The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency – Chris Whipple

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Jul 092017

This is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in how the White House works.  It’s a well-researched, non-partisan history of every Chief of Staff since Sherman Adams, who first held the position under Eisenhower.  The first “modern” Chief was H.R. Haldeman, who under Nixon developed the staff system that’s proved indispensable to every administration since.

The White House Chief of Staff is the second-most powerful man in Washington: it’s a little-understood but crucial job that determines the effectiveness of any administration.  He’s first and foremost the “Gatekeeper”: the single person through which everyone – internal and external – communicates with the President.  The most important resource of any administration is the President’s time, and a good CoS guards it zealously, while still providing face-time with numerous staff and other persons on important issues, being an “honest broker” who faithfully transmits ideas and positions to the President for his consideration without filtering them through any personal agenda of his own.  The Chief of Staff must also impose discipline and focus on the staff, and ride-herd on any and all issues big and small, short- and long-term.  Most ominously, he is the President’s “son-of-a-bitch”, telling him what he needs – not wants – to hear, and taking the heat for unpopular decisions, along with dropping the hammer on anyone and anything that becomes a liability to the execution of the President’s agenda.

Aside from the Presidency itself, it’s the worst job in Washington, and the most important.

Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East – Gwynne Dyer

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Jul 092017

As someone who’s eschewed current events for history the last few years, I’m a little behind on things.  This history of Islamist terrorism and ISIS (now “IS”) went a long way towards catching me up.

Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (Max Hastings)

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May 292017

There’s tons of WWII “overview” histories.  Hastings’ contribution distinguishes itself in its focus on civilians and soldiers: a zoomed-in, on-the-ground look at the war and how it affected those it touched (as opposed to histories discussing grand strategy and the men who framed it).  A damned fine book.

Carl Sandberg’s Abraham Lincoln

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Feb 252017

Christmas gift WIN.  Sometimes parents give you socks (which are not to be despised, being so uncommon useful when one’s feet are cold).  But sometimes they knock one out of the park.  Exhibit A: this handsome 3-volume biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg.

I’m not normally one to get wrapped-up in nostalgia, or to imbue physical objects with emotional significance: media is media, digital or otherwise, and is replaceable.  I nonetheless feel a certain something about this particular collection, since it came from the estate of my dear Aunt Nell, whom I didn’t know nearly well enough but held in great esteem as a kind, cultured, and well-read lady.  Lincoln’s my favorite historical figure, and my reverence for him teeters on the brink of objectivity – indeed has perhaps fallen into a hopeless abyss of semi-religious awe.

I could gush about Lincoln at the same interminable length a teenage girl in the 60’s could for The Beetles.  I honestly believe he’s the finest human being America has yet produced.  No joke.  He may be the most intelligent, wise, tough, cunning, indomitable, and moral individual to ever walk this continent.  If not, he’s easily in the top-ten in all those categories.  He’s an utter freak of nature – a Dungeons & Dragons character born with the maximum possible score for all abilities, who then levelled-up to 20.  In fact, my respect for his faculties is such that I’ve occasionally wondered what the world would be like if he’d lacked his prodigious morality (which many consider his greatest characteristic).  What would America, or the world for that matter, look like today if Lincoln had possessed a mediocre sense of right and wrong, or if – God forbid – he’d been outright evil, or a psychopath?  The notion chills me to the bone.  Napoleon’s failure can be traced to politics, geography, logistics, and perhaps hubris.  Hitler was undone by megalomania and ideology, which drove him to micromanage military strategy in an inept fashion.  But a malicious Lincoln might have conquered the world – such was his adroitness and lack of weak-points.

And so this feels a particularly fitting disposition of one of her possessions (whereas I’d feel most awkward accepting, say, a piece of jewelry or stock shares).  Its monetary value is negligible, and I could literally torrent the entire work in epub format in the time it took to type this sentence – yet I look-forward to reading Nell’s copy with the liveliest anticipation.   It’s a striking departure from my usual rationality in matters of this sort, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.  And small though my mind may be, I really dig these books.

War: The Lethal Custom (Gwynne Dyer)

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Feb 032017

Dan Carlin sometimes references this in his Hardcore History podcast – it’s a great overview of warfare, from ancient times to the present.  Explains things such as why chariots fell by the wayside (selective breeding finally produced horses with backs strong enough to carry a man) as well as why they were developed in the first place (ie. the abilities of cavalry and the roles it can play on the battlefield).  However, the book’s overarching theme is that the destructive capability of human technology has reached the asymptote of existential threat: mankind must abandon the custom of war or go extinct.

War: The Lethal Custom

Air Power (Stephen Budiansky)

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Oct 122016

Ever heard the term “strategic bombing” and wondered what it meant?  This cogent, readable history by Budiansky lays it out with all the context you need to understand this bizarre, fleeting dream: of war without fighting.

Imagine a war with no bloodbaths of opposing infantry.  A war with almost no casualties, in which pinpoint strikes instantly cripple an enemy’s industrial capacity (or will) to wage war.  A war ending virtually overnight in negotiated settlement, conceded by rational men because logistics rendered its outcome a foregone certainty.  A war without bullets, disease, malice, or horror.

It’s easy to understand why this idea seduced idealists and military theorists alike before even powered flight was proven practical by the Wright Brothers.   What’s harder to grasp is why it persisted the entire length of the 20th century, despite the nightmares of Guernica, the Blitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, and the Cold War’s inevitable doctrine of mutually-assured destruction.  Budiansky follows the concept from its origin in the science-fiction of H.G. Wells, through the nuclear arms race and the second Gulf War.

Of course, you can’t really explain strategic bombing without discussing its perennially-neglected sibling, tactical air warfare.  There’s plenty of good stuff about the role of Coningham’s RAF in the Battle of Britain (as it turns out, the bombers don’t always get through) as well as the hard-won (and promptly forgotten) lessons learned during WWII about close-air support, culminating in the air war of Vietnam,  and that conflict’s embittered, prodigal son, the Fighter Mafia (whose championship of low-thrust-to-weight ratios led to a little ditty you may have heard of, the F-15).

Most importantly, this book’s aimed not at the airman, but the layman.  You can easily digest its meaning and message even if you lack the slightest clue what I’m talking about.   After all, I didn’t have a clue either, till I read it.

Damned good book.

Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq


The Punisher Armory (1990 – 1994)

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Mar 272016

The Punisher (like Doctor Who) is one of those one of those properties that, in my personal opinion, has enormous potential but that nobody has ever gotten quite right.  I don’t mean to denigrate any of the fine efforts made over the years in either case.  They’re what IT people refer to as edge cases – both involve truly unique characters that are damn-near impossible to really nail writing-wise.

The Punisher Armory comes the closest I think – it’s certainly my favorite Punisher comic.  Which is admittedly a little strange, since Frank Castle never appears on a single page.  Neither does anyone else, for that matter: the entire ten-issue series consists of still-shots – mostly of equipment – narrated in text-box format by the man himself.  Eliot Brown wrote and drew these in a manner Frank would respect: plain, no-nonsense, and in their own way, beautiful.

It features no action or dialogue whatsoever. These are instead the quiet, personal moments that make-up the bulk of Castle’s existence.  It’s convenient to summarize his character as a one-man army driven by rage over the loss of his family one sunny day in the park long ago.  But his day-to-day reality is that of a stone-cold professional for whom every hour of combat is preceded by 100 hours of training, reconnaissance, and preparation.