I’ve always hated book reports

The Last Day of a Condemned Man

My favorite author is Victor Hugo.  Recently, a friend pointed out several more books by him, so I quickly purchased them.

A couple of months ago, I read his short novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man.  Hugo was inspired to write it after seeing a public execution in a town square.  As I understand, him writing the book, help made the change in capital punishment during his time.

It starts with a man writing a diary of his time during the trial, the sentencing and days leading up to the execution.  Very poignant.  Hugo expertly expressed the thoughts that ran through his mind.

His crime was never revealed but he states he received his justice and never disputed his sentencing.  It is a short read, me finishing it the day I started and I am a slow reader.  I think it will be a good use of your personal time to read it.

I could sense the fear and confusion he felt and at times unaware of his surrounding, whether in the courtroom, or prison cell.  As he was lead to the guillotine in the wagon with the priest, many thoughts ran through his mind that I never thought of.  Hugo is a master at human emotions and portrayed fear and despair in ways I never could have fathomed.

The condemned man was able to see his child before his death and she did not recognize him, and he knew she would go through life being condemned also because she is the daughter of a murderer.

Hugo described the horrific way the crowds buffeted him, and ridiculed him, especially the children who came to watch the execution.

It is an eerie read, but if you have a comfortable day to read a book, instead of watching some horror movie, try reading this book instead.  It is a masterpiece and thought provoking.

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Do you remember the Marx Brothers.  The quiet and silly Harpo Marx wrote an autobiography.  A very good read.  Bar none, it is the funniest book I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  Click here:  Harpo Speaks!

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Why I Read the Classics

I have read my share of books and many were worth their weight, and many were not.  Many years ago, a good friend at the plant where I worked, told me she was reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  So I decided, if this cute little blonde could read it, so could I.  She’s never known the effect she had on me by reading that book.

Many jokes have been made of the length of that book.  As long and complex the story is, you would think it took an act of Congress to create it.  And it did take Tolstoy many years.

One of the few people who walked the face of the earth who fit into the category of being an unforgettable character in my life, created within me an interest in reading the Classics, specifically Charles Dickens.  Reading at least a half dozen of his books, gave me a true understanding on the beauty of the written word.  But of all the authors that existed in the 19th and 20th century, I fell in love with the writings of Victor Hugo, most of all.

In my personal copy of his Les Miserables, I placed marks on the pages of sections I found most powerful.  Some pages have several marks, almost all have some.  Especially page 390, when the main character, Jean Val-Jean comes across the little Cosset on a cold dark night, carrying a bucket of water for the cruel Thénardieress.  In my copy of the translation (from French) the page begins in mid sentence, and yet the passage is so well written, it can be taken out of context and it’s still an incredible, thought provoking and a compelling story of its own.

I started reading Leo Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina last year, and picked up other books to read at the same time.  Anna Karenina is a tale whose storyline I find a little boring, because it encompasses several love stories which is not something I am captivated by.  But reading Tolstoy’s style of writing is like sitting at a table with endless desserts that makes the taste buds dance like the African natives.  To me, I have a compulsion to read it, just to savor.

Every day, I look forward to getting home from work and with cheap whiskey and coke, and one of my better cigars, I sit out on the third floor balcony and read a half dozen more chapters.

At first, I struggled with the writing because of the many Russian names.  I encountered this when I first read Les Miserables because of the French names.  More so with Anna Karenina, because every character has several variations of their name, plus when Russians speak, as they write, they include their full name.  It’s like everyone speaking to me as Dwaine Nolte, instead of just Dwaine.  It’s a little difficult to remember who is who.  But when I only read the book because of the style of writing, it’s no longer a problem.

Also, something both Hugo and Tolstoy have in common, the men were political and their views on government and society are reflected in their writings,  In Les Miserables and War and Peace, there are sections where the Authors rant and carry on about politics, sometimes for pages, and the reader has to skim over those sections.  Fortunately, they are not crucial to the story.

A close friend of mine who is an artist, once told me how he copied some of the Masters’ paintings in order to learn how they accomplished their work.  Specifically Rembrandt, with his ability of using light to extenuate his subjects.  To this day, my friend has a better understanding of what the Masters did and how to overcome the problems they encountered.

Same with writing.  I challenge those of you who yearn to be writers, to put your writing aside and read the Classics first and get a better idea of how to write.  I mentioned this to one individual and he stated, But then I will end up with their style of writing.  No, that doesn’t happen, and even if it did, would that be so bad?

Getting back to Anna Karenina, I have pulled several passages to give you a better understanding of Tolstoy’s brilliant style of writing.  Tolstoy had the ability to take you into the mind of the individual.

Please enjoy:

Describing the excitement of a young boy on his birthday.  Written from his mind, you saw how he could not keep his mind on his studies.  How his thoughts bounced around from one thing to another.

The groom’s mind before a wedding.  How everything seemed to be crashing down at the last minute and fearful of the future.

The description of a suitor who wanted to ask a young lady for her hand in marriage, but didn’t because his thoughts and her expressions led him astray.  When in reality, she was excited and waiting for him to ask.  Even me, as a male electrician, was disappointed he didn’t ask her when both wanted it.

Tolstoy describes a scene where Anna Karenina comments on a painting of Christ before Pilate:  “One can see He pities Pilate.”

The slow death of Levin’s brother, when all he could do was watch his brother die, his new wife took control and made his brother comfortable in his last moments.  A very heart wrenching story: “… (Levin) noticed the slight movement of the mouth under the matted moustache, to realize the horrible truth, that this dead body was his living brother.”   And, “… the reproachful expression of a dying man’s envy of the living.”

There is a scene of a hunt from the mind of Laska, Levin’s four legged hunting partner.  When he fired and missed, she knew it but went in search of the bird anyway to make him happy.

Several other excerpts:

“The church became so still that the dripping of wax could be heard.”

“… a tall, well dressed English governess with an unpleasant face and an impure expression came through the door, hastily shaking her blonde curls, and at once began justifying herself, though Anna had not accused her of anything.”

“… who was wheezing and breathing heavily and another whose thick soles creaked, preventing him from hearing well.”

“… a tall, fat, slightly stooping landowner with a dyed moustache, in a tight uniform with a collar that propped his neck up from behind, interrupted him.”

“… stood with a significant and ironic face, gathering his beard in his fist and sniffing it.”

“… the hurried way he walked, reminded Levin of a hunted beast who sees that things are going badly for him.”

“… and he alone, along with one extremely old, toothless man in a navy uniform, who sat next to him chewing his gums, had no interest and nothing to do.”

“All through the performance Levin felt like a deaf man watching people dance.”

In this series of scenes, Levin’s wife, Kitty, is about to give birth.  In his way of thinking, I thought for sure his wife would not survive the birth.

“Leaning his head against the doorpost, he stood in the next room and heard a shrieking and howling such as he had never heard before, and he knew that these cries were coming from what had once been Kitty.”

After his son was born and Kitty survived:

“Sobs and tears of joy, which he could never have foreseen, rose in him with such a force, heaving his whole body, that for a long time they prevented him from speaking.”

“… And meanwhile, there at the foot of the bed, in the deft hands of Lizaveta Petrovna (midwife), like a small flame over a lamp, wavered the life of a human being who had never existed before and who, with the same right, with the same importance for itself, would live and produce its own kind.”

“… And amidst the silence, as the indubitable reply to the mother’s question, a voice was heard, quite different from all the subdued voices speaking in the room.  It was the bold, brazened cry, not intent on understanding anything, of a new human being who had appeared incomprehensibly from somewhere.”

“Levin gazing at this tiny, pathetic being, made vain efforts to find some trace of paternal feeling in his soul. All he felt for him was squeamishness.  But when he saw him naked, and glimpsed the thin, thin little arms, the legs, saffron coloured, with toes and even a big toe different from the others, and when he saw Lizaveta Petrovna press down those little arms, which kept popping up like soft springs, confining them in the linen clothes, he was overcome with such pity for this being, and such fear that she may harm him, that he held back her hand.”

“… and drew back so that Levin could see his son in all his beauty.”

I could come up with a hundred more of these.  Almost every page has something to bring a smile to the reader, or cause readers to stop and regain their thoughts to bring them back to reality.

This is the reason why I read the Classics.

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The Balled of Abu Ghraib by Philip Gourevitch

During my 26 months working in Afghanistan, I spent most of it at the airbase in Kandahar; working as an Electrician first then moving into other positions.  The camp brought in locals to perform menial tasks and put money into their economy.  I saw many of these Afghans and most were pleasant and happy to be making big bucks.  (Usually about 6-7 dollars a day – any more would damaged their economy), but I also saw several that had hated in their eyes.  I felt that these few should not be on compound, but to tell someone would be useless.  You can’t detain someone because of the hatred in their eyes.

One of the projects we had was a new prison.  I remember going to the old prison to get information needed for the design and planning for the new facility and seeing the prisoners incarcerated there.  They lived outside in mud huts, and when the rain came they would get out and gather clumps of mud to fill in the places in the roofs where the water slipped in.

One thing I noticed right off the bat, was most of the prison guards were big ugly females.  These mean women were … well, downright mean!  They yelled at the prisoners when they got too close to a fence or just seemed to be on the verge of misbehavior.  Since all of the prisoners were of the Islamic religion, it was an extra humiliation to be controlled and placed under the supervision of females, who are considered property instead of being their equal.

I was told by a backhoe operator once, when he had to go directly inside the compound with his equipment, one of the prisoners pointed to him and did the slice across the throat threat.  This was back at the time when America was still enduring innocent people being kidnapped and beheaded, and having the videos placed on YouTube.

I remember when that first happened with Daniel Pearl, my stepdaughter had a teacher who felt it was her responsibility to have the class watch the video, as if she was doing her civic duty.  When I found out, my respect for that woman dropped to zero.  If that woman had been in the room with me, I would have ended up in jail and probably sued.  Anyone who gathered and watched the grisly scene of an innocent man being beheaded by Muslim fanatics, fell right into the thinking the murderers wanted.  That teacher showed no respect for the human life involved.  I would bet the teacher was proud to demonstrate to the class how America should not be in Afghanistan, as if 911 never took place.  I never viewed the video, nor will I ever.  No matter what people say or do, the innocent men, women and children who lost their lives in the War on Terrorism deserve much greater respect than most of the media (and educators) give them.

But I digress.

Philip Gourevitch was the author who wrote about the Rwandan Genocide and has now written a book with Errol Morris about the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  This is the infamous prison that Saddam Hussein used to imprison and torture his people.  Sundays and Wednesdays were the days that hangings took place.  Usually about 100 prisoners were hung during the week.  Many were placed in Abu Ghraib for simply stealing a grocery item or a chicken from someone’s coop.  As Gourevitch states:

…  so many prisoners were kept in some cells, that half of them had to stand while the other half slept; how they were fed one meal a day of soup, rice or lentils, and a piece of bread; how guards extorted protection money from prisoners and their families; how Saddam’s son Qusay, the secret-police chief, would stop by and order a thousand executions because he felt like it; how prisoners were bolted to the floor and hung from the rafters, subjected to electric shocks, and beaten until they might feel lucky enough to be killed.

When Saddam was displaced, the US Military needed places for prisoners.  It was originally decided that Abu Ghraib would not be used because it was a symbol of Saddam’s atrocities; but because of the necessity to place prisoners, it was repaired and used.  Over a course of several months, other prisons were set up due to the heavy influx.  Those who were picked up by the US Military when they captured segments of combatants, were brought to one of the prisons, but so did the Afghan police.  As a result, many people were placed in these prisons just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Many were petty thieves who had no intelligence that would have been useful to the War.

Abu Ghraib is the prison that had photographs of prisoner abuse placed on the Internet, which in turn caused more innocent people to be killed by Muslim terrorism.  It gave them another excuse to murderer more unbelievers.  When I found out that Gourevitch wrote a book about the prison, I expected this would be a book to further condemn America in its war on terror, but was satisfied to find the book merely gave facts from numerous interviews with the abusers.  Gourevitch did give his judgment on the aspects of abuse that showed man’s inhumanity to man, but for the most part, he allowed the reader to come to their own conclusions.

The book goes into detail some of the techniques the Military used to get information.  If it was not for a few sadistic individuals imbedded in the command positions, and those who never really had any authority, the techniques would have been legal as long as the processes were monitored.  As it was, there were too many people who were placed in authority or placed themselves in authority, who should not have been in Iraq at all.  Many MI (Military Intelligence) civilians brought prisoners into the compound and gave specific instructions on the torture to be administered to the prisoner.  No one knew who they were, just that they were Military Intelligence.

As a quick aside note, Gourevitch pointed out, one of the methods of torture was to play very loud music in the cells.  But they soon realized, the prisoners rather enjoyed the noise even to the point of singing some of the Rap lyrics.  They experimented with different types of music unto they found that Country music had the most irritating effect on them.  Especially Clint Black’s songs.

The MPs (Military Police) assigned to the prisons were duly trained and knew what to do and what not to do, but after seeing what was done to some prisoners over the months, they became anesthetized to the processes.  The problem I saw in the story, was there were third party companies who were brought into Iraq and paid too much money to interrogate these prisoners.  They were part of the Military Intelligence and usually had no one to answer to.

He wrote of interviews with military personnel who took and posed in some of the pictures disseminated to the world, and it was interesting to hear their side of the story.  You may say, Well, they’re guilty.  We saw the pictures!  But in reading the interviews, it would appear the stories were taken out of context and only published what would do the most harm.  Since that is a common practice among most journalists, I would think an open mind would be most beneficial in determining the truth.

To photograph yourself doing something illegal is idiotic enough.  Charles Graner Jr. was the one who started all the photography to prove to his buddies that he was tough and doing some sort of macho thing.  These were the photos that hit the Internet.  But as the viewer does not realized, according to the interviews, these were staged for the photographer.  They were simply trophy shots for Graner.  The image of the prisoner standing on a box with wires attached to him, was one of the more famous images.  But it was staged that way.  The wires had no current and were there just for effect.  But the most degrading photographs were of prisoners nude and molesting other prisoners.  These were the epitome of the injustice by the MPs.

The prison was overcrowded, almost to the point of Saddam’s prisons.  There was an average of 7 MPs for every thousand prisoners, plus the prison was mortared every night.  Many times, the MPs would hold off on going to the latrines outside as long as physically possible, to avoid the chance of dying there.  The stress was further added by the prisoner themselves.  One prisoner was accused of raping a 15 year old boy placed among them – he should never have been there, but it happened.  One of the MPs interviewed, had a 5 year old brother and when he heard of the rape, hated the prisoners even more.

He tells of certain prisoners that were exclusive in their incarceration.  Many were given names to suit their purpose for incarceration or their general looks.

After it was all said and done, many soldiers were found guilty of various crimes and removed from the military.  Many served time in prison, but as Gourevitch points out:  no soldier above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time.  No civilian interrogators ever faced legal proceedings.

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As an epilogue for a book report, if there ever was one, I want to point out a few people in History who had respect for their enemies and acted on their beliefs.  Baron Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, a German fighter ace during the first World War, better known as the Red Baron.  After shooting down a British pilot, he followed the plane to the ground and extradite the severely wounded pilot.  He took him to a field hospital, provided him with chocolate, cigarettes and champagne and remained at his bedside until he died.

More than a century before, one of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest heroes, General George Washington of the Continental Army, in the War of Independence insisted on the civilized treatment of enemy prisoners.  Gourevitch states,

“British policy allowed the slaughter of Continental soldiers who were captured or surrendered, and a great number of those who were not killed on the spot, soon died of savage abuse, disease or starvation.

“But when the Americans took hundreds of Hessian mercenaries prisoner after the Battle of Princeton, Washington ordered, ‘Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.’

“As a result of Washington’s respect for prisoners, not only did it win over the Hessians, scores of who chose to settle in America after the war, it also helped win the international support for the American rebellion.”

History, though old and sometimes ancient, can and always will be able to teach a lesson to those of us who still respect and cherish it.

Even though the Islamic religion condones torture and inhuman treatment to others, (see thereligionofpeace.com), it does not give the right for Americans to torture and torment those combatants captured elsewhere in the world.  The actions of these MPs and MI agents are not true examples of what America is.  Those Americans who knowingly, or unknowingly hate their country will think otherwise, but for those of us who love America, know and understand reality, will always look for the good our country does to a great many others in the world.  America does screw up at times.  What country does not?

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No Easy Day  By  Mark Owen

I’ve always had great respect for the Military, and after spending 26 months in Afghanistan working directly with the Army, I had developed a greater respect and admiration for them.  This is a book that chronicles the mission to get Osama bin Laden.

Since those who work for the Government in any capacity cannot reveal information crucial to the US; and for common sense, the Author uses a pseudo name to mask his identity.  Mark Owen.  This book was scrutinized by military lawyers before it was sent to the publisher.  Good people do not reveal those things that can harm America.

I am a very proud and patriotic man when it comes to our Country, and I will not dispute the mistakes America has made over the years, which was mostly our attempt to bring our freedom to other countries, and I will always defend our Country as long as it is for the People and not against them.  I’ve had a hatred for bin Laden since September of 2001, and I celebrated when he was declared dead and gone, and I will never regret it.  I have seen firsthand what Al Qaeda has done and will always be looking for it.  To be told of his death was like being told you were cured of cancer.  Bin Laden was a cancer to the world.  If that offends you, you may as well stop reading now.

The book starts out with the Author from Alaska who grew up with a profound interest in the Seals. For those who do not fully understand what a Seal is, it is the U.S. Navy’s principal special operations force and a part of the Naval Special Warfare Command.  In other words, they do the dirty work.  At the early age of 13, he made up his mind to become one.  It takes a great deal of discipline and determination to join such a group, and it takes a special desire to achieve all goals and push yourself beyond those goals.  I know I could never do that.

Climbing up the rope, the Author was eventually accepted in the elite Seal Team Six; the team that took out Osama bin Laden.  He tells a few stories he experienced up to the bin Laden mission, and goes into greater detail of his thoughts and actions as it lead up to that mission.

He describes the places he has been to over the years, some of which I can relate to during by time working in Afghanistan.   I had worked briefly at Bagram Airbase where the operation initiated from.  I had an opportunity to work in Jalalabad, where the mission jumped from, but declined as it was at the point in my time when I realized it was time to go home to my wife.

He describes his weaponry and body armor.  His strike plates, imbedded in his jacket to protect vital organs added 50 pounds to his weight.  When I worked there, I had to wear those plates at times, usually when there was a rocket attack, but mine only weighted 38 pounds.  He tells of the weapons he carried during his missions.  Unfortunately, I was not allowed to carry any; damn the luck, as I always fantasized about being the one to take bin Laden’s life.  Such are the thoughts of the intense patriot.

He describes in detail the operation.  As with the Military, everything is exact.  A great deal of training preceded the operation, and every possible scenario is worked on.  On an operation of this magnitude, there are many contingency plans.  Military people of this caliber are very thorough.

During the operation one of the helicopters had to crash-land in the compound.  Normally this would have been a death sentence for anyone on board, but because of the expertise of the pilot, the only thing that was lost was the aircraft.  As unusual as this was, there was a contingency plan for it.

He tells of each phase of the operation and chronicles each step.  From the initial planning, to several weeks of training, to the tension of the wait.  When the White House gave the official word, then it was the flight into Pakistan, the actual infiltration into the compound, and the extraction.  Several groups had their own building to access and neutralize.  The building the Author was assigned to had one of bin Laden’s couriers in it with his family.  The Courier died in the first few seconds of the mission, and his family was kept in a corner and told not to move.

He describes some of the other Teams who moved into the main building.  One of the helicopters, after seeing the first one crash-land, followed one of the contingency plans and instead of landing on the roof, landed outside the compound.  This proved to be fortunate, as it was later determined the entryway from the roof was bricked over and it would have left the men with nowhere to go.

He tells of the encountered with bin Laden’s son, who foolishly stuck his head out to see what was going on.  The Seals advancing up the staircase was the last thing he saw.  He tells of the actual encounter with bin Laden, and the quick reaction that ended his life.

The Seals are good at many things, and one of them is use of their fire power.  Bin Laden was hit in the head and when all encounters were finished, it took several precious minutes to determine if the man who was dead at the foot of his bed, was indeed the despised man.  Photos were taken and DNA samples were collected before dragging the body down the stairs, over the body of his son, and out to a waiting helicopter.  Two of his wives who were in the room with him were told to stay put.  And they wisely did so.

A great deal of intelligence was collected.  The actual infiltration into the compound was to be no more than 30 minutes, but with all the documentation they found, it took an additional 10 minutes.  They quickly grabbed as many computers, thumb drives and all documentation that they could in that time.  They didn’t have time to get all of it, but we are told that what they got was priceless.

The Author tells of the extraction out of Pakistan after all was loaded up, and heading back to Jalalabad.  He commented that the mission timing was so tight, that as they flew out, the red “low fuel” warning light was blinking in the cockpit of the helicopter.

Even though they lost an aircraft which was destroyed with explosives as they flew out, the mission was a success.  As I said before, the intelligence they acquired was priceless and the despised body in the black bag on the helicopter, being the prime goal, was the true success.

Some of you may think that having bin Laden alive to stand trial would have been a successful goal, and it actually was.  They were told to bring bin Laden back either dead or alive.  You know as well as I, that if he had been brought back to stand trial in American courts, it would have been a circus with bin Laden being seen as a hero.

Owens states emphatically, that he could have been replaced with any of a dozen men who could have pulled the operation off, because of the caliber of the Seals.  He understands and appreciates the opportunity he had to go on this mission.  It was his hard work and discipline that put him into this mission.

He describes the media hysteria that resulted from the operation.  The leaks from the Administration were more comical than accurate.  He told of the outrageous and speculative news reports that came out, which in actuality were in error, just to make the mission more spectacular than it actually was.  He tells of the media leaks that plastered their success all over the world, when all they wanted as anonymity.  The fact they killed bin Laden was enough, but the media coverage and leaks from the White House made it impossible.

There are some things in life that go beyond obsession.  Those are the things the human heart rests within, and when the task is accomplished, the human soul reacts in ways we do not understand.  He tells of one of the intelligence officers who worked tirelessly many years on the quest of finding the most despised man in America.  She was instrumental in analyzing all data that came in and evaluating it, and used it to determine where he was.  When bin Laden was killed, the flood gates of emotion were released.  Mark tells of finding her in a back room after the operation, recoiled into the fetal position with tears streaming off her cheeks.  All the stress of the preceding years had been released.

He tells of his struggle in trying to get himself to resume a “normal” life if there is such a thing.  How he stopped at Taco Bell on the way home like he had done over a hundred missions in the past.

And in the end, Mark Owen challenges the reader to do something to help in the struggle against the war on terror.  Many people will still view this as an exaggeration.  I personally know several who thinks the terror reports are taken too seriously and we should just respect all people.  “Why can’t we all just get along?”  One of the reasons for me to work in Afghanistan, was to do something, no matter how insignificant to aid this war on terrorism.  Some of you don’t think global terrorism exists.  I have worked with some people who think it’s all an exaggeration.  I saw firsthand the arrogance and the look of demonic hatred in some of the eyes of the prisoners in Afghanistan.   No media to cover it up, it’s real.

There was one close friend who chided me on my elation to having the cancer eliminated as if he was a precious human life instead of the murderer of thousands of innocent people.  I cannot imagine not being celebratory when bin Laden was killed.  I’ve never met a Seal I know of, but after reading the book, I wish I had so I could thank him for his service.  Many times, I had the opportunity to thank a soldier in Afghanistan for his service, but every time my emotions kept me from getting the words out properly.

After the mission, a first sergeant told the Author, “You’ll be my son’s hero for the rest of his life”.  I can relate to that feeling.

There are aspects of the mission that I wish the Author had commented on.  Like Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who helped prove bin Laden was indeed in the compound.  His identification was released by the White House, and because of that, he was captured and placed in prison in Pakistan.

He did not write of the intelligence they collected.  I understand the value of keeping it secret, but I would have hoped there was some mention of its value.

The book was interesting reading.  I doubt most of you will ever read it, as it’s may not be your type of reading.  I expect Hollywood will make a movie about it, but I would bet that it will be biased against the Military and portray bin Laden as a martyr.

… a martyr he was not.                   D.

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Killing Kennedy, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Gugard

Back in the early years of the 1960s, I had a fascination with John F. Kennedy.  (Yes, I am old, but I don’t care because age has many benefits).  In November of 1963, when JFK was assassinated, I placed his picture on a bulletin board I had in my room, along with whatever else I had on it.  I distinctly remember that and can still see it in my mind.  One question that is often asked, is where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?  Nowadays, it’s where were you when the Twin Towers came down?  And before that, it was where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

I was in the 3rd grade when Sister Elaine left the room for a few minutes.  There was a feeling that I cannot express, because I was just 9 years old, but I remember Sister coming back into the classroom with tears in her eyes, and telling us the President had been shot.  We really did not fully understand the significance of it.  We more reacted to Sister’s emotions than anything else.

O’Reilly and Dugard’s book brought to an realization of parts of history I had heard and studied for a decade but fully did not realize.  It’s like reading Biblical stories and not really relating them to real life.  As an example:  PT109.  The story is told with information that was not publicly known, but now after reading the book, I now fully understand what the story was about and how it affected Kennedy’s political future.

Same with the Cuban Missile Crises.  One of the most critical moments of America’s history in the world and yet I never fully realized what it was about and what transpired.  This book covers it in detail.

The book begins with the story of PT109 and chronicles Oswald’s life as it paralleled Kennedy’s.  There are many minor details of both men that I never knew and probably most Americans never knew.  It’s well worth the read, but I ask you take the time to read Killing Lincoln first because the two stories do touch on each other.

Another major part of the book covers the eloquent Jackie Kennedy and her place in the White House and Kennedy’s life.  The book reveals many aspects of JFK’s life that many people will dispute because it reveals a negative part of his life, such as his sexual transgressions with the sensuous Marilyn Monroe and many other women.  As much as the reader may not like it, facts are facts and no one is perfect.  Not even our current President.

The book covers parts of history that I was not aware of, such as Oswald’s failed attempt at the assassination of Major General Ted Walker who was an avowed anti-communist.  It covers the connection of the Kennedy brothers with Martin Luther King and the Mafia.  It describes the racism at the time which is nothing like what little there is now, which includes MLK’s famous speech and his eloquent speaking ability, like Kennedy’s.  It tells of Kennedy’s chronic back pain and the once in a lifetime viewing of the Mona Lisa in the White House.  It describes the agony the President and his wife endured during the death of their child, Patrick Kennedy.  The book includes some historical photographs concerning the civil rights marches and the horrific image of Thich Quang Duc immolating himself in the Streets of Saigon in June of 1963.  Absolutely incredible reading.  I  had to put the book aside to regain my composure.  If you are one of those people that sees no connection between our history and the currently reality, you are lying to yourself.

Bear in mind for those of you who do not like Bill O’Reilly, there is no politics involved in either this book or Killing Lincoln, published earlier.  When I told of this book to a dear friend, she kept asking if it was political.  I can guarantee, it is much less political than most of the text books our young people are exposed to in school.   D.

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 “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families”

by Philip Gourevitch

–   A story of Cain and Abel.

Remembering back in days of my youth, attending a Catholic parochial school, one of the earliest biblical stories told to us by the nuns was Cain and Abel.  The story of the Rwandan Genocide could be that story.  The story of the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda is the story of farmers and herdsmen.

As with many good books I read, I often mark places in the margins if something is particular poignant, beautiful, horrific, awe inspiring or breathtaking.  This is one of those books, where almost every page has marks in the edges.  And as with all the true stories of life, they are long and intricate.  And fascinating.  Unlike the stories Hollywood regurgitates.

To understand the genocide, we have to begin with Rwanda’s past.  The Hutus settled into Rwanda first, then the Tutsis migrated in from the north and the east.  This took place long before anyone in Rwanda started keeping track of history.  It was also a time when nothing was written down, only passed orally.  Both tribes spoke the same language, followed the same religion, intermarried, lived on the same hills, sharing the same social and political cultures to the point that historians could not call them distinct ethnic groups.  But there are distinct differences in the two tribes.  The Hutus, for the most part, were the cultivators and the Tutsis were the herdsmen.  The Hutus had a distinct look about them, as the Author states: … stocky and round faced, dark skin, flat nose, thick lipped and square jawed.  The Tutsis were: … lanky, longed face, not so dark skinned, narrow nosed, thin lipped and narrow chinned.

In 1863, an Englishman by the name of John Hanning Speke, decided that all culture and civilization in Central Africa was introduced by the taller, sharper-featured people, whom he considered to be a Caucasoid tribe of Ethiopian origin, who descended from the biblical King David, and therefore was the more superior race to the native Negroids.  This became what is known as the Hamitic hypothesis, and was carried on as truth.

Because of the simple fact that a herd produces more value than a crop, the Tutsis over the generations became wealthier and thus more powerful.  They tended to keep positions in the government, if you would call it back then.  Not all Tutsis were herdsmen and not all Hutus were farmers, but for the most part, this was true; so over the past century, there was some strife between the two tribes, but not until November 1959, was there any systematic political violence.

No white man had set foot in Rwanda until 1894, when a German Count, von Gotzen, started the German presence there.  After World War One, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians as a spoil of war.  Thus Rwanda became “owned” by Belgium.

It is interesting to note, before the penetration of Europeans into that country, Rwandans believed that their country was the center of the world, that it was the largest, most powerful, and most civilized kingdom on earth.  They believed God might visit other countries during the day, but every night, He would return to Rwanda to rest.

In 1933-34, the Belgians conducted a census in order to issue “ethnic” identity cards, which labeled every Rwandan as either Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) or Twa (1%).  This enable the Belgians to perfect the administration of an apartheid system rooted in the myth of Tutsi superiority. This empowered the Tutsis and lessened the Hutus, thus placing more of a division between the two tribes.

In November 1959, an administration sub-chief who was a Hutu political activist was beaten by a group of Tutsi political activists.  This sparked a series of arson and sporadic murder against the Tutsis.  A Belgium Colonel, Guy Logiest, sent to Rwanda three days after the beating to supervise the trouble, sided with the Hutus and had his Belgium troops stand by idly as Hutus torched Tutsis homes; and in early 1960, Logiest stated a executive fiat that replaced all Tutsi chiefs with Hutu chiefs and declared the revolution to be over.

Elections followed.  With Hutus controlling the polling stations, they won 90% of the top posts.  As a result, many Tutsis were displaced and had their homes and property confiscated.  In 1962, Rwanda was granted its independence and Gregoire Kayibanda was inaugurated as President. Under his rule, more Tutsi murders took place and Tutsis became known as “cockroaches”.

Then in July, 1973, a General Habyarimana ousted Kayibanda and called for a moratorium on attacks of Tutsis.  You would think this would end the massacre, but it did not.  Habyarimana used his position to control every aspect of the Tutsis, including where they lived, who they married, etc.  Moreover, Madame Habyarimana became more powerful and more sinister than her husband.

During Habyarimana’s rule, Rwanda became more poverty stricken.  Countries unloaded foreign aid to Rwanda in an attempt to raise its economy, but yielded only wealth for Habyarimana. As the Author points out, the hills were thick with young whites working, albeit unknowingly, for the greater glory of Habyarimana.  Aid from Western countries provided about sixty percent of Rwanda’s annual budget.

Then in 1990, a rebel army, calling itself the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) declared war on Habyarimana.  Remember that acronym – RPF.

Habyarimana declared all Tutsis were accomplices to the RPF, and any Hutu who denied this was considered Tutsi-loving traitors.  In the village of Kibilira, there followed three days of slaughter with 350 Tutsi being killed.  Add to that, the Belgium and French forces provided assistance to the FAR (Rwandan Army) to battle the RPF.

During the months that followed, more and more massacres took place, and Habyarimana played the victim status with his Western Supporters.  When donors expressed concern about the killing of the Tutsis, there were arrests, but ultimately no one went on trial.

In 1990, Madame Habyarimana helped launch a newspaper to spread lies and hate for the Tutsis, and in 1992, the national radio, RTLM began its message of propaganda against the Tutsis.  The United Nations sent in the UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda) to quell the violence, but basically was powerless to do anything.  It was expected that UN presence would in itself create calm.  It did not.  The newspaper warned the UNAMIR “to consider its danger”.  The UNAMIR Major sent an urgent fax to the UN, describing attacks that were being planned to kill Belgium troops and blame the Tutsis.  This would encourage more Tutsis deaths and to rid Rwanda of the UN.  The fax requested further support and protection for an informant, and the UN response was basically, No.

Tensions continue to rise in the population.  Everyone knew it would come to a climax.  Then in April 1994, Habyarimana plane was shot down, leaving no survivors.  The radio blamed his assassination on the RPF and the UNAMIR. Within the hour, roadblocks were placed throughout the city, as Tutsis realizing what was about to happen, tried to flee.

Those who did the massacre became known as the Interahamwe, meaning, those “who stand/work/fight/attack together”, whose first goal at this point was to kill any Hutu opposition, which included the Hutu Prime Minister.  Ten Belgium troops were dispatched to protect her, but she had already been killed when they arrived.  A Rwandan officer ordered the Belgians to surrender, and took them to a camp inside the city and tortured and murdered them, then mutilated their bodies.  One week after the killings, Belgium remove itself from the UNAMIR.

The slaughter continued and increased.  A total of 800,000 Tutsis, and those Hutus who tried to protect them, were massacred.  This took place at a rate of 8000 a day, mostly with machetes.  If you had money, you could plead with them to use a bullet instead of the machete.  It became a chore for the Interahamwe, who often had to work in shifts and take breaks as if was a regular job.  The book tells of many personal stories of horror and heroism, including Paul Rusesabagina, who operated the Mille-Collines hotel in Kigali.  He is Hutu, but his wife is Tutsi.  His heroism still stands today.  The movie, Hotel Rwanda is the story of him and his bravery.  I stayed at the hotel many times in the past several years, and I never forget what took place there.

Many Tutsis took refuge in churches.  One particular pastor took many Tutsis in, then allowed the Interahamwe to come in and massacre them.  Previously, several Tutsis in the parish sent a letter to him, asking for intervention.  In their always politeness, their letter casually remarked, “We wish to inform you that we heard, that tomorrow we will be killed with our families”.  Hence the name of the book.  That same Pastor’s father, who was a doctor at the hospital, did the same for those who came to the hospital for protection and healing. Thousands of bodies were thrown into Lake Victoria, where the bloated bodies would wash up together actually clogging some of the tributaries.  I have flown over this beautiful lake many times and marveled at its serenity, and to imagine the macabre scene is detestable.

The radio RTLM continued to broadcast instructions on how to kill Tutsis and where they were hiding.  I find it strange that Tutsis did not take the radio station off the air someway; but in reading, I began to understand the way of thinking of the average African.  Their sense of demise is not at all like us Westerners.  They see it as inevitable.  When they are told they will die, they will sit and casually wait.  Like the women who wash clothes along the banks of the River Nile, when one of them is dragged under by a crocodile, they scream and panic, but the next day, those same women will be out there washing clothes again, at the same spot.

Throughout the continued killing, the UNAMIR was powerless.  They were told they could not shoot anyone, even to defend themselves.  It makes one wonder what their purpose was.  They could have easily shut the radio station down.

What eventually slowed the massacre and allowed Tutsis to flee to safety, was the RPF pounding the Hutu Power from across the valley.  They forced the Hutus to back away, by using only what the Hutus understood,  Force.

You would think the story ends here, but no.  Actually it begins a bizarre twist.

The RPF moved into Kigali, forcing the Interahamwe to flee out of the city, leaving hundreds of thousands of corpses in its wake.  As you’d expect with Nature, stray dogs would wonder through the city feeding on the dead.  The soldiers of the UNAMIR would shoot the dogs on sight.  After months, during which Rwandans had been left to wonder whether the UN troops knew how to shoot, because they never used their weapons to stop the extermination of citizens, it turned out the peacekeepers were very good shots.

As the RPF moved through Rwanda, a quarter of a million Hutus streamed into Tanzania, and the Interahamwe fled to Zaire, (presently the  Democratic Republic of the Congo).  By this time, the genocide was becoming news throughout the world, but was perceived not as Hutus killing Tutsis, but the Tutsi-driven RPF, killing the Hutus.  The Hutus who collected Foreign Aid all those years, had appeared to be the victims.

In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared genocide a crime under international law, and adopted a resolution which obliged all contracting parties to “undertake to prevent and to punish … acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial, or religious group.”

Because of this resolution, the UN Security Council refrained from using the word “genocide” in its resolutions, thus not forcing all contracting parties of the 1948 Genocide resolution of having to respond.  The Secretary General of the UN and the French Foreign Minister had used the term genocide, but the UN High Commission for Human Rights favored using “possible genocide” whereas the Clinton Administration actually forbade unqualified use of the “g-word”.

Eventually, the US Administration agreed to rent armored personnel carriers to the UN, but they ended up sitting on a runway in Germany while the UN pleaded for a 5 million dollar reduction in the rental fees.  When the White House finally agreed, no transport planes were available.

As the Interahamwe collected and regrouped in Zaire, at the city of Goma, the French sent in arms shipments to strengthen the Hutus.  Furthermore, by using the gullible French, the Interahamwe had convinced them the fifty thousand bodies floating in Lake Victoria were victims of the RPF.

What transpired over the next few months, millions of Hutus became refugees in Zaire and other neighboring countries.  The World following the French lead, pumping in millions of dollars of refugee aid to the “victims” of the genocide.  World relief organizations brought in food and medicine to the Hutus refugees.  In the meantime, the Interahamwe became stronger and began raiding parties back into Rwanda to kill more Tutsis.

Nature has a way of getting back.  In the refugee camps, cholera broke out.  Also, Goma sits on the edge of Lake Kiva at the base of towering volcanoes.  North and west of the city lies a vast and inhospitable plain of hardened black lava covered by rough and scraggly bush.  More than thirty thousand died in the three or four weeks before the cholera could be contained.

As the Author states,  Picture it: a million people, shifting through the smoke of cooking fires on a vast black field, and behind them – it so happened – the huge dark cone of the Nyaragogo volcano had come to life, burbling with flame that made the night sky red and smoke that further clouded the sky.

As he further states, it was a nearly perfect scene of hell on earth and the cholera was like a biblical plague.  The horror had been equalized.

The camps had become strongholds for the Hutu militants bent on slipping back into Rwanda for more killing.  In the meantime, world relief organizations began to realize something was not right.  When Rwanda started to settle down after the genocide, the RPF had recreated the Government, with Pasteur Bizimungu as its President.  Bizimungu had close ties to the deceased Habyarimana.  His Presidency lasted until 2000, when he had to resign due to corruption, which left Paul Kagame as President.  Kagame is the present day President.

Rwanda was allowing its people to cross back over into the country and resume life.  There was a true compassionate understanding of what transpired.  There would be trials and hearings, but most of those who were guilty, would be welcomed back into Rwanda.  Many of those who killed were forced to kill, or be killed themselves.  Only those who caused the most deaths would be held for trial.  But the Interahamwe had threatened people with death if they left the refugee camps, because they were their cover for the murderous excursions back into Rwanda.  They also knew, if everyone had migrated back to Rwanda, it would leave them exposed in the camps.

Eventually, most Rwandans returned to their country, and only a few were tried and sentenced.  It was interesting to read some of the accounts of those Tutsis who had to live among those that killed their families and friends.  There were some revenge murders, but for the most part they began to co-exist.  It is the conviction among all, that there are no more Tutsi or Hutus, but only Rwandans.

Also, it is interesting to read of the difficulties of the trails.  There were about 400 top Interahamwe that were to be brought up for trial, but most had taken refuge in other countries, so the Rwandan Government asked the UN to help capture those people.  Instead, the UN decided they would create a International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  Instead of having it in Kigali, they had it in a neutral location.  As one individual said, “It was essentially to appease the conscience of the international community, which has failed to live up to its conventions on genocide.  It wants to look as if it’s doing something, which is often worse than doing nothing at all.”

As expected, the Tribunal was a fiasco trying only a few dozen cases, and the guilty were expected to serve their sentences in Scandinavia.  As one individual stated, “It doesn’t fit our definition of justice to think of the authors of the Rwandan Genocide sitting in a full service Swedish prison with a television.”  As it turned out, those Hutu Power leaders who ended up in custody, found the croissants they were regularly served for breakfast, a bit rich, and protested to have a normal breakfast of gruel.

Philip Gourevitch has written book that I would have found most difficult to write.  I know he must have shed a few tears in doing so.  How can you write about man’s inhumanity to man without being affected.

In the two years I lived in Africa, I came to understand the African in realistic terms.  Gourevitch’s book brought to realization of the way they think.  As atrocious as this story is, it made my love for the African more intense and understandable.

I doubt any of you will take the time to read this book, but I found it amazing reading.  Sitting in our living rooms engrossed in a movie on TV, we are totally unaware of anything but our personal surroundings.  We need to learn to step away from the TV and look beyond our backyard, and realize how valuable and how beautiful life is, in places beyond ours.

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Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.

This book starts off telling of the last skirmishes of the Civil War, up until the surrender at Appomattox.  Then proceeds with the thoughts and actions of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow Confederate  sympathizers, as he plans and prepares his dastardly deed.  It covers in detail the preparations of Lincoln’s assassination along with others high in the US Government.  I was intrigued by the clumsiness of his cohorts and conversely, the intensity of Booth thoughts.  It was interesting to find how lax the security was at the White House in 1865.

I found the book easy to read and difficult to put down.  I ordered a copy for my son, who had an interest at an early age for the Civil War, and have already placed an order for Killing Kennedy for when it is released.

I was especially fond of the ending of the Epilogue where it states, “America is a great country, but like every other nation on earth, it is influenced by evil.  John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger.”

The next time I hear of Abraham Lincoln, my image will be enhanced by the words of this book, which gives him the compassion and respect he deserves.

Some books I read that I especially enjoy or have been moved by, I send an email to the author telling them what I thought of the book.  So it was with this book.  I sent a message to Bill O’Reilly telling him of my thoughts on his work.  I have not had a response back nor expect to, but I feel it’s good to let authors  know when their work has an effect on someone.  Actually, the only author I’ve had a response back from an email, is Anne Rice.

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I just started reading the book, We wish to inform you, that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch.  It tells of the horrific Rwandan Genocide in 1994.  In a way I dread reading it; but feel I must to better understand what many in the world were oblivious to.  Something that took place several years ago that was just another story in the newspaper about people thousands of miles away.  Now reading it is a shock followed by sadness, that this took place in my adult life instead of centuries ago.  I visited a memorial in Kigali last year where 10 Belgium soldiers from the UN Peacekeeping Force had died.  In the room of their death, I saw two craters in the floor where the final grenades were tossed into the building.  The UN Peacekeeping Force was not allowed to shoot anyone or defend themselves.  I don’t know about you, but I see that as a dead sentence imposed on those 10 human beings.

Rwanda is an incredibly beautiful country.  In the morning its hills and mountains are covered with the morning mists mixed with the early morning fires.  In the evenings, the rains have washed the land and is fresh and calm.  The capital Kigali, is the first place I woke in Africa in 2009, while there for a technical survey, and it left an enchanted feeling in my soul.  I had a long love for Africa even before arriving here.  I don’t know if it’s from what I have read of the Dark Continent in years past, or something from a past life, if there is one, but I find it consoling and wonderful.  I wrote of being there to my mother and children.  Titled, Africa, and you can read it in on the Written Words under Page Two of this blog.

More later on the book when I finish reading it.

D.

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I recently finished reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.  This is a book my wife caught wind of and told me about.  Unfortunately, it is also a book she will probably never read, but it is a book every woman should read, then pass it on to her daughters, mother, sisters, friends and nieces.  Then after all their female family and friends have read it, they need to pass it on to their male family and friends.  It is a book, that can and has saved the lives of many people.

The book deals with listening to your intuition and acting on it.  Not the common sense analysis of your thoughts and especially not any critical thinking, but the first instantaneous thought or gut feeling you have.  Reading it has rung true with me as I have felt those thoughts many times and acted on them to avoid getting into problems, and I never realized it until reading this book. This is the very same thing I had drilled into me when I started working in Afghanistan several years ago.

Most importantly, it will help women recognize and respond to a potential abusive relationship.  Not just a romantic relationship, but also the individual you work with or suddenly meet on the street.  The more you understand, the safer you are.

As with most books I read, I look at the reviews online, but learned to read them with an open mind.  Too many times, a reviewer will take one specific point in a book and nitpick it to death, then declare the book not worth reading, as if they are a hero by saving the world from impending doom.  I guess it’s their 15 minutes of petty fame.

But the only issue I found out of place, was the author’s stance on gun control.  Ignoring that was easy and everything else made sense.  I found myself thinking, Yes, he’s right!  That’s why I felt that way.

Get the book and read it.  At least the first 5 or 6 chapters, and the epilogue; then you can pass it on.

D.

 

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