet Union) under control.  It was so different from the life I knew in the U.S. and it involved secrecy, spies, and a powerful military that seemed more fiction than fact.

Book cover.KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents by John Barron tells some of the stories of the main Soviet agency of oppression and secrecy, the KGB.  It provides an overview of all the Soviet intelligence agencies, but focuses on the KGB, which the author assessed to be the brains behind all of them.  After the more academic portion of the book, it recounts a few fantastic stories.  Most of the stories, a few which I had read elsewhere previously, had to do with the stuff of movies.  The book contains the stories of Americans who betrayed their country and of Russians who betrayed theirs.  They are fascinating accounts full of sneaking around big cities, breaking into vaults, offers of money, international intrigue, “seductresses” (as promised by the paperback version’s typically sensationalist cover art), and, of course, spies.  It was interesting to read of a disgruntled U.S. Army soldier, his former prostitute wife, and his giving the Russians access to something they likely figured was impossible to access.  I was also really intrigued by the stories of Russians and other eastern Europeans who risked it all to do what they figured was their part in the battle against authoritarianism and for liberty.  One interesting story was that of a Czech who was sent to Canada by the Russians, but who ultimately decided that all he had been taught in years of intense training was not true now that he’d been in the West and seen how things really worked.

The book was really interesting to me since I have an interest in all things Russia.  It is, of course, dated, since it’s about the Soviet Union and the KGB instead of Russia and the FSB, but there are two reasons I thought it still seemed relevant, besides being fun to read because of the incredible stories (it’s Bourne, but it was real).  First, Russia today is closer to the Soviet Union than it’s been since the fall of Communism.  The types of operations described in the book are likely going on right now.  Second, and probably more important, the KGB and its tactics are part of any authoritarian government.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is slowly sliding down that slope.  As government grows and grows, it seeks to retain power, usually done by taking away the rights of the people.  People inherently desire freedom, though, so to sustain a government that does not have the freedom of the people as its raison d’être, that same government turns to oppression and the elimination of liberty to preserve itself.  We must always be vigilant about what we are allowing the government to do lest we become the victims described in this book.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

We Die Alone

The idea of surviving in extremely adverse conditions on your own is something most young boys of my generation daydreamed about.  Just you, a few basic tools, and the great outdoors.  I read books as a kid and teenager that really only enhanced those daydreams, fiction like Hatchet and non-fiction, like one my dad gave me about a kid that backpacked on his own from the Canadian border down to Mexico through the rugged mountains in the Pacific Northwest and then through the scorching deserts of California.  It was great reading.  As a young Boy Scout, I read the requirements for the wilderness survival merit badge in awe, but earned it during Scout camp one summer, and thoroughly enjoyed building a shelter with a couple guys from the ward using nothing but the stuff we found out in the forest.  It was, of course, nothing like the adventures in the books, but it was a small taste, and it’s always been an interesting subject to me.

We Die Alone (ISBN: 978-1-59921-063-6) by David Howarth, re-tells the true account of a man surviving the harsh Norwegian winter using his own survival skills and the goodwill of his fellow countrymen as they resisted Nazi occupation.  The Norwegians worked together with the English to bring people and supplies from England to Norway to sabotage the Nazis.  The title of the book is taken from the idea that while sent up as a team, the saboteurs would split up, if necessary, in order to carry out their mission.  The book’s hero, Jan Baalstrud, was betrayed by a local, maybe not intentionally, helped self-destruct the sabotage materials, and then escaped the Nazi patrols on the hunt for him.  He used athletic prowess and backcountry know-how to stay away from the Germans, but could eventually go no further after a debilitating blizzard trapped him.  Locals loyal to their country helped hide him and then help him escape the Germans, who seemed to be narrowing in.  Baalstrud spent a few harrowing weeks on his own in snow caves, and his body suffered greatly, including frostbitten limbs, but his will to survive, although sometimes tried, never died, and he never gave up, eventually being pulled to safety in Sweden by Lapps and their reindeer sleds.

The story, since it involved so much hiding and waiting was maybe not as gripping as I had hoped it would be, but it certainly wasn’t bad.  I enjoyed learning about the sabotage plans and the Norwegian resistance.  Both Jan’s heroics and the bold actions of the villagers that saved him were inspiring.  I enjoyed reading of the native Norwegians’ abilities on skis and how it often helped them outwit or simply out-race the Germans.  On a more serious note, I always see myself on the side of the resistance in my imagination, and truly hope that I would’ve had the strength to play that part had I been there, doing my part to preserve freedom and the lives of those fighting for freedom.  I sometimes think that I’ll need to be ready to do that in the future.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Love Thy Neighbor

People often say that man’s cruelty to his fellow man never ceases to amaze them.  I think it ceased to amaze me long ago.  What could arguably never cease to amaze me is that the solution is right there, right in front of our eyes.  In the Bible, a man named Naaman, a Syrian army commander, came to Elisha, a prophet to be healed of leprosy.  He was told to simply wash himself in the Jordan River.  He was reluctant to do so because it sounded so easy.  Eventually, he did it, and, as promised, was healed.  Today, we look pretty much everywhere for solutions to problems like war and genocide.  They are big problems so they demand big solutions goes the thinking.  In reality, Christ’s injunction to “love thy neighbor” would solve them much quicker and much more effectively.

Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War (ISBN: 978-0-679-76389-5) by Peter Maass is a collection of notes from the author’s time in Bosnia & Herzegovina as a journalist during the Bosnian War, but since the stories are all told from his point of view, it reads like a memoir.  There isn’t a lot of continuity, and it just jumps from one story to another, but roughly follows the timeline of the war.  The bit of continuity that is there is Maass wondering how people can forget so easily the need to respect those around them.  The stories are very real and personal, as Maass interacts with fellow jouranlists, soldiers on both sides, government officials, and what would normally be called everyday people, but can’t be in this situation because there was no such thing as normalcy in the Bosnian War.  Maass interviewed a Serb sniper, Bosnian soldiers, dealt with a Serb checkpoint — ultimately unsuccessfully, had Christmas dinner with a Croat family in Sarajevo, experienced what it was like to be under attack while in a gas station, and was, like most who dealt with the Bosnian War, flabbergasted by the impotence of the so-called world superpowers to get anything accomplished in Bosnia.  His account holds nothing back and it presents the war in all of grizzly horror that is war. 

The book was a fascinating overview of the war that could realistically be categorized as an overview of the atrocities of the war.  It presented both the best and worst of people, and it’s the good that ultimately captured my attention.  No matter how low things go, there’s someone out there trying to do good.  The story of the Catholic man and his wife who had Maass over for Christmas dinner was one of those.  It was, ultimately, a small gesture, but one that showed the goodness of the man and his family.  At times, the accounts of the violence seemed rather too much, even considering other books on the Bosnian War I’ve read.  On the other hand, it is reality and it is a reality with which our virtual-reality society really should be better acquainted because the idea that actions have consequences is one from which people seem far removed.  I am not sure if Maass, a Jew who was not overly religious, meant to lead his readers to any certain conclusions, but I think so, and the conclusion I drew from the book was that were we to love our neighbors, the ridiculous idea of ethnic conflict, and all kinds of other conflict, too, would not be something we would have to deal with.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

This Is Serbia Calling

In all wars and under all authoritarian regimes that I have heard of, there has been an underground movement of some sort or another.  I admit that I know very little of many of them.  Whether it be the Underground Railroad of the American Civil War period or the resistance efforts during Germany’s World War II-era conquest of Europe or the people in the former Soviet Union who yearned for freedom and did what they could, the stories are spell-binding.  Some, of course, are better than others, but I find it hard to pass judgement on those who made only small contributions to resistance movements; they did what they could in an atmosphere where even the littlest action against a tyrannical government could and often did result in death, sometimes for one’s family and friends, too.  I hadn't really heard about such people when it came to the Bosnian War, but I figured there had to be some.

Book cover.This Is Serbia Calling: Rock 'n' Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance by Matthew Collin (ISBN: 1-85242-776-0), tells about a few of the people who tried to change the minds of Serbians during the war with Bosnia & Herzegovina.  I found the very idea of someone going against what Serbia's ironically-named (his first named means free) despot, Slobodan Milošević, worth reading about.  The book tells the story of how what is now Serbia's second-largest TV and radio station came to be, how it presented a constant message that went against the ultra-nationalist propaganda of the Serbian ruler.  It was often a dangerous message, one that resulted in jail time, seized property, and the constant fear of death and beatings.  Most of the radio station's personnel suffered only lightly, but others in the political opposition were murdered.  B92 struggled to present a message that would galvanize the people of Serbia against the war, and once that was over, against the government that had brought so much trouble to their land.  B92 was no great supporter of NATO or the West when they started bombing Serbia during the Serbian campaign in Kosovo, but mostly stayed on message as they continued to denounce the their corrupt president.  They brought a message of hope and freedom to the people, which ultimately resulted in the people of Serbia taking to the streets and quickly, with minimal bloodshed, throwing Milošević out of power.

The book was an interesting history told from an unusual perspective (and in the highly charged vocabulary of the Balkans).  The other resistance movements I've read about have not had such an open presence as B92, a radio station, did.  Milošević had a strategy that left those dissenting voices around that he figured didn't really matter, so there's probably an argument to be made about the real threat B92 presented the regime, but the fact that they were eventually taken over, probably means they were too effective for the regime's liking at the spreading of their pro-democratic message.  I was intrigued by their dislike for the West, even though Western governments were pumping money and manpower into keeping B92 and other anti-Milošević organizations relevant.  I liked reading about how, once Milošević was deposed, most people involved in the movements against him just returned to their everyday lives.  They weren't seeking power or fame, just freedom.  They were willing to stand up for what they believed, some at considerable risk to their physical safety or even lives.  It was great to read about people desiring freedom, taking matters into their own hands, and working to get it.

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Monday, March 07, 2016

Blood and Vengeance

The stories of war are always fascinating.  It seems to me that when I read about it, the best and the worst of people come to light, and those extremes are interesting.  The vast majority of my experience with learning about life during war comes from WWII.  Its stories have captivated me from an early age, likely because I heard my grandpa’s stories of being a soldier in the Pacific theater and the stories of my grandma and grandpa on the other side as civilians in wartime Germany.  I have always been exposed to both sides and found worthwhile stories in both.  Modern warfare also has its heroes and bravery and villians and cowardice.  War is, of course, an overall saddening thing, usually rather senseless, but there are incredible stories and great lessons to be learned.

Book cover.Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia by Chuck Sudetic (ISBN: 978-0-393-33548-4) is, indeed, and incredible story.  It follows one Bosniak (Muslim) family from the final few years of Yugoslavia through the end of the Bosnian War.  The information about life in an obscure village on the border of Bosnia and Serbia serves a great purpos in the book; it sets up what life was like in so many places.  Ethnic hatred simmered under the Communist cover of “brotherhood and unity.”  When the lid provided by party was gone, it boiled over and escalated quickly.  Based on personal interviews in the first few years after the war, the stories of fights, flights, bomb shelters, forced marches, and genocide are raw and personal.  The Muslim villgers, chased from their homes, their neighbors floating face down in Bosnia’s famous Drina river, seek shelter in neighboring villages progressively farther and farther from the fields and dirt paths of their nativity before finally reaching Srebrenica, where many would meet their ultmate demise.  Along the way, they face a very personal enemy, their former friends and neighbors.  At Srebrenica, the Bosniaks think they have found relief since the UN has provided for them a safe zone.  They soon find out that the realities of international policy are far from cut and dry, and the safe zone has little in common with the word “safe.”  Here, Sudetic relies on articles, documents, and archive material, painting a picture of great power ineptitude.  Eventually, the war comes to an end, but not without changing forever the lives of those involved, some, paradoxically, possibly for the better.

The highly charged (the book is littered with Bosnian swearing, which is very representative of the linguistic realities of the Balkans) narrative is raw, personal, and oftimes graphic.  An accurate portrayal of the horror of war compounded by the atrocity of genocide is not likely possible to portray any other way.  I, a far removed observer, found it interesting.  These personal stories have a place in history.  Living in the Balkans, I wish I had an opportunity to hear them with my own ears, but the younger generation doesn’t remember them because they were not a part of it — at least not significantly — and it’s usually an impropriety to ask the older generation about it.  This made the book a gripping read.  I was somewhat skeptical at first because the author is distantly related (by marriage) to the main family in the book.  I found, though, that the story was objective.  There were mistakes on both sides.  In addition, like many families of the times in Yugoslavia’s dying years, the Bosniaks of the book were intermarried with Serbs.  There was really no clear-cut delineation between the ethnicities (throughout the book, soldiers, gangs, and others resorted to what was the only sure-fire way to tell if a man was Muslim or not: they demanded prisoners drop their pants to check for circumcision), making the whole genocidal aspect of the war that much more senseless.  The author had a clear anti-UN bent, but painted NATO in a more positive light, which probably aligns with my own thoughs on that matter.  The massacre of Srebrenica was just as depressing as always.  The truly eastern European moments of deeply rooted superstition and bizarre folk belief mingled with the Koran and an Orthodox view of Christianity (both willing to accept a certain degree of mysticism) provided some lighthearted moments in an otherwise dark book, mostly because it brought to mind my own run-ins with the eastern European mentality.  A witch riding a broom around a yard to remove a hex from a cow is something to never be forgotten.  Finally, out of the mess there was a ray of hope, which also mirrors my personal experience in eastern Europe.  A Bosniak who had never seen himself doing anything but walking behind a yoke of oxen in field in a village named for cabbage, now found himself living in the capital city, forging a way forward through owning a business and seeing it as a step up and a way forward.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

When Character Was King

Technically, since he was president until 1981, Jimmy Carter was the first president in my life, but I was too little to know anything about him, so Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981 to 1989, is the president who I think of first when I think of the first U.S. president during my lifetime.  Reagan is famous for a number of things, all of which those who like to politicize everything argue about.  One is economic policy, which I don't think I'd ever heard about or even thought about as a kid.  Another was foreign policy, and even as a kid, I was pretty attuned to this.  Russia and her satellite states broadcast an ideology of oppression, were a clear and present nuclear threat, and fought wars and proxy wars to spread misery and oppression.  In a way, it had a personal connection.  I was well aware of my German heritage and was always fascinated by Germany.  Germany, of course, was separated by a wall, and not a wall of defense, but one meant to prevent people from leaving, from seeking a better life or from the "pursuit of happiness."  Reagan, famously, called on Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down [the] wall!"  Even as a young kid, I understood that Reagan was a man of principles and a man who knew how to lead.

Book cover image.In When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan by Peggy Noonan (ISBN: 978-0-14-200168-4), the former Reagan staffer (speechwriter), journalist, and columnist gives her take on the fortieth president.  The story starts when Reagan was a kid and ends as he succumbs to the Alzheimer's and the ailments of time.  One learns where he got his worldview from and how his early life influenced where he got.  Reagan's father, I learned, was an alcoholic, but he still imbued his son with principles that served him well in seeing the greatness in all people and in upholding America's tradition of equality.  Reagan's mother was a strongly and actively Christian woman, which also became a major part of his character.  He believed in God and believed God wanted to be part of people's lives.  One reads about Reagan's involvement in Hollywood.  He was arguably an up-and-coming star, but never went big time because he got involved in the actors' union and the more political side of things.  His political career was dogged by accusations of being just an actor, and acting likely helped him as he campaigned, but his real talent was likely in speechmaking to begin with.  The book recounts Reagan's entry into politics.  He was not, it seems, overly ambitious, but saw his involvement as a chance to help people, and that's where character came in.  Reagan had standards and stuck to them, providing for people a stable and strong standard behind which they could rally.  He was unabashedly religious, had no tolerance for racism, and knew that there was a distinct difference between democratic forms of government with capitalistic and those of the "evil empire," the Soviet Union.  Principles made it so Reagan, with an unwavering rear guard in his wife, Nancy, could set goals — goals based on character and principles — and achieve them, improving lives around him in the process.

I really didn't know what to think about the book before reading it, but I did somewhat doubt the decision to pick it up since I figured a weightier biography of one of America's all-time great presidents might've been in order before this shorter one that could really only promise an overview of the many things Reagan undertook and accomplished.  I learned some things about the man and his life, though, and was happy with the depth of the information about the bigger events in his life.  I thought Noonan did an admirable job with what might be called the backstory to Reagan's political career, which is really where his character was formed — in his childhood, in college, and as an actor and union activist.  I think she made a good argument for the role that character played in what Reagan was able to accomplish, whether it was overcoming political defeat, recovering strongly from being shot, or helping bring about the demise of Soviet Communism.  Overall, the book was an enjoyable read and really only solidified my view of Reagan as one of the all-time great presidents.  There were things I liked about the Bushes, but the book's title says it all about Reagan and that era, because it wasn't principles in certain times, as I feel it was with the Bushes, but princpled, strong leadership all the time.  It also made me want to learn more, so I will, someday, find my way into a weightier, more academic biography of this great man.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gulliver's Travels

I am not a big movie fan, but a few years ago, the comedy actor Jack Black did a movie based on the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels.  I don’t much care for movies, so I know even less about actors.  What I did know was that Jack Black made a movie about being a Mexican professional wrestler.  It looked massively dumb, and I never saw it.  Black’s modernized take on the classic novel didn’t look much better, and I avoided it, too.  I hadn’t ever read the book, but, as everyone knows, the book is better than the movie.

Book cover. Gulliver’s Travels (ISBN: 0-14-143949-1) by Jonathan Swift is an interesting novel that was originally published as political satire.  Now far removed from the contentious political scene of XVIII-century Great Britain, it has withstood the test of time and continues to be popular.  This is mostly thanks to the first part of the book, where the book’s hero, Lemuel Gulliver, visits Lilliput, home to a humanoid race only inches tall.  Gulliver has a number of adventures in this part of the world, including participating in a battle and putting out fires, which saves the island’s royalty.  He also ends up being trapped in some distant land where the inhabitants are giants, which also provides for some adventure, but mostly being carried around in a box by a girl.  Gulliver’s third voyage features a few different islands and a people who have figured out how to live on a machine that perpetually floats in the sky, landing only if the inhabitants are trying to crush the people on the ground below.  Finally, Gulliver finds himself in a land where the ruling inhabitants are horses.  The most inferior race in this quarter of the world are essentially humans, but in a wild and feral form.  In each place, Gulliver is exposed to differing methods of government and people.  He seems to learn from each, although always very patriotic when it comes to his homeland.  Finally, after his visit to the land of the horse beings, he is disgusted with mankind, claiming it to not think and to be disgusting and wild in nature.

I, like most modern readers, did not get much of the political satire in the book.  I would probably agree with many others that the Lilliput episode was the highlight as far as adventures went.  The other sections were significantly drier, although they still had their interesting points.  I noticed that by the end, although likely starting in the third episode, I was more attuned to the commentary on the behavior of people.  One of the points that Swift made multiple times in the book is that people spend a lot of time in conflict with one another because we choose to magnify little differences.  He also thought people succumb to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, especially when it comes to the pursuit of scientific and technological advancement.  Finally, Swift, as I read him, was a big proponent of honesty.  If people would be honest in their dealings and in what they say, the likelihood of our never-ending conflicts decreases to a large degree.  The combination of the story of travel and adventure with commentary was interesting, although I think it tended to detract from the book a little, making it too slow in places.  I thought it was a decent book, but probably not one that I would pick up and read again just for the fun of it.

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