This was written shortly after my book, Leviticus: You Have No Idea was published almost a decade ago. To read the full book review, click here or on the image below.
Category: Book Reviews
Red Line by Joby Warrick is heartbreaking and inspiring, but mostly heartbreaking
Note: you can listen to an audio version of this post at this link.
Just finished reading Red Line, by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joby Warrick. It was published in February 2021.
Warrick tells the story of how, since the 1980s, the Assad regime in Syria built a massive chemical weapons production industry and a stockpile of weapons capable of killing tens of millions. Thanks to a highly placed CIA informant within the program, US intelligence services were able to keep relatively informed about it. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Assad began dropping chemical weapons on rebel-held villages, in civilian centers, and a number of brave Syrian civilians risked their lives to gather evidence and smuggle it out of the country so that the rest of the world would know.
Soon after the civil war began, when Assad’s regime looked ready to collapse, many world leaders, especially in the West, hoped Assad would be forced to flee. On the other hand, while some of the rebel groups seeking to oust Assad were pro-democracy and pro-pluralism, others, like ISIS, were intent on seizing power and imposing their own form of tyranny and brutality. Obama and other world leaders became alarmed at the possibility that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities might fall into the hands of ISIS or one of the other Islamist rebel groups, and the US defense department began working on a massive effort to prepare for the possibility of needing to act to secure and destroy those weapons if they were about to fall into jihadists’ hands.
Before that scenario had a chance to play out, intelligence reports started arriving in the US and elsewhere indicating that Assad had begun using poison gas against rebel held populations. Then came a press conference, actually about health care, during which Obama was asked a question by a reporter about the possibility that Assad was using chemical weapons in battle. In his response, Obama used the phrase “red line” for the first time to warn Assad that use of chemical weapons would lead to the US taking action against him. He would go on to use the phrase two more times in prepared remarks, including during a speech he gave to university students in Israel.
The story that Warrick goes on to tell is as depressing as any deep-dive piece of reporting on war crimes and atrocities, and it shines a light on many heroic individuals who tried to save lives and stand firm against inhumanity. Warrick describes a UN team of inspectors who were allowed into the country with a mandate to collect evidence to determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used, though they had to accept Assad’s condition that any report they made would not be allowed to make claims about who was responsible for using the weapons. In this manner, Assad and his Russian backers would be able to maintain their disinformation campaign claiming that if anyone had used chemical weapons it must have been one of the rebel groups.
While the UN team was in Syria, one of Assad’s generals ordered a large scale chemical attack, using sarin gas, on a rebel held Damascus suburb called Ghouta, killing about 1,400 people and injuring thousands. Many children were among the victims. (Here is a link to a Human Rights Watch report on what happened at Ghouta. But before you go there, a warning – the very first thing you see is a photograph of dozens of dead children killed in the attack. I wasn’t prepared for that when I visited the site, and it hit me very hard.)
The UN team decided to do all it could to gather evidence from the Ghouta attack, but meanwhile various intelligence agencies had concluded firmly that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons in the war. Assad had crossed Obama’s red line, and Obama had to decide how to respond. Initially, he wanted to launch airstrikes in Syria, but he didn’t want to imperil the UN inspection team. He tried to get the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to pull the inspection team out ASAP, but Ban wouldn’t do it, arguing that it was against his mandate to remove a diplomatic team seeking to gather evidence about chemical weapons use in order to help another country carry out a military strike.
A few weeks of this stalemate elapsed, and in the meantime different domestic and international leaders sought to influence Obama’s thinking regarding what consequences he might impose on Assad’s regime for crossing this line. There were leaders who were worried that airstrikes might backfire in any number of ways. There were progressives who did not want any president taking military action against a new foe without getting authorization from Congress – something that candidate Obama had stressed was the Constitution’s requirement for waging war. Ultimately, Obama announced that he would seek Congressional authorization of military action – something he thought he would easily get. But he and his advisers misread the political moment in Congress. Republicans were against anything Obama wanted to do and signaled their unwillingness to support him in this effort if for no other reason than simply to hurt him politically. But most Democrats were also opposed, saying they wanted no part of risking the opening up of a new potentially endless war in the Middle East.
Then came a diplomatic breakthrough. Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, had been meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, intensively to look for ways to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons. Thus began the intensive Obama administration diplomacy that led to “the deal,” the September 2013 agreement signed by the US and Russia to oversee the removal of Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its production facilities. Russia, Syria’s main ally, was able to push Assad to accept the deal, which meant there would definitely be no US-led military attacks against his forces in the coming months and that Russia would be able to continue to grow its influence in the region. For the US and the rest of the world concerned both about Assad’s use of the weapons and the potential for jihadist rebel groups to steal some of the weapons, the deal meant achieving two important goals: 1) imposing a major consequence on the Assad regime for crossing Obama’s “red line,” and 2) removing (hopefully) all of the weapons and Assad’s factories for making more.Continue reading “Red Line by Joby Warrick is heartbreaking and inspiring, but mostly heartbreaking”
Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times
Just finished reading Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, Middle Passage, and I’m wishing it had been considered mandatory high school reading for me.
Well, by 1990 I was already in college, but in my fantasy I wish to have read this novel in my high school English class my junior or senior year. First of all, it would have prevented me from graduating high school without knowing what the term “The Middle Passage” meant re slavery – something I’m ashamed to acknowledge. (I didn’t learn the term until I was in my 20s.)
The novel won the National Book Award, and the NYT Book Review blurb on the back of my paperback edition states, “A novel in the honorable tradition of Billy Budd and Moby Dick . . . heroic in proportion . . . fiction that hooks into the mind.” I agree with all of that (though I’ve never read Moby Dick and don’t plan to).
A bit over 200 pages, Johnson’s novel is told in first person in the form of a series of 8 journal (or ship’s log) entries over the course of the summer of 1830. Our narrator and anti-hero is Rutherford Calhoun, a 20-something freed former slave living (and committed to little more than partying) in New Orleans. Rutherford was born into slavery and he and his brother were the slaves of a man named Reverend Peleg Chandler, whom Rutherford says was morally against slavery and thus arranged for the manumission of his slaves just before his death (why is it that so many of the white men we hear about who had slaves but opposed slavery only granted their slaves freedom upon their death – I mean, if they really found slavery morally repugnant… right?)
In any case, our narrator describes Chandler this way:
“A Biblical scholar, he endlessly preached Old Testament virtues to me, and to this very day I remember his tedious disquisitions on Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme. He’d wanted me to become a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint like the South American priest Martin de Porres – or, for that matter, my brother Jackson.”
We later learn of the many ways in which Rutherford resents his brother Jackson, who was constantly being praised by the Reverend/Master while Rutherford was being admonished.Continue reading “Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times”
Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)
This article originally appeared in E-Jewish Philanthropy here.
I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the 2011 movie it inspired.
Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.
Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.
So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.
Continue reading “Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)”
I’m reading Saul S. Friedman’s Pogromchik: The Assassination of Simon Petlura (Hart Publishing Co., New York, 1976). It’s a non-fiction account whose central drama is an act of public assassination carried out in Paris in 1926 by a Ukrainian Jew, Sholom
Schwartzbard. Schwartzbard shot and killed Simon Petlura, a former head of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and supreme commander of Ukrainian nationalist forces during the civil war in that country that took place in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia.
Friedman was an historian who wrote extensively about Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and the Middle East. He died in 2013, and from what I can glean on the interwebs he is, much to my dismay, a favorite go-to source for the Jewish and American right wing – particularly of those who passionately believe that Christianity & Judaism are in a global war against Islam, and that naive and ignorant liberals (like yours truly) keep ignoring the depths of the hatred found against Jews within Islam. Given my politics, I could dismiss anything Friedman has written out of hand, but that’s not how I roll. My primary interest in Pogromchik is as a portal into the horrific world of the pogroms that took place from the late 1800s well into the 20th century in the Ukraine, Russia, and other parts of eastern Europe. I could, of course, have just read a bunch of articles about those pogroms, but I guess I’m a sucker for a good story, and this is one.
Sagan, baby, SAGAN!
I’ve been on a Carl Sagan binge this weekend. I want to say a bit about his quote in this photo, and one of his books. 🙂
The book I’m reading is based on a series of lectures on natural theology that Sagan was invited to give at the University of Glasgow in 1985. It’s called The Varieties of Scientific Experience, deliberately evoking the famous 1902 work by the psychologist, William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The lectures were edited by the TV producer of Sagan’s most famous show, Cosmos – the producer who also co-wrote the show and married Sagan in 1981, Ann Druyan.
For those too young to remember Sagan’s distinctive way of speaking, voila:
So, what I’m loving so far about the beginning of this book is Ann Druyan’s Introduction. Here are a couple quotes from her:
“[Sagan] took the idea of God so seriously that it had to pass the most rigorous standards of scrutiny. . . . For Carl, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over the eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it also afforded a deeper, more satisfying spiritual experience.” (p. x)
“The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic.” (p. xi) Continue reading “Sagan, baby, SAGAN!”
Hymns to an Unknown God
About a decade ago I found Sam Keen’s book, Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life at a thrift store, and read it with great appreciation. It probably gets pigeon-holed under “New Age” and therefore, for some people, not taken too seriously. But whatever categories it does or doesn’t belong in, I love the book and have found it really, really helpful. More to come on this soon.
Okay, I’m finally getting to writing about Keen’s book a bit.
I’m just going to share some of my favorite quotes from the book.
“I don’t pray to some super-power to make things better. But I open myself to the power that infuses and informs all life and pray to be relieved of the bondage to myself.” (p. xviii)
“[Paul] Tillich was lecturing to us about the importance of understanding that all religious statements were symbolic. They are linguistic lace, allowing only a hint of the fabric of the mystery of being. No religion possesses any literal truth, he said, and warned us against the idolatry of religion. He advised us to look for the presence of the sacred in the everyday secular world.” (p. 2) Continue reading “Hymns to an Unknown God”
Revised Posting: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento
I have no way of knowing how accurate Joseph J. Trento’s 2001 book, The Secret History of the CIA, is, given the nature of the subject. However, I’ve been fascinated (and yes, horrified at times) by some of the historical figures dating back to WW2 that the author describes.
For example: Laventia Beria, head of the NKVD under Stalin, who apparently recruited and then dispatched the Soviet spy known as “Sasha” to infiltrate the Nazi military command during the war. Sasha succeeded in convincing a high-ranking Nazi general, Reinhard Gehlen, that he was a Russian anti-Communist who supported the German cause. Gehlen went on to position himself, near the war’s end, as a candidate for recruitment by the American intelligence community, and when the U.S. did recruit him and a bunch of other Nazi war criminals to join in the American spying effort against the Soviets, Gehlen brought Sasha with him. Sasha’s Soviet bosses then gave Sasha new orders to spy on the American spies, which he proceeded to do.
Trento also describes how people like Allen Dulles and Jim Angleton worked to build a Cold War American espionage network, and how the British double agent, Kim Philby, entered into Angleton’s life.
Continue reading “Revised Posting: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento”
I Love John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl
Before I read The Little Drummer Girl, I saw the movie – probably 25 years ago when I was in my very early 20s. During my 40s (I’m 46 presently), I’ve taught a course called “Israelis & Palestinians” through the Judaic Studies Department at the U of Oregon, and as part of my development of the course I watched the movie again. I think a lot of the critics wrote that they thought Diane Keaton was not young-enough looking to plausibly play Charlie, the main character. If memory serves, Keaton was a driving force behind getting the film produced, with her playing Charlie, for which I can only say kol ha-kavod (Hebrew which roughly translates to “hats off” to her).
I’m not an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I don’t think I’m able to judge how to describe my level of knowledge and understanding, but I guess I’m willing to say that I’m well-read on the subject and that I have a lot of interpersonal experience with Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders, as well as a lot of time spent in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. I am basically a J Street person in my politics, FWIW, and I’m sure those lenses color how I see things, but I happen to believe that everyone has lenses of some kind through which they approach this topic.
Continue reading “I Love John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl”
Reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth
I’ve become a lot more interested in understanding World War I over the past couple years, largely because of the research I had to do to teach a course called “Israelis and Palestinians” as an adjunct instructor in the Judaic Studies department at the U of Oregon. The more I read, the more I realized the enormous role that “The Great War” played in laying the groundwork for the future Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the screwed up politics of the Middle East to this day. I guess, more specifically, I would say that I learned a lot more about the influence of WWI and the decisions and agreements made by the victorious Allies after the war on the Middle East.
That sparked my interest in gaining a better understanding of late 19th / early 20th century history. I had long ago read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, but last year I discovered a lesser known book of hers, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, which helped me better understand the multiple motivations that the British had leading up to the British Mandate over Palestine.
And now, when I read books that mention people like Lord Herbert Kitchener, Herbert Samuel, Arthur Balfour, Harry St John Philby (and his traitorous son, Kim Philby), I have a better sense of how their beliefs and decisions shaped the dynamics of the Middle East to this day.
A couple weeks ago, I heard an NPR story about the recently released movie, Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of the same title. Whoever was being interviewed described Brittain’s book as hands-down the best memoir ever published in terms of describing the impacts of WWI on much of English youth.
I thought that by reading her book – the work of a woman who grew up in rural English society and became a nurse during the war – I might gain some insight into the mindset of the post-war British population, since their experiences, fears, hopes, and assumptions strongly influenced the political decisions the British government took in the decades to follow.
Continue reading “Reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth”