Friday, July 28, 2006


Lots of sand.

Saul Kelly, The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura (Westview Press 2003).

Saul Kelly has written a solid and respectable, albeit unexciting, history of the exploration of the desert that fills western Egypt, much of Libya, and northwestern Sudan. Equipped with automobiles, Europeans started to venture into these wastes in the 1920s, and their efforts quickened in the 1930s, particularly after Italy invaded Libya, bringing a strategic significance to routes and oases between Libya and the Nile. The exploration continued after 1939, and several of the most accomplished explorers helped to create the Long Range Desert Group, the Desert Rats, who raided far behind the Axis lines through the desert campaign.

Zerzura was a fabled lost oasis, best known now from The English Patient, whose protagonist was loosely based on the Hungarian Count Almasy. Almasy explored the desert in the 1930s, usually from Egypt, but he passed information to the Italians and ended up in the Afrika Korps during the war. Almasy tried his hands at long-range desert operations, including a mission to infiltrate spies into Egypt. Though the Afrika Korps did not match the British successes in the desert, the problem was that there were not more of Almasy. But for this reason, he does not have the stature or depth to bear Kelly’s decision to make him the book’s focus. Kelly does not have the sources to bring him to life.

For that matter, I imagine that the North African desert was a more interesting place that Kelly manages to convey. The telling detail – about the terrain, the natives, the weather, the fauna – is all too rare. Alas, The Lost Oasis turns out to be a little too dry.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Three for the Cup.

Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains The World (Harper Perennial 2005).
Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
(Riverhead 1998).
Bill Buford, Among The Thugs (Vintage 1993).

Inspired by the World Cup and finding myself in a Barnes & Noble, I picked up these three books. All three were shelved with the soccer books but all three focus less on the sport itself than on its milieu – each book uses soccer as a prism, a device to bring the game’s surroundings into focus.

The title of Franklin Foer’s book promises quite a bit, and if it sounds like he bit off more than he could chew, well, just be assured that the book is not quite so ambitious, for better or worse. In the preface, Foer explains:
This book has three parts. The first tries to explain the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries. It is the hooligan-heavy section of the book. The second part uses soccer to address economics: the consequences of migration, the persistence of corruption, and the rise of powerful new oligarchs like Silvio Berlusconi, the president of Italy and the AC Milan club. Finally, the book uses soccer to defend the virtues of old-fashioned nationalism – a way to blunt the return of tribalism.
Notwithstanding the title and these promises, those looking for an explanation of much of anything will be disappointed. Foer is not even particularly clear about what he means when he talks about globalization. But who cares? Maybe non-sporting social theorists, but the rest of us will ignore the overlay of social theory to read about soccer.

Foer’s book reads like a collection of magazine articles about related subjects; it never coheres as a book. There is some good stuff, including a chapter about Red Star Belgrade’s role in the ugly side of Serbian nationalism. (A particularly ugly side – was there an attractive side?) Some of the chapters – for example, the one about the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic, and the one about professional soccer’s failings in Brazil – touch on interesting subjects that might warrant a book, but evidently Foer learned enough to say enough, and then was ready to move onto the next thing. And then a few chapters have the punch of, say, the Iranian national team. All in all, a mixed bag. Were I Foer’s editor, I would have suggested that he think harder about the social theory, or spend more time on the ground in Glasgow and Rio de Janeiro.

I thoroughly enjoyed Fever Pitch while I was reading it, but now it’s hard to know what to say about it – not the first time Nick Hornby has induced that reaction in me. Hornby went to his first Arsenal match years and years ago as a young boy, and he has been obsessed with the team every since. He faltered now and then, but when he wrote the book he had seen every home match for years, with only the prospect of obligations to his wife or unborn children in the future to stand between him and his side.

There’s more soccer in Hornby’s book, and he seems to love and appreciate the sport in a way that Foer and Buford don’t share or can’t express. And then there’s the obsession, a devotion to the sport and his team that I can only vaguely fathom. Some of the rituals, perhaps, but Hornby long ago left the sort of territory I been through. Fever Pitch is a worthy guidebook.
California-bred, Bill Buford brought an outsider’s anthropological eye and detachment when he first encountered hard-core British soccer fans – hooligans or thugs, if you will – in the mid-1980s, and he made a project of trying to understand the phenomena. Among The Thugs is a remarkable exploration of organized mayhem, alcohol abuse, pathology, and a form of class consciousness. At the start of the book, Buford runs along with Manchester United fans rioting in Turin following a match against Juventus; at the book’s end, he runs with England fans rioting on Sardinia during the 1990 World Cup. When he returns from Sardinia, Buford has had enough, and it’s hard to understand how he stomached so much for so long. Or, indeed, how England did.
Both Fever Pitch and Among The Thugs left me wanting an update fifteen years on. Hornby’s team has changed as English soccer has changed, with Arsenal starring foreign players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann and now Tomas Rosicky. Meanwhile, the hooliganism that was so pervasive when Buford wrote largely is a thing of the past, from what I know. I would love to know how the changes in English soccer have changed Hornby’s affections for his team, and I would like to hear what was done to stop the hooligans.

When I finished Buford’s book, I pulled my copy of Ryszard Kapucinski’s The Soccer War off the shelf and re-read the title piece, an account of the five-day war in July 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador, sparked by rioting during a World Cup qualifying match. There’s very little soccer beyond the title, but Kapucinski is always wonderful.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


A glimpse from the inside.

Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

When Ron Suskind wrote The Price Of Loyalty, it was the first in-depth look inside the Bush White House, and in the intervening years what he reported has shaped the conventional wisdom about how the administration operates. Suskind wrote with the full cooperation of Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, and it is hard to imagine a more helpful source. A believer in openness, O'Neill left government service with an archive of documents which he handed over to Suskind. With O'Neill as a witness and the documents as a foundation, Suskind showed a White House in which a small circle -- in particular, Vice President Cheney -- controlled access to the President, and thereby controlled policy. Cabinet secretaries were outsiders. By now, the story is familiar.

Suskind is back with another inside look at the administration, this time with a focus on foreign policy and the global war on terrorism. Once again, Suskind has gained impressive access, and the stories his sources have told him are worth the price of admission. I've posted some excerpts here, here and here, but there's plenty more all over the blogosphere. Truly important stuff. In particular, Suskind cultivated sources inside the CIA -- although many of them seem to have left before and during the purge launched by Porter Goss -- not the least of whom is George Tenet. Indeed, the book closes with Goss assuming the position of DCI. Among other revelations in the book is that the White House set up Tenet to take the fall for the missing WMD by feeding Bob Woodward the "slam dunk" line. According to Tenet, he never said it, although even now he is still too loyal to Bush, or simply classy, to put it quite so bluntly. (Tenet and others at the CIA told Woodward that they differed with the White House's account of the "slam dunk" meeting, but you would not know that from reading Plan Of Attack.)

What this book lacks, however, is a compelling narrative arc or focus to tie these anecdotes together. The book's scope is too broad, and would have challenged even a writer with full cooperation from his subjects and ready access to the pertinent archives. Lacking these, Suskind struggles to place the episodes he relates into a larger context. In this way, The One Percent Doctrine reminded me of Seymour Hersh's Chain Of Command. It's hard to fault Suskind for this: The so-called war on terror is hardly over, and surely there is much that his sources did not dare tell him or that he chose to omit. For now, we will just have to take what we can get.

Suskind often fills the gaps with florid prose about big ideas, and I could have done with a lot less of this. For example, he often takes up the strain between the secrecy integral to foreign affairs and the openness integral to a well-functioning democracy. He's surely onto something here, though he's hardly the first. Unfortunately, he hasn't approached this tension with any rigor. I finished the book in full agreement that the Bush administration has abused national security for political gain, but it was his reportage of concrete facts that made the case. (I saw Suskind do a bookstore appearance on C-SPAN a few days ago, and although he appears to be an effective public speaker, he had the same tendency to grab hold of Big Ideas without really grappling with them.)

Big Ideas aside, Suskind's book also fails to settle on an explanation for the conduct of the war on terror. Instead, I see three: (1) Having disregarded the threat posed by Al Qaeda before 9/11, Bush has determined never to be caught out again having not done enough; (2) In response to the threats posed by nuclear and biological weapons, Cheney has developed an intellectual framework for policy -- the title of which is that of Suskind's book -- to replace more conventional cost-benefit analyses; and (3) The administration's political instincts, on full display in The Price Of Loyalty, have its tendrils throughout the war on terror as well, causing policy to be either driven for partisan gain or misrepresented to an unknowing public.

Or maybe the problem is not Suskind's, but the administration's. The three alternatives above -- one driven by personality, one by policy, and one by politics -- belong most to Bush, Cheny, and Karl Rove, respectively. (Rove seldom appears in this book, but I suspect that this is because Suskind's sources did not encounter him much.) And in practice, the three reinforce each other.

For more, Suskind's site is here. Michiko Kakutani reviews it ("riveting"), as does Barton Gellman. An excerpt from TIME is here. Suskind appeared on Fresh Air to discuss the book, and you can listen to the program here.

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