Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Unconquered by Wallace Scott

This book is going straight to my favourites shelf. It will sit there in the company of other gems such as Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger and The Road Gets Better From Here by Adrian Scott. Books that capture the people, the culture, the food, the environment, 'the message' in a way that few books do.

The Unconquered was hard to put down and by the end I did not want it to finish. In fact, I could have started it all over again. It is books like these that will forever have a treasured place in my memory. For teaching me so many new things, for opening my eyes to a place I have never been, to a culture I have never experienced. For taking me on a journey that I would like to have the courage to take myself. But mostly it is books like these that are the reason I read books in the first place.

Scott Wallace is a freelance journalist who is asked by National Geographic to join Brazilian Explorer Sydney Possuelo on an exploration of the Amazon in search of the Uncontacted Tribes. 

The flecheiros, the Arrow People, who live in the deepest bosom of the jungle in isolation, have never experienced white civilization. They are under pressure by the illegal loggers and prospectors (among other illegal activities) and are often hunted themselves by white men. Entire tribes are brutally and callously wiped out so the flecheiros cannot attack or interfere with illegal activities in protected Brazilian lands. Sometimes they are hunted and slain purely to cleanse the jungles of them as it is the presence of the uncontacted tribes that keeps large tracts of the Amazon protected.

This book had it all for me,excellent up close and personal description of the Amazon's unique ecosystem, action, adventure, tests of human endurance. The only problem I had, which wasn't a problem with the book itself, was that I didn't much like Sydney Possuelo. I think he would be a hard man to work for and to spend much time around and I am sure if I had been on this exploration, things would not have gone well. Much like everyone else on his team, I do not appreciate this type of personality. There is no doubt he has done some good in his former role in FUNAI, but he was lucky he didn't cause full scale mutiny in the middle of the green nowhere.


Saturday, 28 November 2015

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

I nearly read this book in 2014, only my reading schedule was tight and I put it aside for another time. After watching the documentary a few weeks back, I decided the time to read it was now, as I could not believe that the book would be anywhere near as sensationalist in style as that truly awful documentary.

I was disappointed to find that it was. Maybe I shouldn't have watched the Doco first with all it's blatant heart string pulling slow shots of children's little faces and weeping wives and grandmothers. Maybe my cynicism came to the book as a result of that tarnish. But there was no doubt what this author was about. Sensationalism in it's finest post Vietnam War petticoats.
Something happened to War Journalism during and after the Vietnam War. With the other large conflicts that preceded it, WW1 and WW2, civilians had blind faith in their soldiers. They were heroes and assets to their greater community, gracing print media and advertising material with their arms around the girl, or Coca Cola pouring down their throats.

They could do no wrong and did no wrong. They did not rape nor torture, and collateral damage was a myth.
Of course, none of that was true. But while soldiers in WWI & II were portrayed with positive bias, the Vietnam War brought about a new world order of negative bias. These modern armies became armies of 'baby killers'. Degraded and shamed by the media, they were murderers of women and children. Burning villages, slaughterers of the innocent.

There was murder. There is no doubt of that. Women and children killed and villages destroyed, but it has always been this way in war. It was this way in WWI and WWII. It was this way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will be this way forever more. This is the bloody reality of War. And while this journalist went about trying to expose covert US led thuggery, tried to prove that the American military and the JSOC arm were all bloodthirsty baby killers, to me all he really managed to expose was his own ignorance of War.

Isn't it time that journalists got passed the exhaustive finger pointing. This need to sensationalise and dramatise for the benefit of making a name for themselves amoung the bleeding hearts?
I did not think this book revealed any new moot points about American led covert global operations. The author worked the usual angles of America the thug. America the war monger. Killing with expedience and without remorse. Baby killers.
Vietnam's Search and Destroy becomes the Middle East's Capture or Kill.
So easy to put down an easy target like the US, when one does not realise they are only one piece of a broader puzzle.
America do not go these things alone. Why do journalists like these ignore that fact? What conflict or offensive has America ever gone into that was not supported by another country in some way or boosted by Coalition SOF?

This book did it's job. It exposed some catastrophic failures by professional soldiers. To err is human. And in many cases, those errors have disappointing outcomes. That will always be revealed when you put War under the microscope.

The world is full of readers who will not sense the exaggerated stylings of its author, but since I am not a bleeding heart, I believe less than half of what he is saying.  I know when a journalist who was not there and does not know, and clearly did not heed any opportunity to expunge JSOC of any sin (imagined or not), is trying to lead me around by the nose.


Friday, 27 November 2015

The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen

While some may say that Kilcullen's theories on the Accidental Guerrilla are not revolutionary, I believe that to the date of the book being published they, in a manner of ways, were.
In fact the author himself says "The ideas are not new; implementing them effectively would be". And that is what this book is all about.
Implementing conceptual frameworks that quantify best practise in the field of Accidental Guerrilla syndrome (ad hoc fighters with little interest in Jihad motivations) and in counter insurgency.
Not an easy thing to do, I expect, in an unstable environment torn apart already by ethno sectarian violence and war. Where these very counter insurgency best practice approaches revolve around an enemy which is constantly adapting, evolving and applying pressure.

His words on Western led globalisation and its hand in straining resentment amoung less wealthy cultures is of particular interest, or should be of particular interest to anyone observing the shifting tides of allegiance and disunity in the Middle East.
He points out that relative deprivation can be a fire in the tinder box of anti Western sentiment. That we have so much and they have so little, and that they want what we have and we won't give it to them, makes us 'Accidental Supremacists' (my term not his) of a sort. A source of resentment. We think we are supremely better because we are spoilt and nobody likes a spoilt brat with an attitude of intolerance towards lessors, do they?
And this is why Vietnam War style Psych Wars have been replaced by the 'winning hearts and minds' ethos instead. Give a kid a Football, don't give a kid a leaflet.

Protecting the population is key to the hearts and minds ethos.
It is also the key to successful counter insurgency. But the downside to that, is that this means bringing war to where the people are concentrated, as David Kilcullen himself states; "You win or lose it a village at a time, and you secure villages and gain access to the people by controlling valleys, roads, and heights that overlook them, in order of that priority."
Hard to keep local populations clear of collateral dangers when the fight is in their backyards.

Western led Military Forces must also help to connect that local population to the government and not to the military.
It is all very complex and unlike any war we have fought before. Or tried to fight before.
There is a great quote in the book by Sir Olaf Caroe that speaks to that complexity. "Unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over"
That is something I think we can all see, no-one more so than those on the ground trying to micro manage population protection in the face of looming troop withdrawals.

According to Kilcullen and his peers, hiring hundreds of local security and local peoples to help build roads and other infrastructure projects plays a crucial role in protecting populations. Hire local people, and those people are more likely to defend their projects against outside insurgents. Or if not defend, at least pass information on to those who can, Western led Military Forces and their representatives.
I cannot help but wonder however, whether hiring hundreds of 'locals' indiscriminately for local security is one of the reasons why there is an increase in local security turning on soldiers and western contractors and gunning them down. But, I suppose there will always be those kinds of dangers when dealing with an enemy that must resort to unethical or unorthodox methods to fight back.

I was surprised to learn in this book that the counter insurgency efforts in the South of Afghanistan have become, in many ways, counter narcotic in nature more so than anything else. I did not know that.

The book itself is interspersed with the author's own field notes, which was good and he mixed in a few of his combat experiences also.
He goes into detail regarding 'the Surge' in Iraq and expounds upon those informed approaches and tactics that helped him contribute to the Surge strategy.

In all, this is an excellent book in my opinion. It is the only one of its sort that goes into this specialised kind of detail on counter insurgency and the Accidental Guerrilla.


NB* I wrote this review a couple years back and, like many of my reviews, am only now moving it to my blog.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Road Gets Better From Here by Adrian Scott

This is one of those rare books that I wish I could have another star for. I have read 5 star books and I have enjoyed them and they have stuck with me, but The Road Gets Better from Here has that something extra that made it appeal to so many of my interests and senses. Travel, local food, traditions, the hospitality of strangers, isolated villages and people, the natural environment, the man made environment, history, cultures - many many diverse cultures, the middle east, Siberia, Russia, other former Soviet countries, the desert, small engines - in the form of a motorbike, alone against the wilderness, ancient Persia ... for me he served it all up in spades, with a big side serve of Plov, Pelmeni and Sweet Tea to go along with.

Adrian Scott is, without a doubt, a bit of an idiot for travelling where he did alone and on a motorbike, especially when he had never ridden a motorbike before planning this trip, let alone a cross country/dirt type bike like this. He had a crash course on motorbiking on his very first 48 hours. Perhaps, if he been better trained on bikes, it would have saved him a lot of future problems.
But he is Australian, like me, and so I shall forgive him his stupidity because we can all be a bit gullible and reckless like this. We trust nothing will go wrong and when it does, well, we have our moment of kicking dirt and then use humour to get through it.

I learned plenty and had a few epiphanies, by seeing so many countries and cultures through Adrian Scott's eyes. What a fabulous book for those of us who want to read a travel adventure story without the complications of long lectures on political, philosophical, social and geological history. Okay, so there is ample history in this book, sure. It would not have appealed to me in the way that it did without the author giving some run down of history as he travelled, but it wasn't endless warbling and was just brief enough to educate you before he moved on with his adventure.
Another thing I really liked about this book was his unbiased and unprejudiced view on all the countries and cultures. He will admit when he disapproves of a country's laws and cultural laws, but he will only do this once he has seen the effects with his own eyes. He does not go into these countries with unfounded preconceptions fed to him by the media.

If you choose to read this book then take it with a grain of salt. Firstly, because there are many spelling mistakes and typos. Some quite bad ones actually, proving it was poorly proof read. And secondly, because it is not an overtly deep cerebral piece, it is (as I told a friend in my comments on this book) like sitting around a campfire and having Adrian Scott tell you his tale in a riveting and fun way before you all retire to your tents and then the next night, when you all gather again, he continues where he left off the night before. You all sit quietly, soaking in his words, visualising the faces and the food and the scenery of all the myriad countries he travelled through.

Thanks for taking me along on your ride, Adrian Scott. I got to live vicariously through you for a week.


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Joker One by Donovan Campbell

For those who didn't know already, the war in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan are completely different beasts and in this book you get an honest taste of the urban warfare beast that is/was Iraq in 2004, Ramadi.

The book starts out, however, with Donovan Campbell back in the states. Training with his new platoon, learning his way as a new leader and mentor. It is here that I loved the book the most. I got to see the evolution of this intelligent, kind, honest officer and I am glad of that. It was an inspirational window to look into for anyone who respects and admires people with those unique leadership qualities.

Then the memoir takes you to the hot, violent streets of Ramadi in 2004 where Campbell took his baptism of fire straight on. He didn't always cope well, but he always coped as a good leader should, with resilience and love and reflection. When he broke, he broke in silence, in the presence of few.

I came out the other end of this book knowing I had been introduced to a very special individual.
An officer who accepted those in his platoon who were flawed. Timid kids, narcoleptic soldiers, misfits, he did not reject them, he instead nurtured their positives, turning them into soldiers that were as good at their job as any of their peers.
And as a leader of men, Campbell led with equal quantities of heart and mind and soul. He truly can see that it isn't the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

I know somebody who served with Donovan Campbell in Iraq and apparently, the man you see here in Joker One, is the man you see in real life. You can trust that this deep thinking and intelligent man, the man he makes himself out to be, is reality. There is no spin involved.

While I did drop a star for reasons that aren't important enough to comment on, those 4 stars are strong, verging on 5.


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Champion by Elizabeth Chadwick

This book had it's bland moments, but all in all, once I waded through those parts that were
bogging me down, I discovered that I had actually enjoyed it. I have quite a few E.Chadwick books and though I kept buying them once upon a time, I have a bit of a problem with her female characters. I find them lacklustre, depressing and pretty much devoid of personality. There are slight glimmers of endearing qualities or spirit, but they never persist.

It's probably just me. Everyone get's something different from each book they read, though I have to say, dull female characters seem to be a bit of a recurring pattern in Chadwick's books. And yet her male characters are so well done, that it is what kept me buying her books off the shelves.

The Champion's female character was up there with the blandest and yet the male characters were great to read about, so the balance tipped and made this book worthwhile. I gave it a pretty good star rating because I rated it only against other Chadwick novels I have so far read. A good book and worth your time, I'd say, if you are into historical fiction that is love story driven.


Two Greedy Italians Eat Italy by Antonio Carluccio & Gennaro Contaldo

Another lovely book by these two outgoing Italian cooks that is full of not only recipes, but plenty of reading as well.

It is one of two books that they have produced together and it was released in conjunction with a very enjoyable TV food travel series.

I liked it less than the other book as many of the recipes were using ingredients that I cannot access easily or would have to substitute. Many if those substitutes would change the flavour of the recipe and that defeats the point of reading a cookbook. Substituting flavours and ingredients is something I do 'after' trialing the original recipe. That is the beauty of cooking from books for me. Finding recipes. Trying them the way the author makes them and then tweaking them to ones own taste and local ingredients.

It is definitely more a cookbook for the European market than the world market.
Still, there were plenty of recipes in the book I will try. Such as the Risotto with Prawn and Courgette Flowers. Oh yes. Where have you been all my life??