Books I've Read in 2017

In January, I decided to keep a log of all the books I had read this year. By mid-February, I was having trouble with my eyesight, and by the end of February, I had basically lost my vision and required emergency surgery. So I lost a couple months of reading. Luckily, as George Costanza would say, I'm back, baby. 

This year is also the year when I hope to complete the book I am writing. Because I have been feeling a bit inundated by online articles, I decided to make a concerted effort to read as many books as possible. I often say that I read books for a living, but mostly that means skimming books and reading articles. (I’m not going to record the many articles, academic and otherwise, I’m reading.) I like to read really long books because of the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing them. But honestly I rarely have the time or attention span that I wish I did. Anyway, here is a list of books I’ve read so far in 2017, with some commentary on each. I will try to update it every few months; hopefully this will force me to read books cover to cover. 
 
The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, by Ron Robin
This book is useful for how it attempts to tackle methodological challenges. One is how to write scholarly biography without hagiography, especially when the subjects are only recently deceased and have many lionizers and mythologizers still around. Another is how to write a biography of a married couple and avoid replicating the sexism that has overemphasized the man’s contributions to their intellectual production. A third, which is perhaps the most significant to me, is how to write systematically about intellectual production that is marked by its claims to systematicity but, upon close examination, may not actually meet those claims. The more I read the book, the less convinced I was that the Wohlstetters really did have a coherent set of ideas. They had a disposition, an affect. It might be called How to Sustain a Cold War and Influence People. Thus, at the most basic level, it is a fairly direct continuation of Robin’s previous book, The Making of the Cold War Enemy. I liked that book, and it is one of the inspirations for my own research. Its discussion of what might be called rational-choice counterinsurgency is influential, and esteemed authors like Greg Grandin rely on it. The Cold World They Made also has a small discussion of rational-choice counterinsurgency. But it did not add a great deal, and I wished for more on the way Albert Wohlstetter thought about race and colonization. Crucial for me is that he basically believed the theory of internal colonialism, as offered by Black radicals, was correct, even as he had repudiated and even misrepresented his own time on the Left as a young person. One further innovation of this book is the three chapters covering the work of three students of the Wohlstetters, three men who helped destroy the Middle East under the Bush administration. I would recommend this book to people interested in the intellectual history of cold war strategy, mostly as an antidote to the belief that there really was such a thing. I would also recommend it to grad students in historical methods classes. It is an imperfect book, but perhaps the task Robin set for himself, of judicious and fair analysis of the Wohlstetters as objects of intellectual history, was impossible. 
 
The Furtive War, by Wilfred Burchett (free online here
Burchett was an Australian journalist, often accused of being a member of the Communist Party, who was on the ground in Vietnam and Laos during the 1950s and 1960s. He managed to secure meetings with leading figures like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. This book is an exciting and highly readable account of war and revolution in the years just before US ground troops arrived in South Vietnam. Its coverage of Laos is particularly notable because Burchett was present for some of the whirlwind events that unfolded during the Kennedy administration’s attempt at control—the failure of which led to the longest covert war action (and most tonnage of bombs dropped on a single country) ever. I learned about this book from a citation in James William Gibson’s The Perfect War in relation to the failures of the strategic hamlet program, and I’d also heard that it contained good discussions of the practicalities of guerrilla war. Those discussions amount to only a few paragraphs, but they are illuminating, as are the discussions of counterinsurgency efforts by US and Republic of Vietnam forces. Of course the book lacks any citations or scholarly apparatus, but it strikes me as one of the most interesting accounts of what became the US war in Vietnam. Compared to the many scholarly books that try to rehabilitate Ngo Dinh Diem nowadays in various ways, this one is a reminder of why Diem was so loathed, why the Kennedy administration was so mistaken about Vietnam (and Laos), and why LBJ's decision to put troops on the ground was not the beginning of the war. 
 

Hilarious High Jinks and Dangerous Assignments, by Lee Echols
This is a memoir published by the National Rifle Association of a guy who became a public safety advisor in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay, as part of a longer career at the porous edge between law enforcement and national security work. As such, he’s emblematic of the key themes in my work. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, but it’s very useful for my research. One of the things that I like about memoirs of utterly unimportant historical figures is the way they can confirm or at least give depth to hunches you develop based on readings of dry bureaucratic documents.  
 
Law in a Lawless Land, by Michael Taussig
When I first envisioned the class I ended up teaching last semester called “Gangsters, Spies, and Revolutionaries: The Underside of US Empire,” I believed it would cover some of what this book beautifully conveys. At its heart, this book is a phenomenology of a confusing and chaotic time and place, where paramilitary violence has become the defining feature of life (and death). Causes, effects, norms, and beliefs all become scrambled and tenuous when “limpieza,” the social cleansing by the paramilitaries, occurs. My course covered the many ways that the United States intelligence apparatus has relied on covert operations, shady dealings, proxy actors, and sordid violence to achieve its strategic goals, but reading this book made me realize that there are distinct limitations to what historical analysis can achieve. Other than film and some fictional accounts, the course stuck to primary documents and histories, but the more ethnographic work that Taussig does offers exactly what I thought the course was missing—though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. In rethinking how I’d like to teach the course in the future, I realize that this type of work will be crucial to include. I also think undergraduates will probably like this book. It does have historical analyses, which are some of the most fascinating parts. Taussig, as someone who has been visiting this part of Colombia that has become overrun by paramilitary and other violence for decades, tries to figure out how different it is now. He realizes that violence has always been present in his experiences, and, beyond that, so have paramilitaries—the differences now are the vocabulary, the political valence, paramilitary tactics, and the wider situation. Particularly notable is a newspaper clipping he finds from 1949 that describes paramilitary violence in a town called Restrepo. I couldn’t help but think about the documentary by the same name about a fire base in Afghanistan (given that name after a well-loved soldier named Restrepo gets killed there) that also depicts the extremely difficult-to-understand chaotic world of violence that seems to have no end and no beginning and no cause other than itself. La Violencia in Colombia in the 1940s is not as directly attributable to US action as either the chaos of Afghanistan in the past decade or the situation in Colombia in the 1990s that Taussig describes, but it is important, I think, to balance these phenomenologies that depict how violence seems to dehistoricize itself with historical accounts that name the actors and the causes. Anyway, I’m really glad I read this book, which had been sitting unopened on a shelf in my apartment for years.
 
Blood in the Water, by Heather Ann Thompson
This book has received tons of praise, for good reason. It’s also received some critiques by comrades. I think that it should be required reading in history grad seminars, as we train students in the craft of writing (yeah, sure we do) and in historical methodology. What are the costs/benefits of a purely narrative style? No one really writes narrative dissertations or journal articles, but the profession, particularly the subfield of US history, does fetishize narrative. We should be reflexive about that, and I think that a critique of any single book without a critique of the larger formation should tread carefully. Another question to consider is how much information is enough information? In my own writing process in the dissertation, I tried to be as exhaustive as possible, with the goal of presenting the “definitive” account of given phenomena, even though my interpretation was likely to be more critical than standard accounts. But is that a useful goal? In the few years since I wrote the diss, I have, of course, accumulated a lot more information. But does anyone need to know it? Anyway, I should mention that I was surprised to find that I liked the final parts of this book (on the court cases, in particular) the most, and the way it sustained my interest over hundreds of pages was impressive.
 
Boston Review, “Race Capitalism Justice” issue
This isn’t quite a book, but it functions almost like one, especially because most of it is not online. It is a self-described "critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump”—and it’s awesome. Other than Walter Johnson’s anchoring essay and Robin Kelley’s framing pieces, I really liked the contributions by Manisha Sinha, Peter Linebaugh, and Peter Hudson, though everything was quite good. I do think there is still much more to be said on the subject of racial capitalism, and specifically on Cedric Robinson. Hudson’s contribution was the one to add something new to ongoing discussions of Robinson for me. The question of “dehumanization,” which Johnson has been prodding for a while, is probably not going away, though I think it’s been exhausted.
 
Bad Cop No Doughnut, Andrew W. Best, Sr. 
Another memoir (self-published) of a cop who became a public safety advisor overseas, mostly in Costa Rica. It’s fascinating to me, but I’m not sure anyone other than his colleagues or obsessive historians of these phenomena (of whom there are maybe 5-10 on the planet) should pick it up.
 
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. 
This is an excellent book, about which I hope to write more in the future. It’s a great antidote to the highly dubious case made in Black Silent Majority. I would recommend this as an assignment in any class about mass incarceration or even postwar US history. It’s eminently readable and persuasive. 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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© 2017 Stuart Schrader