Posted in Book review

We’re All Going to Die – A Review of Raven Rock by Garrett Graff

One of my fascinations is with alternate history. I appreciate a well thought-out, well written alternate history that forces me to think through what actually happened in the past and what could have happened under certain circumstances. About seven months ago, I saw that author Garrett Graff was publishing a new book on the U.S. government’s continuity of operations plan during the Cold War, which is in a sense the ultimate alternative history story. I pre-ordered the book – something I never do – and waited patiently for it to arrive in my Kindle. Finally, the day came and, despite a backlog of things to read, I plowed through the book.

Graff researched many, many government documents and was denied access to many more to write a narrative about how the Executive Branch tried to protect itself from the moment the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima to today. I say the Executive Branch because, as this book makes clear, it was the presidents from Truman to Obama that really drove the government’s continuity of operations planning. This is disturbing because both the Legislative Branch and Judicial Branch conceded (and still do) running of government in the event of an attack that cripples government operations to the president’s designee(s) who may or may seek assistance from the other two branches.

The book is a healthy 500+ pages but in short the government of the United States has never truly been able to create a solid plan to save government operations in the event of a massive attack on this country. Graff does a good job setting the scene for each administration and why they varied in their approach to planning. For example, in the 1950s there was a rush to train the population to react correctly in the event of a nuclear attack to try and save as many civilian lives as possible; by the Kennedy years advancing technology and limited means meant that the hope to save millions of citizens was considered untenable. Instead, the military and executive branch created redundancy after redundancy and spent untold billions of dollars in bunkers, boats, planes, and other means of protecting enough people to keep the government operating. And yet, every time the system was remotely challenged, it would have failed spectacularly if the worst case scenario would have occurred. From the Bay of Pigs to 9/11, the systems our government created to protect itself as best as possible were woefully deficient. In many cases, principles were unable to communicate with each other or the outside world, and who was in charge in some cases was disputed.

Graff is methodical in outlining the alphabet soup of who was in charge of what and how the agencies changed. He does not get bogged down in a straight historical narrative but uses what we all know to paint a larger picture of what the principals were thinking when they concocted these ideas to make sure a president was around to order a nuclear strike or simply show the U.S. still existed. He does not morph into Dan Brown with cheesy cliffhangers but does write a compelling narrative that saves some material that can at times be dry.

There are, however, two major strikes against this book. First, I noticed some small factual errors, such as a mention of a Civil War battle taking place outside of Gettysburg in 1865. These may be the editors’ faults but it is hard to trust completely everything I read if I see things I know to be wrong. The second is that some of the most compelling aspects of the story are incomplete. A perfect example is the fact that the Declaration of Independence, in the event of a cataclysmic attack on DC, would be saved by the National Archives before the original Constitution. Graff mentions this in his introduction and about 60% of the way in returns to the National Archive’s continuity plans. This story of how this vital agency decides what documents would get saved and how goes for about three pages and simply says the agency has three rankings for document safety. Both the Declaration and Constitution are in the top tier, so why is one more vital than the other? This is the kind of story that I feel would be very interesting to all readers but is incomplete. Maybe it is due to the plan being classified, but then he should not have teased it in the introduction.

Overall, Graff takes a tough topic and writes a good history of a scary time that still colors how we approach domestic terrorism and civil liberties today. While far from perfect, it is a good book that shows just how far we still have to go to figure out what will happen to this country if something terrible happens.

Posted in Book review

WST Review of The Arsenal Yankee

Great soccer players don’t just happen; they don’t position themselves in front of scouts and get signed based on what decisions they make. It’s more complicated than that, and that is the greatest value of this book, even more so than the details of training with the Invincibles. For parents like me or even just fans of youth soccer development, this book spells out in stark terms how narrow the line of luck can be between utter success and failing to reach the highest possible goal. That’s a scary thought, but again the author’s respectful description of where his career took him also shows the importance of maintaining the right perspective on a career.

Read more here. I rarely gush about books I read so this one you know is a good one.

Posted in Book review, World Soccer Talk

My Review of 5,000-1 The Leicester City Story for WST

Mixing new writing in with columns from the time, Tanner does not claim to have foreseen this outcome or even predicted that Leicester would surprise people. Instead, he takes his reader into the season through the lens of the betting odds, which started as the season as 5,000-1 and decreased as the season went along until bookmakers tried to cash out bets before losing too much money.

 

Read more at World Soccer Talk

Posted in Book review, World Soccer Talk

Review of Messi: Superstar! Kids Book for WST

Here is where the book’s greatest failing is. In trying to tell the story of Lionel Messi and why he is great, the authors hammer home using statistics and graphics data points about his career. None of that matters to kids; kids find their heroes through watching them and then comparing with their friends. As a child of the 1980s, my heroes came from other sports, like baseball. I didn’t admire Nolan Ryan because he ranked at number whatever on the all-time strikeouts list or led the league in some statistic. I liked him because he threw fast, struck out a lot of people, and was a winner.

Read more at http://worldsoccertalk.com/2016/04/26/review-of-messi-superstar-childrens-book/ 

Posted in Book review

My Review of Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

The road of history is littered with former greats that the chronicles and history books discard to the side to make way for the latest figure of adulation.  For many, Henry VII is a speed bump between the more interest reigns of the mad Richard III and the fascinating Henry VIII; even Shakespeare did not deem him worthy of a historical play.  However, as Thomas Penn explains in this thorough examination of the first Tudor king’s reign, this may have had more to do with the perception of Henry’s rule than with the man himself, whose greatness as a king cannot be denied.

Henry was an adjustment to the English royal scene, the strongest claimant against Richard III who had worn out his welcome with the English gentry (at least according to popular history).  Henry had the essentials for a king that war-torn England was looking for:

  • Enough of a lineage to legitimately claim a right to the throne
  • A wife who was producing and able to produce heirs, to again create a lineage of rulers and avoid the debate over who was the real king
  • The healthy mix of wanting to be adored by his subjects and simultaneously feared, as Machiavelli so aptly described it.

Thus Henry invades England and defeats Richard.  His own actions, however, make him eternally fearful that someone, anyone, with a more rightful claim to the throne could overthrow him.  His fears were not unjustified – not only did nobles with legitimate claims try to steal the throne, his enemies even created impostors in an attempt to overthrow him.  Thus Henry set off a series of events that defined his legacy and set in motion the future of England, allowing his son to revolutionize the way the people and the Church dealt with their ruler.

To prevent a usurper from gaining advantage, Henry had to pay lavishly a network of spies and informants; to create the wealth necessary to pay for this network (which extended across the continent) he had to stretch the meaning of the law and create a network of offenses that could be offset through financial payments.  In addition, to not only show that his family was the one to unify the fighting houses of Lancaster and York, but was the natural progression of a royal dynasty that started with the King Arthur of myth.  Such an illusion required money, and lots of it.  Set backs to Henry’s plans, like the death of his son Arthur, increased the paranoia and thus the financial pressure.

Penn does an excellent job of painting a scene of enemies around every corner but unabashedly pointing out Henry’s flaws.  Could it have been different?  Could Henry have been more lenient or taken a different tack to manage his reign?  It’s hard to see an alternative.  In a country that had been torn apart by civil war repeatedly and where kings had relied too tightly on military might, Henry needed to do something different.  He needed to appeal to his people’s hearts while slipping his hand into their purses.

Penn at times delves too deeply into court gossip and takes tangents into other stories, but overall this book presents the nuanced, complicated rule of a man who, after he died, needed to be portrayed as a winter before England’s glorious spring.  Without Henry’s cold purge of the previous regimes, it would have been impossible for the England of Henry VIII  – and more importantly Elizabeth – to exist.