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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-07-31 18:17
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

Slight spoilers in this review, I know a few of you want to read it so I tried to keep it minimal. For a book that attempts to address thousands of years of human history in 521 pages, it does a solid job. I loved the first 400 pages or so, It is written in a gripping way that is often missing in non fiction. I learnt a lot about the world and I would have given it five stars had its sections on the holocaust, the nazis and American foreign policy in the middle east not been limited.


It descends towards the end into page upon page of America shaming, essentially blaming it entirely for taking on Britain's imperial mantle in the middle east and destabilizing it further during the cold war. I agree that the US is responsible in part for destabilizing some countries in the region and that this has led to a rise in ultra nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, but the way this is written it is almost as though it's an opinion piece at times. It feels like Frankopan has decided the US is to blame entirely and looks for evidence to back up his claims, rather than going in with an objective outlook and trying to assess the evidence without bias.


But my criticisms of the later sections of the book are not to say it is also not largely interesting. I learnt things about weapon sales and oil that I previously had no knowledge of and my understanding of countries such as Iran and Iraq has improved as a result. Sections on Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were equally enlightening. 


Where the book really shines is in its early history of the formation of the east, sections on the viking Rus, the Islamic golden age, the slave trade and the mongols are fascinating. I had no idea that the word slaves comes from the slavs as they were heavy victims of Viking enslavement. I had no idea the mongols spread further after the death of Genghis Khan and were largely responsible for rebuilding areas they had pillaged. I even had no idea that Islam was almost spread into Europe as a dominant religion at its height, only to be repelled in France and knocked back by Christendom.


I went for a drink with a friend yesterday and he said something along the lines of, "I don't understand anyone who doesn't find history interesting." I have to say when I read a book like this one filled from the start to the end with dramatic feats, brutal politics, vast empires and powerful individuals it is hard to see how people can so easily dismiss history. I have only ever learnt from my interest in history, it has only served to increase my knowledge of the world around me and to help me make sense of what is going on in the world and for that reason, books like this that are filled with so many insights should be a must read for everyone. 


I'll leave this with my favourite quote in the book. 'Britain's politicians and diplomats were not made of the same stuff as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created the empire; in fact, they are the tired sons of a long line of rich men, and they will lose their empire.' - Mussolini to his foreign minister Count Ciano.

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review 2013-03-16 00:00
The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden - Mark Bowden Unless you've been living in a cave you probably know who Osama bin Laden is. Ironically, bin Laden was thought to have been actually living in a cave at some point, but instead he was living in a suburban neighborhood in Pakistan. If you count yourselves among those who have not been living in a cave, you also probably know that there were two major books regarding the hunt for bin Laden published in 2012. One was No Easy Day written by former Navy SEAL Mark Owen (pseudonym; his real name has been leaked, but I'll keep referring to him under his published name) and the other was The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden by Mark Bowden, the book I review here.

For the benefit of those who have been living in a cave I provide this spoiler:we got him.

Many know Bowden as the author of the excellent Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, however The Finish is probably more illustrative of how modern warfare is waged. While Iraq and Afghanistan make evident the continuing relevance of effective conventional forces, unconventional forces and intelligence assets are increasingly becoming decisive elements in wars that have no clear battle lines.

This is probably the best book currently out dealing with the topic (that I know of, at least--I only know of three). While Owens' book No Easy Day covers the mission that killed bin Laden, his book is actually more about what it's like to be a SEAL Team 6 operator and is through his own individual and limited viewpoint. Bowden tries to present the big picture of America's campaign against Al Qaeda and bin Laden, covering not just the military and intelligence efforts but also the political ramifications involved. 

I particularly liked hearing about the new technologies in intelligence gathering and processing. What can't you do with computers these days? Whom many may call "nerds" are often vital cyber-warriors these days. And it's nice to know that the CIA isn't all about smuggling drugs and financing banana republics. They do do humanitarian things once in a while, like financing a Pakistani doctor's child vaccination program (of course, they wanted the syringes to see if any of the kids had DNA related to bin Laden, but still…). But I jest, I jest out of love. While the CIA does have a long reputation of, shall we say, "ethical flexibility," these men and women that work behind the scenes do some amazing things, things they will never receive official recognition for.

While this is probably the best book out currently, its limitations are apparent. Several years had passed between what happened in Mogadishu and Bowden's Black Hawk Down. For The Finish only a year or so had passed. I feel like there was a rush to publish in order to keep the book timely. I would have liked to have seen an index and a section of photos. Furthermore, a lot of the stuff Bowden writes about are the results of covert actions, sources and methods that, naturally, the government wishes to protect. Unfortunately for us, this makes a somewhat superficial account. It sort of read to me like a made-for-TV movie (although a very good made-for-TV movie).

Nevertheless, The Finish is a concise and, at times, exciting history of America's pursuit of bin Laden. Read it together with Owen's book (the last half, at least) because there are some slight discrepancies in what happened at bin Laden's compound. Discrepancies or no, it doesn't matter. Dude's dead. 
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review 2012-05-10 23:35
Spurlock's quest to understand the Muslim world
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? - Morgan Spurlock

The first this that I noticed when looking a some of the reviews of this book was that Morgan Spurlock is considere a 'poor man's Michael Moore'. I am going to have to disagree with that statement. Michael Moore has become little more than an entertainer, and while Spurlock is much the same, I afind Spurlock to be somewhat more intelligent and enlightened than Michael Moore ever was. Okay, that is an opinion and it appears that there is more of a focus on Moore than there is on Spurlock, but it is clear that Spurlock tends to approach his subjects in a different, and less confrontational way. I will deal with his documentary on fast food in his other book 'Don't Eat this Book', but I believe the difference between Moore and Spurlock also comes out in this book as well.

Michael Moore tends to be very confrontational, and in a way, comes to a conclusion with little to no research, and then gets into people's faces and demands an answer. No wonder people generally can't stand the guy. However, Spurlock seems to actually go out and research his topics, and in a way, his books and his films seem to be more about his research into a subject then simply pushing a specific viewpoint. This book is a case in point. Here, Spurlock goes out into the world to try to find out why people hate American so much, and it is more an attempt to get beside them to talk to them rather than getting in their face, as Michael Moore does. If Moore were to approach the same people that Spurlock approaches in this book I am sure that Moore would have landed up in an awful lot of trouble.

The question has been raised as to whether this book is now obsolete now that Osama bin Laden is dead, but I would probably say that it is not. The question that this book tries to answer is not so much where is Osama bin Laden, but rather who he is and what he represents. As for his death, I must suggest that I am still a little dubious about it, namely because I still suspect that he has been dead for a lot longer than we actually believe he has been, and further, all we really know is that a mansion in Pakistan was raided, somebody was killed, no photos or videos were taken, and a corpse was dumped in the Indian Ocean. In a way, it is not so much the death of a man, but rather the death of a icon, and even then while the icon may be dead, the idea is not.

Spurlock travels to some of the most dangerous places in the world in his quest, and one of the things he must do is to go to a training school where journalists learn how to survive in a war zone. When I read this I was quite intrigued because at the time I knew a number of people joining the missionary movement and I discovered that none of these missionary schools taught them survival skills. I must say I am quite critical on that, but this is not the time or the place to discuss this, namely because I would rather try to explore the ideas that are coming out of this book.

Now, I read the book before I even knew of the existence of the documentary, however like most books that are written along with a documentary, this book does tend to go into a lot more detail. Granted, documentaries tend to be more visual and you can watch them in about 2 hours where as books tend to take longer to read, but in a way I do find myself gravitating towards books much more than I do towards documentaries, however documentaries are still good because you are able to watch them with friends and then discuss the implications afterwards: of course as long as ypur friends are willing to think and to discuss as opposed to simply forcing their views down your throat.

Now this book has turned out to be more of an exploration of the Muslim world from the eyes of an American who wants to understand what is going on in this world. However, he does not simply stick with Muslin countries, but he also travels to western countries where Muslims have settled into communities. This is no more obvious than in Paris where there are parts of the city that are pretty much Muslim neighbourhoods. It is interesting though that these neighbourhoods tend to be on the city fringes and very poor. It is not actually something we generally see here in Australia, because my understanding of the Muslim culture in Australia is that they are not necessarily poor. I would hardly say that they are integrated, they are not, but they have established themselves. For instance, here in Adelaide there was a Palistinian named Shahin, who came out here without a cent to his name, and ended up building a convenience store empire.

Now, I must admit that integration is something that is not easy within our countries, and one of the reasons is that our thought processes and our cultures are vastly different, and I will not speak of the Christian/Muslim divide, even though that divide is ripe for conflict. However, that divide really only exists within the fundamentalist elements, and I must say that amongst a lot of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities, there does seem to be little tolerance towards Muslims, but it is not so much directly only at Muslims, but rather at anybody who does not hold the same beliefs as them.

I can't say I know many Muslims myself, but I do know some, and one in particular I do have a good relationship. In fact we have spent a lot of time talking about Islam and Christianity. However, we must remember that our culture is a very liberal culture, and this is something that is not the case in many conservative Muslim countries. This is something that Spurlock had to learn and to respond to appropriately, and from what I understood, he did this quite well. He is not a Muslim, and he did not become a Muslim after his adventure, but he did come out with a much better understanding of the Muslim culture. However, our culture is different, for instance we have a tolerance for pornography, and we do not dress conservatively. We also indulge in alcohol, and this is something that is forbidden to Muslims. However, we need to remember that this is our culture, and people coming into our culture must learn to accept this part of our culture, just as we need to respect another person's culture when we travel there.

Okay, Christians tend not to be tolerant of our culture, and I must suggest that I am a bit critical of that. While I do not suggest that Christians throw away their biblically based morality, I do recommend that they do show a little more tolerance towards those who do not hold the same views as them. This can be difficult however, because in many cases it means that we cannot associate with others in certain contexts (such as going to a strip club). However, I would also not suggest that they lock themselves away in their own little communities, only going out occasionally to fish for prospective participants. I have noticed a lot of hesitation to do such things, and even then, the only time they do so is on 'official business'. I hear all of this talk about evangelism, however I hear no talk about actually making friends beyond that. To be honest, to be a friend with somebody simply to tell them about Christianity, and to discard that friendship when it becomes clear that this person does not want to become a Christian, is first of all not friendly and, I would also suggest, not Christian either.

Now, the conclusion of this book is that Bin Laden is not so much a person but an idea. It is an idea that Muslims should be proud of their heritage and of who they are, and not let another culture move in and destroy that. In the same way he is like Martin Luther King, who became not so much a person, but an idea that all people are equal and should be treated as such. In the same way Christ, while a person, is also an idea (I will be slammed for that statement), and is not so much an idea that people should be nice to each other, but an idea that through his death and resurrection, we have been forgiven of our sins and transgressions, and can come back to God to be in relationship with him.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/328421750
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review 2012-01-01 00:00
Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden - Michael Scheuer This book was written by Michael Scheuer, who was the first head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit. The author was a counterterrorist analyst for the CIA.We hear many things in the news about Osama bin Laden. Much of it seems contradictory, and much of it does not seem accurate. Why is this? The author decided to evaluate OBL from his own words -- speeches, publications, and his own writings first and foremost. In the past, military adversaries studied each other and tried to understand why and how they planned and behaved as they did. A good example of this would be the study that Patton made of Rommel during WWII that allowed Patton to defeat the German Panzer battalion in North Africa.Schuer's premise is that we have based our understanding of OBL on media and political rhetoric and not on what the man himself said. As a result of this, we have totally misunderstood and misrepresented what OBL wanted to do. Patton was able to defeat Rommel because he studied the man himself. If Patton were to approach Rommel the way the US is approaching OBL, Patton would never have won because he would have been fighting an adversary who actually did not exist.Scheuer does a masterful job of showing how both the Bush and the Obama administration foreign policy has set the US military up for defeat, not because they are outclassed by a superior adversary, but because they are not fighting the real adversary. I recommend this book highly. I am looking now for comments and updates from the author on OBL since his death in May 2011.
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review 2010-09-20 00:00
The New Jackals: Osama Bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism - Simon Reeve I started reading this on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2010 because I could not get into any of my other fiction books and it seemed in a way, appropriate. Simon Reeve is a very talented journalist/author. I have read another one of his books – One Day In September – which is about the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team and the following revenge attacks by Israel’s agency Mossad.

I am not a great reader of non-fiction because I have a misjudged prejudice that they are all written by boring old men with long white beards. Obviously this is not the case, because those that I have read have all been pretty clean shaven. Simon Reeve has also presented some very interesting travel documentaries on the BBC – but he travels around to places you’re unlikely to go yourself.

Reeve interviewed numerous sources in the writing of this book. This included FBI and CIA officers, police, witnesses and terrorists themselves. He would have interviewed Ramzi Yousef himself had he been given half the chance – but this was not allowed. Reeve comes across as a very intelligent and trustworthy author, although it may surprise you that he was only about twenty five at the time this was published. He is non-judgemental and analytical – but he never pushes himself or his opinions across too forcefully.

This book was written two years before 9/11 and so reading it retrospectively gives it a different dimension then it would have had originally. The book covers Yousef’s attempt to destroy the World Trade Towers and what happened next – both his escape, his other movements including an attempt on Benazir Bhutto’s life, and how the CIA tracked him down and captured him. Reeve also gives brief history and analysis of Osma Bin Laden and the rise of terrorism. It is a short book and of course by now there has been numerous books written about this subject that will go into much more detail – and more up to date. Reeve’s narrative of the events is both sensitive, well written and detailed without being dramatic or sensational.

After Yousef was arrested, one of the FBI officers said to him as they flew past the WTC towers: “They’re still standing.” To which Yousef replied “They wouldn’t be if I had enough money and explosives.”

Reeve ends the book with a warning about the future – little could he have known.

I would recommend this book even if you are well read on this subject, simply because it was written before the worldwide panic about terrorism really took over. If you are not so familiar with the history or haven’t read an actual book about it – then I think The New Jackals is a great place to start. It provides you with just the right amount of information to set you up for further exploration of the topic. I would also recommend Simon Reeve as an author and a presenter. Watch out for his series called Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn (also a book) because they were really good.

Here is the first part of one of his documentaries “Places That Don’t Exist” that seems to be available on Youtube. Very interesting and I recommend. You can see some of his others on Youtube as well, it seems…
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