Books I've Read in 2017

In January, I decided to keep a log of all the books I had read this year. By mid-February, I was having trouble with my eyesight, and by the end of February, I had basically lost my vision and required emergency surgery. So I lost a couple months of reading. Luckily, as George Costanza would say, I'm back, baby. 

This year is also the year when I hope to complete the book I am writing. Because I have been feeling a bit inundated by online articles, I decided to make a concerted effort to read as many books as possible. I often say that I read books for a living, but mostly that means skimming books and reading articles. (I’m not going to record the many articles, academic and otherwise, I’m reading.) I like to read really long books because of the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing them. But honestly I rarely have the time or attention span that I wish I did. Anyway, here is a list of books I’ve read so far in 2017, with some commentary on each. I will try to update it every few months; hopefully this will force me to read books cover to cover. 
 
Posted September 4, 2017
The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner
This book is a classic investigation of a massacre of more than 750 civilians in El Salvador in 1981. Danner provides an exceedingly readable and compelling, even gripping, account that perfectly distills the story of the massacre and its relationship to the broader Cold War in Latin America without any extraneous fluff. It is interesting, from the perspective of a historian, to see how he uses sources and shows their inherent limitations. For my own particular research interests, this book does a great job of showing what counterinsurgency actually looks like on the ground, including in its internal pendulum swings from mass killing of civilians to their pacification and controlled uplift (ie, “hearts and minds”). It also shows how despite US training, equipment, and other forms of assistance, counterinsurgency could proceed without direct US participation, enabling denial of responsibility for the massacre (though of course the US took credit for helping defeat the insurgency in the end). I’ve had this book on the shelf forever. I’ve seen it mentioned so frequently that I wondered if I even needed to read it, as I knew the history in broad strokes. I’m glad I did finally read it all the way through.
    I also recently read an utterly eye-popping article published in International Security, written by an assistant professor at the Naval War College, called “The ‘Hearts and Minds’ Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare.” (Here is the author's ungated summary.) It makes the case that counterinsurgency cannot be successful except through the killing of civilians. Reforms intended to strengthen popular support for the government, it argues, are not successful in defeating insurgency. Make a wasteland; call it peace. It uses El Salvador as a positive example, even citing Danner. The article is astonishing, and it is worth a read. It consciously outdoes even some of the more shocking Rand Corporation studies from the late 1960s that I analyze in my forthcoming book. Despite the article’s de facto advocacy of brutal methods, it is relatively bloodless (of course), but Danner’s book shows the reality of such methods, the hundreds of dead children they entail. In Iraq and Syria, Yemen and Somalia, etc and etc, these methods are ongoing. US support for them, as in El Salvador, if not direct participation, continues. The article in question pauses to consider the moral quandary of its findings only when it says that the United States should choose carefully which client states to support. What is perhaps most strange about this article, which has now access to subsequent events that the right-wing press and US government did not in their responses to the news of the massacre in El Mozote, is that it fails to recognize how not only did the FMLN come to power peacefully in El Salvador eventually, but also that the ongoing gang and other violence in the country cannot easily be disentangled from the history of prior decades. Thus, the “success” the article touts, which Danner’s book shows to have come at an outrageous cost, was nothing of the sort.
 
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
We rearranged all the books in our apartment a couple weeks ago. Conclusion: we have way too many books. One pleasure, though, was finding forgotten titles. I have no recollection of where or when I picked up this book—perhaps it was off the street in Brooklyn. But, of course, it is legendary among books about the US war in Vietnam. So I was happy to discover it on a shelf and finally crack it open. From the perspective of someone who revels in the craft of writing, Dispatches is unsurpassed, even electrifying. From the perspective of a historian of US security practices in Vietnam (etc), the book leaves me feeling unsettled.
    Dispatches is set up as an intense, occasionally psychedelic descent into the true, real, unfiltered war. And it achieves that goal. But by declaring its story the real story, it does two things I disliked. The first and most obvious is its almost complete neglect, to the point of both tacit and active bigotry, of the non-US aspects of the war—which most historians would say today must be considered the “real” aspects too. Even to call it the Vietnam War, as I choose not to do, is to actually downplay how much it was not simply or not only that but to a much broader degree was a set of internecine battles among Vietnamese people and, along with a longstanding revolutionary process and contending state-formation processes, an anticolonial rebellion, plus a supremely destructive US counter-rebellion and development effort. Herr gets a lot of mileage, and has shaped subsequent writing on the war (and filmic representations of it), from counterposing his intense, unmediated experience of immersion in the death and violence and stupidity of the war to the bland bureaucratic story of the war offered by spokespeople and officials. This is the second aspect of the book that rubs me the wrong way. Of course the mendacity of officials is crucial to understand, but the way Herr and many others have framed the history actually, I think, misses the relational character of the immediate and the mediate. It’s actually necessary to take seriously the work the latter did to create the former—and vice versa. Of course I spend a lot of time in my research reading and also loathing the bland bureaucratic pronouncements. But I think it is useful to think of their performative value, their creation of the reality of the war. Herr wanted the spokespeople and the journalists to reflect the war in ways that rang true to his wild experience of it. When they failed to do so, he helped to create an alternative narrative. But each was a performance. At times you could forget that his book is about Vietnam (harder to do back when it first was published) and just imagine it’s about any given ultra-destructive bout of drugged-out nihilism. What I mean is that the specifities of the US experience in Vietnam actually were to be found in what reporters learned from boring briefings in Saigon on the unique mixture of grindingly slow pacification and massive aerial bombardment, or what they failed to learn about the success of the revolution. What was generalizable was the wild experience of terror and ecstasy in and around combat that other wars share. Herr and his generation substituted the one for the other. 
    Anyway, the book, even on first read, was startlingly familiar, not only because Herr worked on Full Metal Jacket, but because the narrative tidbits and his way of storytelling have become iconic, widely replicated, and part of shared cultural understandings in the United States of this era. Just after I began reading, I received the weekly update from the NY Times about their Vietnam ‘67 series, which included an astute look back at Dispatches by Clay Risen. He basically calls it dated, and I think he’s right. Although I am sure books of this style have been produced about more recent wars, I would counsel aspiring war correspondents that it would be a mistake to try to replicate Herr’s approach—and I don’t think many do. At the very least, it should be recognized that Herr’s inattention to the experience of Vietnamese people is itself part of the cultural formation of US empire that enabled the war to be waged in the way it was waged. If today’s writers repeat this grave mistake, it might be attributed to their own failings but it must also be seen as a structural feature of the colossus of the military-industrial-cultural complex that stumbles forward, drenched in cash, ever able to kill with alacrity, unchastened by its own bankrupt and amoral past, as if nothing Herr documented, not one single horror he witnessed, had ever happened.
 

 
Posted August 8, 2017:
A Nation Without Borders, by Steven Hahn
I was really excited when this book was published. I took a seminar in grad school with Hahn, who was visiting NYU (and now has joined the faculty there), that basically outlined the parameters of this book. In essence, Hahn has tried to tell the 19th century history of the United States from the inside out, as a US in the world history. For him, it is a story of the pendulum swing from empire to nation to empire, with all the combustible interactions of democratic yearnings with undemocratic forces. Hahn has long been a brilliant social historian, and this book is no exception. But I sometimes couldn’t help but feel he was most eloquent and passionate on the traditional terrain of social history, with the traditional actors of social history, the ones once kept off stage but now typically at the center of US history. Sometimes this story intersected clearly with a history of US empire, but not always. Hahn does a brilliant job of showing how the greatest experiments in both democracy and its repression occurred, as he says, in the peripheries, a mutable and moving geography both of and beyond empire and capitalism. (His A Nation Under Our Feet is one of the finest histories of that democratic force in American life, which in other authors’ hands might be called the Black Radical Tradition but for him is more consonant with a variety of nation-building.) And he does integrate many typically overlooked pieces of the story of the century, including Indian empires and nations, the central importance of Mexico to the 19th century US, etc. But perhaps it is simply impossible in one book to tell a truly synthetic story of a massive sweep of history that is rigorously “US in the world,” or equally about “foreign" and “domestic" affairs, or about diplomatic, social, and business history all at once. With each massive book that attempts to do something like this, I feel like I read reviews remarking how the attempt was bold and intention was good but the execution has fallen short. It might be the nature of the beast, at least until there are enough secondary monographs (hopefully I’ll soon have one under my name!) that do this type of work, upon which the synthesizers can draw. I would 100% recommend this book for anyone looking for a good overview of the 19th century and I would definitely assign individual chapters to undergrads as the basis for discussions of important events, like Reconstruction, the Civil War, etc. In the end, it’s a beautifully clear book, with a massive amount of information but never too much detail. It’s a huge achievement, and I’m proud that I was one of Hahn’s students in a course that provided some of the foundational work for the book. Given that the book is aimed at a wide audience, it should be a present given to anyone with a family member who is interested in 19th century US history. The recipient will likely never think the same again about the topic.
 
The Day Wall Street Exploded, by Beverly Gage
Holy crap. This might be the best narrative history of a single event—the bombing of Wall Street in September 1920—that I have ever read. I’d previously read a few articles by Gage, and I’d flipped through this book but never read it through. It was hard to put down, with the feeling of a thriller more than an academic history—though it is analytic and very thorough and thoughtful. Anyone thinking about how to organize a dissertation or monograph would do well to consult Gage's method of presentation here, which is both narrative/chronological and tacitly conceptual. Of course this book speaks to the post-9/11 present, but Gage navigates the risks of being ahistorical or outdated adroitly. I often think of Kristin Ross’s stark declaration in her recent book on the Paris Commune that history offers no lessons. But if we permit ourselves to think of Gage’s story in terms of precedents and path dependence, then it becomes clear that vicious and seemingly pointless spectacular acts of violence lead to bureaucratic bloat, internal fighting among bureaucrats, the self-aggrandizement of law-enforcement actors, ideological consolidation, and a search for a quick and easy answer to a complex and perhaps insoluble (to law enforcement) problem. Ultimately, they become sites of state-formation, which may be the greatest irony for the perpetrators, whether anarchists (as may have been the case in 1920) or other chiliastic extremists who aim to weaken or threaten constituted powers.
 
The Violent American Century, by John Dower
This book is a short introduction to the violence of US empire, beginning in the 1940s. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, it’s a relatively breezy read. Short and low on empirical detail, The Violent American Century is the opposite of Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders. I wonder whether a book like this—by an eminent historian but quick to read and free of ponderous or intricate storytelling—can convince a skeptical audience. Perhaps it would make a good stocking stuffer for a teenager (I know I would’ve benefited from it as a youth!) or for someone having a crisis of faith in Americanism. One important point this book makes is that there has been remarkable continuity from WWII to the present in terms of the extent and reach of US militarism, despite some variation in targets, techniques, and tactics. The end of the US war in Vietnam, the end of the Cold War, and even 9/11 were less latches than hinges. Dower's emphasis on nuclear weapons is important, particularly with the current escalation of tensions with North Korea. I couldn’t help but shudder when Dower quoted a memo from 1995 that argued that the US shouldn’t portray itself, in national security terms, as “too fully rational and cool-headed” because the fear of inciting US vindictiveness would be enough to keep potential enemies from poking the bear. (The memo actually uses the word “vindictive,” which is a word that appears in the archives I’m using for my book, and I think it’s a great one to describe the excess of US state violence throughout the American Century.) Anyway, the point is that Dower’s book may have come at a climacteric, a point when the American Century has definitively come to a close, which augurs only a ratcheting up of the tradition of vindictiveness and war and terror by the national security state and its privatized and mercenary legions.
 

 
Posted July 3, 2017:
The Beast, by Óscar Martínez
What was the last book that took your breath away? I had to put this book down multiple times to regain my composure. The prose and the storytelling are searing. It is easily the best book I’ve read on migration/Mexico/Central America/drug war/etc issues. Everyone should read it, and I'm not sure I can say much more that would do it justice. If you pick up this book, I would recommend reading the Introduction by Francisco Goldman after reading the actual text. It contains spoilers and is not necessary for understanding, though it does have some interesting biographical details about Martínez.
 
Amiable with Big Teeth, by Claude McKay
I don’t read much fiction these days, but because Banjo is one of my favorite novels (that bourgeois term seems wrong for it!), I was eager to read the lost McKay manuscript. Happily, I received it as a present as soon as it was published. The book is remarkable and alarming. McKay never published it, and, in retrospect, its failure was symptomatic of the beginning of the end of his creative career—which unfortunately coincided with the decline of his health and untimely death. It’s hard not to read the book’s cynicism about left-wing politics as an expression of his own spiritual and creative dissolution. I find his exceedingly negative portrayal of the Popular Front, the Comintern, and various Communist individuals hard to take. Yes, there were certainly many white and other leftists who wanted to use African Americans to further Soviet political goals that had little to do with black liberation, but the problem of this portrayal is that it basically minimizes the ongoing resistance movements on the part of black people to which CP efforts had to accommodate themselves. McKay notes in passing events like rent strikes in Harlem, and, as the editors point out, the key figure in the book stands in as a representative of the black radical tradition, excessive to the organized Left. Yet the book coincidentally comes at a strange moment, when arguments can be heard about white leftists trying to dupe black people, even with the improbable intent to once again further Moscow’s designs. One could read the book as an indictment of interracial organizing, which is an idea that has adherents nowadays, to the detriment, in my view, of a politics of liberation. A further problem with seeing Dr. Koazhy, the self-styled professor of African cultural practices, as the one upstanding representative of the black radical tradition is that it reduces, as some are eager to do today, the multiplicity within that tradition to a form of neo-nationalism with essentialist and apolitical overtones. Not a single character in the book is sympathetic, but the Communists are the most reprehensible, surprisingly in accordance with one available, though wrong, interpretation of what Cedric Robinson is saying about the black radical tradition in Black Marxism. Despite McKay’s own cynicism, which seems to have grown out of his own peculiar biography as much as out of a sober assessment of the era’s political possibilities, it would be a shame if the book were taken as a rebuke to radical left-wing, multiracial anti-imperialist political organizing, and instead as an affirmation of a vague cultural traditionalism as a bulwark against the suspect machinations of incompletely committed antiracist political organizing.
 
The Sublime Perversion of Capital, by Gavin Walker
This book is stunning in its depth and erudition. Walker has in my view genuinely advanced marxian social theory with his discussions of key concepts like primitive accumulation, transition, and the nation. He has a remarkably artful way of thinking and brilliantly deploys metaphor in social theory in a way that few are able to pull off. At its core, this book is an attempt to grapple with the weirdness—the sublime perversion—of this system we call capitalism and to historicize and explain the inexplicable "how" of capitalism's rise and persistence on a global scale. Most interesting is his effort to deal with the inadequacy, which itself needs to be explained (as he does brilliantly), of area studies and the reign of methodological nationalism in the study of capitalism, even within marxism.
    At this point, when I read marxian theory like this, I am constantly seeking ways to think about the police power and the police institution differently, particularly outside the widespread but woefully inadequate and simplistic ways the relationship of police to capital are typically explained. Even though this is high-concept social theory on political economy that does not deal in any concrete way with issues of state repression, formal institutions of violence, etc., I found a lot in the book to help with my own thinking. Walker spends a good amount of time on the role of “extra-economic coercion” in capitalism. In a line that illustrates some of the book’s key concerns, he writes, “rather than imagining that . . . ‘extra-economic coercion’ is a figure or ‘emblem’ of the incomplete nature of the given social formation’s territorialization of the mode of production, we can immediately see that this incompleteness is inherent to capital’s logic.” Walker meditates at length on that incompleteness, or the impossibility of completion, which he derives from Uno Kozo’s notion of the impossibility of the commodification of labor power. I was struck throughout the book by the thought that what we call the police power, and what we see historically as the social function of the police institution, is the “extra-economic” bridging of this gap or incompleteness. Police is the name for the necessary—to capitalism—action of the state to assist or aid in making labor-power (land too) a commodity, amenable and internal to the accumulation process. He often says that capital presupposes or acts “as if” labor power were fully commodified and the circuit of capital were complete. Police, I would submit, is the process of transforming the “as it is” of the world into a more plausible “as if” of the weird world of capitalism. It helps to fashion the impossibly "ready-made world of capital." Capital seems to readily make the world its world but it actually needs the police to do so. Elsewhere Walker writes “in order to guarantee the continuing presence of labor power, capital will have to continue capturing, sustaining, and commodifying something that is external to it.” Here is another place where the necessity of the police power to capital reveals itself in the margins of this brilliant text. One last thought: the book concluded in part with a discussion of community that has affinities with Miranda Joseph's Against the Romance of Community, and with my own work here and here.
 

 
Posted June 2, 2017:
Hitler’s American Model, by James Q. Whitman
Wow. This is essential. I will definitely be assigning this in class in the future, regardless of the class topic! It is an exquisite incorporating comparison, in Philip McMichael’s sense, of US and Nazi German race law. Whitman makes the unassailable point that people who have previously dismissed the possibility of US influence on Nazi race law have looked at the wrong aspect of US racism. Segregation was not the key point for the Nazis. Rather, they looked to US immigration/citizenship law and to US miscegenation law (though even Nazis thought the one-drop rule was too extreme). They were also rather fond of US westward expansion and native genocide as a model for their continental expansionism. The evidence Whitman adduces here is impressive and to my mind incontrovertible. My only quibble with the book is how belabored his apology is for having had to write this devastating critique of the history of US racism. Books create audiences, but all authors (and editors) imagine who their audiences will be. Here I think Whitman actually overdoes it because anyone who is uwilling to believe that the history of US racism might have had something to do with Nazism is not going to read the book. We do inadvertently learn much about the obtuseness of 2017 liberalism from reading his heavy-handed explanation of how shocking but true this uncomfortable story is. But that shouldn’t be his point. Hopefully with wide attention to this awful history, it won’t be necessary in the future to act shocked. Because in reality, with a fascist in the White House and neo-Nazis controlling US political discourse, acting shocked is being complicit. Anyway, I’m glad that (spoiler alert) the book ends on contemporary criminal justice in the United States, which is where the US affinities with fascism might make even 1930s fascists blanch.
 
Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945, by Enzo Traverso
I’d been familiar with a few of Traverso’s short essays, including an excellent piece on Trump and fascism, so I wanted to check out his latest book to appear in English. It’s excellent. This book masterfully reframes the twentieth century’s horrors in Europe as a long civil war. I’m convinced. Perhaps most refreshing here is his unwillingness to sacrifice politics to the apolitical god of “objectivity” or scholarly neutrality while presenting a rigorous, learned, and wide-ranging set of arguments, substantiated by copious evidence and secondary lit. Even more importantly, he makes clear the political causes and consequences of the unstated demand that scholars treat the political battles of the twentieth century as inexorable mistakes, with equal culpability on all sides. If I have any complaint about this book, it is a small but important one: in the convincing discussion of the importance of thinking Nazi expansionism in Europe as racialized colonialism, I wish there were greater attention paid to the precedents set by extra-European colonialism.
 
A Colony in a Nation, by Chris Hayes
This book is a fast read by a celebrity on a pressing topic. As an admitted member of the New York liberal bourgeoisie, Hayes has written a book that reads a bit like a conversation at a cocktail party among this social group. Many knowing allusions, lots of concern, lots of guilt, some plaintive justificatory claims for ongoing injustice, little concrete politics, and no discussion of capitalism. The whole premise of the book is that there are within the United States a Nation and a Colony and those two things correspond to different gradations of sovereignty, citizenship, wealth, justice, etc. The Nation gets law; the Colony gets order, etc. But the book is actually exceedingly muddled about what these two things are, whether they are spatial, phenomenal, legal, racial, etc. They are all of these, of course, but it strikes me that it makes some analytic difference which one is the most important. Is the Colony the antithesis of the Nation, produced by the Nation, or the abrogation of the Nation’s Nation-ness? In some sense, the Nation and the Colony are just simple ideal-types that conform to reified appearances in everyday life, with little understanding on the author’s part of how they have come into being and why they exist.
    The book is actually to my mind a sterling example of why social theory is useful. The exquisite lack of attention to capitalist social relations leaves the Colony and the Nation unmoored, and at points Hayes even seems to suggest there is no benefitother than in the Ferguson fine and fee regime the DOJ documentedto the Nation from the existence of the colony. That’s ludicrous. For example, he writes, “Colonial territories do confer benefits on their colonizers. That is the entire point of conquest and occupation. Sometimes those benefits are opaque, and in the case of the Colony and the Nation they can be all but illegible.” Seriously? What about that subprime mortgage thing, for example? I think it’s a pretty strong abdication of analytic responsibility to say that the main motif of one’s argument is too hard to explain, but it’s really weird when the motif has a built-in explanation that the author rejects. Social theory, again, could help, such as the tradition of black radical thought from which Hayes steals—er, colonizes?—the motif in the first place. Anyway, these two "things” are relational, suggesting that Hayes might benefit from Julian Go’s masterful article “For a Postcolonial Sociology.” They are processual. (But perhaps you can’t get a book published by Norton if you make that case.) And the active progenitor of these apparitions is the colonization process, in Lefebvre’s sense. Further, order is not just a vague sense of proper and polite behavior among young white bourgeois inhabitants of Brooklyn (I see Hayes on the street near my house every so often). As Mark Neocleous and other have shown, order is the constructed edifice of wage-labor and private property attendant to capitalism. This matters because it is not the sensation of one’s safety that keeps “order" in place. Much more is at stake. 
    Anyway, I have many other gripes with this book, such as its occasionally wild veering back and forth across centuries in given sections or even paragraphs. And it’s distressing that Hayes has traduced an understanding of “internal colonialism” that has a strong and relevant pedigree in black radical thought. But in the end I guess what books like this are supposed to do is confirm what people already think, rather than make them think. So it does that. 
 
Black Police in America, by W. Martin Dulaney
To my knowledge, this slim 1996 book remains the definitive history of this topic. It is based on extensive research using mostly African-American newspapers, which is probably the best source base available. Municipal police department records are notoriously tough to access and tend to be incomplete when accessible. In the revisions for my book, I’ve been trying to make an argument about racial integration of US police forces in relationship to US empire’s delegation of policing to locals. It’s a difficult and delicate argument that I may not end up keeping, but I found this book extremely useful for my thinking. It’s not a deeply analytic book, but it does have some great insights. Also, some of the categories Dulaney develops, like the three generations of black police officers (crime fighters, reformers, and professionals), seem useful. Next time I teach a class on the history of policing in the US, I will use some or all of this book as part of the reading. The copy I bought used on Amazon came out of the Detroit Public Library’s collection, which is a real shame for Detroit library users, especially given Dulaney’s sensitive treatment of the interesting integration story of the Detroit police.
 

 
Posted April 30, 2017:
The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, by Ron Robin
This book is useful for how it attempts to tackle methodological challenges. One is how to write scholarly biography without hagiography, especially when the subjects are only recently deceased and have many lionizers and mythologizers still around. Another is how to write a biography of a married couple and avoid replicating the sexism that has overemphasized the man’s contributions to their intellectual production. A third, which is perhaps the most significant to me, is how to write systematically about intellectual production that is marked by its claims to systematicity but, upon close examination, may not actually meet those claims. The more I read the book, the less convinced I was that the Wohlstetters really did have a coherent set of ideas. They had a disposition, an affect. It might be called How to Sustain a Cold War and Influence People. Thus, at the most basic level, it is a fairly direct continuation of Robin’s previous book, The Making of the Cold War Enemy. I liked that book, and it is one of the inspirations for my own research. Its discussion of what might be called rational-choice counterinsurgency is influential, and esteemed authors like Greg Grandin rely on it. The Cold World They Made also has a small discussion of rational-choice counterinsurgency. But it did not add a great deal, and I wished for more on the way Albert Wohlstetter thought about race and colonization. Crucial for me is that he basically believed the theory of internal colonialism, as offered by Black radicals, was correct, even as he had repudiated and even misrepresented his own time on the Left as a young person. One further innovation of this book is the three chapters covering the work of three students of the Wohlstetters, three men who helped destroy the Middle East under the Bush administration. I would recommend this book to people interested in the intellectual history of cold war strategy, mostly as an antidote to the belief that there really was such a thing. I would also recommend it to grad students in historical methods classes. It is an imperfect book, but perhaps the task Robin set for himself, of judicious and fair analysis of the Wohlstetters as objects of intellectual history, was impossible. 
 
The Furtive War, by Wilfred Burchett (free online here
Burchett was an Australian journalist, often accused of being a member of the Communist Party, who was on the ground in Vietnam and Laos during the 1950s and 1960s. He managed to secure meetings with leading figures like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. This book is an exciting and highly readable account of war and revolution in the years just before US ground troops arrived in South Vietnam. Its coverage of Laos is particularly notable because Burchett was present for some of the whirlwind events that unfolded during the Kennedy administration’s attempt at control—the failure of which led to the longest covert war action (and most tonnage of bombs dropped on a single country) ever. I learned about this book from a citation in James William Gibson’s The Perfect War in relation to the failures of the strategic hamlet program, and I’d also heard that it contained good discussions of the practicalities of guerrilla war. Those discussions amount to only a few paragraphs, but they are illuminating, as are the discussions of counterinsurgency efforts by US and Republic of Vietnam forces. Of course the book lacks any citations or scholarly apparatus, but it strikes me as one of the most interesting accounts of what became the US war in Vietnam. Compared to the many scholarly books that try to rehabilitate Ngo Dinh Diem nowadays in various ways, this one is a reminder of why Diem was so loathed, why the Kennedy administration was so mistaken about Vietnam (and Laos), and why LBJ's decision to put troops on the ground was not the beginning of the war. 
 
Hilarious High Jinks and Dangerous Assignments, by Lee Echols
This is a memoir published by the National Rifle Association of a guy who became a public safety advisor in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay, as part of a longer career at the porous edge between law enforcement and national security work. As such, he’s emblematic of the key themes in my work. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, but it’s very useful for my research. One of the things that I like about memoirs of utterly unimportant historical figures is the way they can confirm or at least give depth to hunches you develop based on readings of dry bureaucratic documents.  
 
Law in a Lawless Land, by Michael Taussig
When I first envisioned the class I ended up teaching last semester called “Gangsters, Spies, and Revolutionaries: The Underside of US Empire,” I believed it would cover some of what this book beautifully conveys. At its heart, this book is a phenomenology of a confusing and chaotic time and place, where paramilitary violence has become the defining feature of life (and death). Causes, effects, norms, and beliefs all become scrambled and tenuous when “limpieza,” the social cleansing by the paramilitaries, occurs. My course covered the many ways that the United States intelligence apparatus has relied on covert operations, shady dealings, proxy actors, and sordid violence to achieve its strategic goals, but reading this book made me realize that there are distinct limitations to what historical analysis can achieve. Other than film and some fictional accounts, the course stuck to primary documents and histories, but the more ethnographic work that Taussig does offers exactly what I thought the course was missing—though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. In rethinking how I’d like to teach the course in the future, I realize that this type of work will be crucial to include. I also think undergraduates will probably like this book. It does have historical analyses, which are some of the most fascinating parts. Taussig, as someone who has been visiting this part of Colombia that has become overrun by paramilitary and other violence for decades, tries to figure out how different it is now. He realizes that violence has always been present in his experiences, and, beyond that, so have paramilitaries—the differences now are the vocabulary, the political valence, paramilitary tactics, and the wider situation. Particularly notable is a newspaper clipping he finds from 1949 that describes paramilitary violence in a town called Restrepo. I couldn’t help but think about the documentary by the same name about a fire base in Afghanistan (given that name after a well-loved soldier named Restrepo gets killed there) that also depicts the extremely difficult-to-understand chaotic world of violence that seems to have no end and no beginning and no cause other than itself. La Violencia in Colombia in the 1940s is not as directly attributable to US action as either the chaos of Afghanistan in the past decade or the situation in Colombia in the 1990s that Taussig describes, but it is important, I think, to balance these phenomenologies that depict how violence seems to dehistoricize itself with historical accounts that name the actors and the causes. Anyway, I’m really glad I read this book, which had been sitting unopened on a shelf in my apartment for years.
 
Blood in the Water, by Heather Ann Thompson
This book has received tons of praise, for good reason. It’s also received some critiques by comrades. I think that it should be required reading in history grad seminars, as we train students in the craft of writing (yeah, sure we do) and in historical methodology. What are the costs/benefits of a purely narrative style? No one really writes narrative dissertations or journal articles, but the profession, particularly the subfield of US history, does fetishize narrative. We should be reflexive about that, and I think that a critique of any single book without a critique of the larger formation should tread carefully. Another question to consider is how much information is enough information? In my own writing process in the dissertation, I tried to be as exhaustive as possible, with the goal of presenting the “definitive” account of given phenomena, even though my interpretation was likely to be more critical than standard accounts. But is that a useful goal? In the few years since I wrote the diss, I have, of course, accumulated a lot more information. But does anyone need to know it? Anyway, I should mention that I was surprised to find that I liked the final parts of this book (on the court cases, in particular) the most, and the way it sustained my interest over hundreds of pages was impressive.
 
Boston Review, “Race Capitalism Justice” issue
This isn’t quite a book, but it functions almost like one, especially because most of it is not online. It is a self-described "critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump”—and it’s awesome. Other than Walter Johnson’s anchoring essay and Robin Kelley’s framing pieces, I really liked the contributions by Manisha Sinha, Peter Linebaugh, and Peter Hudson, though everything was quite good. I do think there is still much more to be said on the subject of racial capitalism, and specifically on Cedric Robinson. Hudson’s contribution was the one to add something new to ongoing discussions of Robinson for me. The question of “dehumanization,” which Johnson has been prodding for a while, is probably not going away, though I think it’s been exhausted.
 
Bad Cop No Doughnut, Andrew W. Best, Sr. 
Another memoir (self-published) of a cop who became a public safety advisor overseas, mostly in Costa Rica. It’s fascinating to me, but I’m not sure anyone other than his colleagues or obsessive historians of these phenomena (of whom there are maybe 5-10 on the planet) should pick it up.
 
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. 
This is an excellent book, about which I hope to write more in the future. It’s a great antidote to the highly dubious case made in Black Silent Majority. I would recommend this as an assignment in any class about mass incarceration or even postwar US history. It’s eminently readable and persuasive. 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 4:00pm
Robinson Hall Lower Library, Harvard University
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© 2017 Stuart Schrader