Two Good Books on Death and Dying

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on January 5, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi (mostly)

It was first said (circa 1665-68) by Francois de la Rochefoucauld that “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly.” Well, two fine writers have taken a crack at it recently, from very different viewpoints, and with very different styles, but each with credible results.

Consider the credentials of this 36-year-old writer: BA and MA in English Literature from Stanford; M-Phil (Master of Philosophy) in History of Science and Medicine, from Cambridge; Graduate, cum laude, from Yale Medical School; Senior Resident at Stanford Medical School. Would you consider this man capable of writing a meaningful book about clinical death? I certainly would.

Oh, and he has one more qualification: 14 days before becoming a Professor of Neuroscience at Stanford, he was observing a scan of a patient with Stage-4 lung cancer (read terminal). About which he writes, “This scan was different; it was my own.”

Such was the fate of Paul Kalanithi, a man of extraordinary intelligence with a sky’s- the-limit career before him, whose life hanged in an instant and whose death was foretold and near. His life – its length, scope and purpose had to be re-considered.

Paul planned to write a book, someday, after a distinguished career in medicine. Now the 30 or more years between his imminent graduation and far-in-the future plans are gone. He skips far ahead to book writing, but first he has cancer to deal with as best as is possible. (Note: I use Paul’s first name in this review because with all he revealed about himself to me in this book, it feels only right.)

Paul takes us through the details of his consultations, tests, treatments and results. Others have done similar recording and reporting before, though few have such professional insight or writing skills. And he adds something more. Common or rare among surgeons, I don’t know, but Paul gave a lot of thought to what it means and takes to lead a meaningful life. Ultimately, Paul came to a rather common conclusion – friends and family – which he calls, being a scientist/philosopher, “relationality.” But his thinking processes, intertwined with the events of his medical adventure, make meaningful reading.

Among the first decisions: his wife Lucy and he decided to have a baby, via in vitro fertilization, which is by now, we must infer, was all he was up to, to create a for comfort for Lucy when he is gone, and for himself if he lives long enough.

Thereafter, Paul’s life is simply a matter of living it out and recording it for us. When treatments permit, he works as long as he can as a surgeon – and then spends his remaining time with his wife, and, yes, with his new baby daughter, Elizabeth Acadia (Cady). Paul died with eight-month old Cady in his arms.
Paul did not live quite long enough to complete this book. Lucy added the finishing touches. We do not know how much of the book is truly his. Lucy wrote the Epilogue for sure, and her style seems a lot like Paul’s, which obscures the issue a bit. However, the vast bulk of the work is clearly Paul’s. The literary references and allusions are those of a Master of English Literature.

Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death
By Baron Brooke Fulke Grenville

You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.

You should read this book, but there is a caveat. The New York Times reviewer wrote that “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option,” and I think he’s right.

Old Age: A Beginners Guide

By Michael Kinsley

Having heaped all that praise on When Breath Becomes Air, you may be surprised to read that I saved my favorite of the two books for last. Michael Kinsley is one of my very favorite writers, almost an idol to me, actually. His thinking is insightful, even on subjects you might think have been completely well worn. What’s more, his work, regardless of topic, is humorous.

Kinsley’s short book is as poignant as Paul’s; more insightful about death in some ways; definitely more practical about the meaningful life and how to live it; plus it is wicked funny, in both meanings of the term, which makes death a little easier to look at directly, but leaves no doubt about its ultimate result.

Kinsley approaches his subject from the point of view of the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), to which he belongs, and which is rounding the turn and beginning the home stretch to the finish. He assures his contemporaries that, “the best medical research indicates that eventually you’re going to be dead.”

Boomers are characterized by being especially ambitious and competitive, but while Kinsley thinks Boomers get a bad rap, he also acknowledges that there is some truth to this, particularly when compared to the sacrifices made by the previous, “Greatest Generation,” which won World War II and saved the world.

Kinsley admits being a classic Boomer, but with one rare difference: he contracted Parkinson’s disease at 43. This is much, much earlier than the disease generally presents. He has been fortunate in that his symptoms have been mild for much of this time, and even today are not as typically inhibiting. As he observes about Parkinson’s, “like its victims, it tends to move slowly.” Fortunate as Kinsley has been in this regard, still he has been dealing with this reminder of his mortality directly for around 25 years.

It turns out that Parkinson’s doesn’t kill that many people, though it did kill my father. Most people who get it do so later in life and usually die of something else before Parkinson’s gets them. But the diagnosis, Kinsley writes, “…is a pretty valuable warning shot from the Grim Reaper.”

This is not the case, Kinsley reminds his fellow Boomers, for old age. As for that, “We don’t need any tests. We can give you that diagnosis right now. You’ve got it, it’s progressive and (unlike Parkinson’s) it’s invariably fatal.”

Kinsley discusses the pros and cons of a number of ways to measure the value of lives in the competitive spirit of Boomers: material success (The one who dies with the most toys wins); longevity; cognition; finally settling on reputation, though only of a certain kind. (He has some fascinating ideas about reputation versus fame and celebrity.)

Fortunately, Kinsley tells us how to do this. If you want a good reputation, he says, “be good. And you better get started now, because after your dead, it’s too late.”

Kinsley even has an idea that would let the entire Baby Boom generation pass on with a good reputation, almost as good as that of the “Greatest Generation.” His proposal: pay off the national debt…about $17 trillion dollars. This will take a big sacrifice – not as big as getting shot and killed in your youth – but still huge. It will require a lot of contribution from every Boomer. It will require soaking the one percent pretty good. It will require (all but) eliminating the inheritance tax, something I’ve always advocated.

But, hey, paying off the debt would lift an enormous drag on our economy, and on the prospects of all those yet to come, and who by definition had nothing to do with creating it. Though I’m not technically a Baby Boomer – I was born a few years too early – I’m willing to chip in. How about you, young-uns?

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 23, 2016

In an interview about his new book, David McCullough opined that Wilbur Wright was “certainly a genius,” and that Orville Wright had “mechanical ingenuity as few people had ever seen.“ Read this book, which I recommend of all McCullough’s books, and you will see that he was right on both counts.

At the turn of the 20th Century, few people thought man would ever be able to fly. In fact, most people were certain we would not. There were hot air balloons, of course (Ben Franklin rode in one in France) and some gliders, but neither was hardly the same thing. (The first and best glider engineer – Otto Lilienthal – died in a crash in his own invention, but left behind some observations about flight that the brothers studied.)

Some few cranks and some serious scientists, most notably Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, with large financial backing by the War Department, experimented with manned, powered flight. You’ve seen the old film clips of their odd looking machines launching (or not) and crashing quickly to the ground. Some of those were Langley’s efforts.

The Wright brothers – brilliant, though without formal training or even a college degree – approached the problem differently. First, they began with the absolute certainty that flight was possible and the determination to be the first to do it. Second, they approached the task patiently and scientifically, in sequential steps, from research, to designs; to gliders, to manned gliders, to power source, to Voila.

Wilbur’s first, and perhaps most brilliant insight came early on. He perceived, as no others had, after watching birds soar in flight, that the more important aspect of flight was the flyer, not the machine. As a baby bird must learn to fly by practice, starting with merely flapping its wings on the edge of the nest, so the flyer must gain experience on the controls of the plane and how it reacts to changes in the air currents to the point of reflex. Thus, the patient, sequential development of their invention and its flying.

The brothers did their design and construction at their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, but they wanted privacy (read secrecy) for their testing. They chose Kitty Hawk, on the outer banks of North Carolina for its seclusion and favorable winds, of which they got both in spades. (The Wrights actually went to Kitty Hawk in four successive years to further their project sequentially. Before their first flight on December 17, 1903, the brothers made over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, to become true, experienced pilots.)

Having achieved true flight – heavier than air, controlled, power driven, with a pilot – in the isolation of Kitty Hawk, with only a few locals and their own still camera to witness, the word of their achievement got out slowly, and with more skepticism than they expected. The brothers returned to Dayton and put one some exhibitions, and the news began to circulate more broadly.

There were still more skeptics and doubters than fans. The War Department, having sunk a lot of money into Langley’s spectacular, public failures, had no interest in the Wright’s claims or their machine. The two small town boys had to go to Europe for recognition (Wilbur stayed in Paris for more than a year on his first trip, yet never learned French. His sister visited him and in four months became his interpreter. Remarkable family.) In France, England and Germany, the news got the adulation it deserved.

The Wright brothers spent the next several years building better and better machines, and flying higher and faster and farther and longer, setting new world records nearly every time they flew. The possibility of manned flight having been proven, others joined in the pursuit, and progress was made quickly. In less than a quarter of a century, aviation progressed from the first short flight in Kitty Hawk to Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927. (Lindberg was born the year before Kitty Hawk.)

The Wright brothers other pursuit – falling mostly on the shoulders of Wilbur – was filing and fighting lawsuits to protect their patents. Wilbur wasn’t interested in the money, but both brothers wanted it undoubted that they had been the first to fly. They won all the suits, and their recognition is undisputed. But the effort wore Wilbur down as flying never had. “It is always easier to deal with things than with men,” he wrote.  The effort destroyed Wilbur’s health. He died in his mid-40s. Orville succeeded him by 37 years.

The story of this most remarkable achievement makes great reading in McCullough’s hands. It’s a must read story of the dawn of aviation. But the most astounding factoid in it to me is that Wilbur – the genius visionary and creator of manned, powered, piloted flight – did not think that the automobile would ever become practical. Too noisy and unreliable, he thought. Orville, on the other hand, loved motor cars, and after Wilbur’s death, and when he could no longer fly, due to a bad crash, drove them all over Dayton at high speeds. The local police cringed and looked the other way.



The Bible

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 29, 2016

I’ve been thinking about the Bible. Does that surprise you? I’m aware of some qualitative research that indicates doubters think more about God than many believers. I think this may be true, because many doubters find it hard to shake the possibility (I am not one of these, but I do have thoughts), whereas many believers don’t want to think too much about God for fear doubts might creep in, and then where would they be?

My take on the Bible is that it comprises: a credible life philosophy, one among many I have read; some practical advice on diet, hygiene and finances; some ancient mythology, similar to Greek, Roman and Norse, only with less imagination, having only one deity; some oral and long-after-the-fact written history; tedious repetition; insanely out of date legal thinking, and an enormous amount of fairytale nonsense, much of it borrowed from earlier religions and traditions.

In this regard, The Bible is indistinguishable from other holy texts, and similar in many ways to an almanac.

“The Witches” by Stacy Schiff

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 8, 2016

In the aftermath of gruesome acts of mass hysteria, after that “What have we done?” moment, one of two roads are taken. The first is never to forget, never to repeat. The second is never to talk about it. Salem Village’s response to the Salem Witch Trials fell into the latter category. After the madness subsided, after the last “witch” was hanged in September, 1692, records disappeared, diaries were lost, and memories were suppressed. “Let’s not think or talk about it” was the village consensus.

Fascination with the events will not abate, however. Salem holds our imagination tightly. It is the ultimate mystery page turner, even though so many of the pages are torn out.

Stacy Schiff, one of my very favorite historians, has written a masterful work to address the history and the mystery of Salem’s descent into hysteria and malevolence. She lays out the known facts, provides various possibilities to fill the blank spaces, and insightful information and thoughts about the environment of Puritan New England in the late 1600s. If you want to understand the Salem Witch Trials as best they can be understood without building an entire library on the subject, Schiff’s “The Witches,” written in her remarkable style, is the book to read. Trust me, she has read the entire library for us.

Puritanism was a hellfire and brimstone religion. Its god was an angry and unforgiving god. By Puritan precepts, many were doomed even before they were born, and all others were sinners to be punished severely while on earth and judged harshly in the hereafter. It was an ignorant, superstitious religion, if that’s not being redundant.

Puritans believed in witches and the Devil. The Harvard Divinity School taught seminary students about witches and witchcraft. Two of the most prominent Harvard-educated Puritan ministers of the day – Increase and Cotton Mather – believed in and preached about witches, and were active in the Salem Witch Hunt. (Puritans brought the belief in witches with them from the Old World, but by the time of Salem, such beliefs were dying out in most of Europe.)

Even without the prevailing religious beliefs and intolerance, Salem Village was a scary place. It abutted deep, dark forest. Indian attacks and abductions were commonplace. There were no streetlights or illumination of any kind. People could get spooked by things that went bump in the night, especially people already inclined. In every way, Salem’s residents were completely in the dark.

Salem Village, where the witch hunts began (not Salem Town), was a particularly superstitious, suspicious, humorless, colorless and mean-spirited place. The village was an adjunct to the town, populated with many extreme, irritable, irritating and litigious people. They weren’t welcome in Salem Town, to whose residents they were a nuisance and a burden. Villagers sued each other chronically, and came to the Town to resolve their disputes.

Medicine in Puritan Salem was primitive, perhaps not even on a par with that of the Native Americans who surrounded and menaced them. Psychological disorders were unknown and unexcused. Children were for work and beating, not for nurturing. Children usually didn’t live long anyway. Keeping a distance may have eased the pain of loss.

The first Villagers to start seeing and feeling the effects of witches was Abagail Williams, a girl of 11. Next was Betty Parris, a girl of about eight, the daughter of the uptight minister.  Both lived in Reverend Parris’ stifling household.

The first symptoms of demons were the children’s rolling around on the floor, then their complaints of pin pricks  and bite marks, extremely easy evidence to concoct. Soon the girls were seeing apparitions flying around in the air on bars (brooms came later), choking or beating victims, and often crawling into bed with them. (A lot of crawling into strange beds appears in the accusations.) Of course, no one else could see these spectral apparitions, which made them seem to these superstitious people all the more scary and believable.  On this scant, ludicrous and spectral evidence, issuing from two adolescent children, Salem Village lost its mind.  People started seeing witches and witchcraft everywhere. Accusations sprang up like mushrooms around the Village.

Witchcraft was broadly defined. A pig falls in a ditch; a witch must have pushed it. A pot of porridge falls into the fire with no one touching it; must have been witches. Two neighbors argue, and a horse belonging to one of them dies; the other neighbor must have cast a wicked spell on the horse. The girls saw four women flying on a bar over the trees at night, even though they (the women, not the girls; well, possibly the girls, too) were home in bed. The fliers, whoever the girls say they were, must be witches.

Accusations of witchcraft began piling up like cord wood before winter, from neighbors and family members against one another. At one time, there were more accusations of witches in Salem Village, Town and surrounding communities than the entire population of Salem Village.

Thomas Putnam, prodigy of a wealthy family, an apparently unworthy man – he was excluded from major inheritances by both his father and father-in-law – was responsible for half of the accusations through August, 1692, by which time the girls (perhaps becoming an embarrassment?), had disappeared from the scene.

On June 2, 1692, important Villagers, Townspeople, clergy and prominent men from Boston formed a court of Oyer and Terminer (“to hear and to determine”) these cases, though not one of the judges was a judge or even a lawyer.

The court was, in fact, the opposite of Oyer and Terminer. The judges had already “determined,” and they didn’t want to hear anything but confessions. In fact, to plead innocent was evidence of guilt. One man was crushed with stones for refusing to confess or even appear in court. He wasn’t counted among the witches, because he wasn’t technically tried.

In the end, 19 people, mostly women, and two dogs (sex unreported) were killed for witchcraft. There were no burnings at the stake or drownings, only hangings. The dogs were not hanged, apparently, but it is unreported how they were killed.

To be sure, there was some skeptics and critics – men of intelligence, education and conscience. The first, and  perhaps the most effective at placing a mirror of reason in front of the judges and the public, was Robert Pike, who opposed the witch trials (and the persecution of Quakers, which could also be a hanging offense in Puritan New England), followed by Thomas Brattle and Samuel Willard. Their reason and eloquent opposition poured cold water on the febrile community. On October 29, 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer was terminated, “when the trials were reflected upon and disapproved.” The trials were over; recriminations began, and continue to this day.

Schiff considers a myriad of possible explanations and contributions to the phenomenon that was the witch trials, but the simplest seem the most likely: ignorance, superstition, adolescent drama and score settling. Adults who should have known better believed the mischief of two young girls and set into motion a hysteria that offered others the opportunity to take out revenge for previous grievances, and rid the community of “inconvenient” people. Of course, there was, as always, political opportunism.

Schiff reminds us that “we all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know which ones they are.” She also reminds us, more importantly, I think, that witch hunting did not end in Salem.

Several examples of our running amok have occurred in my lifetime. In each one, as in Salem, justice is turned completely upside down, and people are presumed guilty until – unlikely in such an environment – proven innocent.


These include: the McCarthy era, when people were jailed for being a Communist, even though being a Communist was not a crime; the internment of Japanese American citizens without due process,  in World War II, because they might be sympathetic to Japan; our response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, after which we tossed our privacy rights in the trash, went to war on a country that could have been drawn out of a hat, tortured people and began persecuting Muslims for their religion.

But the most vivid and egregious abandonment of justice to hysteria in my lifetime were the child sex abuse trials in the 1980s and 90s, most particularly what occurred in Wenatchee, Washington.

This story has many parallels with the Salem Witch Trials. It also began with two young girls – in this case mentally diminished – who reported to their mother about being fondled by kids at school, in 1993. Eventually, the case was referred to a Lt. Robert Perez, Wenatchee’s sole sex crime officer, with no training in the field. Perez immediately ran amok, losing sight of justice completely, and ruining many lives in the process.

When social services officers said the girls were making it all up and had told them so, Perez had them – the social services officers, not the children – arrested. One of the girls was taken into Perez’s home as a foster child, where Perez began to question her in private, without notes, recordings or witnesses, and then arrest people on the basis of these conversations. When the obvious conflict of interest was criticized, Perez arrested the critics.

By 1995, 43 adults stood accused of committing 27,726 acts of child sex abuse against 60 children.  Trials began without a speck of physical evidence and no recorded testimony.

Nobody at this point even questioned this lunacy. Justice was turned completely upside down. As in Salem, denial was considered proof of guilt. As Wenatchee Child Protective Services Supervisor Tim Abbey testified, “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they says they’ve been abused. But [they] are usually lying when they deny it.” So, if a child says he or she was abused, you are guilty. If he or she says he or she was not abused, you are guilty.

(This exact same thing was said to me by a social worker in Dallas, which is why I loathe social workers as a class, and would not trust one with my burnt matchsticks, let alone my children. I’ve known a few competent ones, but more who have quit the field in disgust and dismay, and a couple like the one who told me the above, who clearly should not be left alone with children, let alone licensed.)

In 1998, law students and faculty at the University of Washington formed Innocence Project Northwest to address the cases of the 18 people convicted and incarcerated. Eventually, all those who were convicted were either freed by higher courts, had their convictions overturned or pleaded guilty on lesser, usually unrelated, charges in exchange for the prosecution dropping the charges of sexual abuse. Five served their full sentences before their cases were overturned; some lost parental rights. By 2000, the last person in custody, Michael Rose, was released, after a judge vacated his March 1995 convictions.

So, if you do not believe in witches, witchcraft or the devil, but enjoy a good story about them, I agree with you. But, if you still think there are no longer witch hunts, you are very mistaken.

“Killing a King” by Dan Ephron

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on May 11, 2016

“Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, And the Remaking of Israel”

By Dan Ephron

The Jewish population of Israel lies along a spectrum ranging from secular to ultra-orthodox, with perhaps another ultra or two further along to the right. At that end of the spectrum are potentially lethal religious nuts. Palestinian Muslims live in Israel too, and many of them are as religiously dangerous as the ultra-orthodox among Israeli Jews.

Many have tried – hard – to bring peace and understanding (or at least tolerance) between Israel and the Palestinians, but without much success. The right fringe of each has to date sabotaged every attempt.

“Killing a King” is an account of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister killed by Yigal Amir, a JEWISH ultra-orthodox wing nut, for Rabin’s nearly successful attempt to mind the gap.

Dan Ephron, who reported from Israel for 20 years for Newsweek and other media outlets, and who was present at Rabin’s assassination, writes thoroughly and well of the events leading up to and including Rabin’s death, and the motives of each extreme group’s opposing, but mutually responsible, politics.

The primary issue dividing Israel and the Palestinians has been since the so called “Six Day War” in 1967, Jewish settlements within Palestinian Territory. In that war, several Islamic states attacked Israel simultaneously, but were thoroughly and humiliatingly defeated. Israel captured lands from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, including the West Bank and Jerusalem, places with enormous historical and religious significance for both Jews and Muslims.

After the war, Israel’s goal – magnanimous and wise in my view – was to return the captured lands in exchange for recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and mutual access to Jerusalem’s holy sites. Palestinians choked on the offer, and their hatred of Israel continued unabated.

Many Israelis wanted to hold onto the captured land, some for security reasons, but some by the belief that all the land that had been part of ancient Israel (they refer to the entire area as Judea and Samaria) should be part of modern Israel.  After the failure of the Palestinians and Arab neighbors to accept Israel’s offer, Jews began settling in the captured territories. Needless to say, these settlement encroachments have caused enormous friction with Palestinians.

Just as the U.S. needed a reliably anti-communist like President Nixon to go to China, Israel needed Yitzhak Rabin to treat with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Rabin had led the Israeli army in the Six Day War. He was extremely mistrustful of the Palestinians and of the Muslim countries surrounding Israel. He was the one man who could be trusted by Israelis not to make a bad deal with the PLO, except for the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who didn’t want any deal at all.

Rabin considered the settlers, “a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy,” but he was emotionally conflicted about the Palestinians, and therefore hesitant. He missed opportunities to confront the settlers. As any good teacher knows, or any leader of a psychiatric institution, you cannot let the students, or the inmates, take control of the classroom or the institution. This way lies chaos. Settlers kept coming. (Today, more than half a million Jews live in settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank.)


By 1993, Rabin had had enough of the settlers. He was ready to sign the so called Oslo Agreement, a recognition of the right of Israel to exist, and the boundaries of a Palestinian State, though not the establishment of the state itself (that was to come later, over a series of negotiated  steps), with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

The agreement was signed by Rabin and other Israelis, and PLO president Yasser Arafat in Washington, D.C. in September, 1993. Still wary of Arafat, Rabin said as the signing ceremony details were being worked out, “Alright, but no kissing!”

The signing of the agreement was met with broad approval in Israel. The agreement had immediate international benefits, as well. Jordan recognized Israel’s right to exist and made peace. Gabon and Mauritius established relationships with Israel, as did Spain and Portugal. The opposition Likud Party in Israel, among whose young leaders was a young Benjamin Netanyahu, and the settlers, however, went absolutely nuts.

In 1994, an ultra-orthodox settler from Hebron named Baruch Goldstein attacked a congregation of Muslims at prayer in a mosque, killing many of them. Goldstein became the inspiration for Yigal Amir, for, as Amir saw it, taking action rather than just talking about keeping the occupied lands for Jews, and driving the Palestinians out. He decided to take action himself and kill Rabin to put an end to his policies. Killing a king can change a nation’s politics, even its character.

It turned out to be easy. Rabin resisted security details, so as he was walking to his car after speaking at a peace rally, of all things, Amir walked up to him and shot him to death. Amir was immediately subdued. Afterward, he showed, and still shows, no remorse. This was on November 4, 1995.

Amir succeeded in his goal. When Rabin died, so died his peace movement, at least so far. Another Labor Prime Minister – Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated military officer – made another bold attempt at peace, offering the PLO almost all of what it wanted, but after Rabin’s assassination, Arafat did not have the courage nor the sense of history to take yes for an answer and accept it. After that attempt, Israel lost interest in dealing with the Palestinians or having any sincere negotiations with them.

Some say Rabin’s assassination was the beginning of the end of Israel. I disagree; I think it was the end. Since then, Israel has been governed by conservative leaders so intent on holding the captured lands in the name of “security,” that is no longer a liberal democratic county. It is an occupying country, practicing Apartheid, led today by Benjamin Netanyahu, the worst of a long line of demagogic leaders exploiting Israeli’s security fears.

With this shift away from a liberal democratic government to an occupying one, Israel has yielded its moral high ground to its detractors and its enemies. Even many American Jews, including most young ones, have lost interest in Israel. (Being ignored can be worse than being hated.) It’s clear that Obama has calculated that if American Jewish voters don’t any longer care about Israel, why should he?

This is not an observation I am happy to write. I am old enough to remember an earlier Israel, the one that won its independence, defeated its enemies and tried to return the lands it captured in exchange only for peace and recognition. The Israel of David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban. This is not the Israel of today. I cannot tolerate its current policies, and I am pessimistic about its future. Rabin may have been Israel’s last best hope, and he was murdered by his own people.

The “Qur’an”

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 9, 2015

In recent years, I have read much about politics and religion in the Middle East (which are essentially the same thing), to try to understand behavior over there. I know much, much more about the subject than the average American, which isn’t really saying that much.

However, though I have read about Islam, I had never actually read the Qur’an, at least not since I read excerpts as a child, which back then, we spelled “Koran.” I have done so, and am now prepared to compare and contrast the Qur’an with the Old Testament of the Bible and the Torah, to wit:

They Are The Same Book!

These three books are bound as tightly together as particles of an atom. They all spring from the same root. The Qur’an and the New Testament both claim simply to go beyond the Torah, which is the Old Testament, but even then they extend essentially in the same basic direction. I’ll let you decide if there is any real difference, other than greedy political history:

Here are the ways the three books are identical:

  • They are all monotheistic
  • They all date back to Abraham
  • They all have the same stories with the same characters: Moses, Adam and Eve, Noah, Lot, David, and on and on and on
  • They contain an identical moral philosophy
  • They contain some common sense advice and safety lessons, cloaked in dogma
  • They all use antiquated, rural, agrarian parables
  • They all contain fairy tales, fantasies and utter nonsense and insist they are the literal truth.

Another, frustrating way they are identical is that they are all mind-numbingly, numbingly, numbingly repetitive. Any competent copy editor could condense any of these books to a small pamphlet and not lose a thought.

Finally, each book, on each page, repeats that their God is the only God, which they acknowledge is the same god, and those who don’t believe theirs is the only true god are doomed. It’s ludicrous.

The books differ, when read objectively, only modestly, certainly not enough to fight wars over, one would think:

  • Judaism considers Jesus to be a major prophet, but not the son of god.
  • Islam considers Jesus to be a major prophet, but not the son of god. In fact, the Qur’an takes umbrage at the notion that Allah, being the one true, omnipotent, omniscient god, would have a son (my father may have felt the same way at times).
  • Islam considers the Qur’an to have been given directly to the most important prophet – Muhammad – whom they call The Messenger.
  • Christians believe that Jesus is the son of god, and part of a troika that also includes the “holy ghost.” It is a ponderous, messy concept in comparison to the Torah and Old Testament, and seems to be an embarrassment to many theologians.
  • The New Testament and the Qur’an both claim to be extensions of the Old Testament, and in much the same way….son of god, prophet, Messenger, whatever.
  • Judaism stops with the Old Testament, but includes additional writings, all of which together comprise the Talmud.

All of this reminds me of a saying in Baptist-dominated Texas that Protestants will never recognize the Pope as infallible, Jews will never recognize Jesus as the son of God, and Baptists will never recognize each other in a liquor store.



Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 3, 2015

There is a new (2014) biography about the legendary Prime Minister, who led Israel through its formative years and genuinely existential wars, written by a remarkably thorough Israeli historian, perhaps the last to be able to mix research and personal experience with Ben-Gurion to write one. I read this book with great interest, but I am writing this review so that others won’t need to read it, as I doubt it will entertain those except Israel history buffs, and this book adds little to the history of Israel not already written, except for some detail about the man himself, and about the mundane machinations of early Zionist politics.

I used to think of Ben-Gurion as a gentle rabbi, who led his people to create the Jewish state through charismatic leadership, spiritual wisdom and stiff-necked determination. Turns out, not so much. Ben-Gurion was a rural rube, with no social skills and very charismatically challenged. He was in the end, an ambitious politician, passionate about this cause – Zionism. Also helpful, he was extremely intelligent.

David Ben-Gurion, was born David Green in 1886 in Plonsk (pronounced Poisk), Poland, (then part of the Russian Empire) a rural community with almost no connection to the outside world, including roads. His upbringing was loving, but so bucholic that it wasn’t until he was married that his wife, Paula (Russian, but raised in America), taught him to brush his teeth and wear underwear. His early education was in Jewish school run by his father, who was a Zionist; Ben-Gurion adopted the cause early and completely.

The Jewish community of Plonsk was wiped out by the Nazis in 1942. Of the 5,000 to 8,000 Jews in Plonsk – half the village’s population – only a dozen or so survived Auschwitz. Plonsk’s population is now about 22,000, but the Jewish community was never reconstituted.

Ben-Gurion was influential within that Jewish community as a youth. He helped nudge Plonsk into speaking Hebrew, rather than Yiddish. He wanted to study, but his family could never come up with enough money, so he wasn’t formally educated, but he was formidably self-taught. He devoured books like Skittles for all his life, creating an enormous library.

As a youth, He flirted with many naive socialist, communist and other labor-oriented ideologies. He was the epitome of youth trying to find its identity. Even as he gained influence, he and others in the Zionist cause continued to toy with labor-centric ideologies, which culminated in the Kibbutzim.

Ben-Gurion was active in the Zionist movement in Palestine as an important functionary, not as a leader, which frustrated him. He was slow to rise to the upper echelons of power or influence early on.

Slowly, far too slowly for his satisfaction, Ben-Gurion moved up the leadership ladder to the top, due to his energy and hard work. Also, though Ben-Gurion seldom had much official influence in strategic meetings initially, it began to dawn on people that, oddly, he always seemed to be right. As early as 1936, Ben-Gurion, began advocating and planning for partition of Palestine, a year before this was recommended by the Peel Commission. He thought Israel might end up with all of Palestine eventually, because Palestinians were so poor at governance, but he knew better than to demand it of Britain, Europe and the U.S. at the time.

Even back then, however, he had opposition to partition, notably Ne’ev Jabotinsky, an effective Zionist activist, but a hard right winger, who wanted all of Palestine immediately. This wing of Israeli politics, in ascendance since Menachem Begin became Prime minister 1977, has, in my view, warped and stunted Israel’s liberal democratic foundations and is presently driving it into the ground.

Unlike many Zionists, who resented the treatment of their cause by Europe and the U.S. and saw them as enemies, Ben-Gurion was friendly with world leaders, seeing that their support was necessary for Israel’s survival, and for help getting Jews to immigrate to Israel. He even developed a cordial relationship with Konrad Adenauer, when he negotiated reparations from Germany after WWII, and was close to Ho Chi Minh, who offered him sanctuary should his quest fail.

Ben-Gurion had risen to head of the Zionist Executive Committee before statehood, and led preparations for it. In 1948, he became its first Prime Minister and was, like John Hancock, the first to sign his country’s Declaration of Independence. He led his country through the bloody war when Israel’s Arab neighbors attacked the very day after Israel became a state, and established the foundations for the Jewish state.

Ben-Gurion’s rise to prominence, and then dominance, was due to his enormous energy, and his always proving to be right. In fact, it has been said of him that from 1948 to 1956, he never made a mistake, analogous, I suspect, to George Washington’s throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac, only more nearly accurate. In fact, I would quarrel with that statement on only one specific point, what Simon Perez called his toughest and most important decision.

Ben-Gurion wanted Israel become a secular state, with religious freedom and citizenship for all living within its borders. In fact, he was a religious Jew, but despised the ultra-orthodox dogma. Nevertheless, he thought he needed ultra-orthodox Jewry’s approval to give Israel legitimacy, so in 1947, he signed a letter promising to adhere to the ultra-orthodox day of Shabbat, and giving them the say over daily religious rules. This has led to behavior police and special treatment of the ultra-orthodox (they don’t have to work or join the military, for instance), which has created enormous friction between the ultra-orthodox and the mostly secular modern Jew. Looking back at this decision and its consequences, I wonder if Ben-Gurion really needed ultra-orthodox legitimacy that much, and if he would have signed that letter again?

Ben-Gurion reigned in 1954, but was back in 1955, after a scandal forced the resignation of his successor. He dealt with Palestinian guerrilla attacks in 1955, and invaded Egypt in 1956, along with Britain and France during the “Suez Crisis,” when Egypt attempted to nationalize the Canal. He retired for good in 1963, and by 1970, he was completely uninvolved in political live. He died in 1973 at his Kibbutz.



“Capital in the 21st Century”

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on August 19, 2015

A “knee jerk liberal,” by my definition, is a liberal who has never taken an economics course, or even read a serious book on economics. If a knee jerk liberal, or any other kind of liberal for that matter, were to read a book on economics today, it should be Capital in the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas Piketty (pronounced pee-kitty). This book will not change your liberal views, but it will inform you about why you feel as angry as you do, and prove that the so called “1%” is screwing the rest of us like a tied goat.

Piketty, the world’s foremost authority on income and wealth inequality has produced a masterwork, which lead to conclusions that are both grim and long overdue for redress, if we are to avoid inevitable effects of the current trends. (Note: I have isolated the data for the U.S., but it has not been much different for France and England, for which there is similar data, except in the extremes, recently.)

This book is not fluffy summer reading; it will probably cause you to reach for a pencil to play with some of the economic formulae, but Piketty explains the data and its implications clearly enough. I’ll give you an example to chew on:


Where “r” is rate of return on invested capital

“g” is growth rate

So long as rate of return is greater than growth rate, wealth must naturally accrue to the people with capital. If this makes sense to you, you can digest this book. (Note: there is no economic law to constrain r>g from occurring for long periods of time.)

My brother-in-law says he read somewhere that this book holds the record for the largest number of people who picked it up, but put it down before finishing it, of which he is one. That’s a pity, because this is an extremely important work, one of the two most important contemporary works I have read over the last quarter of a century.

Piketty’s conclusion from these data is, in his words: “Market economy based on private property, if left to itself, contains powerful forces of convergence (read toward equality), associated in particular with diffusion of knowledge (read education), but it also contains powerful forces of divergence (read inequality), which is potentially threatening to democracies and the values of social justice on which they are based…”

Since the financial collapse of 2008 exposed the cockroaches who run our country from the darkness beneath the refrigerator, I have wondered if it is better or worse today than it was during the Gilded Age, when robber barons looted the nation’s treasury by bribing legislators who were literally advertising their venality and willingness to be bought.

The answer, it turns out, is yes and no. Income (what we earn from labor and investments) inequality is worse today than in the Gilded Age, or ever in history of the whole world, for that matter, but wealth (the stuff you own, e.g. stocks, bonds, gold bars, cash in banks or under your mattress; the word connotes having lots of this stuff) inequity was worse back then, when the richest 10% owned almost all of the nation’s wealth.

However, wealth inequality today is trending toward that during the Gilded Age, and beyond. When wealth reaches that point, history suggests that very bad things tend to happen. Note: Piketty expects us to break the world record for wealth inequality by 2030!

This whole concept of inequality is relatively new. For most of history, nobody had much of anything. Then, inequality became so extreme, and so taken for granted, that it wasn’t recognized as such. For instance, in Russia, the Tsar and a few nobles owned everything and the rest of Russians were peasants and serfs (read slaves), who had nothing, and that’s the way it was.

It was not until about the Age of Enlightenment that the thirst for equality began to exert itself, in such expressions as the French Revolution, with the Russian Revolution following shortly thereafter.

Inequality of wealth remained extreme, peaking in the Gilded Age, from roughly 1870 until 1910. It is still extreme today, but not like then. There was no “middle class,” which is also a recent phenomenon. After 1910, we experienced a period of movement toward equality, due to chaos – two world wars and a Depression plus imposition of an income tax, until 1950. Things leveled out until 1980, when inequality began to grow like a cancer.

Never in the history of the world has the distribution of income been so unequally distributed as in the U.S. today. The spike began in earnest when President Ronald Reagan told us greed is good, and all Hell broke loose.

“Modern “Economic Trends in a Nutshell

1870 to 1910 – The Gilded Age, almost total inequity of wealth and income

1910 to 1950 – Wars, depression, income tax, movement toward equity

1950 to 1980 – slow return to prosperity with some growth in inequity

1980 to present – Historic high inequity in income, skyrocketing toward historic high inequity in wealth.

Piketty asks, “Is it possible to imagine societies in which the concentration of income is much greater?” He answers himself “probably not,” because “revolution will likely occur.”

How does this happen? How can things get so out of whack? Can there be a correction short of the historical remedy: revolution? Piketty points out that inequality is not caused by economic formulae. “The history of inequality has always been chaotic and political.”

Piketty identifies that three important factors encourage equality, and three important factors discourage it. These are:

Encourage Equality

  1. Diffusion of knowledge (read education) – by far the most important over the long term
  2. Immigration, which increases the growth rate (g)
  3. Chaos – war and depression – which tend to bring wealth back down to earth (though not the way we wage war today.)

Discourage Equality

  1. Slow growth rate (remember r>g) inexorably increase wealth
  2. Wealth owning power (read billionaire donors buying influence)
  3. Top earners separating from labor income norms – tops executives compensation running amok.

Education: Budgets have been starved for years, and uninformed political interference has its quality (see the Texas Board of Education, or that of Kansas, or Arizona, etc.) Meanwhile, costs of college at top universities has been skyrocketing, disqualifying all but the progeny of the very rich.

Immigration: many xenophobes fight it like a plague, but it increases our growth rate, which is an economic stimulus, which influences equality.

Chaos: Really big disruptions can deflate wealth and income of even the wealthiest.

Wealth owning power: Billionaires, not puny millionaires, have bought Wall Street, K Street and our politicians, who support big business and the wealthy donor class with obscene tax legislation, which makes them richer, on the backs of the erstwhile middle class and the poor, while unscrupulous banks loaded them up with debt.

For instance, we are fighting wars since 2001 on a credit card, which have served no legitimate interest, damaged many, and profiting only military suppliers and contractors.

“Historically, states have implemented steeply progressive taxes during and after wars, to pay the war debt,” Piketty observed. We have done just the opposite. LBJ tried fight the Vietnam War without raising taxes. We have been spending stupendous amounts of money on senseless wars and the military – way north of $600 Billion per year – while the Bush Administration lowered taxes on the more wealthy! If that’s not creating inequality, what is?

Separate top earner labor class: Since 1980, earnings of top executives “have skyrocketed to astonishing heights, with “no corresponding increase in productivity, only by suppression of labor wages.” Since Reagan, who conflated our labor force with Russia’s, “everything has tilted against labor.” The top 10% of earners now receive 35% of income, while the bottom 50% receive 25%.

Since 1980, 15% of the nation’s total wealth transferred from the lowest 90% to the top 10%. This is not just inequality. This is social injustice. This is a goddamn crime! Since 1980, the top 10% has appropriated 75% of the economic growth of the country. This is all due to political shenanigans.

But, wait! There’s more! It’s worse than it looks! Here are just some of the reasons why:

  • First, the great deceit: Our nation is wealthy, but our government is, in fact, poor. The wealthy are making money from our debt by lending the government money at interest, which they should logically be paying in taxes!


  1. The rich patronize us with two justifications for their being deserving of the inequity:
  • Hyper-patrimony: our acceptance that inherited wealth should belong to heirs, a perfectly arbitrary and self-serving concept.
  • Hyper-meritocracy: the assertion that the most capable deserve such a spread, and assertion unsupported by facts at this extreme level, as skyrocketing income by the key executives has not lead to any improvement in productivity, only a suppression of labor wages.
  1. Actually, income from capital is underestimated, due to tax evasion and capital gains, i.e., crimes, both crimes in Piketty’s opinion.

Note: Piketty opines that financial instability has already begun, with the Great Recession of 2008. Unfortunately, reform of the banking system is no longer enough to correct the problem. It is already “too big to fail.” More, much more, will be required.



Inequality must be corrected, or, based on history, “revolution will likely occur.” Piketty observes that “There is no natural …process to prevent in-egalitarian forces from prevailing permanently…”There is no gradual, consensual, conflict-free evolution toward equality.” It will have to be forced politically. He proposes the following solutions:

  1. Much higher investment in quality, accessibility and affordability of education (which in my view should be free, or based on some kind of Social Security system, where students go to school free, and then pay back what they can from future earnings, and keep contributing once their obligation is complete, to fund future students’ education).
  2. More progressive income tax, up to 80% for top earners.
  3. Much higher inheritance tax. Inheritance plays a major role at the top. Who says the rich should be able to live like their forebears who worked for it?
  4. A tax on total wealth – 1% to 2% annually – which will create equality but not prevent wealth from growing at an unequal, let alone obscene rate, nor bleed the wealthy dry.
  5. Global transparency. No more hiding wealth in other countries, and vice versa. I’m looking at you, Mitt Romney, and your ilk.
  6. Increased Immigration, which encourages equity mathematically.

So, these are Piketty’s data and projections from them. It is impressive work, with grim possibilities. We can wait and see if he is right, or address the problems, politically.

Frankly, I’m amazed that this hasn’t begun more seriously already. Crimes are being committed right in front of our face. Maybe Thomas Jefferson was right about revolution; we need one once in a while.


“The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on March 4, 2015

Having read the fascinating history of the stumbling, bumbling run-up to the First World War (See my review of The Sleepwalkers), I took up the Pulitzer Prize winning book – The Guns of August – by Barbara Tuchman, about the very first month of WWI, which Winston Churchill called “a drama never surpassed.”

Tuchman takes us through the details of each and every battle. It may seem that this would be tedious reading, especially since we know the outcome, but it is not. Tuchman spins a tale of action, mystery and suspense. We hang on each tipping of the scales of advantage between the sides. It is a great read and a great cautionary tale about war.

The countries in Europe had been warring with one another for centuries over just about anything: religion, territory, even family feuds among the inbred monarchies. By 1914, war seemed inevitable again, probably over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” as Bismarck predicted, and which was the case when Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia by Serbian nationalists on June 28, 1914. War was declared officially on August 1.

Rulers, military commanders and diplomats in every country were just itching for another war, which made it a self-fulfilling prophesy. However, there were others in each country who wanted to avoid war. Diplomats in every country wept at their failure when war was declared.

Alliances in those days were fragile as friendships on a schoolyard. Treaties were written on tissue paper, and dissolved as easily. Many diplomats were a disgrace to the term. Hatred and suspicions were deeply ingrained.

In 1914, there were two major alliances: France, Russia and England on one hand; Germany, Austria, nominally Italy, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Oddly, France was the country most itching for war against, Germany…so long as Russia and England would back her. France was bellicose, but craven without her allies and did much mischief to drag them along.

Germany was becoming paranoid, feeling surrounded by potential enemies on all sides. (I think Tuchman is a tad unfair to Germany in this book. Though Germany behaved extremely badly when war came, she, more than France or England, wanted to avoid war. Perhaps Tuchman may be forgiven about this, as her family is among Israel’s elites.)

Britain wanted to protect its realm, and only engage in Europe if it was absolutely forced to by treaty. Tuchman observes that, “No more distressing moment can ever face a British government that that which requires it to come to a hard and fast and specific decision.”

Russia had no policy to speak of.

So sure were France and Germany that war was inevitable, each had devised a plan, honed to perfection, which would be quickly decisive and result in the complete and utter destruction of the other. Each country thought its troops would be “home before the leaves fall.” Each plan was folly from the start.

France’s plan – Plan 17 – was aggressively offensive. Since Napoleon, offense has not been France’s strong suit. One might argue that defense isn’t her strong suit either; cynics might argue that surrender is what France does best. France’s strategy should have been defensive, to protect itself from invasion. When Plan 17 was launched, France’s army was chewed up and spit out quickly, and it was in full retreat for most of the rest of the month.

Germany’s plan was much sounder, but it required attacking through Belgium. In 1906, the major European powers signed a treaty making Belgium officially neutral; each agreed never to invade it. Germany’s invasion turned world opinion against it and dragged Britain reluctantly into the war.

Germany knew the risks, but it invaded Belgium anyway, because the German military deemed it a “military necessity.” Tuchman warns us always to beware of that term, which wisdom has never been more foolishly ignored than by America in the 21st Century.

What the German plan did not count on was resistance from Belgium, which it got in spades. Germany expected Belgium to step aside and let Germany pass through, or at least accept a huge bribe to let it do so. King Albert of Belgium, a man worthy of his crown, rallied his countrymen to put up a strong resistance.

Belgium couldn’t hold out long, only a couple of weeks, but in that time, Belgium managed to bruise Germany’s army badly throw Germany off schedule. By the time Germany could get through Belgium and into France, the French had managed to fall back and gain defensive positions to repel the German advance, but it was a very close call for France.

By the end of August, with both side’s plans in shambles, they settled into a stalemate that would last until the U.S. became involved in 1917. By this time, however, due to advances in military weaponry each side was able inflict enormous destruction on the other. It was, as described, “European suicide.”

Were it not for the stakes and the carnage, August might appear to be a circus, with a few daring acts and lots of clowns. At the École Militaire in Paris, I have seen statues of the primary French generals of the conflict, but after reading this book, I wonder why those monuments would be there.

The hero of the French forces, in my view, was a general with the improbable Italian name of Gallieni. General Joseph Gallieni recommended to France’s high command to take a defensive position, which advice the high command did not want to hear. After the French offensive was routed, and the Germans were storming toward a defenseless Paris, the high command put Gallieni in command of the garrison in Paris and ran away. Gallieni put up a magnificent defense of the city, which resulted in the Battle of the Marne. Gallieni is famous for rushing troops to the battle via Paris taxis, but that was a small factor in the outcome.

The heroes of Germany were its diplomats who tried desperately to avoid war, but were overwhelmed by the German military command.

Some obvious goats include French President Poincaré, who was just itching for war and got his wish, and most military commanding officers and everyone Russian leadership, characterized as “This insane regime, this tangle of cowardice, blindness, craftiness and stupidity,” and this from Russian Premier Witte (1903-06), a Russian patriot!

Russia and Britain came rather late into the fray; the former from stupidity, the latter from timidity.

The British Army was under the command of one confusingly named Sir John French, though, whose orders were to engage, interpreted them to mean not to lose a single solder in support of the French, whom he thought were going to lose anyway. Basically, French took his army across the Channel, marched them inland a bit and then brought them back again. It wasn’t until France’s most desperate hour, and under direct orders to return and support France at the Battle of the Marne, that French engaged and Britain’s help was finally instrumental in the outcome. French was fired in 1915.

Russia was so suspicious of Western Europe that it didn’t even use the same gauge of railroad track as the rest of the continent. This is fine if you want to keep enemy troops from invading by rail, but if you want to send troops to the west, not so much. Russia knew of this problem, but in preparation for war had not dealt with it adequately, with the result that their troops that did make it to the front were inadequate in number (not very well trained, either), and got chewed up. One might say that Russia’s main contribution to the war was a great number of troops suitable for cannon fodder.

At the end of the war, all of Europe was exhausted and in shambles. Germany was punished severely and had to cede territory to various victors, especially France. Austria-Hungary was put asunder and the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, being carved up and geographically disfigured by boundaries based on colonial greed and not by ethnic cohesion, for which we are paying today.

One might think that such a disastrous war would be learning moment. In fact, WWI was called “the war to end all wars,” which it was….for 20 years. There was no Marshall, no Kennan, nor Truman to help Europe restore its economy, its governance and its dignity. The seeds of yet another world war would become a “military necessity.”

“The SleepWalkers, by Christopher Clark

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on November 19, 2014

A recent book about World War I is getting a lot of attention for the lessons it might contain to inform current events. It’s called The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914, by Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern European History, St. Katherine’s College, Cambridge.

The book is a history of how Europe stumbled and bumbled into what Niall Ferguson calls, “The biggest collective blunder in the history of international relations.” (What? You’re surprised I read Niall Ferguson?) It is the best explanation of the causes of World War I you will ever read.

The ostensible trigger to WWI was the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his Duchess Sophia, in Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914. But Europe had been edging inexorably toward war for years. If it hadn’t been this assassination, it would have been something else. There were simply too many itchy fingers on too many triggers. Still, diplomats of the day thought the most likely place for conflict to break out would be in the Balkans. They even had a name for this expectation: The Balkan Inception Scenario.

The following factors contributed to the tragic debacle:

Colonialism: The geopolitical grab for foreign lands had peaked. All the best pieces on the Monopoly board, from India to Africa, had been taken. The major European powers looked inward for scraps. Among the few remaining were the small Balkan states (then, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia).

Another possible target was Austria-Hungary, which, while still a major power, was in decline, and thought by some to be vulnerable. The same was true of the Ottoman Empire where it rubbed against Western Europe. European powers were on the make for those possibilities.

Nationalism: Ubiquitous, and always a cause of trouble, nationalism was rabid in the Balkan states. Serbia, in particular, was ultra-nationalist, and had aspirations reminiscent of Vladimir Putin today, insisting that wherever Serbs lived should belong to Serbia. They were an eager and vicious conspirator.

The Iago in this history was one Draqutin Dimitrijević, known as Apis (thank goodness; who would want to write that name over and over again), a nasty piece of ultra-nationalist Serbian work, who was not only a conspirator in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but in 1903 planned and executed the murder of Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga, in Belgrade. With this kind of nut running around, what could possibly go wrong?

Poor Government Decision-Making Mechanisms

There was poor political and military command organization in virtually every country in Europe. For example, Austria-Hungary, though its leader was the ancient Franz Joseph, had a “dual monarchy,” one for each segment. One monarch could do nothing without the consent of the other. Decision making, was, therefore, difficult and slow.

Germany had a good government structure, but it also had Kaiser Wilhelm II, who could, and often did, throw monkey wrenches into the works. Wilhelm talked tough, but acted indecisively, which gave his ministers fits. He could usually be worked around, but it took time.

It was a similar situation in Russia, where government ministers had to deal with Nicholas II. The only difference was that Nicholas could not be worked around. Ultimately, he had to approve everything. Persuading him to one side or the other was often difficult, and always time consuming.

The byzantine politics of the Ottoman Empire are legendary, a recipe for confusion and miscommunication.

Only Britain, with a titular but influential monarch, and France, a republic, had organized political structures.

Also complicating matters was that no international organizations yet existed, such as President Wilson’s League of Nations, or the United Nations, to mitigate conflict. The former didn’t come into being until after, and in response to WWI, and the latter not until after WWII.

Lesser Men: Palmerton, Salisbury, and particularly Bismarck were gone. Those thereafter engaged in European diplomacy did not understand the goal of balance of power politics – to preserve the peace – nor how to manage it. Indeed many of the players, particularly France, surprisingly, were eager for war, seeing opportunities in it to gain territory, decimate rivals and exercise their testosterone generated impulses.

Oddly, Germany, at least for a while, along with Great Britain, were the only European countries earnestly trying to avoid war. (Germany, since it lost the war and did not get to write the history, and since it later produced Hitler, gets somewhat of a bad rap in this regard.) France, on the other hand, was fomenting for war, so long as Russia would join France and Britain would be dragged along.

These countries had no idea what they were stirring up, of course. They were like the George W. Bush team – Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al. – who thought war in Iraq would be easy, cheap and over quickly. Yes, that quality of men: morons, maniacs and manifestly unfit for office. In each case, they got what they wished for.

When one reads this book, and one certainly should, it will immediately evoke the stumbling and bumbling in the Middle East at present. It is a classic cautionary tale.