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A waste of young men

And the wackos who sent them to their deaths

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ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz's terrific book about an early battle of the Iraq war is now available in paperback. Raddatz tells the riveting story of the day -- April 4, 2004 -- when violent resistance to the U.S. invasion was severely ratcheted up. American troops patrolling the Sadr City section of Baghdad found themselves pinned down by a massive assault by Mahdi militiamen, and when it was over, eight American soldiers were dead, with more than 70 wounded.

On the April day in question, U.S. troops, ready for a "babysitting mission," as they called it, were first confronted by the very real carnage of battle. Raddatz's narrative is pinpoint precise in its descriptions of troop movements, attacks and counter-attacks, and she portrays personalities of some of the individual soldiers brilliantly. One of those warriors was Casey Sheehan, who volunteered to take another man's place on a rescue unit and lost in life in the process. His mother, of course, is Cindy Sheehan.

Similarities to Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down are inevitable. Both authors kept their focus on the soldiers' actions and away from politics. Raddatz's book is nearly as intense as Bowden's story of the disastrous battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, that led to a U.S. pullout from that godforsaken country. Where Raddatz perhaps outshines Bowden is in her inclusion of perspectives from soldiers' families back in the States. Comparisons are ultimately useless here, however, as both books are classics of combat reporting.

If you want to know how and why the soldiers in The Long Road Home (see previous review) got to be in Baghdad to begin with, Fred Kaplan has the scoop for you. In a word, it was the neo-conservatives. Specifically, it was the delusional thinking of people like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and the always interesting Douglas Feith (Bush's Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, whom Gen. Tommy Franks famously referred to as "the stupidest fucking guy on the planet").

According to Kaplan -- and, it should be noted, others who have had access to the content of discussions leading up to the Iraq invasion -- Bush's foreign policy was essentially taken over by a group of office holders and advisers who had convinced themselves that the United States was so all-powerful that it could do whatever it wanted, including the overthrow of other governments via warfare, and everybody else would just have to like it. Not only that, they believed that America could transform the world -- or at least the most ancient part of it -- into a wellspring of democracy, just by showing up there with an army. The word "hubris" doesn't even begin to match the level of arrogance contained in these folks' thinking. The terms "hallucinatory," even "deranged," are more to the point, considering the insanity of their pet project: selling democracy through force as if our political system could be peddled as easily as a high-tech weapons bundle to the Saudis.

Kaplan's research is first-rate, his writing is clear albeit uninspired, and the insights he brings to bear on responsibility for the tragedy that has dissolved the world's goodwill toward the United States, are a collection of bitter truths we'll be swallowing for years.

Alan Bennett, a popular British writer (The History Boys, The Madness of King George), has written a fun, and comical, novella about the power of books, and how their subversive potential might be played out in Buckingham Palace. It begins when Queen Elizabeth II winds up in a mobile library while chasing after her wayward corgis, and lo and behold becomes an avid reader. Her book habit takes control of her, and she begins to question the underlying reasons for her reign. The Queen eventually turns to writing and, in the process, triggers a constitutional crisis that upends her nation's governance.

Bennett's latest is beautifully written, light satire with a few wicked pokes in the eye for those who assume their high status is somehow deserved.


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