How The Iraq War Was Faked And Other Stories Book Club.

mmghosh's picture

The books reviewed:


Dilip Hiro - Secrets and Lies


Frank McLynn - 1759


A review of Dilip Hiro's book cannot bring out its true impact, utterly absorbing though the book itself is.  Having lived through the war (in the Thucydidean sense), through the memories of Tacitus and this blog, the recapitulation of the events of the runup to the war in March 2003 have a dreamlike quality to them - just re-reading the names of the protagonists; the frankly amazing Kanan Makiya, Ahmad Chalabi and so forth almost magically recalls it.  


Some of the more amazing facts revealed by Dilip Hiro's book was how close-run the fakery was, even upto February 2003.  Almost everyone outside the inner circle realised pretty soon that the entire story underlying the WMD claims were fake.  Cobbling together the fabricated "evidence" and fantasy waffle into a coherent story to sell to the world (and its media) must rank up there with Gleiwicz.


Of course Mr Hiro wrote the book too soon.  There is nothing mentioned about Mr Curveball, for instance, as far as I could see, so that Mr Hiro could not know that the fake stories were even more fake than he could even have imagined.


In the light of events of the past few years, how interesting the attitudes of the minor protagonists in 2003 appear to be.  The two European nations on the opposite sides of the fence - M de Villepin, vainly trying to cobble together a French Commonwealth opposition in the UN, knowing that the invasion would lead almost inevitably, and as it in fact did,  to the explosion of al-Qaeda where it didn't exist in power in 2003 - Francophone North and West Africa!  Senor Aznar OTOH - how statemanlike, independent and imposing in his steadfast personal belief.  After the events of the President of Bolivia's personal airplane rerouting last year, we now realise how necessary the figure of an imposing independent Senor Aznar was, and how impressively it was created.  Mr Hiro should update the book in another 5 years or so, after the true extent of the blowback of enabling of al-Qaeda from 2003 onwards (in Syria, Libya and ME/Africa generally) becomes clearer.


An important tribute was paid to the book in having 2 reviews.


Frank McLynn is one of my favourite historians following his single volume summary of Napoleon.  For once I completely agree with the book's puff piece

Although 1759 is not a date as well known in British history as 1215, 1588, or 1688, there is a strong case to be made that it is the most significant year since 1066. In 1759 - the fourth year of the Seven Years War - the British defeated the French in arduous campaigns on four continents and also achieved absolute mastery of the seas.

Drawing on a mass of primary materials - from texts in the Vatican archives to oral histories of the North American Indians - Frank McLynn shows how the conflict between Brtiain and France triggered the first 'world war', raging from Europe to Africa; the Caribbean to the Pacific; the plains of the Ganges to the Great Lakes of North America. It also brought about the War of Independence, the acquisition by Britain of the Falkland Islands and, ultimately, the French Revolution.

Which is why we speak English here, and not French.  


What books are people reading?


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Barbara Tuchman's The Calamitous 14th Century


Extremely well-written panoptic view of the era of Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio (interesting Italian tidbit: bocca means "mouth" and the suffix -accio ("bad, dirty, wicked") suggests "dirty mouth"), as well as the Black Death, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Famine, the Great Schism, the beginning of the 100 Years' War, the end of the crusades (which did not however end the Church militant, whose fiscal policies came to seem like unholy corruption without the justifying rationale of reconquering the holy lands), etc.  


There were still knights errant and feudal lords, but capitalism was beginning to nibble at the edges of that fraying social order. Petrarch coined the term "Dark Ages" to describe the preceding 9 centuries since the fall of Rome.  


Great read for a non-medievalist, though I wish the book were more narrative and less cataloguey. 


Also reading the most recent Game of Thrones, wherein George Martin seems to have honed his craft a bit since beginning the cycle, perhaps under the influence of the very well-written series? Like historians, fantasy authors fall into a habit of cataloguing material rather than narrating a drama through that material. Partly for the same reason: they each went to a lot of trouble acquiring that material, whether digging it up or making it up, and they by God want you to read about it. But Martin seems to have gotten bored with the asides about Valyrian steel and the lineage of great houses: this book is more focused on the drama, although the main story plods along at an infuriatingly slow pace. Also and however, I just finished a Jon Snow chapter concerning a sacrificial bonfire at the foot of the Wall, and damn if it wasn't poorly written. The basic stage directions were missing or confusing, so I couldn't tell who was where or exactly what was happening. 

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

As The Forvm's resident medievalist


I think that what Martin gets absolutely right is the essentially amoral nature of a late medieval court. In fact, in Medieval Europe this semester I basically told my students that if you really want to get a feel for the premodern court, you can't go wrong by just imagining Game of Thrones but without the Starks to act as a moral anchor.


If you like non-fiction about court politics, I'd recommend some of Diarmaid MacCulloch's books on Tudor England and Reformation-era Europe (although they're quite heavy on the theology of exactly why everybody was murdering everybody else).


Going back to Game of Thrones, I think I'm in a minority of folks who really like the Dany chapters--but that's probably because they're set in a loving pastiche of Howard's Hyborian Age...

I Think You've Hit On Why I Haven't Gotten Into It

M Scott Eiland's picture

I've got the first few books, but I'm only part way into the second one after several years, and I suspect that deep down the reason is that if I wanted to read a story about a bunch of amoral royal bastards, I'd either pick up a history book or The Chronicles of Amber. As for televised editions, the same applies minus (sadly) Mr. Zelazny's work. I still haven't gotten around to watching "The Borgias," which I will probably do before trying to decide whether to keep Showtime or switch to HBO (I don't really watch Showtime anymore, but I might want to watch some of their series that I haven't yet seen before dumping it).

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).

I'm told that Borgias actually dials things back


for modern sensibilities. So there is, for example, a scene in the show when someone is outraged at bribery in the early modern curia--and bribery would have shocked nobody in the early modern papal court...

That Sounds Like The Bizarro Version. . .

M Scott Eiland's picture

. . .of Audie Murphy insisting that the version of the events surrounding his service in WWII be toned down in the movie of his autobiography because he didn't want people to think he was boasting. That, or Deadwood using modern profanity because the contemporary equivalent wouldn't have the appropriate impact on a modern audience.

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).

"I'd either pick up a history book or The Chronicles of Amber"


Or start paying close attention to the machinations of North Korea.


I started watching GoT this month and that's what came to mind for me, including the absurdity that such a thing exists outside a fantasy novel in 2014. 

I made a similar suggestion to a medievalist friend of mine,


and he all but bit my head off. What do you mean modern conscience and empathy didn't exist until the 17th century? Medieval people were intensely moral with humanitarian impulses, etc. I think Tuchman gets closer to the truth: medieval morality and medieval political practice were seriously out of whack. A state of affairs that led to a great deal of soul-searching among theologians and moralists and other people who actually had souls. And basically the medieval period never got around to working out its contradictions before modernity, capitalism, urbanization and Reformation made it all moot anyway. 


Another of her observations: the cult of childhood and the cult of motherhood didn't exist. Other than royal offspring, children didn't celebrate birthdays. Adults didn't pay much attention to children at all until they were 5-6 years old and old enough to be socialized. Her theory: so many of them died before the age of 5 that it was almost easier to ignore them. See if they make it, then pretend like they're little adults once they do. 


Thanks for the recs. I like Dany a lot too: the whole revolutionary jihad against near-eastern slave empires thing is cool, but of course her character and story in the series makes it all the more compelling. And you know, Emilia Clarke...

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

I don't actually buy Tuchman's assertion


(together with an earlier generation of medievalists) about childhood. Medieval and early modern people were incredibly attached to their children but also knew that the lives of their children were incredibly precarious. It's what makes poems about dead children in early modern English writing so poignant. 


I actually work on medieval moral theology (well, when I'm not swamped by my teaching load) and I often find the contradictions between moral theology and actual behavior just makes me throw up my hands and say that medieval people had a different mentality.




Oh, here's a way to show how peculiar medieval people could be! I'm going to show you folks some exempla. An exemplum was a little story that a preacher would tell in the middle of a sermon to liven it up, keep an audience's attention, etc. They'd often be drawn up in collections and circulated so that folks would have resources for writing their own sermons.


Here's one exemplum:


I’d seen a married woman in the city of Laon, who was, as they said, quite religious. She conceived a child with her husband and, when she went to give birth and was in labor for a long time, suddenly her belly shrank, but she didn’t give birth to a son or daughter. Afterwards, for about twenty years she was confined to her bed, but in her womb she sensed some kind of creature, from whose company she took great comfort. For when it was time for morning prayer, the boy would kick his mother, who afterwards never had sex with a man. And every Sunday, when the body of the Lord was brought to her for communion, the boy in her womb would rise to adore Christ in exaltation. And when I was with her one day, me and some other clergy had a cross brought to her. And we saw that creature move as if to adore the cross and rise when the cross was elevated, but when the cross was lowered, it seemed to follow the cross to the right or left depending which way it was brought down. I don’t know what happened to her after that, except that some people I know told me that she eventually passed away from this world with great devotion, praising and blessing our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever and ever. Amen.


And here's another:


I heard that when a certain astrologer would sometimes be able to divine true things, just as demons can, from time to time, foresee certain future events, the king whose household he was a member of began to strongly believe in him and trust his divinations. One day, he was greatly saddened when he came before the king. And when the king asked why he was sad and grieving, he would not answer. Finally, after much insistence, he spoke in secret to the king, while mourning and crying: "My lord, I have consulted my star charts, and from the disposition of the stars, I've seen that you only have six months to live."

The king heard and believed this, and he began to be increasingly anguished, saddened, and mournful as the days went by, so that his knights both grieved for him and wondered what was going on. For he was no longer talking and joyfully spending time with them in his accustomed fashion. Finally, after one of his knights who was very close to him repeatedly insisted, the king confessed to him that his cleric who was a brilliant astrologer had predicted his imminent death.

Then the knight, fearing that his king might die of excessive grief and fear--as many often die from fear of death--called the astrologer before everyone and said to him: "How certain are you of the death of the king?"

The astrologer answered: "I am certain of his death, which I have foreseen with my infallible arts."

The knight said to him: "You should know more about yourself than someone else. Do you know how long that you have to live?"

And he answered: "I know and am certain that I will not die for at least twenty years."

The knight answered, "Wrong!" and pulled out a dagger and stabbed him to death in front of everyone.

Then the king, realizing that the divinations of astrologers are lies, recovered his spirits, was comforted, and afterwards lived a long life. One should not believe those who say that the life and death of people is predicted in the signs of the heavens, but rather place your hope in God, who does not desert those who trust in Him, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

There you go: authentic selections from medieval sermons!


(Both translations are my own.)

Thank you very much.


For the translations. I've sat through a lot of sermons and bar one in Youghal, where-in faithe was likened unto buildinge a tower of bananas (I kid you not), they're mostly pretty boring stuff in the modern era. We need more dancing 20 year old fetus in chaste womens tummys. 


It reminded me a bit of the prioress tale in chaucer what withthe bizarre displays of piety. 

I guessed where the 2nd story was going


But the first one I had no idea.

And so would a competent diviner...


...which is why the story is quite obviously fiction.


He would have fudged it, considering himself unable to see his own future, or something like that.

This was clear enough to Larkin, whose patriotism rested on the notion that England was the worst place on earth with the possible exception of everywhere else.

Yeah, and it probably went really well in whatever


sermon it originally appeared in. But I really have no idea how the story about the woman with "some kind of creature" in her womb for decades went over with the audience.

I think the reaction would be pretty similar to today's:



#DancingFetus -nt-



"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Awesome stories. Wow.


I seem to remember Tuchman saying that English households were distinctly different, and the ethos we think of as "individualism" appeared there much earlier than in the rest of Europe, bringing with it the commonly associated cluster of ideals: independence, pragmatism, a belief in personal freedom as a desirable end in itself... and an appreciation of the importance of the experience of childhood, formative development, education, etc. Or maybe I read all that somewhere else and not in her book.  


The story of the woman with the Pious Fetus doesn't exactly sound like modern motherhood, though. Picardy isn't England, I guess.  


The casual murder of a man for unorthodox/impious beliefs and in order to illustrate a point of argument strikes me as very medieval. Was the cleric's name Father Quentin Tarantino by any chance?

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Fascinating stuff.

mmghosh's picture

This, too.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Invisible Pink Unicorn is disguised as Pink Year of the Horse

brutusettu's picture

There's currently an invisible pink unicorn on that page, the Guardian claims its there because of the "Chinese" new year, even though it's the Lunar new year.


Anyway, why doesn't Missionarinha heal amputees?  Until then, I'm still thinking placebos kinda work better than nothing for certain things, but still, jeesh, trotting out the tiny kids for this stuff....

The Grapes of Wrath


This year, I'm trying to read books that I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read. "What," you say. "You haven't read The Grapes of Wrath?" Why, no. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read The Grapes of Wrath. 


Damn good book, so far. 


I'm also reading Five Days at Memorial, about Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Katrina. Absolutely riveting. Sheri Fink is an excellent storyteller, and a superb journalist.


They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist...
-- General John B. Sedgwick, 1864

East of Eden is good too


I didn't read either until fairly recently b/c I read Of Mice and Men first and it's nowhere near as good.

If In Salinas CA, It is Recommended going to the Steinbeck...



....Museum, more formally, The National Steinbeck Center.


I was picking up veterans' of the 101st there at the train/bus station for Veterans' Day and, having some time to kill on a cold-blustery winter day in the Salinas Valley,  the fields all dead or resting, picked clean to brown furrows of dirt as far as the eye could see; I went to the Museum.


Very impressive.


We forget the social conditions of the owners burning out the homes of farm workers, people being shot, thugs with baseball bats being imported, people dying...


Tough times....and not that long ago.


Kill a land owner, kill a worker...destroy the union movement, burn out a capitalist...let's do this.




It's Time.



speaking of short memories


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw

+1. nt

mmghosh's picture


freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Just finished the Game of Throne series, as written so far

Bird Dog's picture

It's fairly brutal and, at times, plodding. Still, an interesting tale.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

Game of Thrones -

mmghosh's picture

my kids are seriously addicted to both this and Skyrim.  


Not sure whether this is entirely a good thing.  Why aren't they more interested in the "real" myths - Greek, Norse, Mahabharata?

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Myths get stale. They have to be reimagined


by each generation. Reading the classic stories is fun intellectually, but they often fail to connect on a gut level. Of course Skyrim is more of a myth-like world with most of the political, social and religious content removed. Real myth is allegorical, but modern people seem to suck at allegory. 

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

I agree, reluctantly. Myth, reimagined by Wagner, yes

mmghosh's picture

or Philip Pullman, but Tolkein, no thanks.


I'm crushed that the producers pulled the rest of the Dark Materials trilogy under pressure.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

The Golden Compass just blew in every way


that a movie can blow. I haven't read the books, though I've seen the glowing reviews. The film however is certainly no inspiration to try.  


Neil Gaiman has a great mythopoeic imagination if you're into the reinvention of myth. I didn't like American Gods, though. Seemed like a small treatment of a big idea. 

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Large Exhale...And I So Wanted the Golden Compass to Be Good


...I think I remember that half way through production it was decided that this would not be a franchise movie and so things just kind of skidded off the rails from there.


I do not know this to be true. However:


In December 2004, Chris Weitz resigned from directing the film, claiming he was daunted by the technical challenges of the story. In August 2005 Anand Tucker was hired to replace Weitz, with the 24-carat approval of Philip Pullman himself. Tucker felt that the film would have as its central theme "Lyra's search for self-discovery and for a family." In May 2006, however, he resigned, citing creative disagreements with New Line Cinema, and Weitz returned to direct.


Director Chris Weitz said this ended up being a 'terrible experience' for him, since the complete movie was recut by the studio - New Line Cinema.



Yep, it has all the makings of a studio cut. -nt-



"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

I got the most recent paperback for Christmas.


Part way into it now. It's fairly amazing. Martin really excels at powerful, brutal, haunting setpieces. The main storyline, though, is a lot like watching the world's slowest game of chess. 

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

I'm in the middle of "Bully Pulpit"

Jay C's picture

Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest tome on Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the start of the Progressive Era in journalism. Fascinating stuff: particularly as I find that the problems the US and its leadership faced then (mainly, an untrammeled plutocracy  buying political influence and power) are pretty much the same as we're seeing nowadays.



Glen Cook's "Black Company" series


Good read if you're looking for an entertaining fantasy series. I need the literary equivalent of TV right now. My day job is mentally exhausting. That's my excuse anyway.

In the medical community, death is known as Chuck Norris Syndrome. 

The book I'm reading


is best judged by it's cover:


On the more serious side, The Rendevous by Patrick O'Brian.  A collection of literary, no-plot "lyrical" short stories,  nicely written but no one would be reading them if he hadn't made his name on other stuff.


Wasn't Thucydides a General in the Athenian army


during that war? He's not very clear about exactly what campaigns he was involved in, but he does claim, somewhat modestly, to have played a roll.


That's always been part of the reason that I love the history of the Peloponesian war so much. I guess I like men of action, which is why I'm reading this now:




But really. "The Psychopath Test". Sort of bumbling and lightweight investigative journalism of the madness industry. A bit like "Fast Food Nation" but for shrinks. Highly recommended - he's witty and smart and there're a lot of fascinating factlets in there. It did a great job of confirming my grandfathers sardonic comments about psychiatrists (he was the senior doctor at Ireland's largest hospital for decades) - that they were all at least just a little bit madder than most people themselves.

I see Commando Comics is still

mmghosh's picture

going strong.


freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

you guys got it all wrong


this is where its at:



“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw

I re-read the Son of Tarzan the other day

mmghosh's picture

for the first time after leaving school - remembered being pretty impressed by it in school.  Its a surprisingly coherent and interesting yarn.


Kipling remains amazing on so many levels.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency