June 21, 2008
The Progressive Book Club has been launched, and the June selection is The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse. It’s a great idea for a book club, and we wish it all success, but there’s no doubt the Progressive Book Club will be fighting an uphill battle. Book clubs are, after all, losing their customer base. The Conservative Book Club is a poor comparison because conservative books are lifestyle accessories meant to be displayed, not read. You don’t think people actually read Liberal Fascism or An Inconvenient Book, do you? Those tomes exist to be placed on coffee tables in bunkers. Liberal books are meant to be read and thought about. Original thinking is so scarce in conservative circles, every wingnut book is simply an exercise in foregone conclusions.
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Are we living in Nixonland or Reaganland? Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, and Sean Wilentz, author of The Age of Reagan, thrash it out.
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Fred Smoler of Dissent reviews a mixed bag of books about the complicated moral implications of the rise of privatized military firms, or PMFs.
Though Blackwater, the PMF that is the Bush adminsitration’s BFF in Iraq, has been accused of numerous abuses, other PMFs have been used effectively to halt anarchy on the ground and restore stability to civil war zones. Peter Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry recounts at least two instances in which PMFs were the saviors of people in desperate trouble:
Corporate Warriors opens with two anecdotes, the second concerning the Croatian 1995 offensive Operation Storm, which began the sequence of events that broke Serbian military power in what had been Yugoslavia and within a few weeks stopped the carnage in Bosnia, reversing the balance of power on the ground and bringing the wars to an abrupt and relatively just end. American air strikes on Serbian forces also played a significant role in ending Serbian aggression, but the Croatian offensive is generally acknowledged to have been the more important factor. Operation Storm seems to have been planned by Military Professional Resources Incorporated, a PMF based in Alexandria, Virginia. The company’s success in planning a devastating combined-arms offensive is by no means astonishing, given that its twenty-three founders had between them more than seven hundred years of military experience . . . Singer’s first anecdote, also set in 1995, is at least as interesting, and if you are prone to assume that PMFs are always a bad thing, a bit disorienting, for he recounts the swiftness with which truly ghastly anarchy in Sierra Leone was brought to an end when the Revolutionary United Front was turned back from Freetown by a South African-based PMF called Executive Outcomes. For Scahill, who also knows this story, the apartheid-era origins of Executive Outcomes’ personnel seem sufficient to damn the firm; for Singer, the end of the horrific reign of the child soldiers, the first free elections in twenty-three years, and the creation of a democratic government at least complicate the lessons. Sierra Leone’s democratic government did not in fact survive (nor, in the long run, did Executive Outcomes), but the former perished in large part because it thought it could do without the services of a PMF, instead placing its trust in UN and African peacekeepers, and Executive Outcomes, although officially dissolved, has spawned some very effective successors.
Of the books under review, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Nation writer Jeremy Scahill, comes off the worst. On the credit side, the reviewer acknowledges that Scahill has done much valuable spadework in exposing the rather disturbing worldview of the tops executives at Blackwater, which has received $700 million in contracts form the State Department since 2003. On the debit side, Scahill is entirely too credulous in reporting alleged atrocities by American soldiers and mercenaries — so credulous, Smoler says, that the reader becomes reluctant to take his reporting at face value.
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