Book – Gore Vidal – Inventing a Nation

American Revolution comes to life

The broadside was a common form of media during the American Revolutio.  Inventing a Nation is such a broadside – a compact melange of anecdotal history, contemporary commentary and unabashed partisan rhetoric — in other words, a great read! Vidal surveys the period from 1776 to 1800, concentrating on the personalities and writings of Hamilton, Adams, Washington, & Jefferson. Along the way, he contrasts 18th century politics and political philosophy with 21st century politics. Other times he’s satisfied with the quick jab, as when he quotes Adams’ view of the newly arrived French minister as a comparison with “our first unelected president”:

John Adams had known Genet’s family in France: he had also known the boy himself. Politely, he received the fiery minister and then wrapped him round with Adamsian analysis of the graveyard sort: “A youth totally destitute of all experience in popular government, popular assemblies, or conventions of any kind: very little accustomed to reflect upon his own or his fellow creatures’ hearts; wholly ignorant of the law of nature and nations . . . ” Adams did grant him “a declamatory style. . . a flitting, fluttering imagination, an ardor in his temper, and a civil deportment.” Thus two centuries ago the witty French had sent us an archetypal personality whose American avatar would one’ day be placed in Washington’s by now rickety chair.

But Vidal’s slyness is only a cover for his real subject — the creation of a government that could hold democracy at bay without the trappings of a monarchy. The book is not much longer than an old-style New Yorker series, and he summarizes major events like the constitutional convention to provide details of the men involved, as seen by themselves and their peers. Early on he shows the prescience of many of the founders:

At eighty-one Franklin was too feeble to address the convention on its handiwork, and so a friend read for him the following words: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administred; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administred for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other. Now, two centuries and sixteen years later, Franklin’s blunt dark prophecy has come true: popular corruption has indeed given birth to that Despotic Government which he foresaw as inevitable at our birth. Unsurprisingly, a third edition of the admirable Benjamin Franklin: His Lift As He Wrote It, by Esmon Wright, is now on sale (Harvard University Press, 1996) with’ significantly-inevitably?, Franklin’s somber prediction cut out, thus silencing our only great ancestral voice to predict Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and, following that, des­potism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around” No wonder that so many academic histories of our republic and its origins tend to gaze fixedly upon the sunny aspects of a history growing ever darker. No wonder they choose to disregard the wise, eerily prescient voice of the authentic Franklin in favor of the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore, with his simple maxims for simple folk; to ignore his key to our earthly political invention in favor of that lesser key which he attached to a kite in order to attract heavenly fire.

In the afterword Vidal pushes the point home, starting from his discussion of the Alien & Sedition Acts, progenitors of the Patriot Act, he follows Jefferson’s careful defense of civil rights with his orchestration of the states counterattack that resulted in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

In a sense Jefferson had made his case in the first Kentucky Resolution from which Breckinridge had eliminated the core
argument “where powers are assumed [by the Federal government] which have not been delegated [in the Constitution], a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact. . . to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of powers by others within their own limits.” Thus Jefferson in 1798 had spoken in favor of the principle of nullification. But the first resolution asked for no more than a general sense of the States that the two Federalist Acts were unconstitutional.

Jefferson had to act cautiously, for, even as Vice President, his mere criticism of the acts of Adams & Hamilton could be a violation of the Sedition Act. [Not so different from today’s Bush supporters who declare any dissent being aid and comfort to the enemy.] In this case, the ultimate confrontation was avoided by Jefferson’s electoral defeat of Adams and immediate
suspension of the 2 acts. But nullification remained an inflammatory concept lurking within the Constitution; exploding in the Civil War 2 generations later. Today, Vidal sees it as perhaps the last defense of the states when the Federal Executive abrogates power.

I’ve only traced here one of several threads Vidal ties to contemporary issues. Others include Hamilton’s creation of the financial system, and Marshall’s bold construction of judicial review. Shortness doesn’t prevent Vidal from presenting many arguments that are vital to today’s national politics. Conservatives’ knee-jerk reactions in reviews are amusing since much of the discussion in the book is of ideas any true conservative should hold as core values!

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Book – The Afghan Campaign – Into the Valley of Bones

Author : Steven Pressfield

A Macedonians soldier’s account of the long war fought by Alexander the Great’s Army in Afghanistan covering the last years of Alexander’s campaigns in Afghanistan, trying to quell insurgencies and tribal warfare. The book is told from the point of view of a ‘Mack’, one of Alexander’s veteran Macedonians.  But it could just as easily been written by Sebastian Junger in ‘War’ describing how little things have changed more than 2000 years later.

On the Afghan tribes:

It is impossible to dislike these fellows. I find myself envying their proud, free life. Labor is unknown to them. Their ponies graze on sweet grass in summer, dry fodder when the passes close. Their wives and sisters weave their garments, prepare their dal and ghee. Families shelter in stone houses, ownership of which they recite back twenty generations, whose only removable parts are the wooden doors and roofs (in case of evacuation due to feuds). Every kin-group holds two residences, summer and winter. If a rival clan raids, the khels drive them out through superior local knowledge. Should an alien power enter in force, as Cyrus in the past or Alexander now, the tribes withdraw to loftier fastnesses, sending to wider spheres of kinsmen until they assemble the necessary numbers; then they strike.

The Afghan Warrior Code:

Nangwali is the Afghan warrior code. Its tenets are nang, honor; badal, revenge; and melmastia, hospitality. Tor, “black,” covers all matters concerning the virtue of women. An affront to a sister or wife’s honor can be made spin, “white,” by no means short of death. Blood feuds, the brothers tell me, start over zar, zan, and zamin: money, women, and land.

In cases of badal, vengeance is taken by father or son. In tor, it’s the husband, except in the case of unmarried women; then all males of the family may not rest until justice has been exacted. The code of nangwali forbids theft, rape, adultery, and false witness; it prosecutes cowardice, abandonment of parents or children, and usury. The code prescribes rites for births and death, armistices, reparations, prayer, almsgiving, and all other passages of life. Poverty is no crime. Reverence for elders is the cardinal virtue, succeeded by indispensable. They crave above all to win back his love. Alexander, of course, is exquisitely attuned to this and knows how to exploit it for all it is worth. Now he adds a further element to set the country on its ear.

Corruption through Money

The wealth that has poured into Afghanistan with the army of Macedon has deformed the economy of the entire region. In the city market, a pear costs five times what it used to. The locals can’t pay. Meanwhile, a second economy has sprung up-the camp economy, the economy inside the Macedonian gates, where the pear may still cost five times its original price, but at least a man can afford it. The natives face the choice of starvation or submission to this new economy, either as suppliers or servants, both of which occupations are abhorrent to Afghan pride. Worse still, the aikas system lures their young women. Soldiers reckon every currency of seduction that can nail them dish, fig, cooch. Now they have a new plum to dangle: marriage. The native patriarchs seek to lock up their daughters. But the draw of the Mack camp is irresistible, for money, adventure, novelty, romance, and now even the prospect of acquiring a husband. For by no means are these invaders unappealing. Mack regiments parade, awash with youthful captains and Flag Sergeants, horseback and afoot, made swashbucking by the brass of their tunics and the dazzle of their glittering arms. Maids slip from midnight windows to consummate trysts in the arms of their ardent, hazel-eyed lovers. When delegations of city fathers appeal to Alexander for assistance in curbing this traffic, he makes all the right noises but takes care to do nothing. He wants the girls infiltrating. His object is to weaken, even sever, the bonds of family, clan, and tribe. He prosecutes this deliberately

Book – Patrick O’Brian – Jack Aubrey novels

Cochrane – The Life & Exploits of a Fighting Captain – Robert Harvey — Both a complementary addition to the Patrick O’Brian naval series, it stands on its own as the biography of an almost unbelievable naval hero. From single ship actions (in one action, Cochrane fought and defeated a ship more than twice his own ship’s size and firepower); to political missions (Cochrane became the admiral of the emergent navy of the west coast of South America, using his tiny fleet to stop Spain from reinforcing its failing colonies), Harvey writes a compelling story. But the stories take on even more interest when you match them with the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Over and over, bits of action or plotting from Cochrane’s life show up in the Aubrey novels (O’Brian openly admitted that he borrowed from Cochrane’s career to build Aubrey’s), and as interesting are where the parallels fail. The descriptions of the stock market swindles and trial are particularly interesting and vivid.

Patrick O’Brian naval series
O’Brian is to the nautical novel what Le Carre is to the spy genre – excelling in their chosen form, while creating literature.  O’Brian combines detailed seamanship with intricate plotting. All the characters develop as  the series progresses, and it’s worth starting the series over  to see how much was foreshadowed in the early books.  The menus, superstitions, medical care, techniques of navigation and rigging all command attention.  Jack Aubrey’s is probably a more typical career than Hornblower’s, and he spends most of the books as a frigate commander or captain. While he takes part in some historical actions, most of the background plots involve the secret war undertaken by Stephen Maturin and his London spymasters.

These novels are  filled with carefully written dialog, often humorous, but ever in the style of the time. The relationships are perfect and filled with tiny details. [e.g., the employment of injured sailors as Jack’s estate workmen, where they keep the home as spit polished and shipshape as any of Jack’s oceangoing homes. ]  Stephen & Jack’s musical diversions are sui generi- a clever yet telling development of friendship under wartime conditions.  The sailing and  action sequences remain the core of this genre and O’Brian never fails – the storms and other trials of Aubrey’s seafaring abilities are ever
novel and retain interest throughout the series.

  • The Commodore
  • Desolation Island
  • The Far Side of the World
  • The Fortune of War
  •  H.M.S. Surprise
  • The Ionian Mission
  • The Letter of Marque
  • Master and Commander
  • The Mauritius Command
  • The Commodore
  • The Fortune of War
  • The Hundred Days

 

Companion books:

Lobscouse & Spotted Dog : Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels
Anne Chotzinoff Grossman, et al / Hardcover / Published 1997

Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian

Other Nautical fiction