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Book Review: Killing Pablo

PabloescobookWarring cartels, corrupt politicians, violent fugitives, and rugged commandos. Chases, shootouts, bombings, intrigue, and intrigue within intrigue. Lots of killing, lots of dying – all of it set in an exotic foreign locale. This isn’t something out of a Tom Clancy novel. It’s history.

And it happened when some very dangerous people decided that Killing Pablo was the only option they had left.

This is the inside story of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar: wayward son, devoted husband, loving father, and head of the Colombian Medellin cocaine cartel. The kind of guy who could be unflinchingly polite in one breath, then use his next to order someone hung upside down and burned.

“He wasn’t an entrepreneur,” Mark Bowden observes, “and he wasn’t even an especially talented businessman. He was just ruthless.” His criminal empire would hold the nation of Columbia hostage until U.S. operatives joined the local police on a sixteen month track-and-kill mission that would finally bring him down.

I’d call it a testament to Bowden’s prowess as a writer and a journalist that there were moments during my reading of this book when I had to remind myself that it was not a piece of fiction, but a record of fact. Scenes and conversations are reconstructed here with scrupulous accuracy and attention to detail: the very technique which made Black Hawk Down so fabulously compelling. With access to the soldiers, field agents, and government officials involved in the pursuit – not to mention top-secret documents and transcripts of Escobar’s intercepted phone conversations – Bowden resurrects the past, dusts it off, and dandies it up. His book supplies a rush that puts most of modern thrillerdom to cringing, cone-wearing shame.

Can you hear the whimpering?

That, my friends, is how narrative journalism is done.

And Mr. Bowden? I think you’re some kind of wizard. You’ve got to be. More power to you.

Postscript: As you may have gathered, this is a book about a very bad man who lived a very bad life and did some very bad things. There’s language, drug content, and other adult material. And lots of people die. Don’t hand it to your five-year-old. Or your fifteen-year-old, for that matter.

Book Review: Catch-22

As a reader who tries to roam far and wide on the literary landscape, I’d like to think I know craziness when I see it. And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is crazy.

I’ve tried to write a detailed and semi-coherent plot summary. And I’ve failed to write a detailed and semi- coherent plot summary. So I won’t try anymore. Catch-22 is all over the place. Norman Mailer dubbed it “the rock and roll of novels,” and if by that he means that there is little discernible flow or structure to it, then I agree – rock and roll just about says it.

This lack of narrative flow would usually be a turn-off for me, but Catch-22 is an exception. I would even argue that lack of flow is part of what makes the novel as potent and memorable as it is.

They say war is hell, but according to Catch-22, it is also absurdity. Chaotic, vain, bloodletting absurdity. In keeping with this theme, Heller opts for a storytelling approach that is less-than-tidy; that is, in fact, the opposite of tidy. Just like war itself.

The novel is set in World War II-era Italy, and centers around a young bombardier named Yossarian, who happens to be furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His worst enemy, though, is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Oh, and there’s a catch… did I mention a catch?

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause in Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. (p. 46)

Confused yet? Good. To couch the Catch in less mind-boggling terms: a man is insane if he willingly flies combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore required to fly. Saavy?

Catch-22 is a satire, and a funny one at that. But no amount of humor can disguise the fact that it’s also a very grim, cynical, and sad piece of work. Heller doesn’t go for the subtle approach, either – his tool of choice is less the scalpel than the cricket bat, and war is his pinata.

A pacifist I am not, but I did appreciate reading this book. It gave me a different perspective to consider, and for that, I am always grateful. I even found myself in agreement with some of Heller’s criticisms (which surprised me). Having said that, it seemed to me that in certain respects, Heller is so over-the-top as to be unfair.

In the afterword of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden observes that in the three most notable modern literary war novels (Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow), World War II, the great triumph of freedom over totalitarianism,

becomes a sensible enterprise only to malevolent, invisible, powerful interests behind the scenes. Soldiers were meaningless because modern war itself was so terrible and costly that no cause or victory could justify it.

And of course, “when war is madness, soldiers can only be stooges, sadists, victims, or lunatics.” Those four types are, indeed, the only types you’ll find in Catch-22.

But is not this a rather lopsided way of looking at things? Am I really to believe that war is ever and only madness, and that those who fight are ever and only insane? Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it hard to reconcile such a picture with the one in, say, Ambrose’s Band of Brothers.

I’m not denying that there is an element of madness to warfare, because there is. But that’s not the whole story. As Bowden puts it,

Perfectly decent, honorable people are driven to war for very sane reasons. So long as one group of men on this planet would take what they want or impose their will by force, civilized people will organize to defend themselves and defeat them. Another way of saying that is, evil exists. So long as men are both good and evil, inside themselves and in their actions in the world, there will be conflict. And where there are evil forces at work in the world… good men and women will step forward to fight.

Soldiers make mistakes. They get scared. Sometimes they become tragically confused, shoot at the wrong people, and get injured and killed. We may even be driven to question the wisdom of their leaders. But along with these mistakes and questions, we shouldn’t lose sight of “the undeniable nobility of military service.” Attributing all war and all soldiering to insanity (or worse) is unfair at best; brazenly deceitful at worst.

By all means, read Catch-22. It’s a pivotal work, and one which deserves consideration regardless of one’s politics. Just remember there’s another catch, besides the Catch – just remember it’s not the whole story.

Book Review: Black Hawk Down

On October 3rd, 1993, a small, elite group of U.S. Rangers and Delta Force soldiers were dropped by helicopter into the swarming heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their assignment was to kidnap several high-ranking deputies to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and escort them out of the city. Simple, right?

But what began as an hour-long mission soon devolved into something much worse: pinned down by thousands of heavily-armed Somalis, the men fought for their lives through an entire night of bloody urban combat. By morning, eighteen Americans were dead and over seventy badly wounded.

Mark Bowden chronicles those events in Black Hawk Down: a gritty and relentless story filled with the blood, noise, and heroism of battle. Drawing on official reports, army records, radio transcripts, video tapes, and countless interviews, Bowden has crafted a non-fiction narrative so intensely real, you’ll feel that you’re standing right next to the men you’re reading about.

Coupled with this meticulous attention to detail is the author’s prose – skilled and stripped-down and unpretentious. Consequently, the book gains a forcefulness that would’ve been lacking had Bowden opted for rhetorical flamboyance. He points away from himself: bidding us marvel, not at his prowess as a writer, but at the valor of the men who fought and died in Mogadishu. He says,

Readers who picked up the book were not supposed to be struck by my cleverness, but by the extraordinary courage and humanity of those young soldiers They made mistakes. They were terrified. Sometimes they shot at people they shouldn’t have shot at. Sometimes they shot at each other. They became tragically confused and some of them were killed and others horribly injured. The story raised all sorts of questions about the wisdom of their leaders, about whether and when it is appropriate to send young soldiers off to fight and die, and what that decision means in the real world. But along with all of these mistakes and questions, the story captured the undeniable nobility of military service, and was shot through with my respect for these young men who felt so entrusted with this story, and who shared it with me. (pp. 357-358)

For those thinking about picking this book up, be warned: it’s not a light or casual read. It’s gritty. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s exhausting. You can’t simply pick it up every once in awhile and read a few lines. It demands complete mental and emotional investment on the part of the reader.

But it’s worth it.

If you take the time to read Black Hawk Down (and I strongly recommend that you do) you will find yourself repaid a hundred-fold. It is a searing and hellish depiction of modern warfare. In that respect, I’ve seldom read an uglier book. But I’ve also seldom read a more beautiful one. The picture it gives of camaraderie, sacrifice, and raw, manly courage is unforgettable.

They say “war is hell”, and Black Hawk Down shows us what that really means. Violence throughout is bloody and punishing: men are shot to pieces, dismembered, and eviscerated. There’s nothing funny or glamorous about it. It’s sickening. And it makes you respect the heck out of the guys who endured it. There’s also quite a bit of hard language, shouted in anger and frustration, as well as some sexual references. Make no mistake: this is an R-rated book. Prospective readers should take that into account.

I’ll leave Bowden the final word (from pp. 345-356):

Many of the young Americans who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu are civilians again. They are beginning families and careers, no different outwardly than the millions of other twenty-something members of their generation… In my interviews with those who were in the thick of battle, they remarked again and again how much they felt like they were in a movie, and had to remind themselves that this horror, the blood, the deaths, was real. They describe feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal. This cannot be real. Many wear black metal bracelets inscribed with the names of their friends who died, as if to remind themselves daily that it was real.

To look at them today, few show any outward sign that one day not too long ago they risked their lives in an ancient African city, killed for their country, took a bullet, or saw their best friend shot dead. They returned to a country that didn’t care to remember. Their fight was neither triumph nor defeat; it just didn’t matter. It’s as though their firefight was a bizarre two-day adventure, like some extreme Outward Bound experience where things got out of hand and some of the guys got killed.

I wrote this book for them.

Because the Other Guys Needed Him

“Private Carlson felt a sudden blow and sharp pain in his right knee. It felt like someone had taken a knife and held it to his knee and then driven it in with a sledgehammer. He glanced down to see blood rapidly staining his pants. He said a prayer and kept shooting. He had been wildly scared for longer than he had ever felt that way in his life, and now he thought he might literally die of fright. His heart banged in his chest and he found it hard to breathe. His head was filled with the sounds of shooting and explosions and visions of his friends, one by one, going down, and blood splashed everywhere oily and sticky with its dank, coppery smell and he figured, This is it for me. And then, at that moment of maximum terror, he felt it all abruptly, inexplicably fall away. One second he was paralyzed with fear and pain and the next… he had stopped caring about himself.

He would think about this a lot later, and the best he could explain it was, his own life no longer mattered. All that did matter were his buddies, his brothers, that they not get hurt, that they not get killed. These men around him, some of whom he had only known for months, were more important to him than life itself. It was like when Telscher ran out on the road to pull Joyce back in. Carlson understood that now, and it was heroic, but it also wasn’t heroic. At a certain level he knew Telscher had made no choice, just as he was not choosing to be unafraid. It just happened to him, like he passed through a barrier. He had to keep fighting, because the other guys needed him.”

~ Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (p. 120)