Monday, June 30, 2008

Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson 

I bought a copy of this book back when I was stock piling books that seemed tangentially related to my thesis, then later culling through them to read the appropriate bits, reading the whole thing if the entire text seemed relevant or just looking for appropriate anecdotes to support previously made points if the entire text seemed more narrative than explication. This was one of the ones that didn't seem relevant enough to my topic paper to warrant the time to read the entire book (my MA Psychology topic paper, for those who don't remember but for some reason care, was about killology, specifically the mental trauma of killing in the context being a combatant in a legal, government supported war).

My interest was renewed after sitting in on a few ethics classes at the US Naval Academy which used this books as a text to illustrate Rules of Engagement and the moral quandaries that arise from insisting that US troops take a moral high ground and kill as few civilians as possible, and to not ever kill civilians proactively.

This part of the US Rules of Engagement tries to balance the necessity of killing in war with minimizing collateral damage in the form of foreign civilians who present no immediate threat to American troops.

There is, of course, gray area, and SEAL Team 10 found themselves debating this gray area one night in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.

Luttrell tells us the full story of striving and finally becoming a full member of the elite Navy SEALS, in his mind the pinnacle of the American warriors (and I certainly wouldn't try to argue to his face whether Special Forces or SEALs are better fighters!). His narration is compelling and clear. Every sentence sounds like he is telling you this story over beers or a barbecue dinner, his tone is conversational and authentic. John Keegan he is not; he's closer to Hemingway telling hunting stories around a campfire without the drunken exaggeration. Because the story doesn't need exaggerating. Sure, he's cocky when describing the prowess of the SEALs, but that is out of pride, not a desire to sound better than he and his teammates are. The dialogue is laced with enough profanity to sound real but not so much that most readers (knowing they are reading a military memoir) would be scandalized.

He and his team, while looking for al-Qaida terrorists on a mission in Afghanistan, are discovered by a group of civilian goat-herders. The SEALs are pretty sure than these goat-herders will, at first chance, report the presence of Americans to al-Qaida or the Taliban. They are equally certain that these men pose no immediate threat and are not terrorists themselves. So - what should they do?

What should they do? Should they release the innocent civilians, or should they kill the people they suspect will report their presence to their enemies and risk their enemies coming at them with superior firepower and tactics, risk facing an overwhelming force, risk being slaughtered? What do the Rules of Engagement say? What does common sense say? What does each man's conscience say?

On the off chance that anyone interested in reading this book hasn't already read news stories about this, I'll not reveal the debate nor the decision. The title reveals something, but not everything.

I was incredibly lucky to hear aspiring Navy and Marine officers discussing this book and this question. They discussed it not with the detachment that accompanied any of the students in my bioethics class at Georgetown, but knowing full well that in a year or two or three, it could be them out there in the field facing such a grim decision that will direct not only their fate but the fates of their comrades. The answer could lead to survival, death, and/or court-martial.

The book is powerful. It's single moral question is so simple but so complex.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Drama of The Gifted Child, by Alice Miller 

Maybe there's a problem with the translation (German to English - "degabten"). The gifted child here is a child whose empathy is so strong that he is able to perceive he emotional needs of his mother and then to subordinate his own emotional and even physical needs to provide for the happiness or contentedness of his mother. The mother, according to Miller, need not be the biological mother or even a woman. The mother is the person who should be providing emotional support to the child and providing a way for the child to grow into a healthy human being who understands himself and his emotions. Instead, the gifted child grows up with his emotions cut off, even from his own perception.

The child grows up and may even excel in his chosen field. He'll rely on others fto tell him how he should feel.

Miller makes some assumptions I don't agree with, saying that self-abuse and body piercing are results of repressed sexual abuse by the father.

But I agree with her fundamental point, that every child needs to be seen as an emotional being from birth. A child is not a projection of the parent's strengths, weaknesses, sucesses or failures, an emotional support, a chance for the parent to ry to get her life right "this time." A child is an independent mind.

And I am realizing how damn hard it is to raise a child without screwing him or her up for life.

Rape: A Love Story 

The title doesn't mean what it seems. The book opens with a narrative of one of the most vicious gang rapes I've read in a novel (in this case, a novella), narrated in second person, "you" being the 12-year-old daughter of the victim. "You" watch a group of men attack your mother, you try to run and only succeed in being grabbed and having a shoulder dislocated, and you listen, out of sight and out of mind, to an attack you don't fully understand.

Your father is dead, and your mother has been starting to date again. She's beautiful, loves the attention of men. You both were at a 4th of July party at the house of her boyfriend, but as usual, probably in deference to you, she won't spend the night in his house or let a man spend the night in your house. You're attacked when you're walking home, the two of you.

It feels like no one cares except your grandmother. Your mother has sustained neurological damage, and doesn't remember the attack for several days. Your lawyer is passionate about prosecuting justice being rendered against the men who attacked you, but she is no match for the opposing council, who calls your mother a prostitute. The town your live in tries to scare you out of testifying against their friends, brothers, sons. You find your cat dead, you assume beaten to death. Your mom won't get out of bed. Her boyfriend, feeling so guilty and helpless, gradually fades away.

You need a knight, an advocate, a champion. And of course, as any 12-year-old would, you begin to idolize and love such a man.

That's the love story.

I've read little by Joyce Carol Oates. If her other books are as powerful as this one, I'll read everything she's written by the end of the year. Yes, I know that's several dozen books. But that's how moved I was.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Man Who Was Poe 

By Avi. If I could magically emulate any author, it would be Avi.

Half of me wishes I'd read this book as a kid, even as a 7th grader trying to memorize "The Raven" as she had memorized her times tables. The other half is glad I read it today (yes, the whole thing today), when I could understand all the references to Auguste Dupin, the Raven, the Gold Bug, and so forth. Sadly, I detected no references to absinthe, just alcohol. But it *is* a kids' book, so I'll let that pass.

Avi not only captures the character of Poe but the method of unfolding mystery Poe used in his short stories.

"I am not mad. It is more extraordinary than that: I have made a mistake!"

Oh, the arrogance.

Poe, yet another dead person I have a crush on.

Great book. Even for adults. Especially for adults.

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