• Review: Springsteen on Broadway

    October 15, 2017 // 8 Comments »



    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show now running through February in New York City, is something extraordinary. A man who has entertained us our whole lives stands on a stage for two hours and confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, offers an apology, and opens his heart to a room of people about what it means to acknowledge you’re closer to the end than the beginning.

    I almost wrote “a room full of strangers,” but that would not have been true. We all grew up with different parents in different towns, and went to different schools together, but we knew each other. Despite our differences, we grew up hearing the same stories, listening to these same songs. And now, he at age 68 and most of us in our 50’s it seemed, it was time to make amends.

    I’d heard some of this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs had to admit what they had done, the people they had hurt, and seek forgiveness. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem; he sought amends tonight by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away. So tonight he took that back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself back in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington decades later who was sent in his place. Calling his own career “frivolous” in the face of such sacrifice, Bruce was pissed off up there tonight singing, no, shouting the lyrics.

    Age is omnipresent as a theme – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the unchanging set list; of the 15 songs, three of them come from the Born to Run album, published when Bruce was only 26 years old, one from earlier than that (Growing Up), and another from before he turned 30 (Promised Land.) For a career that spanned 45 years and counting, it’s telling that a 68 year old Springsteen chose a third of the set from that youthful period. As Bruce said tonight, there’s less blank paper for us to write on.

    “I have never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never done any hard labor. And yet this is all that I’ve written about. I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which I personally have had no practical experience,” Bruce confessed or apologized or maybe both, confusing us further by delivering the sentences in his odd acquired Midwestern drawl that sounds like nobody in New Jersey. These thoughts could explain the absence from the show of any of Bruce’s material from Ghosts of Tom Joad, the industrial songs from The River and Darkness, the American folklore tunes, and the Seeger sessions. He had to leave a lot out to make it all fit on Broadway, but those omissions seemed purposeful, not merely practical.

    Maybe those tunes were left out because they really weren’t his own; he owned the emotions there as a character but not the biography, and tonight was all about biography. A lot of this has hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an 8 year old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, it was Academy Award-quality, because the pain as present as the sweat that popped out involuntarily on his forehead.

    Bruce’s autobiography, published last year, covered a lot of what he’s saying on Broadway, and parts of his speeches tonight were nearly verbatim quotes from the book. But it was clear the book, the words, weren’t enough without the music. Springsteen’s a poet, but his poetry is meant to be played, not read.

    The unexpected musical highlight of the evening was Promised Land, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first long car trip out of Jersey, one that took him across the great western deserts. Bruce made no secret that the promise he saw in America then remained unfulfilled now in what he described as a dark chapter in American politics. He finished the song, updated from 1978 to 2017 in those few words, aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification directly to the hushed crowd. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so. Unlike the other songs, applause waited for a moment of silence to pass after the last chord faded. The universe of people who had previously heard Bruce Springsteen sing to them unamplified just grew exponentially.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, and four hours on stage more common, the Broadway show was about two hours, with a definitive ending. No encores. It was tight, maybe even felt a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    While the tickets cost a fortune, and while Bruce was careful to throw in a few stagy tunes (Dancing in the Dark didn’t fit otherwise except maybe to pump up the crowd for the finale), much of what happened in the theater wasn’t for us. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. It’s something Bruce maybe didn’t even know he told us about in his autobiography, but when you see the book as a whole, his adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring and marathon shows. You could imagine if it was somehow magically possible, Bruce would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    The evening was as dark and sad and as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowed him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life, indulged him through the low periods, let him sneak some mediocre material in here and there. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now not to focus on a bad track or a disappointing night, but take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was enough. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. It was on side B of his third album and it was 1975 when it came out. And everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time, but now, 42 years passed, we were all hearing it together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment, our lives flashing before us. Born to Run on a car radio, our hand slipping a satin bra strap aside. Born to Run in some foreign dive bar, reminding us we were forever tied to who we are no matter how far we’d run ourselves. The DJ played Born to Run at our wedding even though there is no way anyone can dance to it. Born to Run the first time one of our kids asked “What’s that, it’s not bad” and every time we heard it on 8-track, cassette, LP, CD, MP-3 and had to face the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Bruce’s message was clear and true, and he made sure we got it: I may not be doing this much longer. The weight of it all – the bad father, the love lost, the hate and pain collected, that marriage gone wrong – feels heavier than it used to. So, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these two hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of.

    In a way, they always were.



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    Review: Hooper’s War Shows “Moments of Prized Grace”

    August 4, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    A new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan from the Historical Novel Society says “This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity.” Here’s the full review:

    Although set in WWII Japan, it is re-imagined as if the atomic bombs were not unleashed and an invasion of Japan proceeds. The war is still raging in 1946, and the ancient city of Kyoto is about to be firebombed. Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nate Hooper is in way over his head. He depends on his war-experienced sergeant to help him lead the men in his charge. But they keep dying around him.

    With a wounded comrade, Nate seeks refuge in the house of a Japanese woman, Naoko. They take time out of the carnage to reflect and connect. They are soon joined by a Japanese soldier, Sergeant Nakagawa, a childhood friend of the woman. We also learn his story. Neither man can escape the trauma that war has unleashed. Seventy years later, Nate returns to Japan, still looking for the power to allow him to heal.

    This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity. Its trauma and dilemmas are as fresh as the anguish that today’s returning vets are experiencing.




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    New Five-Star Review for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    July 21, 2017 // 6 Comments »




    This review comes from A Girl Who Reads:

    Nate Hooper fought in Japan in World War II, fighting on the ground and following the orders of his superiors. Along the way, he lost fellow combatants and his innocence, though superiors don’t care much about the loss of spirit and hope. They care about orders followed, Japanese opponents fought, and painting a heroic picture for those left behind in the United States.

    The story is told in reverse chronology; it opens in 2017 with Nate returning to Japan, then we go backward in sections to see the events referenced, interspersed with Nate’s musings in 2017, First, we see the battle at Kyoto, then the “daring escape” his superiors talked about and changed the nature of in reports, the train station attack, the fields, etc. We keep going further and further back, seeing the origin of his disillusionment. Death is never pretty, but he sees it in various kinds of ways. It’s vividly described, and brings home the horror of war on soldiers. We also get scenes from the perspective of Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, and the horrors are the same for Japanese soldiers.

    “…the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them.” (page 102)

    War, as seen on the ground, is one that carves out humanity in pieces. Battles aren’t grandiose, and the losses are glossed over for the media back home. It’s an entirely different world, one where the casual cruelties are rewarded. Saving lives is actually punished if that goes against orders, further lessening the hope in the field.

    “War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.” (page 115)

    The end of the book feels melancholy, and Van Buren adds commentary to explain the historical significance of the events he chose to portray in the novel. This is definitely a book that will haunt you long after you put it down.

    Buy Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan now, in paperback or Kindle, at Amazon!



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    Review of Hooper’s War: Moral Injury the Invisible Wounds of Empire

    July 6, 2017 // 8 Comments »




    Nozomi Hayase writes in her new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan:

    British investigative journalist Robert Fisk once said, “War is a total failure of the human spirit.” If Fisk, a veteran war correspondent, exposed the cruelty of modern warfare to our face, then Van Buren, the former diplomat, with his lucid writing let the destruction of our spirit unravel in slow motion.

    His story is set in an alternate WWII with the American invasion, through a fictional firebombing of Kyoto that Van Buren created, based on eyewitness accounts of the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sometimes, a metaphorical reality is more effective to reveal the truth of human affairs. In the intersection of historical facts and nonfiction, history is reawakened. We are able to see the wound of war that has been buried deep in the oblivion of our memory.


    In his allegorical retelling of WWII Japan, Van Buren illustrates this process graphically with a sensitive touch. The story unfolds through reflections of both American lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper and young Japanese sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on their experiences before, during and after the invasion. In that period of Japanese imperialism, Japanese became the emperor’s soldiers. Sergeant Nakagawa depicts the lessons from Major Yamada at the training where young men are indoctrinated with the tradition and duty to fulfill obligation to the emperor. Major Yamada told Nakagawa, “You have a mouth but you cannot say what you wish. And you have a brain but you cannot think as you wish”.

    Hooper’s War is a story of courage. It invites readers to retrieve vanished memories of human events. In multiple perspectives depicted in this novel, we are able to see the truth of war, not by a view defined by nationality, neither Japanese nor American, but simply as a human. In the breath of words that unite these souls from different shores, Van Buren asserts his own voice, bearing witness to this tragedy of Hiroshima in his soul.


    Read the full review, or buy the book today!




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    Review: Hooper’s War: An Imaginative Retelling of the End of World War II

    June 14, 2017 // 1 Comment »



    W.J. Astore, on Bracing Views, reviewing Hooper’s War. You can read the whole review at his site, but this paragraph sums up much of what I am trying to say in the book:

    Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.


    Buy Hooper’s War today on Amazon!


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    Review – Hooper’s War, My War

    June 13, 2017 // 8 Comments »



    Here’s a new review of my book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, written by Dr. Rod Deaton. Dr. Deaton has served combat veterans since 2009 in a variety of settings, including at the United State Department of Defense and at the United States Veterans Health Administration.

    His review, below, is what my book is about. Dr. Deaton and I have never met and do not know one another, but his words describe my words as I intended them. If you read this review and it resonates with you, please go on to read my book. This is, to me, a perfect description in a few hundred words what I tried to convey in my few hundred pages.


    The Review

    A longer piece today, reviewing a book well worth reading.

    In Peter Van Buren’s book, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, 2017), history changes. Yet history never changes, even when it does.

    What might have happened had the atomic bomb never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? he asks. Had the Allies invaded Japan instead, taking first the southern island of Kyushu, establishing then a beachhead on the main island of Honshu? Had the ancient capital of Kyoto, until that point spared aerial attack, become the scene of a firebombing that would leave behind nothing but ash posing as February snow, to be taken up by the wind and then returned in torrents of black rain upon a teen-aged American soldier screaming, “Get it off me, get it off me. It’s people, get it off me.”?

    What might have happened had a ninety-year-old American tourist, years later, stopped hearing that boy’s cries?


    While visiting a Buddhist temple north of Kyoto in 2017, former Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper tells an elderly Japanese women he meets there that he had “outlived them all, and usually in a war that means I won.” She doesn’t seem to mind: she is there to talk to ghosts, after all, the spirits of her two children, while pouring water onto one of the many small Buddhas scattered throughout the garden, comforting souls that had years before thirsted until the heat had finally consumed them.

    It is the image of that old American man that sticks with me: his bending down toward those small statues outside the one temple that had managed to survive not only earthquakes, but also heavenly conflagrations, the shrine having been scuffed around the edges only by some, shall we say, fateful artillery fire. His then reaching into his pocket, his pulling out a yellowed scrap.

    My wife refused to return to Kyoto herself, but insisted I do something for her, after her death. Doctors say someone can’t technically die of a broken heart, but I know better. It just takes a long time. So my final obligation in Kyoto was to leave behind an old photo of two Japanese children. I’d helped take care of it for 70 years, but it was never mine. It was a treasured possession of hers, and it needed to return home, before the next change of season. They were together. It had just taken a long time.

    “Words were all I had,” Hooper tells us. And so Van Buren adds words to that image, moving backwards in time as his American protagonist encounters Naoko Matsumoto, the woman with whom he shared those seventy years, and Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, the man for whom, perhaps, he did.

    For in the end, whatever each man did, he did for her.

    Hooper’s War is anything but a romance. It is not an action thriller, either. It’s not the ending at the beginning that matters, after all. It’s the beginning at the end.

    Van Buren calls it a tale of “moral injury,” the au courant psychological term for what War does to a man’s, a woman’s soul. I’ve heard that some are trying to quantify the term these days. Data is always so helpful when it comes time for reports to the Budget Office. That means we won. I think.

    Words can only qualify an image, however, not replace it. Van Buren makes no promises otherwise. Yet with his words, he delivers, such as when the American soldier and the Japanese soldier play chess, literally and figuratively, mediated by the words and the heart of the young Japanese woman, fully bilingual, fully willing to live out the values that both men would have preferred had remained hidden in the pasts of southern Japan or middle America, pasts that Van Buren slowly unfolds for the reader, until youth is rediscovered, histories that will never again be.


    And it was at that moment of discovery, in the final pages of the novel, that Hooper’s War became mine.

    If as a practicing psychiatrist all I do is hear the wars of others, if I do nothing to make some small part of their War my own, then really I’m just a cleaned-up version of “First Warrant Officer Rand, 20th Army Air Force, strategic bomb damage assessment branch, acting deputy chief assistant assessor”—by the way, also a high school math teacher from Nebraska.

    “So, Rand, you’re saying [all this destruction] is good?” [asked Hooper.]

    “No sir, not good,” Rand said. “I’d have to score it pretty close to perfect to be honest about it. Almost nothing left standing. That’s an achievement.”

    “If you’re so smart, Rand, tell me, why are there so many logs blocking up the river? What caused that?” I said.

    “Oh, those aren’t logs, Lieutenant.”

    Yet in Van Buren’s book, it was not the Nate, Naoko, and Eichi outside Nishinomiya Station, south of Kyoto, who first claimed me.

    No, first it was a Japanese housewife, whom I met briefly in the closing pages of the book.

    My father told me [Eichi] that because Japan had freed Korea and China from the west, our markets were flooded with new goods from those faraway places. Mother especially loved the Korean plums, quietly insisting they were juicier than Japanese ones, even as my father would shush her for fear a neighbor might overhear her being what he said was disloyal.

    Then it was some (likely) high-school track coach from, of all places, Reeve, Ohio.

    I [Nate] was 14-years-old in December 1941, sitting in an overheated classroom hearing about Sherman’s Burning of Atlanta and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, asking my equally bored teacher numbing questions about why we had to learn this stuff. Every minute dragged like a week’s worth of Mondays.

    The novel made War mine through these passing mentions of adults who, without much thought, were living what they were living because someone else, somewhere, had died to give them that opportunity, both soldier and civilian.

    The dead aren’t that choosy, one way or the other, which side they might once have been on. Plums, classrooms, all the same to them.

    I am Eichi’s mother, Nate’s teacher. I am the one who has eaten those plums in those classrooms, who even now nibbles on a sticky bun in a quiet bed and breakfast as my Twitter feed narrates more deaths in Afghanistan, acknowledges final words uttered somewhere, whether in English or inDari.

    I live in my Society. I profit from my Society. My Society has sent troops to other Societies, for reasons good or ill, depending on whose viewpoint you assume.

    Either way, I have therefore sent them there as well

    In his “alternative universe,” Van Buren has forced me to to realize: I too am morally injured. Even more, I have morally injured. Yes, I still can enjoy a rose garden and a Lake Michigan breeze. Yet I don’t get a pass, either.

    Neither Lieutenant Hooper nor Sergeant Nakagawa indict me, their families, their Societies for the acts they themselves, as soldiers, committed or did not commit. They chose their fates as much as they were chosen by them, and they lived with those choices—and died with them.

    Yet, somehow, I cannot but feel indictment, not from the young men in wartime Japan, perhaps, but rather from a boy who had his picture taken with a girl years before, when they had both enjoyed Sakuma, the fruit drops in the metal tin, made in the factory so far away from their hometown. From a boy in Ohio who “left the house in the morning always knowing [he’d] be back in time to wash up for supper.”

    Those two boys–and the girl whom, at different times in different worlds, they together loved–they say to me, “You, Dr. Deaton, you helped make this story. We were merely playing our parts, understudies to much older folks like yourself, taking direction, falling on cue.”

    The Buddhas, the old man, the photograph, quiet Japanese villages and rustic Ohio towns: may the images last with me, even longer than the words. Thank you, Mr. Van Buren, for having, in Hooper’s War, given both to us all.




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    Review: Hooper’s War an “Allegory of Hauntingly Memorable Ethical Power”

    June 11, 2017 // Comments Off on Review: Hooper’s War an “Allegory of Hauntingly Memorable Ethical Power”



    In a new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, author and veteran Pete Free writes:

    Peter Van Buren’s Hooper’s War is an early 21st century American allegory of understated, but hauntingly memorable ethical power… a masterpiece of sparsely worded brevity.

    What is foreseeable in war is its unavoidable escalation of the brutality that lives in us. Wisdom, therefore, counsels against beginning combat, absent genuinely existential justifications. It is in over-expanding the scope of what is existence-threatening that we fall into moral and strategic error.

    Hooper’s War illustrates the first concept (escalating brutality) more than the latter (maintaining a sensibly core scope of vital national interests). But the allegory’s frequent use of early 21st century American English — and, by implication, the history of U.S. warmongering since World War II — remind us that Van Buren’s focus is actually on what happened after we addictively tasted the national power inherent in dropping Little Boy and Fat Man (among other things) on Japan.

    In using his alternative history (meaning conventional war only) format, Van Buren bypassed the moral obfuscation that the expansive nature of atomic weapons brings with them. It is not the fission and fusion weapons that comprise the evil of modern war, he implies. It is the instinct-activated brutality that already lies within us, regardless of the weapons we use.

    See the full review for more!



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    Review – Hooper’s War, Prayin’ for Alden Jones

    June 5, 2017 // 24 Comments »




    Here’s an excerpt from an essay titled Harvard Law School–and Private Jones by Dr. Rod Deaton, where he talks about my book, Hooper’s War, and one of its supporting characters, Alden Jones:


    Currently I’m reading a recently-published novel, Hooper’s War: A Novel of World War II Japan, by Peter Van Buren. An intriguing tale, it asks an interesting alternative-history question: what if the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if, instead, the Allied forces had invaded Japan? What if, soon after that invasion, the one city that had until then survived the bombings, the ancient capital of Kyoto, had instead become the city whose name we’d forever remember, not because of a single plane’s mission, but rather because of the mission of countless planes one particular night, lighting afire a city of wood and paper, turning the word Dresden into just another city that had had its share of War woes?

    What if one particular American, Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper, had a story to tell of just such events?

    Early in my reading, though, it is not yet Hooper who has grabbed me. It is Private Alden Jones, from outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. No spoiler here: within pages of the narrative, you realize that the War will not turn out well for PVT Jones. It is how it does not turn out well that pauses me this morning, sitting again on my quiet porch, somewhere in my consciousness hearing the wind chimes sing in pentatonic, do-la-sol-mi-do-mi-sol-la-do. Quite Asian, come to think of it.

    “You much for praying, Alden?”

    “Sometimes, sir. Not sure God always listens,” Jones said.

    “He’ll hear you,” [Hooper] said. […]

    “If God listened, I don’t think I’d be like this now,” Jones said. He looked away. “I wanna be older. I got a dog at home older than me.”

    So what does all this have to do with Harvard Law School, you might ask?


    Find out what it does have to do with Harvard, here…



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    Review – Hooper’s War: Does it Offer Redemption?

    June 3, 2017 // 1 Comment »


    A Five-Star Review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan says:
    Does it offer redemption to witness the horrors of war through the eyes of one with a conscience? If so, then all must read Hooper’s War.

    Lt. Hooper is thrust into an invasion of Japan at the end of World War II – an alternative history that is as horrific as the actual account. His relationships with the Japanese woman, Naoko, and Sgt. Nakagawa make Hooper question his own humanity. Surviving battle after battle, often within his own army, does not provide Hooper solace nor victory. He must find a way to heal, even seventy years after the war’s end. The flashbacks unveil Hooper’s struggles bit by bit, making the reader yearn for the ending, if only to relieve the burden of memory. Hooper’s War is not an easy read due to the magnitude of the issue – the emotional weight of war – but it is necessary to read in the current divisive culture.

    Reminiscent of McCormick’s Purple Heart and Myer’s Sunrise Over Fallujah and Fallen Angels, Hooper’s War offers an intense emotional struggle not to be missed. As Van Buren writes, “..the question isn’t so much why Private Garner is screaming. It’s why we aren’t.”

     

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    Goodreads Review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of Japan

    May 19, 2017 // 5 Comments »




    Here’s what one reviewer had to say about Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan in his Goodreads review:

    Hooper’s War by Peter Van Buren is an alternative history of World War II with a deep message about war. Peter Van Buren is a former foreign service officer, author, and first amendment rights defender by circumstance. His previous book The Ghosts of Tom Joad: The Story of the #99 tells a very realistic story of the fall of the rust belt cities that took me back to my days of growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.

    Hooper’s War is an interesting book for reasons beyond it being a good war story. It runs along the lines of Philip Caputo but not as in your face as Dalton Trumbo. Van Buren sets his story in 1946 as the war has reached mainland Japan. This twist is particularly interesting because the atomic bombs are not mentioned in the story. To many, WWII was when the United States wore the white hat and took the high moral ground. The atomic bombs were perhaps the only recognizable scar on that victory. Since then we fought Korea to a draw. Vietnam brings to mind My Lai and the evacuation of the American Embassy. Iraq and Afghanistan were left unfinished. World War II was America’s just victory.

    Hooper is an infantry lieutenant, far from his hometown in Ohio. He is leading a group of mostly inexperienced men in combat on mainland Japan. His unit was a mix of inexperienced soldiers with a few experienced NonCommissioned Officers who help lead and help the fresh lieutenant. The violence of the landing and coordination are well done. Van Buren brings an important aspect of the war with Japan to light. In the novel, Kyoto is fire bombed.


    In real history, the fire bombing of Dresden was devastating; the German city was completely destroyed in a precision bombing raid. In Japan, precision bombing was abandoned and fire bombing was even more destructive. Cities there had an industrial center and were surrounded with wooden housing. Bombs were dropped near the target and the fires spread inward. The fires burned toward the city center trapping the population. Emergency services were overloaded and unable to prevent the spread of fire. Essentially, the entire city was burned to the ground and that included much of the civilian population. The 1945 firebombing of Tokyo produced more immediate casualties than the atomic bombs at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

    The story works its way mostly backward through the fictional history and for a large part takes place near the firebombed city of Kyoto. This is where the majority of the principles and morality of war take place. Through Hooper’s words, he tells the reader what he and his men experienced. There is also a Japanese soldier, Eichi Nakagawa, telling his story and a civilian woman, Naoko, with a connection to both Hooper and Nakagawa. Through the perspective of these three people many questions about war and who is right, if anyone, is raised. The immediate leadership on both sides comes into play with the strict discipline and idea of duty and honor to the average Japanese soldier. The Americans see themselves as liberators and question the resistance to freedom. Hooper’s men are given ice cream for completing their mission against the enemy, while Japanese civilians starve. There is a Major Moreland who hopes to wear down the resistance by limiting their supplies and demoralizing the enemy. His attitude is strikingly close to a Vietnam War general with a similar name.

    Hooper’s War is an excellent war story and what makes it such is that it is not about the glory of war and the killing of people. It is about what war really is for those who fight it and those who experience it. There is a complexity that escapes many people and even those fighting. Hooper asks Naoko to the effect of “Why don’t you give up and accept freedom?” He does not understand that he is now seen as an invader, not a liberator. Decades later people in power and fighting in Iraq would ask the same questions of Iraqi resistance. Van Buren uses alternative history to present questions asked in probably every war in history. He portrays war as two forces fighting, both believing they are right.




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    Review: Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    May 18, 2017 // 7 Comments »

    From Kirkus Reviews: In this alternate-history novel, Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war.

    In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late wife. But back in 1946, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto after it’s been firebombed, dealing with the horrors of war and the less-than-humanitarian instincts of his own men. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.

    Van Buren presents a bleak picture of a world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation (“Is the morphine for Garner so he stops screaming, or is the morphine for you so you don’t have to hear him screaming?” says a medical officer. “He probably feels better screaming”). Hooper is an engaging protagonist, a prototypical innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role (“The worst words in the English language to me had become ‘What should we do, Lieutenant?’ ”).

    Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time. An afterword provides context for the book’s alternate version of the war.

    A complex portrayal of a counterfactual invasion.

    Buy Hooper’s War: A Novel of Japan today from Amazon!



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    Would You Like to Review Hooper’s War?

    April 19, 2017 // 46 Comments »




    Would you like to review an advance copy of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan?

    If so, please contact me: info (at) wemeantwell.com Be sure to include a link to where you review books or your blog. If you review on Amazon or Goodreads, please let me know the name you work under.

    If you’d like an e-copy, please specify format.


    Many thanks,

    Peter


    Hooper’s War is also available for pre-order!



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    Great Start for Hooper’s War Pre-Orders

    April 15, 2017 // 13 Comments »


    Thanks to everyone for helping launch Hooper’s War pre-orders this weekend!


    The book is ranking high on Amazon, running alongside similar books from large-scale publishers. Without their advertising budgets, books like Hooper’s War from smaller publishers willing to take the risk of putting out an anti-war book depend on word of mouth. So thank you.


    RealClearBooks was nice enough to publish an excerpt.

    Kirkus Reviews had some good things to say — “Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.”


    So take a moment and see what Hooper’s War is all about!




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    Climate Change Book Review: Splinterlands, by John Feffer

    December 10, 2016 // 16 Comments »

    splinterlands

    Looking Backward: 2000–1887 is a utopian science fiction novel by Edward Bellamy, first published in 1888.

    In it, Julian West falls into a deep sleep, only to awaken 113 years later. As he opens his eyes, it is the year 2000 and, as Bellamy imagined it, the U.S. is a socialist utopia. West wanders through this new land musing on the problems of capitalism, and how a socialist solution was what made turn-of-the-century America into paradise.

    John Feffer’s new novel, Splinterlands, features as its protagonist an American geo-paleontologist named Julian West who “awakens” politically in the near future to an America, and a world, hurtled into dystopia. Whereas Bellany’s book was meant as a prescription for a better future, Feffer’s is a look back from the future to America 2016 framed as a dire warning: there’s still time, but not much. Think of this as a future history of the Trump Era.


    Via the vehicle of his main character, West, using future Virtual Reality technology to visit each of his children, Feffer devotes a chapter per child to exposing a current problem, and projecting that forward to the horrors to come. Just make sure the point is driven home, West begins his journeys by reminding us the “last straw” for America was the destruction of Washington DC by Hurricane Donald, the name no coincidence. “Splinterlands” is the name of the main character’s seminal academic work predicting the chaos of a world breaking apart into smaller and smaller cultural and political units, the opposite of globalization — disintegration.

    West’s first child lives in a future Brussels, which serves as a platform to look into the break-up of Europe into 17th century duchies, all made worse by the presence of terrorist forces called Sleepers, members of a dying-but-never-quite-dead Caliphate. Clever in large part, subtle this ain’t. There are hints that West’s health is failing, and that standard sci-fi trope, a mysterious giant multinational corporation possibly up to no good.

    Child number two lives in western China, and serves as the vehicle to condemn predatory capitalism, specifically the ability and willingness of too many to profit off the suffering of others, a future Gordon Gecko with global reach; and indeed, the child is actually named Gordon. The concept of the One Percent is covered by an efficient statement of how the ultra-rich have seceded from society entirely, living in enclaves of enormous security and luxury while the world burns around them. “I make money precisely where the system moves out of sync,” says Gordon. The son’s statement that harmony is overrated might be 2016’s version of the 1980s’ “greed is good.”

    The final child is found in Botswana, now a pleasant tourist destination due to climate change. He is a “white hat” terrorist, once a warrior against the Caliphate, now on some other secret mission he can’t even reveal to his own father. We learn the over-extension of the American Empire, without economic and political stamina behind it, was a big factor in the disintegration of the world of 2016.

    A final visit by West is to his estranged wife, now living in a semi-utopian commune in Vermont called (again, minus subtlety) Arcadia. The people there are clear-eyed, with a huge arsenal (but only for self-defense), and depend on solar power, barter, organic farming, and consensual decision making. The last bits of the book tie to together multiple story threads in a cascading series of plot reveals.


    Splinterlands, labeled as a novel, comes up a bit weak as a fiction read. Too much of the plot is packed into the (fake) footnotes of some anonymous future editor, and then rushed through in the final chapters. A beach read this is not.

    But I suspect the author had no intention of writing something simply to entertain. He instead is standing on the rooftops, watching the literal floodwaters of Hurricane Donald rise, alongside climate change, globalization, predatory capitalism and all the other horrors of our world. As Edward Bellamy’s 1888 character Julian West was brought to life to show us the future as it should be, 2016’s version of Julian West has come back from the future to warn us our current path can only lead to a dystopia, one we may yet be able to forestall.



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    Oliver Stone’s New Movie ‘Snowden’ Tackles the Myth

    September 14, 2016 // 40 Comments »

    snowden


    Snowden is a helluva movie, kicking an audience’s ass on a number of levels. I had a chance to see the film last night at a preview event; it opens everywhere on September 16. Go see it.


    On one level the film presents Snowden’s story as a political thriller. A brave but frightened man, certain he is doing the right thing but worried if he can pull it off, smuggles some of the NSA’s most secret information out of a secure facility. He makes contact with skeptical journalists in Hong Kong, convinces them of the importance of what he has to say, and then goes on the run from a U.S. government out to arrest, or, possibly assassinate, him. In interviews Stone has made clear that he has dramatized and/or altered some events, and that his film is not a documentary. It does keep you on the edge of your beliefs, watching a story you know as if you don’t.


    The next level of the film is a carefully constructed vision of the national security state, seen through Snowden’s eyes. For many Americans, this may be the first time they will react emotionally to the way our government spies on us. It is one thing to “know” the NSA can access webcams at will, it is another to watch a technician “spy” on a Muslim woman undressing in her bedroom.

    When Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) slaps a piece of tape over his own webcam before an intimate moment with his girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley), he has the wool taken from his eyes, his trust in government shattered. He is all of us.


    The final level of Snowden is perhaps the most important.

    Director Oliver Stone is in the business of creating counter-myths at critical points in time, and his work is best understood in that context.

    Even as most Americans still believed the myth that while the Vietnam was bad, the warriors were not, Stone showed us the dark side in Platoon. In the 1980s, when making money was seen as the best of America, Stone gave us Wall Street, and turned the myth “greed is good” from an instructional line out of an MBA program to a condemnation of how we all suffered when the bubble broke in the financial markets.

    And so with Snowden, which makes clear the myth of a benign national security (“nothing to hide, nothing to fear,” they’re the good guys protecting us) is anything but. The NSA and other agencies want to vacuum it all up, every communication, everywhere. They then move on to controlling our communications; the movie illustrates the depth of NSA’s penetration into the Japanese electrical grid by imagining a black out of Tokyo, and shows us how an NSA technical mistake reveals how they could shut down the Internet across the Middle East.

    In what is the most Oliver Stone-like scene in perhaps any of his movies, Snowden’s CIA boss confronts him, suspicious of wrongdoing. Their video conference discussion starts with Snowden at one end of the table, the boss’ face on a monitor at the other. As the scene unfolds and the intensity increases, Snowden moves closer to the screen until his head is a small dot, and the boss’ face takes over the audience’s whole field of view. The government itself has morphed into Big Brother before your eyes.


    For many aware viewers, a lot of this may seem old hat — of course the NSA is doing all that.

    But imagine the impact of Snowden. Thoughts that have largely been laid out only on blogs and left-of-center, non-main stream media, are now in suburban multiplexes, all carefully wrapped inside a thriller Tom Clancy fans will enjoy.

    You can’t get much more radical than that.






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    Book Review: Youngblood

    February 3, 2016 // 1 Comment »



    Youngblood, a new novel by Matt Gallagher set in the late stages of the Iraq War, is a powerful fiction debut from an author already known for his nonfiction portrayal of that conflict in Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Youngblood is a gritty, tragic, realistic look inside the failures of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq told by someone who lived it as a young infantry lieutenant.

    Youngblood presents three different themes intermingled. They work symbiotically with one another to create an image of what happened in the underbelly of a war poorly reported on by the American media.


    The first theme tells the story of American Army Lieutenant Jack Porter, and his complex battlefield relationship with his platoon sergeant, Dan Chambers, and the host of Iraqis they encounter. In seeking a literary vehicle to his tale, Gallagher bypassed the traditional Saving Private Ryan-like choices in favor of a murder mystery of sorts. Actually multiple murders, killings and assassinations, whose connections unfold slowly as different characters divulge and withhold information, almost Rashomon-like. Lieutenant Porter is often times faced with choices of who to believe, and often gets it wrong, often with tragic consequences. Along the way the reader is introduced to the cast of the Iraq War: slimy sheiks, nasty terrorists, game-playing interpreters, innocent victims, not-so-innocent victims, and American soldiers stuck inside a world they cannot possibly understand.

    Having spent a year in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army has part of my State Department job, these portrayals ring true. Nearly on a one-to-one basis, I could match up a real person I interacted with for every one of Gallagher’s “fictional” characters.


    Those soldiers’ stories and the events of their “workdays” are the second theme of Youngblood. For those who want to look behind the one-dimensional portrayals on TV, here is life on the ground for a counterinsurgency army. As the best novels do, Gallagher’s story drags you deep into a new and unfamiliar world, showing you the food the troops ate, the conditions under which they lived, the lies and boasts they told each other, and the motivations noble, and mundane, that sent them into service. If you enjoyed Kaboom, a minor criticism of Youngblood may be that you’ve read some of this before. That, however, does not take away from the realism; Gallagher really makes you smell the streets of war-torn Baghdad, and you can feel the grit of its back alleys in your own mouth as you turn the pages.


    The final theme in Youngblood is the most subtle, and the most interesting. Through his broader story, that murder mystery and its eventual resolution, Gallagher deftly offers an allegorical view of the whole war. His soldiers try and do the right things in nearly every instance, but both their disparate personal motivations and the fact that right and wrong in war are never anything but gray in search of black and white, often means the best intentions turn to mud (Gallagher’s characters might use a stronger term.) When that happens in war, people die, sometimes the wrong people. The Iraqis, beaten down by years of occupation, play along with the Americans, but with the knowledge that in the end the soldiers will leave them with the mess to attend to.

    In the end the message is clear for both sides: there was no way to win in Iraq, only to survive. Youngblood tells that tale, and tells it well.




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    Review: Randy Brown’s ‘Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire’

    January 9, 2016 // 2 Comments »


    One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.

    Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.

    Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.


    Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.

    While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.

    Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:

    Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.

    Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:

    War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.

    Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.

    A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.

    Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:

    Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.

    But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:

    Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.

    We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.




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    Review: Old Silk Road, by Brandon Caro

    November 11, 2015 // 2 Comments »

    oldsilkroad

    Brandon Caro’s debut novel, Old Silk Road, is an important, tough read, both for the dirt-under-its-nails portrayal of soldiers at war, and for a complex plot that rewards a reader with insights into America’s longest war, in Afghanistan.


    But be careful. This is not a typical book by another soldier (though Caro spent a year in Afghanistan as a combat medic.) Almost every one of those books follows an outline you’d think they issue to servicepeople as they muster out: get energized following 9/11, throw in a boot camp montage and then drop into Iraq or Afghanistan all wide-eyed. The death of a buddy and/or local child changes everything. Wrap it up with some angst and ship it off to the bestseller list.


    Caro instead gives us three distinct but overlapping stories, the first two only lightly fictionalized.


    The first portion of the book is the one soldiers will want to hand to friends who ask “what was it like over there.” Caro captures two of the most common aspects of modern war: endless tension about what might happen next, and endless boredom between occasional acts of horror. The narrator, Specialist Norman Rogers, himself a combat medic, and his small team, drift among America’s archipelago of bases in Afghanistan, at one point setting off on a “mission” to eat Mongolian BBQ at a Forward Operating Base.

    The details are carefully rendered. It’s a travelogue of sorts, but pay attention; scenes that seem to drift past play tightly into the book’s conclusion. One detail disclosed early on is that Rogers is addicted to the morphine he is issued to use as a painkiller on wounded soldiers.


    Caro offers us something of a training sequence in the second part of his book, but with a twist. He lays things bare in a seminal chapter called The Goat School (excerpt). The reference is to a controversial military training technique, in which medics practice on wounded goats (pigs are also used in real life.) This is not PETA-friendly. The animals are shot at close range, and left in the care of would-be medics to treat. About half-way through, the instructor shoots the animal again.


    The final story told in the book is the most compelling. Rogers’ addiction turns him deeper and deeper into the drug, to the point where his hallucinations take over his life, and thus the story. He is guided through his visions by a shaman, appropriately and ironically in the guise of Pat Tillman.

    (Tillman was America’s once-walking propaganda dream. A pro football player making a $3.6 million salary, he gave that all up and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, his family was told he’d been killed by enemy fire charging up a hill. After media interest tapered off, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire.)

    Through his drugs and his shaman, Rogers (and author Caro) present a deeply sad meditation on America’s war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, and America’s longest war is held up alongside others who failed earlier: the Greeks, the Mongols, the British and the Soviets. Echoes of the questions many Americans should be asking are present – Why did we invade? 14+ years later why are still occupying? Why do we believe we will win when everyone else failed? Rogers unwinding as a human being mirrors America’s own efforts at war.


    Criticisms are few. The book shifts in time, in narrator and between the character’s world in and out of his morphine haze. The reader must pay careful attention. Some passages meant to show the hurry-up-and-wait nature of Army life may themselves drag a bit.

    But no matter. Old Silk Road is an important addition to post-9/11 war literature. While the message in the hands of others could have been pedantic or whining, Caro is a skilled writer and presents a statement that is not anti-soldier and not anti-American, but clearly anti-war.




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    Review: Morris Berman’s New Book on Japan, “Neurotic Beauty”

    June 13, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    neurotic beauty

    Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the “most foreign of foreign countries.” Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.



    The Explainer Industry

    Almost all books “about Japan” (I’m leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.

    The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.

    Berman asks: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?



    A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle

    The book’s argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan’s cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something — a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.

    Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.



    Japan Went Insane

    As the Tokugawa (for simplicity’s sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan’s Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.

    And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960’s put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.



    A Post-Capitalist Society

    If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman’s part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to “fill the hole” in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.

    The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman’s last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.

    It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope “only in Japan” could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.

    Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.

    I make no secret of my respect for Morris Berman’s body of work; read more here.




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    Movie Review: “Braddock America”

    February 14, 2015 // 9 Comments »

    braddock-america

    If I’d made a documentary film about the scars left on America through industrialization, instead of writing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent about it, what I would have likely ended up with is “Braddock, America.”

    History

    “Braddock, America” is a feature length documentary now in limited release set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town now left to literally rust away to hell. Like so, so many other towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and throughout the Midwest, Braddock began life in the 19th century as just a place along a mighty river, surrounded by coal. Then Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela River. For the decades that followed, the Monongahela valley was the industrial pulse of a growing America. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation, steel for train tracks, cars, the girders of the then world’s tallest skyscrapers, was made in places like Braddock.

    Workers were granted some share of the profits, protected by the strong unions they had fought for. There was once a rough kind of social contract: work hard for the mill, and in return you’d make enough to raise a family, have health care, retire on a decent pension. The system was not perfect, but it fueled the greatest economic boom and consumer society known.

    Then, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, everything changed. Steel was imported, manufacturing across the U.S. declined, and the unions were broken. Soon enough, the mills went away, leaving the people. The Rust Belt lost a manufacturing empire but never found a new role. Braddock is a place that capitalism discarded, a victim of America’s apartheid of dollars.

    A Well-Made Documentary

    “Braddock, America” is a well-made documentary that weaves together the past (the film begins with archive footage of the glory days), the present, and pokes at an uncertain future that haunts the whole town. There is no narrator or off-screen voice; the people left in Braddock (90 percent of the population has escaped over the years since the mills shut down) tell their stories alongside images of the near-ghost town in which they live. It is a gentle, touching portrait of good people trying to pick up the pieces, after their livelihoods were taken away by larger processes they do not even now fully understand. They display a sad stubbornness, and you watch the film both admiring them and wanting to shout at them to get out.

    One scene shows a city official walking down a deserted street designating empty homes for demolition. Another one shows kids playing in a deserted school building. The town can no longer support a grocery store. A worker looks back at the mill, and calls what he and his father did there “sacramentel.” Town officials discuss their hope that additional money will come from the state to help them demolish more derelict buildings. An outside job/career coach’s presentation falls apart when none of the people in the room have any previous work experience to cite; one asks if his labor in prison counts. Abandoned homes can be bought for $3000, unless they have already been stripped by thieves of their aluminum siding and copper wiring, in which case they are worthless.

    The image above, from the film, tells the rest of the story.

    A Few Issues

    The film suffers from a few things. Persons being interviewed are not identified, leading to some confusion. The historical clips are used in many places as filler, and disrupt the flow of the film. The film lacks a clear narrative arc; people talk– and they are interesting– and then the film ends. A touching scene in a bar where local musicians play the song “American Pie” is cut short. One key historical event discussed, a violent labor strike, appears to have taken place in nearby Homestead and not in Braddock.



    Hope is Not a Strategy

    The people of Braddock still express hope, or perhaps are left only with hope, as the only strategy for a way out. But like nearly every town in the Rust Belt that has tried to dig itself out, the optimism often seems misplaced and misguided over time. “Things got broken here,” says a two-year old ad for Levi’s also filmed in the town, “maybe on purpose, so we could get to work.” That did not happen. A New York Times video features Braddock’s then-mayor explaining how the town will “rise from the ashes.” He said that in 2009, and it did not happen. By the time this film was shot in 2012, that mayor was already gone himself.

    The filmmakers have created a sensitive memoir to a place and time that once described America to the world, and, with some irony, now, ironically, again describes America to the world.

    You can see trailer for “Braddock, America” online.




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    Movie Review: CitizenFour, Snowden for Lovers and Haters

    October 28, 2014 // 7 Comments »

    citizenfour_poster


    Two kinds of people are interested in Laura Pointras’ new documentary, CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden’s early contacts with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and herself. Let’s have a review of the film for each group, the Haters and the Everyone Else.

    But First, a Quick Recap

    Snowden worked deep inside America’s national security state. His last job was as a contract systems administrator for the NSA. Through this job he obtained a massive trove of documents which, when made public, demonstrated to the world U.S. government electronic surveillance and espionage on a scale even its worst critics had not fully described. The documents also validated the information provided by earlier NSA whistleblowers. Snowden left the U.S. for Hong Kong, where he met the journalists above, and where most of CitizenFour was filmed. Following U.S. government efforts to bring Snowden back to the U.S., he left for Moscow, likely enroute to some other place, possibly Ecuador. He instead spent weeks in suspended status at the Moscow Airport before being granted long-term residency.

    With few exceptions, pretty much everyone can agree with that basic outline of the Snowden story to date, and CitizenFour does a very good job recounting most of it. It is there, however, where agreement ends. CitizenFour (the title comes from the codename Snowden choose for himself when first contacting filmmaker Pointras) cannot be understood independently from the greater Snowden story, and separate from the strong opinions of Snowden’s decisions.


    Review for Real Haters

    If you thought traitors like Chelsea Manning have their hate groups, they aren’t jack compared to what those on the right side (oh yes, pun intended) of the house will think of this film. To them, Pointras has created an evil-genius piece of propaganda, with the give-away starting point that she was a huge part of the Snowden story herself, throwing out any hint of objectivity. Her success at humanizing Snowden, portraying him as the amiable geek-nerd-manchild you could have a Lite beer with, is Riefenstahl-level work.

    This is a celebrity “authorized biography” with all the integrity those have. Apart from making a traitor look good, they’ll say, Pointras also crudely tells only the tidy parts of the story. Snowden’s believed-espionage relationships with Russia and China are glossed over. Many details of his time in Hong Kong and sneaky flights in and out are absent. Nothing is said about why Snowden won’t return to the U.S. to defend his so-called honorable acts in court like a real man would do. Nothing is said about how the NSA keeps America safe from Americans. Snowden is a starry-eyed savior of the left who’d likely smirk from his cozy Russian lair as America is attacked again.

    Review for Everyone Else

    CitizenFour is impressive filmmaking. Pointras starts with the problem of telling a story most people already know, in an engaging way, trying to reach a broad audience in many cases polarized as to her subject, and her Subject. She succeeds brilliantly, and if CitizenFour is not awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary then that award no longer is relevant.

    To be fair to other films in award contention, Pointras starts from, and makes the most of, some very significant advantages. She is indeed part of the story (a fact she never hides nor diminishes) and thus enjoys a level of trust and access with her subjects almost unavailable to other documentarians. The viewer is in the room as the journalists with Snowden struggle to understand the story he is trying to tell them, working to interpret the documents he shows them and creating on the fly the most effective way to bring this information to the public. It is heady stuff.

    The interplay between Snowden and the journalists is dramatic, but in the sense that it is real human stuff. When Snowden claims he does not care if he is exposed as the whistleblower– he encourages the journalists to name him– they back him off a step, and try to make sure Snowden truly knows the impact such a decision will have on him and people he cares about. Funny things happen, particularly when Snowden realizes he is explaining some technical point to people who are nowhere near his level of expertise (an exchange about password security between Snowden and Greenwald is laugh-out-loud funny.)

    Pointras skillfully weaves her story, presenting it sometimes as if it was a thriller (it is), other times as a classic movie brave journalist saga (it is) and often times as a profile of a man everyone thinks they know but does not (it is that too.)

    Parts of Snowden’s journey from Hawaii to Moscow are omitted. Most sentient members of the audience will understand they have to be, given the global efforts underway to nab Snowden, and the need to protect the many people who played a role who choose to or need to remain anonymous. None of that is new in a documentary– turn on the evening news and witnesses speak in shadowy profile, while most docs about the CIA or the NSA alter voices and employ false names for the same reasons. Anyone expecting Pointras’ film to be a How to Catch Edward Snowden for Dummies will indeed be disappointed.

    Perhaps most powerfully, Pointras’ portrait of Snowden is of a whistleblower for a new generation. He is passionate, but in a laid-back way, confident in his actions such that his passion comes from within, maybe call it a kind of intellectual hipster patriotism. He is political, but in a small “p” way, moving through classic Left and Right into a place where many people feel more comfortable today, with a focus on issues such as privacy and authoritarianism above two sides shouting “Facist!” and “Hippie!” at each other in some news show’s clumsy attempt at their parents’ version of balance. When dealing with the older journalists in that hotel room, Snowden at times sounds like many young people do explaining how the DVR works to moms and dads dully mystified by but stuck being dependent on new technologies.

    And there (partisan now, no shame) lies CitizenFour’s most long-lasting contribution. There are millions of young men and women working inside the Dark State, often times with impressive levels of access to information. Like Snowden, they have seen evidence of government wrongdoing, obscenities directed at the Constitution, harm done to ordinary citizens. Almost every one of those people will remain silent, partners to the crimes. But maybe– just maybe– one out of a million will see a role model, an example, that rings true in CitizenFour, and stand to speak.

    If it was up to me, I’d have this movie play in every theatre in the Washington DC area 24/7, because s/he is out there.



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    New Review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: “He makes it real”

    September 30, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).

    Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.

    I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.

    Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.

    He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.

    In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”

    Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.

    Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.

    I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.

    My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”

    Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.

    Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.



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    Booklist Namechecks Beckett for Ghosts of Tom Joad

    September 20, 2014 // 2 Comments »




    From Booklist, here’s the newest review of Ghosts of Tom Joad, with a generous comparison to Samuel Beckett:


    As Earl takes an endless bus ride around his hometown of Reeve, Ohio, we witness the downwardly spiraling events of his life as he tries to make sense of how a boom town went bust. It’s the twenty-first century, and the factory that founded and funded this Rust Belt town is gone, taking with it the livelihood and lives of hardworking and hard-drinking men like Earl and his father before him. Men who were duped into bartering their dreams of glory for what would turn out to be the empty promise of a steady wage.


    In a device that could well be employed in a Beckett drama, Earl’s mythical bus teems with a constant parade of unearthly visitors from his past—family, friends, and fellow downsized derelicts who, in their unreal way, convey the painful reality that erodes society when the American dream turns into a nightmare. A seasoned State Department diplomat, stalwart Iraq War whistleblower, and author of We Meant Well (2011), Van Buren turns his keen eye to the shameful treatment of the nation’s unemployed and homeless.


    More reviews for Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent




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    Book Review: Agent Storm, My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA

    September 10, 2014 // 9 Comments »

    Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.

    An Enthusiastic Muslim

    The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.

    Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.

    A Double-Agent

    Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.

    Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.

    Tradecraft

    Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.

    Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.

    Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.

    A Few Criticisms

    A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.

    Conclusion

    Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.




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    Review: The story of what makes – and unmakes – the American Dream

    June 14, 2014 // 5 Comments »

    An Amazon reviewer had this to say about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent:


    Read this book. If you ever wonder what happened to the American middle class over the past 30 years or to the economy in the course of the last five years.

    Read it, though Ghost of Tom Joad is not an easy read. The portrait it paints is depressing. This is a hard reality to face. And Peter Van Buren doesn’t make it any easier by writing it partly as lived experience and partly as a political statement on America. There are moments of great descriptive writing and then there are whole racks of statistics that break the narrative flow.

    But none of this can take away from the importance of this book. It is a compassionate look at the American Dream since 1973 through the eyes of someone whose experience has been more nightmare than dream-like. It is also a cautionary tale– recognize the path that brought us to this pass in order to find a way out of the morass. The references to Grapes of Wrath are well-woven into the story and remind us of the need for constant vigilance to prevent exploitation.

    But this is not just a political commentary. Van Buren has written a very human story about a man’s life, his expectations and disappointments. It is the story about his decisions, the results that ensue, his limited room to maneuver because of a system that he doesn’t fully understand until it’s too late. It is also a story about the people who inhabit his world and their efforts to survive, against all odds. Heartbreaking, yet familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the heartland of America over the past thirty years.

    Every American should read this book. And the wider world as well to understand what makes – and unmakes – the American Dream.



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    Review: Fire Dog Lake– “A Sober Reflection on the U.S. Economy”

    June 3, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    For those visiting for the first time from TomDispatch, Salon, HuffPo or another web site, welcome. If you found my article there, A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts, useful, please take a look at my current book on those same themes, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent

    It’s available on Amazon, as well as at most other book sources. Buying a copy helps support the writing I do, and to keep this blog online.

    Book Review of Ghosts of Tom Joad

    Fire Dog Lake’s Bev Wright and Kevin Gosztola had this to say:

    Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent is a sober reflection on the United States economy and how it has transformed in the past decades. Through the main character of Earl, readers are given a glimpse at how a person can so easily sink into a life where they are struggling to maintain a poor pitiful existence.

    The reality Earl, his family, friends and residents of Reeve, Ohio, face is not their fault. They have very little power in this town, which has become a human sacrifice zone. They are bearing the impact of global capitalism, where it is cheaper to use sweat shops in Thailand or prison labor to make things. They are suffering the shift into a retail or service-based economy where Big Box stores are where one is most likely to find a job.

    No salvation in being employed exists. There is no dignity for employees; unions are a scourge and a decent wage, breaks, sick days, etc, are all luxuries these corporations refuse to grant their workers. People work because they have to in order to get by and because they recognize they are lucky to have any job they can get.

    There’s a “story truth” to what Van Buren writes that is similar to the “story truth” in the classic work of fiction, The Things They Carried For example, Earl gets a job at a Big Box store called Bullseye:

    …My job at Bullseye was to take big boxes of things off the truck and do the break down. It was called officially by Bullseye in the associate handbook, “Inbound Event Processing.” What happened is that a computer at the Bullseye headquarters called a computer at a warehouse, which notified a computer in New Jersey to send off a buy order ultimately to a factory computer in Thailand to make some more headache pills to replace the ones we had ordered for our store. They came in a big carton of say 144 smaller boxes. I tore a pick sheet off the printer, which told me to count out thirty-six of them boxes into a plastic tub labeled PHARMACY, then count out say twenty-four more and put them into a tub labeled GROCERY, and so forth. Somebody else would come into the back room from each of those departments and take their tub. Because of me and my counting, the Bullseye store could order a big cheap box of 144 and I’d divide them up right. A computer could not do that and so almost reluctantly I had a job…


    The experience of Earl may be fictional, but it feels true. When Earl’s figuring out how to use pay day loans to get by and having difficulty getting a credit card, when he is sleeping in his car and discovering what it means to be homeless and when he is facing down all the drug addiction in his hometown, it has an emotional punch to it that may not be there if this was non-fiction.

    Van Buren experienced some of what is in the book himself when he had to take a minimum wage job after being forced out of the State Department for blowing the whistle on corruption stemming from Iraq “reconstruction” projects.

    He also traveled to parts of the country and set up situations so he could experience what it is like to be jobless or homeless, such as how to sleep in your parked car without the cops bothering you.

    One of the cities he visited was Weirton, West Virginia. It used to have a steel mill. It used be a place where residents had jobs. The mill no longer operates so now what do people do? They spend time in diners. They sit at bars. They drink alcohol all day to dull the sadness from being so poor and hopeless.

    Toward the end of the book, there’s a preacher, Casey, who works at a shelter. Casey talks to Earl and others who are going on about who has it worse.

    Look, until we understand at a gut level we are all in this together, if we keep thinking black and white and never see the whole 99 percent of us are dirty gray, we’ll never get anywhere. We need to think leveling up, not leveling down to create an economy, hell, a society, that is sustainable. That’s the word—sustainable—because what we are doing now is gonna kill us all.


    There’s an unyielding bleakness to the story in Ghosts of Tom Joad, but it is our story. It is America’s story. It is the story of failure that Van Buren has experienced, that friends and family of Van Buren have experienced, that people who know Van Buren and know of Van Buren have experienced and that everyone participating in this Book Salon chat has probably experienced to some degree.

    Anyone who has not experienced the story told in Ghosts of Tom Joad is privileged, overwhelmingly. They likely live with the fear that at any moment they could be in the position of Earl. And that is why we have to face it down because we all recognize the system is dehumanizing and really could kill us all.




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    FireDogLake Book Chat Transcript

    May 25, 2014 // Comments Off on FireDogLake Book Chat Transcript




    We had a great time recently on FireDogLake.com discussing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. If you missed that live chat, there’s a transcript now online.


    Take a look at the full chat here, along with a nice review from host Kevin Gosztola.





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    Review: “An Impassioned Spokesman for Those with No Voice”

    May 5, 2014 // 7 Comments »

    Lisa Ranger, on Amazon, wrote this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent:

    Mr. Van Buren takes us on a dark journey not to some strange dystopia, but to a dismal and grimy world inhabited by a sizable slice of 21st century America. You won’t see these characters on “Dancing With the Stars”, but they are far more ubiquitous than those inhabiting the trifles the media would feed you.This world wreaks of desperation, inhabited by people who can’t quite hang on to the edge of the socio-financial cliff. This is not beach reading, but is something you need to read and to understand.

    In the tradition of the early 20th century Naturalists, Ghosts reads like an update of Frank Norris’s McTeague (later filmed as “Greed”). The unprivileged in life begin with aspirations and hope, but are ground down by a relentless indifference. Under pressure, people begin to gnaw at each other as well as themselves, like pit bulls throw into the exhibition ring, and this vicious preoccupation serves their overlord’s needs well.

    The book mirrors the ugly reversion to world of the robber-barons we are witnessing today, as power and money coalesce in the upper stratosphere, who know how to game the system, while the middle class continues its inexorable decline into the lower-middle echelon and inevitably, the ranks of the poor.

    The world that the protagonist inhabits allows no escape. He can afford neither to live, nor to die — a Hobson’s Choice.

    Let Mr. Van Buren be your guide in the Ghosts of Tom Joad. He speaks from experience, and is an impassioned spokesman for those with no voice. As he has proven with his previous book, We Meant Well, he is an acute observer and scribe of the things those in power would not like for you to see.

    Kudos, Mr. Van Buren. We will await your further forays down into the zeroes. It is not pretty, but it is a duty we are glad you’ve assumed.




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    Review: Coyne’s “Doing Bad by Doing Good, Why Humanitarian Action Fails”

    December 14, 2013 // 12 Comments »

    (This review first appeared on the Huffington Post)

    If Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Failsneeded a subtitle, I’d be willing to offer up “We Meant Well, Too.”

    Coyne’s book puts into formal terms what I wrote about more snarkily in my own book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People: large-scale attempts at reconstruction, long-term humanitarian aid, nation building, counterinsurgency or whatever buzz word is in favor (I’ll use them interchangeably in this review), not only are destined to fail, they often create more suffering through unintended consequences and corruption than would have occurred simply by leaving the problem alone. Coyne makes it clear that continued U.S. efforts at nation building in Afghanistan (Haiti, Libya, Syria…) will not accomplish America’s national goals and will actually make the lives of the locals worse in the process. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond.

    The Man

    Coyne’s book is a careful, detailed, academic answer to the real-world question surrounding U.S. reconstruction efforts: How is it possible that well-funded, expertly staffed and, at least rhetorically, well-intentioned humanitarian actions fail, often serially, as in Afghanistan?

    Central to Coyne’s explanation of why such efforts fail so spectacularly (and they do; I saw it first hand in Iraq, and Coyne provides numerous examples from Kosovo to Katrina) centers on the problem of “the man of the humanitarian system.” An economist, Coyne riffs off of Adam Smith’s “man of the system,” the bureaucrat who thinks he can coordinate a complex economy. In humanitarian terms, The Man thinks he can influence events from above, ignorant (or just not caring) about the complex social and small-scale political factors at work below. Having no idea of what is really going on, while at the same time imaging he has complete power to influence events by applying humanitarian cash, The Man can’t help but fail. There is thus no way large-scale humanitarian projects can large-scale change a society. The connection between Coyne’s theoretical and the reality of the U.S. State Department staff sequestered in Iraq’s Green Zone or holed up on military bases in Afghanistan, hoping to create Jeffersonian democracies outside the wire, is wickedly, sadly perfect.

    The Man takes additional body blows in Coyne’s book. One of the most significant is in how internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.


    Subtractive Harm

    With the fundamental base of ignorance and arrogance laid to explain failure, Coyne moves on to address how harm is done. One begins with subtractive harm, how most aid money is siphoned off into the pockets of the contractors and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), plus bureaucratic and security overheard, such that very little reaches the country in need. For example, of the nearly two billion dollars disbursed by the U.S. Government to Haiti, less than two percent went to Haitian businesses. In Iraq, I watched as USAID hired an American NGO based in Jordan specifically to receive such money, who then hired an Iraqi subcontractor owned by a Dubai-consortium, to get a local Iraqi to dig a simple well. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of the money “spent” actually went toward digging the well; the rest disappeared like water into the desert sand.

    Some more bad news: in today’s development world, The Man monopolizes the show. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction have been militarized, primarily by the U.S., as a tool of war; indeed, the U.S. Army in Iraq constantly referred to money as a “weapons system,” and planning sessions for aid allotments were called non-lethal targeting. They followed the same rubric as artillery missions or special forces raids in laying out goals, resources, intel and desired outcomes. USAID, State and other parts of the U.S. Government exert significant control over more indigenous NGOs simply by flinging money around; do your own thing under the radar with little money, or buy-in to the U.S. corporate vision of humanitarian aid. Many chances at smaller, more nimble and responsive organizations doing good are thus negated.


    Real Harm

    In addition to such subtractive harm, the flow of aid money into often poor and disorganized countries breeds corruption. Coyne reckons some 97 percent of the Afghan GNP is made up of foreign spending, with healthy chunks skimmed off by corrupt politicians. I saw the same in Iraq, as the U.S.’ need for friendly partners and compliant politicians added massive overhead (corruption, price inflation) to our efforts. A thousand Tony Sopranos emerged alongside our efforts, demanding protection money so that supply trucks weren’t ambushed and requiring the U.S. to use “their” local contractors to ensure no accidents would cripple a project. In Afghanistan, such corruption is casually documented at the highest levels of government, where even President Karzai boasts of receiving shopping bags of cash from the CIA each month.

    (One Afghan, perhaps humorously, commented online “I would like the CIA. to know they can start delivering money to the carpet shop my family owns any day this week. But, please, no plastic bags. Kabul is choked with them. The goats eat as many as they can, but still the Kabul River is filled with them, waiting to be washed down to Pakistan, where they have enough problems of their own.”)

    And of course those nasty unexpected consequences. The effect of billions of dollars in “helpful” foreign money accompanied by thousands of helpful foreign experts also dooms efforts. If the U.S. is willing to pay for trash pickup (as in Iraq, for example) or build schools and roads, why should the local government spend its time and money on the tasks? The problem of course is that when foreign money drifts away on the newest political breeze, there are no local systems in place to pick up the work. The same problem occurs on a macro scale. Huge piles of free money air-dropping in-country create their own form of shadow economy, one far-removed from both local entrepreneurship and market forces. Again, when the free money stops, there is no viable market economy in place to take up the slack. Chaos at worst, corruption and haphazard progress at best, are inevitable.

    Not-such-a bonus: Foreign workers, Coyne documents, often act with impunity, if not formal immunity, from local laws. From UN workers fueling the child sex trade in Africa, to State Department hired Blackwater mercenaries gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, harm is often done under the guise of good.



    The End?

    Coyne tries hard to come up with some sort of solution to all this. Though he bypasses the question of whether countries like the U.S. should make reconstruction and large-scale aid national policy, he accepts that they will. What to do? Coyne posits that the only chance for success is economic freedom. Encouraging discovery via entrepreneurship and access to the free market while rolling back the state in humanitarian interventions will allow the space for genuine economic and societal progress. Coyne concludes this process is messy and will often appear misguided to outsiders, but that it is the only way to achieve society-wide development.

    And good luck to those who try and press such change on the U.S. efforts. In the end, Coyne’s book is extremely valuable as a way of understanding why current efforts have failed, and why future ones likely will fail, rather than as a prescription for fixing things. That’s a bit of an unfair criticism; changing U.S. policy on such a fundamental level is no simple task and Coyne, to his credit, gives it a try. I may have meant well personally, but failed in my own efforts at reconstruction and then writing about it to do much more than lay out the details. Coyne deserves much credit for formalizing what many of us experienced, and for at least laying out the theoretical construct of a more successful approach.

    Author’s site: http://www.ccoyne.com/





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