A Prisoner of Morro


Title:                      A Prisoner of Morro

Author:                  Upton Sinclair

Sinclair, Upton (1898). A Prisoner of Morro; Or, in the Hands of the Enemy. New York: Street & Smith

OCLC:    57400718

PS3537.I85 P97

Date Posted:      February 27, 2014

Mind boggling adventures on the sea and on the land of Cuba by Upton Sinclair (pseudonym Ensign Clark Fitch). So much adventure in a just a few pages for this grandma, but I can imagine my grandsons getting a big kick out of the war stories, water escapades, and intrigue. If you like sailors and ships and guns and bravery, this book is for you!

Upton Sinclair, born in 1878 was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author. He wrote over 90 books in many genres. Best known for his muckraking novel, The Jungle, Sinclair also wrote adventure fiction. Many of these works were written under the pseudonym, Ensign Clark Fitch, U.S.N. A Prisoner of Morrow, published in 1898 when Sinclair was but 20 years old, is one of these efforts.

The period for this work is the ten-week Spanish–American War which occurred in 1898. Revolts against Spanish rule had been prevalent for decades in Cuba and were closely watched by Americans. The main issue of the war was Cuban independence from Spain. The war was notable for a series of one-sided American naval and military victories and led to the downfall of Spain as a colonial power. Clif Faraday, a naval cadet, is the main character in this novel. Stationed on a gunboat off the Cuban island as part of the U. S. naval blockade, Clif survives a series of confrontations at sea and treacheries on land. He is captured while on the island during a mission and lands in a Cuban prison called Morro, renowned for its cruelty. Clif receives aid from an unlikely source when all seems lost and survives to show commendable leadership and canny judgment.

If you’re looking for social commentary from Sinclair, this is not the book. If you want an entertaining read reminiscent of “old-time” radio weekly serials where the hero faces dire consequences at the end of the each week’s program, then you should enjoy this story.

Finished Reading: February 26, 2014

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Duty


Title:                      Duty

Author:                  Robert M. Gates

Gates, Robert Michael (2014). Duty : Memoirs of A Secretary At War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2013026348

E897.4.G37 A3 2014

Subjects

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

Reviewed by Greg Jaffe[1].

Maybe it was the time of year, just before the Christmas holidays. Maybe it was the setting—a bare-bones combat outpost in the violent mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Maybe it was the strain of more than four years of signing deployment orders that he knew would lead to the deaths of more young Americans. But in December 2010, speaking to troops clustered around him, Robert M. Gates was overcome by an uncharacteristic flood of emotion.

The soldiers in their dirt-splattered uniforms had been ordered to stop whatever they were doing and listen to the defense secretary, who, with his neatly parted white hair, khakis and starched button-down shirt, looked as if he had helicoptered in from another planet. “I feel a personal responsibility for each and every one of you,” Gates said. “I feel the sacrifice and hardship and losses more than you’ll ever imagine. I just want to thank you and tell you how much I love you.”

It is impossible to imagine former wartime defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney or Robert McNamara ever telling his troops that he loved them.

As a military reporter who covered Gates throughout his nearly five-year tenure and witnessed many of his increasingly emotional thank yous to troops in Afghanistan, I often wondered what was going on inside his head: He rarely showed anger or frustration. “I have a pretty good poker face,” he explains in his new memoir, Duty.

While his rivals at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon loudly staked out their positions, Gates held back his opinion. The uncertainty about where he stood was a source of his power, allowing him to swoop in at the last moment and broker a bargain, usually on terms that were most acceptable to him. Unlike his predecessors, he had a reputation for quietly and ruthlessly holding subordinates accountable. He fired senior people, including Gen. David McKiernan, his top wartime commander in Afghanistan, whom Gates thought wasn’t up to the job—the first such dismissal since the Korean War.

In his new book, which has nearly 600 pages of text, Gates takes the reader inside the war-room deliberations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and delivers unsentimental assessments of each man’s temperament, intellect and management style. “It is difficult to imagine two more different men,” Gates writes.

Gates left Washington in 2011 with a reputation as a steady, sober-minded member of the foreign policy establishment who had served eight presidents and was admired equally by Republicans and Democrats. The next time Gates visits the capital, his reception may not be quite so warm. Duty is his second memoir, and this time he cuts loose.

He slams Congress for its grandstanding and gridlock. “I would listen with growing outrage,” he writes, “as hypocritical and obtuse American senators made all these demands of Iraqi legislators and yet themselves could not even pass budgets.” He describes members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as “rude, nasty and stupid.”

Joe Biden haters will enjoy Gates’s description of the vice president as loud, garrulous and obsessed with politics over substance. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates writes. He accuses the vice president of poisoning Obama’s relationship with his generals: “I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture, every day saying, ‘the military can’t be trusted.’ ”

Gates admires Obama’s decisiveness and smarts, but accuses him of sending troops to fight and die in support of a strategy in Afghanistan that, according to Gates, the president himself believed would fail. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates writes.

He recounts his thoughts during a tense 2011 meeting with Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in the White House Situation Room: “As I sat there I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

The critique will infuriate the parents and spouses of troops who were killed trying to execute Obama’s Afghan war strategy. But Gates doesn’t prove his damning accusation and can be maddeningly self-contradictory in his criticism of Obama. He describes the president’s decision to send 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan as courageous and politically unpopular. “Obama overruled the policy and domestic political concerns of his vice president and virtually all the senior White House staff,” Gates writes. Why would the president pursue a politically unpopular strategy that he believed would fail? Gates never attempts to explain the contradiction.

Though he decries Obama’s White House staff as the “most centralized and controlling” since the Nixon administration, he offers little substantive criticism of the president’s big decisions on Afghanistan. Hawkish Republicans and some in the military slammed Obama for putting firm limits on the number of troops he was willing to send to Afghanistan and for setting a withdrawal date, saying the timelines and troop caps betrayed a lack of resolve and emboldened the enemy. Gates, however, dismisses this argument, writing, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”

Gates’s problem with the president is less about strategy or substance than about heart. “I myself, our commanders, and our troops had expected more commitment to the cause and more passion for it from him,” Gates writes. He compares Obama unfavorably with Bush, who “had no second thoughts about Iraq, including our decision to invade.”

No civilian in Washington was closer to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than Gates. As Washington and the rest of the country were growing bored with the grinding conflicts, he seemed to feel their burden more acutely. He describes how his trips to Afghanistan and Iraq wore on him: “On each visit I was enveloped by a sense of misery and danger and loss.” His anger at Obama, Congress and even some in the Pentagon seems to spring from his belief that they didn’t match his sense of mission in Afghanistan. They didn’t feel the sting of the troops’ deaths with the intensity that he felt.

More than 3,800 soldiers and Marines died on Gates’s watch in Iraq and Afghanistan. The losses are small compared with the numbers in the Civil War, World War II or Vietnam. But for Gates and his generals, they were extraordinarily difficult to bear. Gates spent most of his evenings as defense secretary alone, writing condolence letters to the families of the deceased. He asked his staff for a picture of the soldier and some hometown news clippings so that he would be able to personalize his message. It was a major change from the early days of the war, when Rumsfeld relied on an autopen machine to sign the letters—a practice he abandoned after lawmakers publicly flayed him for it.

Like Gates’ profession of love for the troops in Konar, his descriptions of the guilt and pain he felt from these losses are touching, heartfelt and occasionally a little over the top, especially when he recounts his predawn jogs around the Mall in Washington: “I would ritually look up at that stunning white statue of Lincoln, say good morning, and sadly ask him, How did you do it?”

McNamara published his autobiography, In Retrospect, two decades after the Vietnam War as a kind of pre-death-bed confession. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote of his and his colleagues’ mistakes. Rumsfeld’s autobiography, Known and Unknown, was fueled by his desire to settle scores with his Bush administration foes and shoot back at critics of his tenure as defense secretary.

Gates, widely considered the best defense secretary of the post-World War II era, seems to have been driven by a desire to sort through all of the anger, frustration, sadness and guilt that he held inside during his tenure. The book comes off a bit like an extended therapy session.

In public Gates was always polite and in control. His private and deep sense of obligation to the men and women he was sending to war made him an effective defense secretary. He fought to buy special mine-resistant vehicles for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over the objections of many of his generals, who didn’t want to spend the money. He forced the Air Force to scale back its plans to buy high-tech fighter jets and instead to boost spending on surveillance drones that were desperately needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He insisted that the military add field hospitals and helicopters in Afghanistan to ensure that every wounded soldier or Marine would receive treatment within an hour of his injuries. Military doctors insisted that two hours was fast enough. Gates imagined a wounded soldier waiting for a helicopter in the dirt and dust, and told the military doctors and generals to make it an hour.

There are moments when Gates seems to realize that he let his pain, guilt and frustration overwhelm his judgment in the latter days of his tenure. “My fuse was really getting short,” he writes. “It seemed like I was blowing up—in my own, quiet way—nearly every day, and no longer just in the privacy of my own office with my staff.”

Like most soldiers, journalists and civilians who passed through Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates still seems to be struggling to make sense of his war years and the toll they took on him. He says he is “indescribably proud” of the U.S. military’s efforts to stem the chaos in Iraq and believes that the American war effort in Afghanistan is on a path to reasonable success. He also carries the heavy burden of knowing that troops were killed and maimed following his orders.

This confusing, frustrating and sometimes fascinating book is best summed up by a pair of conflicting statements Gates uttered during his tenure. In a meeting with Obama’s national security team a few days before the president’s inauguration, Gates described being defense secretary as “the most gratifying experience of my life.” Only days earlier, in an e-mail to a friend, he confided: “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”


[1] Greg Jaffre in The Washington Post (published: January 7, 2014). Greg Jaffe covered the Pentagon for The Washington Post and is a co-author of The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army.

Aftermath


Title:                      Aftermath

Author:                  Peter Telep

Telep, Peter (2013). Tom Clancy’s Aftermath. New York: Berkley Books

ISBN:     978-0425266304

PS3570.E447 T66 2013

Date Posted:      February 25, 2014

In the aftermath of conspiracy, corruption, and betrayal a reconstructed Splinter Cell team designated “Fourth Echelon” emerges under the command of Sam Fisher and answerable only to the President. We join the team during their current assignment: find and steal back one hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) stolen from Russia and hidden somewhere inside Iran.

But, when Igor Kasperov, Russia’s equivalent to America’s Bill Gates vanishes, the President orders Fisher to abort the HEU mission and find him. How is Kasperov more important—or dangerous—than weapon grade uranium in the hands of Islamic radicals?

President Caldwell dispatches the 4E team to learn the answers. Meanwhile, the Russians order their elite operative, Major Viktoria Kolosov, the Snow Maiden, to bring the missing software genius back to Moscow. Smells like a showdown between the Snow Maiden and Sam to me.

There’s more here between the book covers than the usual over-the-top action adventure scenes and sequences. Telep shares some of the geopolitical underpinnings driving his story. I like that a lot. It puts meat on the bones. It shows respect for the reader and demonstrates a keen awareness of current events. Two examples: The permanent stationing of U.S. Navy missile equipped ships in European ports to circumvent Russia’s “no land missiles” prohibition is nothing short of brilliant and U.S. natural gas sales that undercut Russian pricing in the European marketplace is akin to dropping an economic bomb. Such actions by the U.S. are viewed as a direct assault on the economic stability of the Russian government and a threat to its homeland security. The Russians have long considered Europe as their exclusive gas and oil customer and missile platforms that can sail from port to port yet remain on target is enough to make any country nervous.

It’s no surprise that the Russians feel compelled to retaliate against such threats. Is Kasperov’s disappearance a part of their scheme? The author sets it all up, turns Sam and his team loose, and dares us to follow.

Did you forget about that missing HEU? Telep doesn’t. You can bet your lead vest it’s going to arrive, uninvited, in a crucial place, at an awkward time, ticking like a, you-know-what!

I finished reading this February 24, 2014.

Command Authority


Title:                      Command Authority

Author:                  Tom Clancy

Clancy, Tom (2013). Command Authority. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2013036913

PS3553.L245 C66 2013

Subjects

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

Reviewed by Kevin Nance.[1]

In Command Authority, the first Tom Clancy espionage/military thriller published since the megaselling author’s death in October, the Cold War is alive and well. It never really ended, in fact, bringing Clancy’s Jack Ryan series—featuring the CIA analyst first seen battling the Soviets in 1984s The Hunt for Red October— full circle.

After a lengthy and much-lamented absence from the pantheon of world villains in the Clancy universe (during which bad guys in the Middle East, Japan, Pakistan and China took turns menacing America or its interests), Russian scoundrels are once again wearing the black hats.

The chief scoundrels, in this case, are the Russian President Valeri Volodin, an ex-KGB man, and his main enforcer, Roman Talanov, who as young men foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and have since demonstrated their talent for survival. A dictator in all but name, Volodin is bent on re-establishing Russian dominance over its former satellite states, beginning with an ultimately NATO-thwarted military foray in Estonia followed by a bigger, nastier push in Ukraine.

This brings them onto a collision course with Ryan, now the U.S. president, and his son, Jack Ryan Jr., who has followed his dad into the family business of protecting the homeland from its enemies abroad. The younger Ryan, on hiatus from his gig as an intelligence analyst, spy and part-time assassin, has moved to London and is working for a company investigating international financial crimes. This ultimately reconnects the Ryans to Volodin, Talanov and their old KGB cronies, who exited communism by means of a series of larcenous golden parachutes.

It’s the familiar, mostly effective Clancy stew of trigger-happy testosterone, cloak-and-dagger spy adventure, high-tech military action and conservative politics, including the author’s trademark disdain for international diplomacy and anyone who might dare to criticize American intelligence operations.

It’s true, too, that the book’s premise can hardly be dismissed as paranoid fantasy. Volodin bears an undeniable and no doubt intended resemblance, at least in part, to the real-life Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose own KGB background and ambition to return his country to the status of global superpower are obvious to anyone with even a cursory interest in international affairs.

But whatever its level of geopolitical verisimilitude, Command Authority isn’t exactly the bang that red-meat Clancy fans might have wished for as a culmination of the Jack Ryan series; it’s more of a whimper. Its early scenes of military action in Estonia are thrilling in their smash-mouth fashion, but Command Authority soon bogs down in the details of complex financial transactions, military acronyms, espionage code, heavy exposition and backstory, and, worst of all, endless subplots involving dozens of characters. (These include the happy but brief reappearance of the Russian ex-official Sergey Golovko, whose death by poisoning becomes one of the story’s catalysts.)

The result of this stubborn granularity makes for a sometimes sluggish pace over the course of such a doorstop of a book, an all but fatal flaw in a genre that makes its living off compelling the reader to keep the pages turning.

Like two of its predecessors in the Ryan franchise, Locked On (2011) and Threat Vector (2012), Command Authority was written “with” Mark Greaney, author of Dead Eye and other thrillers. Exactly how much each of the collaborators contributed to the writing is known only to the parties involved. But it’s easy to speculate that Clancy, a one-man entertainment industry who allowed his name to be used by ghostwriters of movie scripts and other commodities, did not have the same firm grip on the storytelling here that made The Hunt for Red October one of the best books of the genre it helped launch.

Does Clancy’s death spell the end for the Jack Ryan saga? If the ongoing careers of Jason Bourne and other thriller-franchise heroes who survived their original creators are any indication, it seems likely that we’ll be seeing plenty more of the Ryans, for better or worse.

—–

I finished reading this February 19, 2014; finished re-reading September 7, 2014


[1] Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. The review appeared in Chicago Times Lifestyles (December 12, 2013).

Sea of Fire


Title:                      Sea of Fire

Author:                 Jeff Rovin

Rovin, Jeff (2003). Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: Sea of Fire. New York: Berkley Books

LCCN:    2003611822

PS3553.L245 S43 2003

Subjects

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

The Op Center books all deal with the new technological threat to national security: a cyber attack.

In Sea of Fire, a half-dead Singapore pirate is plucked from the Celebes Sea in the Western Pacific, setting off alarms halfway around the world in Washington, D.C. Traces of radiation are found on the man, causing Australian officials to call in Op-Center for a top-secret investigation of nuclear disposal sites.

When an empty drum from a recent drop-off is discovered near where the pirate’s ship was destroyed, the Op-Center team comes to a terrifying conclusion: A multinational corporation hired to dispose of nuclear waste is selling it instead-to a most unlikely terrorist.

Climax at Midway


Title:                      Climax at Midway

Author:                  Thaddeus V. Tuleja

Tuleja, Thaddeus V.(1960). Climax at Midway. New York: W. W. Norton.

LCCN:    60005849

D774.M5 T8

Subjects

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

KIRKUS REVIEW

In the wave of books dealing with the Pacific War, it is refreshing to find one bobbing up which combines the three nautical graces of style, accuracy and objectivity. This author, a Navy man with considerable technical, as well as verbal skill, produced a fascinating and credible picture of what really happened at Midway in 1942. His characterization of Admiral Spruance is excellent; his surprisingly unbiased view of Admiral Yamamoto giving that brilliant officer his due as well.

The fleets of the two men move toward each other, converge. Yorktown is mortally wounded. There Japanese carriers are likewise stricken. The sky is filled with the burning planes of both sides. And when the smoke has finally cleared, the Imperial Japanese Fleet is seen streaking away from its first major defeat in four hundred years. Painstaking research supports each page, although all is well blended into the main narrative.

War’s End


Title:                      War’s End

Author:                  Charles W. Sweeney

Sweeney, Maj. Gen. Charles W. U.S.A.F (Ret.) (1997) with James A. Antonucci and Marion K. Antonucci. War’s End: An Eyewitness Account of America’s Last Atomic Mission. New York: Avon Books.

LCCN:    96048526

D790 .S968 1997

Subjects

Date Updated:  June 23, 2015

KIRKUS REVIEW

Plainspoken reminiscences from the only man to fly both of the missions that dropped atomic bombs on Japan, bringing WW II to a close. A love of flying took Sweeney from his boyhood home in suburban Boston into the US Army as an air cadet well before Pearl Harbor. After winning his wings and a commission on December 12, 1941, he bounced about stateside commands until the fall of 1943. Desperate to secure an overseas assignment, the 23-year-old captain talked Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets into giving him a billet with the 509th Composite Group.

The 509th had been chosen to use the incredibly destructive weapons developed by the Manhattan Project against Japan. Following an intensive training regimen at well- guarded bases in remote areas of America’s vast Southwest, Sweeney and his comrades-in-aerial-arms arrived on Tinian in mid-1945. By now a major, he piloted the instrumentation plane that recorded the effects when Tibbets conducted a picture-perfect strike that decimated Hiroshima on August 6. Three days later, Sweeney led the unescorted superfortress flight that laid waste to Nagasaki. While history’s first A-bomb assault went like clockwork, the author and his crew had to overcome problems with their plutonium device, fuel shortages, and a host of other difficulties.

Shortly after Japan’s surrender, he was able to get a first-hand look at the ruins of Nagasaki. While the experience left him hopeful that humankind will never again engage in nuclear warfare, Sweeney (a devout Catholic) has no regrets for the role he played in bringing a cruel and costly global conflict to a decisive end. Nor does the retired major general have much patience with revisionists who give Japan victim status for the devastation it suffered. Eloquent, engrossing testimony of an old-fashioned patriot at peace with his consequential place in military and world history.