Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Army Wives

Book Review: Army Wives by Midge Gillies

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Army Wives

The life of a soldier is hard and often dangerous, but the life of a soldier’s spouse has its hardships and hazards as well.  This book collects the stories of various British Army wives from the Crimean War (where wives sometimes shared tents near the front lines with their husbands) to the modern day, when social media allows spouses (now including husbands) to worry about the servicemember’s safety in “real time.”

After chapters on spousal travel and accommodations, the remainder of the book is in roughly chronological order.  There tends to be more information on officers’ wives than those of enlisted men, as especially in the early days they were more likely to be literate and thus leave behind letters, journals and memoirs.  Most of the women covered are ordinary people who rose to the occasion, but there’s also Lady Elizabeth Butler, who was a famous painter even before marrying a famous soldier.

The epilogue is about life after the army, both in the general sense, and the fates of the specific women used as examples in the book.  There’s a nice center section of pictures, many in color, plus a bibliography, end notes and an index.

As always, learning about the lives of people in unusual circumstances is fascinating, and there is quite a variety of women and outcomes represented.  The writing is decent, and some sections are emotionally affecting.

On the other hand, covering so many different stories means that some feel as though they’ve gotten short shrift.  Edith Tolkien, for example, gets two pages, mostly about the codes her husband (J.R.R.) slipped into his letters to let her know where he was.  And the section on soldiers who came home from World War One with facial disfigurements has no direct testimony from wives at all.

That said, this book should be of interest to those interested in military history (especially about women in military history) and those considering being the spouse of a military person.

And now, a video of the British Army Wives’ Chorus:

 

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

It is the year 2030, and after the effects of World Wars Three & Four, Japan is relatively unscathed, having become one of the world’s economic and technological powerhouses.  In particular, they lead the world in cybernetics, and various cyborg upgrades are commonplace.  Of course, this means that cybercrime is even more of a threat than in 2002 (when this series first aired) and the government agency “Public Security Section 9” is detailed to deal with those crimes, especially if they also involve terrorism.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Vol. 03

Section 9’s top agent is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a full-body cyborg, a “ghost in the shell.”  She has been in this state since childhood, and is adept at transferring her consciousness into alternate robot bodies (though she has a strong preference for ones shaped like female human beings.)  Along with her superior combat skills, this makes her a whiz at secret agent missions.

The Major and her colleagues will need every bit of their skill to battle the world-class hacker and cyberterrorist known as The Laughing Man, whose real face is impossible to see by anyone or anything with cybernetic connections, replaced by a bizarre logo adorned with Catcher in the Rye quotes.

Standalone Complex is a science-fiction anime series based on the Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow.  While it shares many characters and most of its background with the manga and previous adaptations, it is not necessarily in continuity with those, so there are some minor contradictions.  “Motoko Kusanagi” (a name rich with connotations in Japanese culture, equivalent to naming a British secret agent “Victoria Excalibur”) may not even be the Major’s real name.

The structure of the show is interesting; odd-numbered episodes are “complex” and tie into the Laughing Man plot arc, while even-numbered episodes are “standalone” and tell individual stories.

As it happens, I got the third DVD volume of the series for Christmas, so let’s take a closer look at that.

Episode 9, “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place almost entirely within a virtual reality chat room for discussion of the Laughing Man phenomenon.  This…is not a good episode to come into the series on, as it is largely just people sitting around having conversations.  And not even the main characters (except the Major in disguise) but a bunch of people who probably didn’t appear before and won’t appear again.  We do get some background on what is public knowledge about the Laughing Man (not much) and some discussion of whether it’s even the same Laughing Man from previous incidents or a copycat.

Episode 10, “Jungle Cruise” focuses on Batou, a former Army Ranger with obviously cybernetic eyes.  A serial killer is loose in the city of Niihama, who skins his victims alive in a distinctive fashion.  The identity of the killer is quickly revealed when two CIA operatives from the American Empire (World War Three was not kind to the United States, which split up into three countries, of which the Empire is the most active in world affairs) appear to ask Section 9 for help capturing him.

We learn that the killer was part of a CIA black ops mission in Southern Mexico known as “Project Sunset.”  It involved murdering civilians in particularly horrific fashion to break the will of the enemy.  Batou, as part of the UN peacekeeping forces, encountered the killer, but was unable to stop him.  The killer’s war has not ended, now brought to the shores of Japan,  Does this also mean that Batou’s war is not over?

Episode 11, “Portraitz” follows Togusa, the least cyberized field agent of Section 9 (just a “cyberbrain” that allows him to communicate with other people who have cyberbrains) as he infiltrates a facility for children  with Closed Shell Syndrome, a condition where one becomes too dependent on cybernetic communication, making it difficult to operate in the real world even while becoming a savant with computers.  There’s something sinister going on in the facility; but is it one of the staff who’s responsible, or one of the patients?

Episode 12, “Escape From” is two related stories.  In the first half, a Tachikoma (an artificial intelligence robot that serves as a small tank for Section 9) goes walkabout without orders, heading into the city and learning about the human concept of death.  Along the way, it picks up a mysterious box.  In the second half, we learn that if someone cybernetically connects to the box, their “ghost” vanishes inside it and won’t come out.  The Major must investigate, but will she too be seduced by what’s inside the box and lost forever?

This one manages to touch on some deeper philosophical topics:  death, the rapidly developing individuality of the Tachikoma AIs, escapism and artistic integrity.

Each episode ends with a short comedy skit starring the Tachikomas, usually tying in with the plot of the episode somehow.  Also included in this volume are interviews with Batou’s actor and the sound director.

The opening credits are full-on CGI, which is a bit jarring, and really showcases how silly the Major’s default outfit looks, especially from behind.  (It reminds me of the US superhero comics fad for putting their heroines in costumes that were basically glorified swimsuits.)  The music is good, though.

I liked “Jungle Cruise” best of the episodes in this volume.

Content notes:  “Jungle Cruise” does involve skinning people alive, and we see some of the results.  There’s a nude female statue in “Portraitz”, which some parents might find unsuitable for younger viewers.  (But honestly, if you let them watch the previous episode…)  The dub version may have some rough language.

Overall, I am looking forward to seeing the entire series so that I can make more sense of the Laughing Man episodes.  Recommended to fans of other Ghost in the Shell versions, and cyberpunk fans in general.

Here’s the opening music, for those who like that sort of thing:

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: Air Service Boys over the Rhine

Book Review: Air Service Boys Over the Rhine by Charles Amory Beach

In 1916, America was still officially neutral in the matter of the Great War.  While many Americans didn’t much like the way Germany was attacking its neighbors, the government felt that it was really none of our business.   Still, some Americans felt compelled to come to France to aid the valiant French in the defense of their homeland.  Some of them were trained pilots, or swiftly educated as such, and became the Escadrille Américaine; after a formal German protest, they were renamed the Lafayette Escadrille after the French soldier who’d helped out the Americans during their revolution.  The “Air Service Boys” series celebrates these young heroes.

Air Service Boys Over the Rhine
Frontispiece

In this, the third book of the series, Tom Raymond and Jack Parmley, two of the American pilots, are having a relatively slow week when the mail arrives, letting Tom know that his inventor father is soon to arrive in Paris.  Some time passes as missions are flown, but no further message comes from Mr. Raymond.   The boys decide to take their next leave in Paris, to see if the inventor has simply not had his mail delivered.

The boys arrive just in time for a new example of German “frightfulness” (deliberately brutal attacks that have little military value, designed to terrorize and demoralize the enemy public.)  The Germans are somehow dropping bombs on random parts of Paris, despite no aircraft in the sky, and no artillery close enough to send shells.  Deuced bad luck for our lads when they finally track Tom’s father down, only to learn that his building is one of the bomb targets.  No body found, but no word of survival either.

Eventually, the secret of the Big Bertha guns is revealed, and the boys join the strike force to take them out.  Once that’s done, it’s time to strike back against the perfidious enemy.  A long range mission over the Rhine brings our lads to bomb a German munitions factory.  They’re forced down behind enemy lines, and find their escape aided by the most obvious person.

This is very much a children’s book, with many terms explained in the simplest fashion.   There isn’t much in the way of characterization–Jack is slightly more impulsive than Tom, and is sweet on a girl named Bessie.   Bessie and her mother barely appear, just long enough to let us know they are contributing by working for the Red Cross, then getting kidnapped by German spies offstage.  (And rescued offstage as well.)  A German spy appears just enough to let us know the enemy is still treacherous–our heroes never directly interact with him.

The dialogue is stilted, and the combat scenes oddly lifeless (though blood and death appear often enough, and Jack is hospitalized twice.)   The author even halts the action for a chapter to tell us what happened in the first two books in some detail.  There’s quite a bit of period ethnic prejudice against Germans, and frequent use of the slurs “Boche” and “Hun.”

If you are famished for tales of the Lafayette Escadrille, I see there is a collected edition of four books in this series available on Kindle for a reasonable price.  I really can’t recommend this book on its own.

And now, another highly fictionalized version of the Escadrille:

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 1 story by Doug Moench, art by various.

Doctor Bruce Banner was one of the nation’s top physicists, and an expert in gamma radiation, when he was drafted into creating a new kind of nuclear weapon called a “gamma bomb.”  Just before the device was about to go off, Dr. Banner saw a young man (soon to be known as Rick Jones) driving into the danger area.  Ordering the test delayed, Banner went out to save the boy.  But a Communist agent prevented the order from being received in hopes of killing Banner and crippling America’s bomb research.

The Rampaging Hulk

Rick Jones was tossed to safety, but Dr. Banner was struck by a massive dose of gamma radiation, which had a bizarre effect.  Under certain circumstances (initially nightfall, later anger) Banner would turn into a monstrous green creature of destruction that was codenamed the Hulk.  General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross became the Hulk’s mortal enemy, not realizing that the monster was also the romantic interest of his daughter Betty.

Bruce Banner had to evade having his secret revealed, while the Hulk battled the army and various supervillains.  And that was the premise of the six-issue The Incredible Hulk series.  Sales weren’t that hot, and the Hulk was rotated out for other features, not having a solo outing again until Tales to Astonish put him in the same magazine as Namor.

In 1977, Marvel Comics had started producing black and white magzines as well as their regular comic books.  These were primarily aimed at slightly older readers as they evaded the Comics Code, and were sold in stores that no longer bothered with a comics rack.  The Rampaging Hulk was a bit of an exception.  It was retroactive continuity, revealing what Banner and Jones had been up to during the period in the early 1960s they weren’t being published.

These longer tales involved the Hulk battling the menace of the Krylorians, an alien race bent on conquering the Earth.  He was aided by Rick Jones and a renegade Krylorian artist named Bereet.    The Krylorians were somewhat comical–they could disguise themselves as humans like the Skrull, but often weren’t very good at it.  They were also a squabbling, backbiting lot who barely cooperated at times.  The X-Men, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and a pre-Avengers assemblage of the Avengers made guest appearances.

That storyline ended in issue 9.  With the success of the Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, it was decided to make the magazine a tie-in of sorts to that.  The name was changed to The Hulk! though the numbering was kept for tax reasons, the setting was moved to the current day, and the series was now in color.  The stories focused on Bruce Banner as a wanderer who kept running into problems no matter where he went, and invariably wound up Hulking out.  The stories involved such contemporary issues as terrorism and child abuse (one of these stories is apparently the first one to suggest that Bruce Banner was abused as a child, which was later used to explain some of his issues.)

Hulk’s usual supporting cast was absent, although there was a brief crossover with back-up feature Moon Knight.

There were a variety of artists, from Walt Simonson to Bill Sienkiewicz (in his Neal Adams homage period).  One issue has a fill-in story by Jim Starlin that is kind of trippy.  The character of the Hulk wasn’t really a good fit for Doug Moench, but his writing is serviceable throughout.  The switch to color in later issues is lost in this reprint, which makes the art muddy in places.

This volume collects up to issue #15.  There are a few pages from Incredible Hulk #269, a story by Bill Mantlo that brought Bereet into the present day by revealing that the events in The Rampaging Hulk #1-9 were in fact her alien fanfilms, with her as a self-insert character.  This did explain a lot of the continuity glitches and a couple of other questions, but some readers felt it was a cheat.

This volume is primarily for die-hard Hulk fans; others will want to check their local libraries.

And now, some sad music.

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Book Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economics can be a deadly dull subject, at least when dominated by stuffed shirts talking about trade deficits, returns on annuities or fiat currency.  But the basics of economic theory can be used to learn useful or amusing things about the world.  With a large enough set of valid data, you can tease out fascinating conclusions, such as the answer to the question “is there cheating in professional sumo wrestling?”  (Probably, or some really amazing and highly consistent coincidences.)

Freakonomics

This book, as the front cover, back cover and several pages at the front remind us, was a New York Times bestseller and all-round phenomenon back in 2005.  (I wonder if there’s some sort of data available on whether having eleven pages of praise for the book before you even get to the title page is a good investment; I skipped right over it.)  It talks about such concepts as positive and negative incentives, regression analysis and information inequality as they relate to cheating schoolteachers, crime rates, baby names and other offbeat subjects.

Perhaps the most controversial subject covered is the notion that legalized abortion led to a massive drop in crime rates in the United States.  The evidence seems sound, but as the authors remind us, the data only shows us what is there, not what should be there.  The same results might have been achievable by other, less painful means.

There are some major changes to this edition of Freakonomics; the chapter  with the story of how the Klu Klux Klan was beaten back had to be heavily revised when one of the sources was revealed to have been exaggerating his role.  There are also several newspaper articles covering subjects that only got a passing mention in the main text, plus the one that got Mr. Dubner interested in covering Mr. Levitt’s research in the first place.  The advertised “Author Q & A” is rather flippant, and more of an advertisement for their next book, Super Freakonomics.

As a semi-scholarly book, there are footnotes, and an index, as well as a list of baby names you might want to consider.

I found this an interesting book with some thought-provoking insights, though some of the conclusions seem a bit iffy.  Recommended to just about everyone, but especially those who’d like to know more about the less stuffy side of economics.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

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