Review of: Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, by Kevin M. Levin

In March 1865, just weeks before the fall of Richmond that was to be the last act ahead of Appomattox, curious onlookers gathered in that city’s Capitol Square to take in a sight not only never before seen but hardly ever even imagined: black men drilling in gray uniforms—a final desperate gasp by a Confederacy truly on life support. None were to ever see combat. Elsewhere, it is likely that a good number of the ragged white men marching with Robert E. Lee’s shrunken Army of Northern Virginia were aware of this recent development. News travels fast in the ranks, and after all it was pressure from General Lee himself that finally won over adamant resistance at the top to enlist black troops. We can suppose that many of Lee’s soldiers—who had over four years seen much blood and treasure spent to guard the principle that the most appropriate condition for African Americans was in human bondage—were quite surprised by this strange turn of events. But more than one hundred fifty years later, the ghosts of those same men would be astonished to learn that today’s “Lost Cause” celebrants of the Confederacy insist that legions of “Black Confederates” had marched alongside them throughout the struggle.

In Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (2019), historian Kevin M. Levin brings thorough research and outstanding analytical skills to an engaging and very well-written study of how an entirely fictional, ahistorical notion not only found life, but also the oxygen to gain traction and somehow spawn an increasingly large if misguided audience. For those committed to history, Levin’s effort arrived not a moment too soon, as so many legitimate Civil War groups—on and off social networking—have come under assault by “Lost Cause” adherents who have weaponized debate with fantastical claims that lack evidence in the scholarship but are cleverly packaged and aggressively peddled to the uninformed. The aim is to sanitize history in an attempt to defend the Confederacy, shift the cause of secession from slavery to states’ rights, refashion their brand of slavery as benevolent, and reveal purported long suppressed “facts” allegedly erased by today’s “woke” mob eager to cast the south’s doomed quest to defend their liberty from northern aggression in a negative light. In this process, the concept of “Black Confederates” has turned into their most prominent and powerful meme, winning converts of not only the uninitiated but sometimes, unexpectedly, of those who should know better.

What has been dubbed the “Myth of the Lost Cause” was born of the smoldering ashes of the Confederacy. The south had been defeated; slavery not only outlawed but widely discredited. Many of the elite southern politicians who back in 1861 had proclaimed the Confederate States of America a “proud slave republic” after fostering secession because Lincoln’s Republicans would block their peculiar institution from the territories, now rewrote history to erase slavery as their chief grievance. Attention was instead refocused on “states’ rights,” which in prior decades had mostly served as euphemism for the right to own human beings as property. Still, the scholarly consensus has established that slavery was indeed the central cause of the war. As Gary Gallagher, one of today’s foremost Civil War historians, has urged: pay attention to what they said at the dawn of the war, not what they said when it was over. Of course, for those who promote the Lost Cause, it is just the opposite.

There are multiple prongs to the Lost Cause strategy. One holds slavery as a generally benign practice with deep roots to biblical times, along with a whiff of the popular antebellum trope that juxtaposed the enslaved with beleaguered New England mill workers, maintaining that the former lived better, more secure lives as property—and that they were content, even pleased, by their station in life. This theme was later exploited with much fanfare in the fiction and film of Gone with the Wind, with such memorable episodes as the enslaved Prissy screeching in terror that “De Yankees is comin!”—a cry that in real life would far more likely have been in celebration than distress.

But, as Levin reveals through careful research, the myth of black men in uniform fighting to defend the Confederacy did not emerge until the 1970s, as the actual treatment of African Americans—in slavery, in Jim Crow, as second-class citizens—became widely known to a much larger audience. This motivated Lost Cause proponents to not only further distance the southern cause from slavery, but to invent the idea that blacks actually laid down their lives to preserve it. In the internet age, this most conspicuously translated into memes featuring out-of-context photographs of black men clutching muskets and garbed in gray … the “Black Confederates” who bravely served to defend Dixie against marauding Yankees.

All of this seems counterintuitive, which is why it is remarkable that the belief not only caught on but has grown in popularity. In fact, some half million of the enslaved fled to Union lines over the course of the war. Two hundred thousand black men formed the ranks of the United States Colored Troops (USCT); ultimately a full ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of African Americans. If captured, blacks were returned to slavery or—all too frequently—murdered as they attempted to surrender at Fort Pillow, the Battle of the Crater, and elsewhere. That idea that African Americans would willingly fight for the Confederacy seems not only unlikely, but insane.

So what about those photographs of blacks in rebel uniforms? What is their provenance? To find out, Levin begins by exploring what life was like for white Confederates. In the process, he builds upon Colin Woodward’s brilliant 2014 study, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War. Woodward challenged the popular assumption that while most rebels fought for southern independence, they remained largely agnostic about the politics of slavery, especially since only a minority were slaveowners themselves. Disputing this premise, Woodward argued that the peculiar institution was never some kind of abstract notion to the soldier in the ranks, since tens of thousands of blacks accompanied Confederate armies as “camp slaves” throughout the course of the war! (Many Civil War buffs are shocked to learn that Lee brought as many as six to ten thousand camp slaves with him on the Gettysburg campaign—this while indiscriminately scooping up any blacks encountered along the way, both fugitive and free.)

Levin skips the ideological debate at the heart of Woodward’s thesis while bringing focus to the omnipresence of the enslaved, whose role was entirely non-military, devoted instead to perform every kind of labor that would be part of the duties of soldiers on the other side. This included digging entrenchments, tending to sanitation, serving as teamsters, cooks, etc. Many were subject to impressment by the Confederate government to support the war effort, while others were the personal property of officers or enlisted men, body servants who accompanied their masters to the front. According to Levin, it turns out that some of the famous photographs of so-called Black Confederates were of these enslaved servants whom their owners dressed up for dramatic effect in the studio, decked out in a matching uniform with musket and sword—before even marching off to war. Once in camp, of course, these men would no longer be in costume: they were slaves, not soldiers.

After the war, legends persisted of loyal camp slaves who risked their lives under fire to tend to a wounded master or brought their bodies home for burial. While likely based upon actual events, the number of such occurrences was certainly overstated in Lost Cause lore that portrayed the enslaved as not only content to be chattel but even eager to assist those who held them as property. Also, as Reconstruction fell to Redemption, blacks in states of the former Confederacy who sought to enjoy rights guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were routinely terrorized and frequently murdered. For African Americans who faced potentially hostile circumstances, championing their roles as loyal camp slaves, real or imagined, translated into a survival mechanism. Meanwhile, whites who desperately wanted to remember that which was contrived or exaggerated zealously hawked such tales, later came to embrace them, and then finally enshrined them as incontrovertible truth, celebrated for decades hence at reunions where former camp slaves dutifully made appearances to act the part.

Still later, there was an intersection of such celebrity with financial reward, when southern states began to offer pensions for veterans and some provision was made for the most meritorious camp slaves. But, at the end of the day, these men remained slaves, not soldiers. Nevertheless, more than a full century hence, many of these pensioners were transformed into Black Confederates. And some of them people the memes of a now resurgent Lost Cause often inextricably entwined with today’s right-wing politics.

It is certainly likely that handfuls of camp slaves may have, on rare occasions, taken up a weapon alongside their masters and fired at soldiers in blue charging their positions. Such reports exist, even if these cannot always be corroborated. In the scheme of things, these numbers are certainly miniscule. And, of course, in every conflict there are collaborators. But the idea that African Americans served as organized, uniformed forces fighting for the south not only lacks evidence but rationality.

Yet, how can we really know for certain? For that, we turn to a point Levin makes repeatedly in the narrative: there are simply no contemporaneous accounts of such a thing. It has elsewhere been estimated that soldiers in the Civil War, north and south, collectively wrote several million letters. Tens of thousands of these survive, and touch on just about every imaginable topic. Not a one refers Black Confederate troops in the field.

On the other hand, quite a few letters home reference the sometimes-brutal discipline inflicted upon disobedient camp slaves. In one, a Georgia Lieutenant informed his wife that he whipped his enslaved servant Joe “about four hundred lashes … I tore his back and legs all to pieces. I was mad enough to kill him.” Another officer actually did beat a recalcitrant slave to death [p26-27]. Such acts went unpunished, of course, and that they were so frankly and unremarkably reported in letters to loved ones speaks volumes about the routine cruelty of chattel slavery while also contradicting modern fantasies that black men would willingly fight for such an ignoble cause. The white ex-Confederates who later hailed the heroic and loyal camp slave no doubt willingly erased from memory the harsh beatings that could characterize camp life; the formerly enslaved who survived likely never forgot.

Searching for Black Confederates is as much about disproving their existence as it is about the reasons some insist against all evidence that they did. With feet placed firmly in the past as well as the present, Levin—who has both a talent for scholarship as well as a gifted pen—has written what is unquestionably the definitive treatment of this controversy, and along the way has made a significant contribution to the historiography. The next time somebody tries to sell you on “Black Confederates,” advise them to read this book first, and then get back to you!


I reviewed the Woodward book here: Review of: Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War, by Colin Edward Woodward

Review of: Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856, and All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860, by Sidney Blumenthal

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States, although his name did not appear on the ballot in ten southern states. Just about six weeks later, South Carolina seceded. This information is communicated in only the final few of the more than six hundred pages contained in All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860, the ambitious third installment in Sidney Blumenthal’s projected five-volume series. But this book, just as the similarly thick ones that preceded it, is burdened neither by unnecessary paragraphs nor even a single gratuitous sentence. Still, most noteworthy, Abraham Lincoln—the ostensible subject—is conspicuous in his absence in vast portions of this intricately detailed and extremely well-written narrative that goes well beyond the boundaries of ordinary biography to deliver a much-needed re-evaluation of the tumultuous age that he sprang from in order to account for how it was that this unlikely figure came to dominate it. The surprising result is that through this unique approach, the reader will come to know and appreciate the nuance and complexity that was the man and his times like never before.

When I was in school, in the standard textbooks Lincoln seems to come out of nowhere. A homespun, prairie lawyer who served a single, unremarkable term in the House of Representatives, he is thrust into national prominence when he debates Stephen A. Douglas in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, then somehow rebounds just two years later by skipping past Congress and into the White House. Douglas, once one of the most well-known and consequential figures of his day, slips into historical obscurity. Meanwhile, long-simmering sectional disputes between white men on both sides roar to life with Lincoln’s election, sparking secession by a south convinced that their constitutional rights and privileges are under assault. Slavery looms just vaguely on the periphery. Civil War ensues, an outgunned Confederacy falls, Lincoln is assassinated, slavery is abolished, national reconciliation follows, and African Americans are even more thoroughly erased from history than Stephen Douglas.

Of course, the historiography has come a long way since then. While fringe “Lost Cause” adherents still speak of states’ rights, the scholarly consensus has unequivocally established human chattel slavery as the central cause for the conflict, as well as resurrected the essential role of African Americans—who comprised a full ten percent of the Union army—in putting down the rebellion. In recent decades, this has motivated historians to reexamine the prewar and postwar years through a more polished lens. That has enabled a more thorough exploration of the antebellum period that had been too long cluttered with grievances of far less significance such as the frictions in rural vs. urban, agriculture vs. industry, and tariffs vs. free trade. Such elements may indeed have exacerbated tensions, but without slavery there could have been no Civil War.

And yet … and yet with all the literature that has resulted from this more recent scholarship, much of it certainly superlative, students of the era cannot help but detect the shadows of missing bits and pieces, like the dark matter in the universe we know exists but struggle to identify. This is at least partially due to timelines that fail to properly chart root causes that far precede traditional antebellum chronologies that sometimes look back no further than the Mexican War—which at the same time serves as a bold underscore to the lack of agreement on even a consistent “start date” for the antebellum. Not surprisingly perhaps, this murkiness has also crept into the realm of Lincoln studies, to the disfavor of genres that should be complementary rather than competing.

In fact, the trajectory of Lincoln’s life and the antebellum are inextricably conjoined, a reality that Sidney Blumenthal brilliantly captures with a revolutionary tactic that chronicles these as a single, intertwined narrative that begins with A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849 (which I reviewed elsewhere). It is evident that at Lincoln’s birth the slave south already effectively controlled the government, not only by way of a string of chief executives who also happened to be Virginia plantation dynasts, but—of even greater consequence—outsize representation obtained via the Constitution’s “Three-Fifth’s Clause.” But even then, there were signs that the slave power—pregnant with an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance, a conviction of moral superiority, as well as a ruthless will to dominate—possessed an unquenchable appetite to enlarge their extraordinary political power to steer the ship of state—frequently enabled by the northern men of southern sympathies then disparaged as “doughfaces.” Lincoln was eleven at the time of the Missouri Compromise, twenty-three during the Nullification Crisis so closely identified with John C. Calhoun, twenty-seven when the first elements of the “gag rule” in the House so ardently opposed by John Quincy Adams were instituted, thirty-seven at the start of both the Mexican War and his sole term as an Illinois Congressman, where he questioned the legitimacy of that conflict. That same year, Stephen A. Douglas, also of Illinois, was elected U.S. Senator.

Through it all, the author proves as adept as historian of the United States as he is biographer of Lincoln—who sometimes goes missing for a chapter or more, only summoned when the account calls for him to make an appearance. Some critics have voiced their frustration at Lincoln’s own absence for extended portions in what is after all his own biography, but they seem to be missing the point. As Blumenthal demonstrates in this and subsequent volumes, it is not only impossible to study Lincoln without surveying the age that he walked the earth, but it turns out that it is equally impossible to analyze the causes of the Civil War absent an analysis of Lincoln, because he was such a critical figure along the way.

Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856, picks up where A Self-Made Man leaves off, and that in turn is followed by All the Powers of Earth. All form a single unbroken narrative of politics and power, something that happens to fit with my growing affinity for political biography, as distinguished by David O. Stewart’s George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek. Blumenthal, of course, takes this not only to a whole new level, but to an entirely new dimension.

For more recent times, the best of the best in this genre appears in works by historian Rick Perlstein (author of Nixonland and Reaganland) who also happens to be the guy who recommended Blumenthal to me. In the pages of Perlstein’s Reaganland, Jimmy Carter occupies center-stage far more so than Ronald Reagan, since without Carter’s failed presidency there never could have been a President Reagan. Similarly, Blumenthal cedes a good deal of Lincoln’s spotlight to Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime rival and the most influential doughface of his time. Many have dubbed John C. Calhoun the true instigator in the process that led to Civil War a decade after his death. And while that reputation may not be undeserved, it might be overstated. Calhoun, a southerner who celebrated slavery, championed nullification, and normalized notions of secession, could indeed be credited with paving the road to disunion. But, as Blumenthal skillfully reveals, maniacally gripping the reins of the wagon that in a confluence of unintended consequences was to hurtle towards both secession and war was the under-sized, racist, alcoholic, bombastic, narcissistic, ambitious, pro-slavery but pro-union northerner Stephen A. Douglas, the so-called “Little Giant.”

Like Calhoun, Douglas was self-serving and opportunistic, with a talent for constructing an ideological framework for issues that suited his purposes. But unlike Calhoun, while he often served their interests Douglas was a northern man never accepted nor entirely trusted by the southern elite that he toadied to in his cyclical unrequited hopes they would back his presidential ambitions. Such support never materialized.

It may not have been clear at the time, and the history books tend to overlook it, but Blumenthal demonstrates that it was the rivalry between Douglas and Lincoln that truly defined the struggles and outcomes of the age. It was Douglas who—undeterred by the failed efforts of Henry Clay—shepherded through the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act that was such an anathema to the north. More significantly, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise was Douglas’s brainchild, and Douglas was to continue to champion his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” even after Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott invalidated it. It was Douglas’s fantasy that he alone could unite the states of north and south, even as the process of fragmentation was well underway, a course he himself surely if inadvertently set in motion. Douglas tried to be everyone’s man, and in the end he was to be no one’s. Throughout all of this, over many years, Blumenthal argues, Lincoln—out of elective office but hardly a bystander—followed Douglas. Lincoln’s election brought secession, but if a sole agent was to be named for fashioning the circumstances that ignited the Civil War, that discredit would surely go to Douglas, not Lincoln.

These two volumes combined well exceed a thousand pages, not including copious notes and back matter, so no review can appropriately capture it all except to say that collectively it represents a magnificent achievement that succeeds in treating the reader to what the living Lincoln was like while recreating the era that defined him. Indeed, including his first book, I have thus far read nearly sixteen hundred pages of Blumenthal’s Lincoln and my attention has never wavered. Only Robert Caro—with his Shakespearian multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson—has managed to keep my interest as long as Blumenthal. And I can’t wait for the next two in the series to hit the press!  To date, more than fifteen thousand books have been published about Abraham Lincoln, so there are many to choose from. Still, these from Blumenthal are absolutely required reading.


I reviewed Blumenthal’s first volume, A Self-Made Man, here:  Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal

I reviewed Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland here:  Review of: Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, by Rick Perlstein

Review of: The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, by Angela Saini

“Down With the Patriarchy” is a both a powerful rallying cry and a fashionable emblem broadcast in memes, coffee mugs, tee shirts—and even, paired with an expletive, sung aloud in a popular Taylor Swift anthem. But what exactly is the patriarchy? Is it, as feminists would have it, a reflection of an entrenched system of male domination that defines power relationships between men and women in arenas public and private? Or, as some on the right might style it, a “woke” whine of victimization that downplays the equality today’s women have achieved at home and at work? Regardless, is male dominance simply the natural order of things, born out of traditional gender roles in hunting and gathering, reaping and sowing, sword-wielding and childbearing? Or was it—and does it remain—an artificial institution imposed from above and stubbornly preserved? Do such patterns run deep into human history, or are they instead the relatively recent by-products of agriculture, of settled civilization, of states and empires? Did other lifeways once exist? And finally, perhaps most significantly, does it have to be this way?

A consideration of these and other related questions, both practical and existential, form the basis for The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, an extraordinary tour de force by Angela Saini marked by both a brilliant gift for analysis and an extremely talented pen. Saini, a science journalist and author of the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed Superior: The Return of Race Science, one-ups her own prior achievements by widening the lens on entrenched inequalities in human societies to look beyond race as a factor, a somewhat recent phenomenon in the greater scheme of things, to that of gender, which—at least on the face of it—seems far more ancient and deep-seated.

To that end, in The Patriarchs Saini takes the reader on a fascinating expedition to explore male-female relationships—then and now—ranging as far back as the nearly ten-thousand-year-old proto-city Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, where some have suggested that female deities were worshipped and matriarchy may have been the status quo, and flashing forward to the still ongoing protests in Iran, sparked by the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman detained for wearing an “improper” hijab. There are many stops in between, including the city-states of Classical Greece, which saw women controlled and even confined by their husbands in democratic Athens, but yet celebrated for their strength and independence (of a sorts) in the rigidly structured autocracy that defined the Spartan polis.

But most of the journey is contemporary and global in scope, from Seneca Falls, New York, where many Onondaga Native American women continue to enjoy a kind of gender equality that white American women could hardly imagine when they launched their bid for women’s rights in that locale in 1848, to the modern-day states of Kerala and Meghalaya in India, which still retain deeply-rooted traditions of the matrilinear and the matriarchal, respectively, in a nation where arranged marriages remain surprisingly common. And to Afghanistan, where the recently reinstalled Taliban regime prohibits the education of girls and mandates the wearing of a Burqa in public, and Ethiopia, where in many parts of the country female genital mutilation is the rule, not the exception. There are even interviews with European women who grew up in the formerly socialist eastern bloc, some who look back wistfully to a time marked by better economic security and far greater opportunities for women, despite the repression that otherwise characterized the state.

I’m a big fan of Saini’s previous work, but still I cracked the cover of her latest book with some degree of trepidation. This is, after all, such a loaded topic that it could, if mishandled, too easily turn to polemic.  So I carefully sniffed around for manifesto-disguised-as-thesis, for axes cleverly cloaked from grinding, for cherry-picked data, and for broad brushes. (Metaphors gleefully mixed!) Thankfully, there was none of that. Instead, she approaches this effort throughout as a scientist, digging deep, asking questions, and reporting answers that sometimes are not to her liking. You have to respect that. My background is history, a study that emphasizes complexity and nuance, and mandates both careful research and an analytical evaluation of relevant data. Both science and history demand critical thinking skills. In The Patriarchs, Saini demonstrates that she walks with great competence in each of these disciplines.

A case in point is her discussion of Çatalhöyük, an astonishing neolithic site first excavated by English archaeologist James Mellaart in the late 1950s that revealed notable hallmarks of settled civilization uncommon for its era. Based on what he identified as figurines of female deities, such as the famous Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük that dates back to 6000 BCE, Mellaart claimed that a “Mother Goddess” culture prevailed. The notion that goddesses once dominated a distant past was dramatically boosted by Lithuanian archaeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, who wrote widely on this topic, and argued as well that a peaceful, matriarchal society was characteristic to the neolithic settlements of Old Europe prior to being overrun by Indo-European marauders from the north who imposed a warlike patriarchy upon the subjugated population.

I squirmed a bit in my seat as I read this, knowing that the respective conclusions of both Mellaart and Gimbutas have since been, based upon more rigorous studies, largely discredited as wildly overdrawn. But there was no need for such concerns, for in subsequent pages Saini herself points to current experts and the scholarly consensus to rebut at least some of the bolder assertions of these earlier archaeologists. It turns out that in both Çatalhöyük and Old Europe, while society was probably not hierarchal, it was likely more gender-neutral than matriarchal. It is clear that the author should be commended for her exhaustive research. While reading of Indo-European invaders—something Gimbutas got right—my thoughts instantly went to David Anthony’s magnificent study, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, which I read some years back. When I thumbed ahead to the “Notes,” I was delighted to find a citation for the Anthony book!

It is soon clear that in her search for the origins of inequality, Saini’s goal is to ask more questions than insist upon answers. Also increasingly evident is that even if it seems to have become more common in the past centuries, patriarchy is not the norm. No, it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps matriarchy did not characterize Çatalhöyük—and we really can’t be certain—but there is evidence for matriarchal societies elsewhere; some still flourish to this day. History and events in the current millennium demonstrate that there are choices, and societies can—and we can—choose equality rather than a condition where one group is dominated by another based upon race, caste, or gender.

With all of the author’s questions and her search for answers, however, it is the journey that is most enjoyable. In such an expansive work of science, history, and philosophy, the narrative never bogs down. And while the scope is vast, it is only a couple of hundred pages. I actually found myself wanting more.

If there is one area where I would caution Saini, it was in her treatment of ancient Greece. Yes, based upon the literature, Athenian women seem to have been stifled and Spartan women less inhibited, but of the hundreds of poleis that existed in the Classical period, we really only have relevant information for a few, surviving data is weighted heavily towards the elites of Athens and Sparta, and much of it is tarnished by editorializing on both sides that reflected the antipathy between these two bitter rivals. There is more to the story. Aspasia, the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles, was a powerful figure in her own right. Lysistrata, the splendid political satire created by the Athenian Aristophanes, smacks of a kind of ancient feminism as it has women on both sides of the Peloponnesian War denying sex to their men until a truce is called. This play could never have resonated if the female characters were wholly imagined. And while we can perhaps admire the status of a Spartan woman when juxtaposed with her Athenian counterpart, we must remember that their primary role in that rigid, militaristic society was to bear the sons of warriors.

But the station of a Spartan woman raises an interesting counterintuitive that I had hoped Saini would explore. Why was it—and does it remain the case—that women seem to gain greater freedom in autocratic states than democratic ones? It is certainly anachronistic to style fifth century Sparta as totalitarian, but the structure of the state seems to have far more in common with the twentieth century Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, where despite repression women achieved far greater equality than they did in Athens or, at least until very recently, in Europe and the United States. And I really wanted a chapter on China, where the crippling horror of foot-binding for girls was not abolished until 1912, and still lingered in places until the communist takeover mid-century. Mao was responsible for the wanton slaughter of millions, yet women attained a greater equality under his brutal regime than they had for the thousands of years that preceded him.

While she touches upon it, I also looked for a wider discussion of how conservative women can sometimes come to not only represent the greatest obstacle for women’s rights but to advance rather than impede the patriarchy. As an American, there are many painful reminders of that here, where in decades past the antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly nearly single-handedly derailed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Most recently, it was a coalition of Republican and Christian evangelical women who led the crusade that eventually succeeded in curbing abortion rights. But then, as I wished for another hundred pages to go over all this, Saini summed up the incongruity succinctly in a discussion of female genital mutilation in Africa, citing the resistance to change by an Ethiopian girl who asserted: “If our mothers should refuse to continue cutting us, we will cut ourselves.” [p191]

In the end, Saini’s strategy was sound. The Patriarchs boasts a manageable size and the kind of readability that might be sacrificed in a bulkier treatise. The author doesn’t try to say it all: only what is most significant. Also, both the length and the presentation lend appeal to a popular audience, while the research and extensive notes will suit an academic one, as well. That is an especially rare accomplishment these days!

Whatever preconceived notions the reader might have, based upon the title and its implications, Saini demonstrates again and again that it’s not her intention to prove a point, but rather to make you think. Here she succeeds wonderfully. And you get the impression that it is her intellectual curiosity that guides her life. Born in London of ethnic Indian parents and now residing in New York City, she is a highly educated woman with brown skin, feet that can step comfortably into milieus west and east, and an insightful mind that fully embraces the possibilities of the modern world. Thus, Saini is in so many ways ideally suited to address issues of racism and sexism. She is still quite young, and this is her fourth book. I suspect there will be many more. In the meantime, read this one. It will be well worth your time.


Note: This review was based upon an Uncorrected Page Proof edition

Note: I reviewed Saini’s previous book here: Review of: Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini

Review of: Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, by Judy Gumbo

The typical American family of 1968 sitting back to watch the nightly news on their nineteen-inch televisions could be excused for sometimes gripping their armrests as events unfolded before them—for most in living color, but for plenty of others still on the familiar black-and-white sets rapidly going extinct. (I was eleven: we had a color TV!) The first seven months of that year was especially tumultuous.

There was January’s spectacular Tet Offensive across South Vietnam, which while ultimately unsuccessful yet stunned a nation still mostly deluded by assurances from Lyndon Johnson’s White House that the war was going according to plan. Then in February, the South Carolina highway patrol opened fire on unarmed black Civil Rights protestors on the state university campus, leaving three dead and more than two dozen injured in what was popularly called the “Orangeburg Massacre.” In March, a shaken LBJ announced in a live broadcast that he would not seek reelection. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, sparking riots in cities across the country. Only two days later, a fierce firefight erupted between the Oakland police and Black Panther Party members Eldridge Cleaver and “Lil’ Bobby” Hutton, which left two officers injured, Hutton dead, and Cleaver in custody; some reports maintain that seventeen-year-old Hutton was executed by police after he surrendered. Later that same month, hundreds of antiwar students occupied buildings on Columbia University’s campus until the New York City police violently broke up the demonstration, beating and arresting protesters. In May, Catholic activists known as the Catonsville Nine removed draft files from a Maryland draft board which they set ablaze in the parking lot. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. In July, what became known as the “Glenville Shootout” saw black militants engaged in an extended gunfight with police in Cleveland, Ohio that left seven dead.

In August, just days before the streets outside the arena hosting the Democratic National Convention deteriorated into violent battles between police and demonstrators that later set the stage for the famous trial of the “Chicago Seven,” a group of Yippies—members of the Youth International Party that specialized in pranks and street theatre— were placed under arrest by the Chicago police while in the process of nominating a pig named “Pigasus” for president. In addition to Pigasus, those taken into custody included Yippie organizer Jerry Rubin, folk singer Phil Ochs, and activist Stew Albert. Present but not detained was Judy Gumbo, Stew’s girlfriend and a feminist activist in her own right.

Known for their playful anarchy, many leaders of the New Left dismissed Yippies as “Groucho Marxists,” but for some reason the FBI, convinced they were violent insurrectionists intent on the overthrow of the United States government, became obsessed with the group, placing them on an intensive surveillance that lasted for years to come. A 1972 notation in Gumbo’s FBI files declared, without evidence, that she was “the most vicious, the most anti-American, the most anti-establishment, and the most dangerous to the internal security of the United States.” She was later to obtain copies of these files, which served as an enormously valuable diary of events of sorts for her (2022) memoir, Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, a well-written if sometimes uneven account of her role in and around an organization at the vanguard of the potent political radicalism that swept the country in the late-sixties and early-seventies.

Born Judy Clavir in Toronto, Canada, she grew up a so-called “red diaper baby,” the child of rigidly ideological pro-Soviet communists. She married young and briefly to actor David Hemblen and then fled his unfaithfulness to start a new life in Berkeley, California in the fall of 1967, in the heyday of the emerging counterculture, and soon fell in with activists who ran in the same circles with new boyfriend Stew Albert. Albert’s best friends were Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and Yippie founder Jerry Rubin. She squirmed when Cleaver referred to her as “Mrs. Stew,” insisting upon her own identity, until one day Eldridge playfully dubbed her “Gumbo”—since “gumbo goes with stew.” Ever after she was known as Judy Gumbo.

Gumbo took a job writing copy for a local newspaper, while becoming more deeply immersed in activism as a full-fledged member of the Yippies. As such, those in her immediate orbit were some of the most consequential members of the antiwar and Black Power movements, which sometimes overlapped, including Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, Phil Ochs, William Kunstler, David Dellinger, Timothy Leary, Kathleen Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. She describes the often-immature jockeying for leadership that occurred between rivals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, which also underscored her frustration in general with ostensibly enlightened left-wing radicals who nevertheless casually asserted male dominance in every arena—and fueled her increasingly more strident brand of feminism. She personalized the Yippie exhortation to “rise up and abandon the creeping meatball”—which means to conquer fear by turning it into an act of defiance and deliberately doing exactly what you most fear—by leaving her insecurities behind, as well as her reliance on other people, to grow into an assertive take-no-prisoners independent feminist woman with no regrets. How she achieves this is the journey motif of her life and this memoir.

Gumbo’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes culled from years of close contact with such a wide assortment of sixties notables is the most valuable part of Yippie Girl. There is no doubt that her ability to consult her FBI files—even if these contained wild exaggerations about her character and her activities—refreshed her memories of those days, more than a half century past, which lends authenticity to the book as a kind of primary source for life among Yippies, Panthers, and fellow revolutionaries of the time. And she successfully puts you in the front seat, with her, as she takes you on a tour of significant moments in the movement and in its immediate periphery in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Her style, if not elegant, is highly readable, which is an accomplishment for any author that merits mention in a review of their work.

The weakest part of the book is her unstated insistence on making herself the main character in every situation, which betrays an uncomfortable narcissism that the reader suspects had negative consequences in virtually all of her relationships with both allies and adversaries. Yes, it is her memoir. Yes, her significance in the movement deserves—and has to some degree been denied by history—the kind of notoriety accorded to what after all became household names like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But the reality is that she was never in a top leadership role. She was not arrested with Pigasus. She was not put on trial with the Chicago 7. You can detect in the narrative that she wishes she was.

This aspect of her personality makes her a less sympathetic figure than she should be as a committed activist tirelessly promoting peace and equality while being unfairly hounded by the FBI. But she carries something else unpleasant around with her that is unnerving: an allegiance to her cause and herself that boasts a kind of ruthless naïveté that rejects correction when challenged either by reality or morality. She condemns Cleaver’s infidelity to his wife, but abandons Stew for a series of random affairs, most notably with a North Vietnamese diplomat who happens to be married. She personally eschews violence, but cheers the Capitol bombing by the Weathermen, domestic terrorists who splintered from the former (SDS) Students for a Democratic Society.

To oppose the unjust U.S. intervention in Vietnam and decry the millions of lives lost across Southeast Asia was certainly an honorable cause, worthy of respect, then and now. But this red diaper baby never grew up: her vision of the just and righteous was distinguished by her admiration of oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba—and North Vietnam. Like too many in the antiwar movement, opposition to Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War strangely morphed into a distorted veneration for Hanoi. There may indeed have been much to condemn about the America of that era in the realm of militarism, imperialism, and inequality, but that hardly justified—then or now—championing communist dictatorships on the other side known for regimes marked by repression and sometimes even terror.

Gumbo visited most of these repressive states that she supported, including North Vietnam. She reveals that while there she settled into the seat of a Russian anti-antiaircraft machine gun much like the one Jane Fonda later sat in. Fonda, branded a traitor by the right, later lamented that move, and publicly admitted it. Gumbo will have none of it: “I have never regretted looking through those gun sights,” she proudly asserts [p203]. She still celebrates the reunification of Vietnam, while ignoring its aftermath. Her stubborn allegiance to ideology over humanity, and her utter inability to evolve as a person further points to her inherent narcissism. She is never wrong. She is always right. Just ask her, she’ll tell you so.

Yippie Girl also lacks a greater context that would make it more accessible to a wider audience. The author assumes the reader is well aware of the climate of extremism that often characterized the United States in the sixties and seventies—like the litany of news events of the first half of 1968 that opened this review—when in fact for most Americans today those days likely seem like accounts from another planet in another dimension. I would have loved to see Gumbo write a bigger book that wasn’t just about her and her community. At the same time, if you are a junkie for American political life back in the day when today’s polarization seems tame by comparison, and youth activism ruled, I would recommend you read Gumbo’s book. I suspect that whether you end up liking or detesting her in the end, she will still crave the attention.

NOTE: This book was obtained as part of an Early Reviewers program

Review of: The Reopening of the Western Mind: The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, by Charles Freeman

Nearly two decades have passed since Charles Freeman published The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, a brilliant if controversial examination of the intellectual totalitarianism of Christianity that dated to the dawn of its dominance of Rome and the successor states that followed the fragmentation of the empire in the West.  Freeman argued persuasively that the early Christian church vehemently and often brutally rebuked the centuries-old classical tradition of philosophical enquiry and ultimately drove it to extinction with a singular intolerance of competing ideas crushed under the weight of a monolithic faith. Not only were pagan religions prohibited, but there would be virtually no provision for any dissent with official Christian doctrine, such that those who advanced even the most minor challenges to interpretation were branded heretics and sent to exile or put to death. That tragic state was to define medieval Europe for more than a millennium.

Now the renowned classical historian has returned with a follow-up epic, The Reopening of the Western Mind: The Resurgence of Intellectual Life from the End of Antiquity to the Dawn of the Enlightenment, (a revised and repolished version of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, previously published in the UK), which recounts the slow—some might brand it glacial—evolution of Western thought that restored legitimacy to independent examination and analysis, and that eventually led to a celebration, albeit a cautious one, of reason over blind faith. In the process, Freeman reminds us that quality, engaging narrative history has not gone extinct, while demonstrating that it is possible to produce a work that is so well-written it is readable by a general audience while meeting the rigorous standards of scholarship demanded by academia. That this is no small achievement will be evident to anyone who—as I do—reads both popular and scholarly history and is struck by the stultifying prose that often typifies the academic. In contrast, here Freeman takes a skillful pen to reveal people, events, and occasionally obscure concepts, much of which may be unfamiliar to those who are not well versed in the medieval period.

Full disclosure: Charles Freeman and I began a long correspondence via email following my review of Closing. I was honored when he selected me as one of his readers for his drafts of Awakening, the earlier UK edition of this work, which he shared with me in 2018—but at the same time I approached this responsibility with some trepidation: given Freeman’s credentials and reputation, what if I found the work to be sub-standard? What if it was simply not a good book?  How would I address that? As it was, these worries turned out to be misplaced. It is a magnificent book, and I am grateful to have read much of it as a work in progress, and then again after publication. I did submit several pages of critical commentary to assist the author, to the best of my limited abilities, hone a better final product, and to that end I am proud see my name appear in the “Acknowledgments.” But to be clear: I am an independent reviewer and did not receive compensation for this review.

The fall of Rome remains a subject of debate for historians. While traditional notions of sudden collapse given to pillaging Vandals leaping over city walls and fora engulfed in flames have long been revised, competing visions of a more gradual transition that better reflect the scholarship sometimes distort the historiography to minimize both the fall and what was actually lost. And what was lost was indeed dramatic and incalculable. If, to take just one example, sanitation can be said to be a mark of civilization, the Roman aqueducts and complex network of sewers that fell into disuse and disrepair meant that fresh water was no longer reliable, and sewage that bred pestilence was to be the norm for fifteen centuries to follow. It was not until the late nineteenth century that sanitation in Europe even approached Roman standards. So, whatever the timeline—rapid or gradual—there was indeed a marked collapse. Causes are far more elusive.  But Gibbon’s largely discredited casting of Christianity as the villain that brought the empire down tends to raise hackles in those who suspect someone like Freeman attempting to point those fingers once more. But Freeman has nothing to say about why Rome fell, only what followed. The loss of the pursuit of reason was to be as devastating for the intellectual health of the post-Roman world in the West as sanitation was to prove for its physical health. And here Freeman does squarely take aim at the institutional Christian church as the proximate cause for the subsequent consequences for Western thought. This is well-underscored in the bleak assessment that follows in one of the final chapters in The Closing of the Western Mind:

Christian thought that emerged in the early centuries often gave irrationality the status of a universal “truth” to the exclusion of those truths to be found through reason. So the uneducated was preferred to the educated and the miracle to the operation of natural laws … This reversal of traditional values became embedded in the Christian tradi­tion … Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation …

Reopening picks up where Closing leaves off, but the new work is marked by far greater optimism. Rather than dwell on what has been lost, Freeman puts focus not only upon the recovery of concepts long forgotten but how rediscovery eventually sparked new, original thought, as the spiritual and later increasingly secular world danced warily around one another—with a burning heretic all too often staked between them on Europe’s fraught intellectual ballroom. Because the timeline is so long—encompassing twelve centuries—the author sidesteps what could have been a dull chronological recounting of this slow progression to narrow his lens upon select people, events and ideas that collectively marked milestones on the way, which  comprise thematic chapters to broaden the scope. This approach thus transcends what might have been otherwise parochial to brilliantly convey the panoramic.

There are many superlative chapters in Reopening, including the very first one, entitled “The Saving of the Texts 500-750.” Freeman seems to delight in detecting the bits and pieces of the classical universe that managed to survive not only vigorous attempts by early Christians to erase pagan thought but the unintended ravages of deterioration that is every archivist’s nightmare. Ironically, the sacking of cities in ancient Mesopotamia begat conflagrations that baked inscribed clay tablets, preserving them for millennia. No such luck for the Mediterranean world, where papyrus scrolls, the favored medium for texts, fell to war, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, as well as to entropy—a familiar byproduct of the second law of thermodynamics—which was not kind in prevailing environmental conditions. We are happily still discovering papyri preserved by the dry conditions in parts of Egypt—the oldest dating back to 2500 BCE—but it seems that the European climate doomed papyrus to a scant two hundred years before it was no more.

Absent printing presses or digital scans, texts were preserved by painstakingly copying them by hand, typically onto vellum, a kind of parchment made from animal skins with a long shelf life, most frequently in monasteries by monks for whom literacy was deemed essential. But what to save? The two giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, were preserved, but the latter far more grudgingly. Fledgling concepts of empiricism in Aristotle made the medieval mind uncomfortable. Plato, on the other hand, who pioneered notions of imaginary higher powers and perfect forms, could be (albeit somewhat awkwardly) adapted to the prevailing faith in the Trinity, and thus elements of Plato were syncretized into Christian orthodoxy. Of course, as we celebrate what was saved it is difficult not to likewise mourn what was lost to us forever. Fortunately, the Arab world put a much higher premium on the preservation of classical texts—an especially eclectic collection that included not only metaphysics but geography, medicine, and mathematics. When centuries later—as Freeman highlights in Reopening —these works reached Europe, they were to be instrumental as tinder to the embers that were to spark first a revival and then a revolution in science and discovery.

My favorite chapter in Reopening is “Abelard and the Battle for Reason,” which chronicles the extraordinary story of scholastic scholar Peter Abelard (1079-1142)—who flirted with the secular and attempted to connect rationalism with theology—told against the flamboyant backdrop of Abelard’s tragic love affair with Héloïse, a tale that yet remains the stuff of popular culture. In a fit of pique, Héloïse’s father was to have Abelard castrated. The church attempted something similar, metaphorically, with Abelard’s teachings, which led to an order of excommunication (later lifted), but despite official condemnation Abelard left a dramatic mark on European thought that long lingered.

There is too much material in a volume this thick to cover competently in a review, but the reader will find much of it well worth the time. Of course, some will be drawn to certain chapters more than others. Art historians will no doubt be taken with the one entitled “The Flowering of the Florentine Renaissance,” which for me hearkened back to the best elements of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, showcasing not only the evolution of European architecture but the author’s own adulation for both the art and the engineering feat demonstrated by Brunelleschi’s dome, the extraordinary fifteenth century adornment that crowns the Florence Cathedral. Of course, Freeman does temper his praise for such achievements with juxtaposition to what once had been, as in a later chapter that recounts the process of relocating an ancient Egyptian obelisk weighing 331 tons that had been placed on the Vatican Hill by the Emperor Caligula, which was seen as remarkable at the time. In a footnote, Freeman reminds us that: “One might talk of sixteenth-century technological miracles, but the obelisk had been successfully erected by the Egyptians, taken down by the Romans, brought by sea to Rome and then re-erected there—all the while remaining intact!”

If I was to find a fault with Reopening, it is that it does not, in my opinion, go far enough to emphasize the impact of the Columbian Experience on the reopening of the Western mind.  There is a terrific chapter devoted to the topic, which explores how the discovery of the Americas and its exotic inhabitants compelled the European mind to examine other human societies whose existence had never before even been contemplated. While that is a valid avenue for analysis, it yet hardly takes into account just how earth-shattering 1492 turned out to be—arguably the most consequential milestone for human civilization (and the biosphere!) since the first cities appeared in Sumer—in a myriad of ways, not least the exchange of flora and fauna (and microbes) that accompanied it. But this significance was perhaps greatest for Europe, which had been a backwater, long eclipsed by China and the Arab middle east.  It was the Columbian Experience that reoriented the center of the world, so to speak, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which was exploited to the fullest by the Europeans who prowled those seas and first bridged the continents. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent accomplishments—intellectual and otherwise—had Columbus not landed at San Salvador. But this remains just a quibble that does not detract from Freeman’s overall accomplishment.

Interest in the medieval world has perhaps waned over time, but that is, of course, a mistake: how we got from point A to point B is an important story, even it has never been told before as well as Freeman has told it in Reopening. And it is not an easy story to tell. As the author acknowledges in a concluding chapter: “Bringing together the many different elements that led to the ‘reopening of the western mind’ is a challenge. It is important to stress just how bereft Europe was, economically and culturally, after the fall of the Roman empire compared to what it had been before …”

Those of us given to dystopian fiction, concerned with the fragility of republics and civilization, and perhaps wondering aloud in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic and the rise of authoritarianism what our descendants might recall of us if it all fell to collapse tomorrow, cannot help but be intrigued by how our ancestors coped—for better or for worse—after Rome was no more. If you want to learn more about that, there might be no better covers to crack than Freeman’s The Reopening of the Western Mind. I highly recommend it.


NOTE: Portions of this review also appear in my review of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman, previously published in the UK, here: Review of: The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman

NOTE: My review of The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, by Charles Freeman, is here:  Review of: The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman

Review of: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις

“Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”

This passage, in ancient Greek and in translation, is the key to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a big, ambitious, complicated novel by Anthony Doerr, the latest from the author of the magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Classicists will recognize “Cloud Cuckoo Land” as borrowed from The Birds, the 414 BCE comedy by the Athenian satirist Aristophanes, a city in the sky constructed by birds that later became synonymous for any kind of fanciful world. In this case, Cloud Cuckoo Land serves as the purported title of a long-lost ancient work by Antonius Diogenes, rediscovered as a damaged but partially translatable codex in 2019, that relates the tale of Aethon, a hapless shepherd who transforms into a donkey, then into a fish, then into a crow, in a quest to reach that utopian city in the clouds. It serves as well as the literary glue that binds together the narrative and the central protagonists of Doerr’s novel.

There is the octogenarian Zeno, self-taught in classical Greek, who has translated the fragmentary codex and adapted it into a play that is to be performed by fifth graders in the public library located in Lakeport, Idaho in 2020.  Lurking in the vicinity is Seymour, an alienated teen with Asperger’s, flirting with eco-terrorism. And hundreds of years in the past, there is also the thirteen-year-old Anna, who has happened upon that same codex in Constantinople, on the eve of its fall to the Turks. Among the thousands of besiegers outside the city’s walls is Omeir, a harelipped youngster who with his team of oxen was conscripted to serve the Sultan in the cause of toppling the Byzantine capital. Finally, there is Konstance, fourteen years old, who has lived her entire life on the Argos, a twenty-second century spacecraft destined for a distant planet; she too comes to discover “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”

Alternating chapters, some short, others far longer, tell the stories of each protagonist, in real time or through flashbacks. For the long-lived Zeno, readers follow his hardscrabble youth, his struggle with his closeted homosexuality, his stint as a POW in the Korean War, and his long love affair with the language of the ancient Greeks. We observe how an uncertain and frequently bullied Seymour reacts to the destruction of wilderness and wildlife in his own geography. We watch the rebellious Anna abjure her work as a lowly seamstress to clandestinely translate the codex. We learn how the disfigured-at-birth Omeir is at first nearly left to die, then exiled along with his family because villagers believe he is a demon. We see Konstance, trapped in quarantine in what appears to be deep space, explore the old earth through an “atlas” in the ship’s library.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is in turn fascinating and captivating, but sometimes—unfortunately—also dull. There are not only the central protagonists to contend with, but also a number of secondary characters in each of their respective orbits, as well as the multiple timelines spanning centuries, so there is much to keep track of. I recall being so spellbound by All the Light We Cannot See that I read its entire 500-plus pages over a single weekend. This novel, much longer, did not hook me with a similar force. I found it a slow build: my enthusiasm tended to simmer rather than surge. Alas, I wanted to care about the characters far more than I did.  Still, the second half of the novel is a much more exciting read than the first portion.

Science—in multiple disciplines—is often central to a Doerr novel. That was certainly the case in All the Light We Cannot See, as well as in his earlier work, About Grace. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, in contrast, science—while hardly absent—takes a backseat. The sci-fi in the Argos voyage is pretty cool, but hardly the stuff of Asimov or Heinlein. And Seymour’s science of climate catastrophe strikes as little more than an afterthought in the narrative.

Multiple individuals with lives on separate trajectories centuries apart whose exploits resonated larger and often overlapping themes reminded me at first of another work with a cloud in its title: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.  But Cloud Cuckoo Land lacks the spectacular brilliance of that novel, which manages to take your very breath away. It also falls short of the depth and intricacy that powers Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And yet … and yet … I ended up really enjoying the book, even shedding a tear or two in its final pages. So there’s that. In the final analysis, Doerr is a talented writer and if this is not his finest work, it remains well worth the read.

I have reviewed other novels by Anthony Doerr here:

Review of: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Review of: About Grace, by Anthony Doerr

Review of: The Sumerians: Lost Civilizations, by Paul Collins

Reading the “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in its entirety rekindled a long dormant interest in the Sumerians, the ancient Mesopotamian people that my school textbooks once boldly proclaimed as inventors not only of the written word, but of civilization itself! One of the pleasures of having a fine home library stocked with eclectic works is that there is frequently a volume near at hand to suit such inclinations, and in this case I turned to a relatively recent acquisition, The Sumerians, a fascinating and extremely well-written—if decidedly controversial—contribution to the Lost Civilizations series, by Paul Collins.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is, of course, the world’s oldest literary work: the earliest record of the five poems that form the heart of the epic were carved into Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 2100 BCE, and relate the exploits of the eponymous Gilgamesh, an actual historic king of the Mesopotamian city state Uruk circa 2750 BCE who later became the stuff of heroic legend. Most famously, a portion of the epic recounts a flood narrative nearly identical to the one reported in Genesis, making it the earliest reference to the Near East flood myth held in common by the later Abrahamic religions.

Uruk was just one of a number of remarkable city states—along with Eridu, Ur, and Kish—that formed urban and agricultural hubs between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today southern Iraq, between approximately 3500-2000 BCE, at a time when the Persian Gulf extended much further north, putting these cities very near the coast.  Some archaeologists also placed “Ur of the Chaldees,” the city in the Hebrew Bible noted as the birthplace of the Israelite patriarch Abraham, in this vicinity, reinforcing the Biblical flood connection.  A common culture that boasted the earliest system of writing that recorded in cuneiform script a language isolate unrelated to others, advances in mathematics that utilized a sexagesimal system, and the invention of both the wheel and the plow came to be attributed to these mysterious non-Semitic people, dubbed the Sumerians.

But who were the Sumerians? They were completely unknown, notes the author, until archaeologists stumbled upon the ruins of their forgotten cities about 150 years ago. Collins, who currently is Curator for Ancient Near East, Ashmolean Museum*, at University of Oxford, fittingly opens his work with the baked clay artifact known as a “prism” inscribed with the so-called Sumerian King List, circa 1800 BCE, currently housed in the Ashmolean Museum. The opening passage of the book is also the first lines of the Sumerian King List: “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu. In Eridu, Alulim became king; He ruled for 28,800 years.” Heady stuff.

“It is not history as we would understand it,” argues Collins, “but a combination of myth, legend and historical information.” This serves as a perfect metaphor for Collins’s thesis, which is that after a century and a half of archaeology and scholarship, we know less about the Sumerians—if such a structured, well-defined common culture ever even existed—and far more about the sometimes-spurious conclusions and even outright fictions that successive generations of academics and observers have attached to these ancient peoples.

Thus, Collins raises two separate if perhaps related issues that both independently and in tandem spark controversy. The first is the question of whether the Sumerians ever existed as a distinct culture, or whether—as the author suggests—scholars may have somehow mistakenly woven a misleading tapestry out of scraps and threads in the archaeological record representing a variety of inhabitants within a shared geography with material cultures that while overlapping were never of a single fabric?  The second is how deeply woven into that same tapestry are distortions—some intended and others inadvertent—tailored to interpretations fraught with the biases of excavators and researchers determined to locate the Sumerians as uber-ancestors central to the myth of Western Civilization that tends to dominate the historiography? And, of course, if there is merit to the former, was it entirely the product of the latter, or were other factors involved?

I personally lack both the expertise and the qualifications to weigh in on the first matter, especially given that its author’s credentials include not only an association with Oxford’s School of Archaeology, but also as the Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Still, I will note in this regard that he makes many thought-provoking and salient points. As to the second, Collins is quite persuasive, and here great authority on the part of the reader is not nearly as requisite.

Nineteenth century explorers and archaeologists—as well as their early twentieth century successors—were often drawn to this Middle Eastern milieu in a quest for concordance between Biblical references and excavations, which bred distortions in outcomes and interpretation. At the same time, a conviction that race and civilization were inextricably linked—to be clear, the “white race” and “Western Civilization”—determined that what was perceived as “advanced” was ordained at the outset for association with “the West.” We know that the leading thinkers of the Renaissance rediscovered the Greeks and Romans as their cultural and intellectual forebears, with at least some measure of justification, but later far more tenuous links were drawn to ancient Egypt—and, of course, later still, to Babylon and Sumer. Misrepresentations, deliberate or not, were exacerbated by the fact that the standards of professionalism characteristic to today’s archaeology were either primitive or nonexistent.

None of this should be news to students of history who have observed how the latest historiography has frequently discredited interpretations long taken for granted—something I have witnessed firsthand as a dramatic work in progress in studies of the American Civil War in recent decades: notably, although slavery was central to the cause of secession and war, for more than a century African Americans were essentially erased from the textbooks and barely acknowledged other than at the very periphery of the conflict, in what was euphemistically constructed as a sectional struggle among white men, north and south. It was a lie, but a lie that sold very well for a very long time, and still clings to those invested in what has come to called “Lost Cause” mythology.

But yet it’s surprising, as Collins underscores, that what should long have been second-guessed about Sumer remains integral to far too much of what persists as current thinking. Whether the Sumerians are indeed a distinct culture or not, should those peoples more than five millennia removed from us continue to be artificially attached to what we pronounce Western Civilization? Probably not. And while we certainly recognize today that race is an artificial construct that relates zero information of importance about a people, ancient or modern, we can reasonably guess with some confidence that those indigenous to southern Iraq in 3500 BCE probably did not have the pale skin of a native of, say, Norway. We can rightfully assert that the people we call the Sumerians were responsible for extraordinary achievements that were later passed down to other cultures that followed, but an attempt to draw some kind of line from Sumer to Enlightenment-age Europe is shaky, at best.

As such, Collins’s book gives focus to what we have come to believe about the Sumerians, and why we should challenge that. I previously read (and reviewed) Egypt by Christina Riggs, another book in the Lost Civilizations series, which is preoccupied with how ancient Egypt has resonated for those who walked in its shadows, from Roman tourists to Napoleon’s troops to modern admirers, even if that vision little resembles its historic basis. Collins takes a similar tack but devotes far more attention to parsing out in greater detail exactly what is really known about the Sumerians and what we tend to collectively assume that we know. Of course, Sumer is far less familiar to a wider audience, and it lacks the romantic appeal of Egypt—there is no imagined exotic beauty like Cleopatra, only the blur of the distant god-king Gilgamesh—so the Sumerians come up far more rarely in conversation, and provoke far less strong feelings, one way or the other.

The Sumerians is a an accessible read for the non-specialist, and there are plenty of illustrations to enhance the text. Like other authors in the Lost Civilizations series, Collins deserves much credit for articulating sometimes arcane material in a manner that suits both a scholarly and a popular audience, which is by no means an easy achievement. If you are looking for an outstanding introduction to these ancient people that is neither too esoteric nor dumbed-down,  I highly recommend this volume.

*NOTE: I recently learned that Paul Collins has apparently left the Ashmolean Museum as of end October 2022, and is now associated with the Middle East Department, British Museum.

The Sumerian Kings List Prism at the Ashmolean Museum online here:       The Sumerian King List Prism

More about “The Epic of Gilgamesh” can be found in my review here: Review of: Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell

I reviewed other volumes in the Lost Civilizations series here:

Review of: The Indus: Lost Civilizations, by Andrew Robinson

Review of Egypt: Lost Civilizations, by Christina Riggs

Review of: The Etruscans: Lost Civilizations, by Lucy Shipley






Review of: The Passenger and Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy

Imagine if God—or Gary Larson—had an enormous mayonnaise shaped jar at his disposal and stuffed it chock full of the collective consciousnesses of the greatest modern philosophers, psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, mathematicians, physicists, quantum theoreticians, and cosmologists … then lightly dusted it with a smattering of existential theologians, eschatologists, dream researchers, and violin makers, before tossing in a handful of race car drivers, criminals, salvage divers, and performers from an old-time circus sideshow … and next layered it with literary geniuses, heavy on William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway with perhaps a dash of Haruki Murakami and just a smidge of Dashiell Hammett … before finally tossing in Socrates, or at least Plato’s version of Socrates, who takes Plato along with him because—love him or hate him—you just can’t peel Plato away from Socrates.  Now imagine that giant jar somehow being given a shake or two before being randomly dumped into the multiverse, so that all the blended yet still unique components poured out into our universe as well into other multiple hypothetical universes. If such a thing was possible, the contents that spilled forth might approximate The Passenger and Stella Maris, the pair of novels by Cormac McCarthy that has so stunned readers and critics alike that there is yet no consensus whether to pronounce these works garbage or magnificent—or, for that matter, magnificent garbage.

The eighty-nine-year-old McCarthy, perhaps America’s greatest living novelist, released these companion books in 2022 after a sixteen-year hiatus that followed publication of The Road, the 2006 postapocalyptic sensation that explored familiar Cormac McCarthy themes in a very different genre, employing literary techniques strikingly different from his previous works, and in the process finding a whole new audience. The same might be said, to some degree, of the novel that preceded it just a year earlier, No Country for Old Men, another clear break from his past that was after all a radical departure for readers of say, The Border Trilogy, and his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, which to my mind is not only a superlative work but truly one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.

Full disclosure: I have read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, as well as a play and a screenplay that he authored. To suggest that I am a fan would be a vast understatement. My very first McCarthy novel was The Crossing, randomly plucked from a grocery store magazine rack while on a family vacation. That was 2008. I inhaled the book and soon set out to read his full body of work.  The Crossing is actually the middle volume in The Border Trilogy, preceded by All the Pretty Horses and followed by Cities of the Plain, which collectively form a near- Shakespearean epic of the American southwest and the Mexican borderlands in the mid-twentieth century, which yet retain a stark primitivism barely removed from the milieu of Blood Meridian, set a full century earlier. The author’s style, in these sagas and beyond, has at times by critics been compared with both Faulkner and Hemingway, both favorably and unfavorably, but McCarthy’s voice is distinctive, and hardly derivative. There is indeed the rich vocabulary of a Faulkner or a Styron, that add a richness to the quality of the prose even as it challenges readers to sometimes seek out the dictionary app on their phones. There is also a magnificent use of the objective correlative, made famous by Hemingway and later in portions of the works of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, which evokes powerful emotions from inanimate objects. For McCarthy, this often manifests in the vast, seemingly otherworldly geography of the southwest. McCarthy also frequently makes use of Hemingway’s polysyndetic syntax that adds emphasis to sentences through a series of conjunctions. Most noticeable for those new to Cormac McCarthy is his omission of most traditional punctuation, such as quotation marks, which often improves the flow of the narrative even as it sometimes lends to a certain confusion in long dialogues between two characters that span several pages.

The Passenger opens with the prologue of a Christmas day suicide that must be recited in the author’s voice as an underscore to the beauty of his prose:

It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones. One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered. That the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures. The hunter knelt and stogged his rifle upright in the snow beside him … He looked up into those cold enameled eyes glinting blue in the weak winter light. She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation. On this Christmas day.

With a poignancy reminiscent of the funeral of Peyton Loftis, also a suicide, in the opening of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, the reader here encounters whom we later learn is Alicia Western, one of the two central protagonists in The Passenger and its companion volume, who much like Peyton in Styron’s novel haunts the narrative with chilling flashbacks. Ten years have passed when, on the very next page, we meet her brother Bobby, a salvage diver exploring a submerged plane wreck who happens upon clues that could put his life in jeopardy among those seeking something missing from that plane. Bobby is a brilliant intellect who could have been a physicist, but instead spends his life chasing down whatever provokes his greatest psychological fears. In this case, the terror of being deep underwater has driven him to salvage work in the oceans. Bobby is also a rugged and resourceful man’s man, a kind of Llewelyn Moss from No Country for Old Men, but with a much higher I.Q. Finally, Bobby, now thirty-seven years old, has never recovered from the death of his younger sister, with whom he had a close, passionate—and possibly incestuous—relationship.

Also integral to the plot is their now deceased father, a physicist who was once a key player in the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their first names—Alicia and Bobby—seem to be an ironic echo of the “Alice and Bob” characters that are used as placeholders in science experiments, especially in physics.  Their surname, Western, could be a kind of doomed metaphor for the tragedy of mass murder on a scale never before imagined that has betrayed the promise of western civilization in the twentieth century and in its aftermath.

A real sense of doom, and a mounting paranoia, grips the narrative in general and Bobby in particular, in what appears to be a kind of mystery/thriller that meanders about, sometimes uncertainly. The cast of characters are extremely colorful, from a Vietnam veteran whose only regret from the many lives he brutally spent while in-country are the elephants that he exploded with rockets from his gunship just for fun, to a small-time swindler with a wallet full of credit cards that don’t belong to him, and a bombshell trans woman with a heart of gold. Some of these folks are like the sorts that turn up in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, but on steroids, and more likely to suffer an unpredictable death.

But it is Alicia who steals the show in flashback fragments that reveal a stunningly beautiful young woman whose own brilliance in mathematics, physics, and music overshadows even Bobby. She seems to be schizophrenic, plagued by extremely well-defined hallucinations of bedside visitors who could be incarnates of walk-ons from an old-time circus sideshow, right out of central casting. The most prominent is the “Thalidomide Kid”—replete with the flippers most commonly identified with those deformities—who engages her as interlocutor with long-winded, fascinating, and often disturbing dialogue that can run to several pages. Alicia has been on meds, and has checked herself into institutions, but in the end, she becomes convinced both that her visitors are real and that she herself does not belong in this world. But is Alicia even human? There are passing hints that she could be an alien, or perhaps from another universe.

There’s much more, including an episode where “The Kid,” Alicia’s hallucination (?) takes a long walk on the beach with Bobby. This is surprising, if only because McCarthy has long pilloried the magical realism that frequently populates the novels of Garcia Márquez or Haruki Murakami. Perhaps “The Kid” is no hallucination, after all? In any event, much like a Murakami novel—think 1Q84, for example—there are multiple plot lines in The Passenger that go nowhere, and the reader is left frustrated by the lack of resolution. And yet … and yet, the characters are so memorable, and the quality of the writing is so exceptional, that the cover when finally closed is closed without an ounce of regret for the experience. And at the same time, the reader demands more.

The “more” turns out to be Stella Maris, the companion volume that is absolutely essential to broadening your awareness of the plot of The Passenger. Stella Maris is a mental institution that Alicia—then a twenty-year-old dropout from a doctoral program in mathematics—has checked herself into one final time, in the very last year of her life, and so a full decade before the events recounted in The Passenger. She has no luggage, but forty thousand dollars in a plastic bag which she attempts to give to a receptionist. Bobby, in those days a race car driver, lies in a coma as the result of a crash. He is not expected to recover, but Alicia refuses to remove him from life support. The full extent of the novel is told solely in transcript form through the psychiatric sessions of Alicia and a certain Dr. Cohen, but it is every bit a Socratic dialogue of science and philosophy and the existential meaning of life—not only Alicia’s life, but all of our lives, collectively. And finally, there is the dark journey to the eschatological. Alicia—and I suppose by extension Cormac McCarthy—doesn’t take much stock in a traditional, Judeo-Christian god, which has to be a myth, of course. At the same time, she has left atheism behind: there has to be something, in her view, even if she cannot identify it. But most terrifying, Alicia has a certainty that there lies somewhere an undiluted force of evil, something she terms the “Archatron,” that we all resist, even if there is a futility to that resistance.

I consider myself an intelligent and well-informed individual, but reading The Passenger, and especially Stella Maris, was immeasurably humbling. I felt much as I did the first time that I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and even the second time that I read Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan. As if there are minds so much greater than mine that I cannot hope to comprehend all that they have to share, but yet I can take full pleasure in immersing myself in their work. To borrow a line from Alicia, in her discussion of Oswald Spengler in Stella Maris, we might say also of Cormac McCarthy: “As with the general run of philosophers—if he is one—the most interesting thing was not his ideas but just the way his mind worked.”

Review of: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by Serhii Plokhy

Still reeling from the pandemic, the world was rocked to its core on February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, an act of unprovoked aggression not seen in Europe since World War II that conjured up distressing historical parallels. If there were voices that previously denied the echo of Hitler’s Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, as well as German adventurism in Sudetenland with Russian-sponsored separatism in the Donbas, there was no mistaking the similarity to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. But it was Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the very legitimacy of Kyiv’s sovereignty—a shout out to the Kremlin’s rising chorus of irredentism that declares Ukraine a wayward chunk of the “near abroad” that is rightly integral to Russia—that compels us to look much further back in history.

Putin’s claim, however dubious, begs a larger question: by what right can any nation claim self-determination? Is Ukraine really just a modern construct, an opportunistic product of the collapse of the USSR that because it was historically a part of Russia should be once again? Or, perhaps counter-intuitively, should western Russia instead be incorporated into Ukraine? Or—let’s stretch it a bit further—should much of modern Germany rightly belong to France? Or vice versa? From a contemporary vantage point, these are tantalizing musings that challenge the notions of shifting boundaries, the formation of nation states, fact-based if sometimes uncomfortable chronicles of history, the clash of ethnicities, and, most critically, actualities on the ground. Naturally, such speculation abruptly shifts from the purely academic to a stark reality at the barrel of a gun, as the history of Europe has grimly demonstrated over centuries past.

To learn more, I turned to the recently updated edition of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by historian and Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, a dense, well-researched, deep dive into the past that at once fully establishes Ukraine’s right to exist, while expertly placing it into the context of Europe’s past and present. For those like myself largely unacquainted with the layers of complexity and overlapping hegemonies that have long dominated the region, it turns out that there is much to cover. At the same time, the wealth of material that strikes as unfamiliar places a strong and discouraging underscore to the western European bias in the classroom—which at least partially explains why it is that even those Americans capable of locating Ukraine on a map prior to the invasion knew almost nothing of its history.

Survey courses in my high school covered Charlamagne’s 9th century empire that encompassed much of Europe to the west, including what is today France and Germany, but never mentioned Kievan Rus’—the cultural ancestor of modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia—that was in the 10th and 11th centuries the largest and by far the most powerful state on the continent, until it fragmented and then fell to Mongol invaders! To its east, the Grand Principality of Moscow, a 13th century Rus’ vassal state of the Mongols, formed the core of the later Russian Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was in its heyday among the largest and most populous on the continent, but both Poland and Lithuania were to fall to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and effectively ceased to exist for more than a century. Also missing from maps, of course, were Italy and Germany, which did not even achieve statehood until the later 19th century. And the many nations of today’s southeastern Europe were then provinces of the Ottoman Empire. That is European history, complicated and nuanced, as history tends to be.

Plokhy’s erudite study restores from obscurity Ukraine’s past and reveals a people who while enduring occupation and a series of partitions never abandoned an aspiration to sovereignty that was not to be realized until the late 20th century.  Once a dominant power, Ukraine was to be overrun by the Mongols, preyed upon for slave labor by the Crimean Khanate, and throughout the centuries sliced up into a variety of enclaves ruled by the Golden Horde, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austrian Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, and finally the Soviet Union.

That long history was written with much blood and suffering inflicted by its various occupiers. Just in the last hundred years that included Soviet campaigns of terror, ethnic cleansing, and deportations, as well as the catastrophic Great Famine of 1932–33—known as the “Holodomor”—a product of Stalin’s forced collectivization that led to the starvation deaths of nearly four million Ukrainians. Then there was World War II, which claimed another four million lives, including about a million Jews. The immediate postwar period was marked by more tumult and bloodshed. Stability and a somewhat better quality of life emerged under Nikita Khrushchev, who himself spent many years of residence in Ukraine. It was Khrushchev who transferred title of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. The final years under Soviet domination saw the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The structure of the USSR was manifested in political units known as Soviet Socialist Republics, which asserted a fictional autonomy subject to central control. Somewhat ironically, as time passed this enabled and strengthened nationalism within each of the respective SSR’s. Ukraine (like Belarus) even held its own United Nations seat, although its UN votes were rubber-stamped by Moscow. Still, this further reinforced a sense of statehood, which was realized in the unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence in 1991. In the years that followed, as Ukraine aspired to closer ties with the West, that statehood increasingly came under attack by Putin, who spoke in earnest of a “Greater Russia” that by all rights included Ukraine. Election meddling became common, but with the spectacular fall of the Russian-backed president in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and fomented rebellion that sought to create breakaway “republics” in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine. This only intensified the desire of Kyiv for integration with the European Union and for NATO membership.

A vast country of forest and steppe, marked by fertile plains crisscrossed by rivers, Ukraine has long served as a strategic gateway between the east and west, as emphasized in the book’s title. Elements of western, central, and eastern Europe all in some ways give definition to Ukrainian life and culture, and as such Ukraine remains inextricably as much a part of the west as the east. While Russia has left a huge imprint upon the nation’s DNA, it hardly informs the entirety of its national character. The Russian language continues to be widely spoken, and at least prior to the invasion many Ukrainians had Russian sympathies—if never a desire for annexation! For Ukrainians, stateless for too long, their own national identity ever remained unquestioned. The Russian invasion has, rather than threatened that, only bolstered it.

Today, Ukraine is the second largest European nation, after Russia. Far too often overlooked by both statesmen and talking heads, Ukraine would also be the world’s third largest nuclear power—and would have little to fear from the tanks of its former overlord—had it not given up its stockpile of nukes in a deal brokered by the United States, an important reminder to those who question America’s obligation to defend Ukraine.

As this review goes to press, Russia’s war—which Putin euphemistically terms a “special military operation”—is going very poorly, and despite energy supply shortages and threats of nuclear brinksmanship, the West stands firmly with Ukraine, which in the course of the conflict has been subjected to horrific war crimes by Russian invaders.  However, as months pass, and both Europe and the United States endure the economic pain of inflation and rising fuel prices, as well as the ever-increasing odds of rightwing politicians gaining political power on both sides of the Atlantic, it remains to be seen if this alliance will hold steady. As battlefield defeats mount, and men and materiel run short, Putin seems to be running out the clock in anticipation of that outcome. We can only hope it does not come to that.

While I learned a great deal from The Gates of Europe, and I would offer much acclaim to its scholarship, there are portions that can prove to be a slog for a nonacademic audience. Too much of the author’s chronicle reads like a textbook—pregnant with names and dates and events—and thus lacks the sweep of a grand thematic narrative inspiring to the reader and so deserving of the Ukrainian people he treats. At the same time, that does not diminish Plokhy’s achievement in turning out what is certainly the authoritative history of Ukraine. With their right to exist under assault once more, this volume serves as a powerful defense—the weapon of history—against any who might challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty. If you believe, as I do, that facts must triumph over propaganda and polemic, then I highly recommend that you turn to Plokhy to best refute Putin.




Review of: After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in the World Transformed, by Andrew Bacevich

I often suffer pangs of guilt when a volume received through an early reviewer program languishes on the shelf unread for an extended period. Such was the case with the “Advanced Reader’s Edition” of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in the World Transformed, by Andrew Bacevich, that arrived in August 2021 and sat forsaken for an entire year until it finally fell off the top of my TBR (To-Be-Read) list and onto my lap. While hardly deliberate, my delay was no doubt neglectful. But sometimes neglect can foster unexpected opportunities for evaluation. More on that later.

First, a little about Andrew Bacevich. A West Point graduate and platoon leader in Vietnam 1970-71, he went on to an army career that spanned twenty-three years, including the Gulf War, retiring with the rank of Colonel. (It is said his early retirement was due to being passed over for promotion after taking responsibility for an accidental explosion at a camp he commanded in Kuwait.) He later became an academic, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University, and one-time director of its Center for International Relations (1998-2005). He is now president and co-founder of the bipartisan think-tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Deeply influenced by the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich was once tagged as a conservative Catholic historian, but he defies simple categorization, most often serving as an unlikely voice in the wilderness decrying America’s “endless wars.” He has been a vocal, longtime critic of George W. Bush’s doctrine of preventative war, most prominently manifested in the Iraqi conflict, which he has rightly termed a “catastrophic failure.” He has also denounced the conceit of “American Exceptionalism,” and chillingly notes that the reliance on an all-volunteer military force translates into the ongoing, almost anonymous sacrifice of our men and women for a nation that largely has no skin in the game. His own son, a young army lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007.  I have previously read three other Bacevich works. As I noted in a review of one of these, his resumé attaches to Bacevich either enormous credibility or an axe to grind, or perhaps both. Still, as a scholar and gifted writer, he tends to be well worth the read.

The “apocalypse” central to the title of this book takes aim at the chaos that engulfed 2020, spawned by the sum total of the “toxic and divisive” Trump presidency, the increasing death toll of the pandemic, an economy in free fall, mass demonstrations by Black Lives Matter proponents seeking long-denied social justice, and rapidly spreading wildfires that dramatically underscored the looming catastrophe of global climate change. [p.1-3] Bacevich takes this armload of calamities as a flashing red signal that the country is not only headed in the wrong direction, but likely off a kind of cliff if we do not immediately take stock and change course. He draws odd parallels with the 1940 collapse of the French army under the Nazi onslaught, which—echoing French historian Marc Bloch—he lays to “utter incompetence” and “a failure of leadership” at the very top. [p.xiv] This then serves as a head-scratching segue into a long-winded polemic on national security and foreign policy that recycles familiar Bacevich themes but offers little in the way of fresh analysis. This trajectory strikes as especially incongruent given that the specific litany of woes besetting the nation that populate his opening narrative have—rarely indeed for the United States—almost nothing to do with the military or foreign affairs.

If ever history was to manufacture an example of a failure of leadership, of course, it would be hard-pressed to come up with a better model than Donald Trump, who drowned out the noise of a series of mounting crises with a deafening roar of self-serving, hateful rhetoric directed at enemies real and imaginary, deliberately ignoring the threat of both coronavirus and climate change, while stoking racial tensions. Bacevich gives him his due, noting that his “ascent to the White House exposed gaping flaws in the American political system, his manifest contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law placing in jeopardy our democratic traditions.” [p.2] But while he hardly masks his contempt for Trump, Bacevich makes plain that there’s plenty of blame to go around for political elites in both parties, and he takes no prisoners, landing a series of blows on George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and a host of other members of the Washington establishment that he holds accountable for fostering and maintaining the global post-Cold War “American Empire” responsible for the “endless wars” that he has long condemned. He credits Trump for urging a retreat from alliances and engagements, but faults the selfish motives of an “America First” predicated on isolationism. Bacevich instead envisions a more positive role for the United States in the international arena—one with its sword permanently sheathed.

All this is heady stuff, and regardless of your politics many readers will find themselves nodding their heads as Bacevich makes his case, outlining the many wrongheaded policy endeavors championed by Republicans and Democrats alike for a wobbly superpower clinging to an outdated and increasingly irrelevant sense of national identity that fails to align with the global realities of the twenty-first century.  But then, as Bacevich looks to the future for alternatives, as he seeks to map out on paper the next new world order, he stumbles, and stumbles badly, something only truly evident in retrospect when viewing his point of view through the prism of the events that followed the release of After the Apocalypse in June 2021.

Bacevich has little to add here to his longstanding condemnation of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, which after two long decades of failed attempts at nation-building came to an end with our messy withdrawal in August 2021, just shortly after this book’s publication. President Biden was pilloried for the chaotic retreat, but while his administration could rightly be held to account for a failure to prepare for the worst, the elephant in that room in the Kabul airport where the ISIS-K suicide bomber blew himself up was certainly former president Trump, who brokered the deal to return Afghanistan to Taliban control. Biden, who plummeted in the polls due to outcomes he could do little to control, was disparaged much the same way Obama once was when he was held to blame for the subsequent turmoil in Iraq after effecting the withdrawal of U.S. forces agreed to by his predecessor, G.W. Bush. Once again, history rhymes.  But the more salient point for those of us who share, as I do, Bacevich’s anti-imperialism, is that getting out is ever more difficult than going in.

But Bacevich has a great deal to say in After the Apocalypse about NATO, an alliance rooted in a past-tense Cold War stand-off that he pronounces counterproductive and obsolete. Bacevich disputes the long-held mythology of the so-called “West,” an artificial “sentiment” that has the United States and European nations bound together with common values of liberty, human rights, and democracy. Like Trump—who likely would have acted upon this had he been reelected—Bacevich calls for an end to US involvement with NATO. The United States and Europe have embarked on “divergent paths,” he argues, and that is as it should be. The Cold War is over. Relations with Russia and China are frosty, but entanglement in an alliance like NATO only fosters acrimony and fails to appropriately adapt our nation to the realities of the new millennium.

It is an interesting if academic argument that was abruptly crushed under the weight of the treads of Russian tanks in the premeditated invasion of Ukraine February 24, 2022. If some denied the echo of Hitler’s 1938 Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, there was no mistaking the similarity of unprovoked attacks on Kyiv and sister cities to the Nazi war machine’s march on Poland in 1939. And yes, when Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron stood together to unite that so-called West against Russian belligerence, the memory of France’s 1940 defeat was hardly out of mind. All of a sudden, NATO became less a theoretical construct and somewhat more of a safe haven against brutal militarism, wanton aggression, and the unapologetic war crimes that livestream on twenty-first century social media of streets littered with the bodies of civilians, many of them children. All of a sudden, NATO is pretty goddamned relevant.

In all this, you could rightly argue against the wrong turns made after the dissolution of the USSR, of the failure of the West to allocate appropriate economic support for the heirs of the former Soviet Union, of how a pattern of NATO expansion both isolated and antagonized Russia. But there remains no legitimate defense for Putin’s attempt to invade, besiege, and absorb a weaker neighbor—or at least a neighbor he perceived to be weaker, a misstep that could lead to his own undoing. Either way, the institution we call NATO turned out to be something to celebrate rather than deprecate. The fact that it is working exactly the way it was designed to work could turn out to be the real road map to the new world order that emerges in the aftermath of this crisis. We can only imagine the horrific alternatives had Trump won re-election: the U.S. out of NATO, Europe divided, Ukraine overrun and annexed, and perhaps even Putin feted at a White House dinner. So far, without firing a shot, NATO has not only saved Ukraine; arguably, it has saved the world as we know it, a world that extends well beyond whatever we might want to consider the “West.”

As much as I respect Bacevich and admire his scholarship, his informed appraisal of our current foreign policy realities has turned out to be entirely incorrect. Yes, the United States should rein in the American Empire.  Yes, we should turn away from imperialist tendencies. Yes, we should focus our defense budget solely on defense, not aggression, resisting the urge to try to remake the world in our own image for either altruism or advantage. But at the same time, we must be mindful—like other empires in the past—that retreat can create vacuums, and we must be ever vigilant of what kinds of powers may fill those vacuums.  Because we can grow and evolve into a better nation, a better people, but that evolution may not be contagious to our adversaries. Because getting out remains ever more difficult than going in.

Finally, a word about the use of the term “apocalypse,” a characterization that is bandied about a bit too frequently these days. 2020 was a pretty bad year, indeed, but it was hardly apocalyptic. Not even close. Despite the twin horrors of Trump and the pandemic, we have had other years that were far worse. Think 1812, when the British burned Washington and sent the president fleeing for his life. And 1862, with tens of thousands already lying dead on Civil War battlefields as the Union army suffered a series of reverses. And 1942, still in the throes of economic depression, with Germany and Japan lined up against us. And 1968, marked by riots and assassinations, when it truly seemed that the nation was unraveling from within. Going forward, climate change may certainly breed apocalypse. So might a cornered Putin, equipped with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and diminishing options as Russian forces in the field teeter on collapse. But 2020 is already in the rear-view mirror. It will no doubt leave a mark upon us, but as we move on, it spins ever faster into our past. At the same time, predicting the future, even when armed with the best data, is fraught with unanticipated obstacles, and grand strategies almost always lead to failure. It remains our duty to study our history while we engage with our present. Apocalyptic or not, it’s all we’ve got …

I have reviewed other Bacevich books here:

Review of: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, by Andrew J. Bacevich

Review of: America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, by Andrew J. Bacevich