Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Reviews- 'Ali: A Life' by Jonathan Eig

A Biography That's not The Greatest

September 29, 2017
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Important historical figures are like blocks of marble that writers feel compelled to sculpt. More than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Muhammad Ali won’t reach that mark, but his life invites exploration.
There will always be a need and a market for good Ali scholarship. The most notable of the recent Ali books is “Blood Brothers” by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, an extraordinary recounting of the relationship between Ali and Malcolm X that expands what we know about both figures and their time. Other books have succeeded to varying degrees in recounting a particular facet of Ali’s life or his life as a whole.
Some doors close to writers over time. Potential interview subjects pass from the scene. Half of the 200 people I interviewed while researching “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” between 1988 and 1990 have died since then. But other avenues of exploration have opened up as government files are declassified and personal archives become available to scholars.
The latest effort at chronicling the life of Muhammad Ali is “Ali: A Life” by Jonathan Eig (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Referencing Cassius Clay on the night of his first fight against Sonny Liston, Eig writes, “Much of Clay’s life will be spent in the throes of a social revolution, one he will help propel, as black Americans force white Americans to rewrite the terms of citizenship. Clay will win fame as the media grows international in scope, as words and images travel more quickly around the globe, allowing individuals to be seen and heard as never before. People will sing songs and compose poems and make movies and plays about him, telling the story of his life in a strange blend of truth and fiction rather than as a real mirror of the complicated and yearning soul who seemed to hide in plain sight. His appetite for affection will prove insatiable, opening him to relations with countless girls and women, including four wives. He will earn the kind of money once reserved for oil barons and real estate tycoons, and his extraordinary wealth and trusting nature will make him an easy mark for hustlers. He will make his living by cruelly taunting opponents before beating them bloody, yet he will become a lasting worldwide symbol of tolerance, benevolence, and pacifism.”
Thereafter, Eig strips away much of the gravitas that Ali has been clad in over the decades. His work parallels the question asked by journalist Robert Lipsyte: “Do you think that there’s less there than we want to believe was there?”
Eig conducted a massive amount of research. His words are polished and flow nicely.
There are some sloppy mistakes. Eig refers to Maryum, Rasheda, Jamillah, and Ibn Muhammad as “Ali’s children from his first marriage.” But Ali’s first wife was Sonji Roi, and they did not have children together. Belinda Ali (Muhammad’s second wife, who later changed her name to Khalilah Ali) was their mother.
There’s also a lot of hyperbole.
Sonny Liston “pounds the heavy bag so hard the walls shake.” As Clay readies to challenge Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, “There’s little debate among the men in the press corps about who will win. The question – the only question in most minds – is whether Cassius Clay leaves the ring unconscious or dead.”
Writing about Ali versus Cleveland Williams in The Astrodome, Eig calls the 35,000 spectators in attendance “one of the largest audiences to ever witness a sporting event.” That’s just wrong. Baseball and football drew larger crowds as a matter of course. And where boxing was concerned, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis drew larger crowds on at least eight occasions.
But there are larger issues to address in evaluating “Ali: A Life.”
Eig is on solid ground in his interpretation of Ali as a public figure and social force. He’s also on point when he writes that, leading into the first Ali-Frazier fight, Ali was “becoming more of a celebrity rebel” than the real thing.
But Eig understates white support for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and sometimes falls into the trap of overgeneralization.
For example, writing of the days after Ali was convicted for refusing induction into the United States Army, Eig states, “White newspaper reporters attacked again.”
So did some black commentators. And there were numerous ”white newspaper reporters” such as Jerry Izenberg, Robert Lipsyte, and Barney Nagler, who vigorously defended Ali.
Also, the platform for Ali’s greatness was boxing. And Eig never captures Ali’s greatness as a fighter, perhaps because he doesn’t understand boxing.
Young Cassius Clay is described by Eig as devastating Allen Hudson at the 1960 Olympic Trials with “a huge right hook.” But Clay was an orthodox fighter. He didn’t throw a “right hook.”
Similarly, Eig writes that, in their 1963 fight at Madison Square Garden, Doug Jones “bashed Clay’s head with a right hook that sent Cassius toppling into the ropes.” Again, it wasn’t a right hook. And Clay didn’t “topple into the ropes.” Then Eig writes, “When the final bell rang, the audience exploded with approval, convinced that their man Jones had won. The TV announcers said they thought the fight might have been a draw. But to the judges and referee, the fight wasn’t close. They awarded Clay the victory by a unanimous decision.”
In that era, fights in New York were scored on a round-by-round basis. Referee Joe LoScalzo inexplicably scored Clay-Jones 8-1-1 for Clay. But judges Frank Forbes and Artie Aidala gave Clay the nod by a 5-4-1 margin. You can’t get much closer than that.
Writing about Ali’s 1966 bout against George Chuvalo, Eig states, “At one point in the opening round, Chuvalo banged fourteen consecutive right hooks to the same spot on Ali’s left side” and adds that, over the course of 15 rounds, “He gave Ali a vicious beating.”
Again, they weren’t “right hooks.” The fighters were in a clinch, Ali had immobilized Chuvalo’s left hand and Chuvalo was pumping his free right hand to the body. More importantly, Chuvalo did not inflict a “vicious beating” on Ali. And Ali won the decision in the Canadian’s home country by a lopsided 74-62, 74-63, 73-65 margin.
Too often, Eig denigrates Ali’s boxing skills. Everyone who follows boxing understands that Ali was diminished as a fighter as his career went on. But there are times when Eig doesn’t give Ali full credit for his ring skills when he was near his peak.
Eig raises the possibility that both Liston fights were fixed. He repeats a claim George Foreman has made intermittently over the years that Foreman’s own manager-trainer, Dick Sadler, drugged George in Zaire. Then, later in the book, Eig recounts a press conference in Chicago when promoter Don King announced Ali’s upcoming fight against Chuck Wepner.
“Why was Dick Sadler, manager to George Foreman, standing by King’s side?” Eig asks. ‘In the months ahead, Sadler and King would work together promoting Ali’s fights, and Sadler would work at Deer Lake as an assistant trainer for Ali. Was this Sadler’s reward for poisoning George Foreman? The answer may never be known.”
This lends more credence to an ugly, unsubstantiated allegation than it deserves.
Eig also travels down a rabbit’s hole with the use of recently-compiled “CompuBox” statistics.
Long before CompuBox turned its attention to Ali, Bill Cayton and Steve Lott ran punch counts on some of Ali’s fights. Two decades ago, Cayton summed up their findings as follows:
“When Muhammad was young, he was virtually untouchable. The two hardest punchers he faced in that period were Sonny Liston and Cleveland Williams. There was no clowning around in those fights. The last thing Ali wanted was to get hit. In the first Liston fight, if you throw out the round when Ali was temporarily blinded, Liston hit him with less than a dozen punches per round; most of them jabs. In the second Liston fight, Liston landed only two punches. When Ali fought Cleveland Williams, Williams hit him a grand total of three times the entire night. But if you look at the end of Ali’s career; in Manila, Joe Frazier landed 440 times and a high percentage of those punches were bombs. In the first Spinks fight, Spinks connected 482 times, mostly with power punches. Larry Holmes scored 320 times against Ali, and 125 of those punches landed in the ninth and tenth rounds when Ali was most vulnerable and Holmes was throwing everything he had.”
Eig devotes a great deal of time and space to statistics compiled recently by CompuBox that show Ali was a different fighter after his exile from boxing than before. But then he goes off the rails, writing that “the percentage of punches landed [by a boxer] compared to the percentage of punches landed by opponents [is] the most telling of all boxing statistics.”
By this measure, summarizing statistics compiled by CompuBox after a review of available fight footage for Ali’s entire ring career, Eig states, “Ali failed to rank among history’s top heavyweights. By these statistical measures, the man who called himself The Greatest was below average for much of his career.”
This use of these statistics brings to mind the old axiom regarding the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting a tomato in fruit salad.
As more information about Muhammad Ali becomes available, Ali is ripe for reinterpretation. Eig offers readers new details but no new interpretations that expand what we know about, or cause us to rethink, Ali’s importance.
In some ways, the most serious omission here is Eig’s disinclination to discuss the final 20 years of Ali’s life in a more than superficial way. These decades cry out for interpretation. What did Ali mean to the world over the past 20 years? Is there still an Ali message that resonates? In memory, can Ali be a force for positive change? Is there a way to harness the extraordinary outpouring of love that was seen around the world when Ali died.
In 2006, 80 percent of the marketing rights to Ali’s name, likeness and image were sold to CKX for $50 million. These rights were subsequently transferred to Authentic Brands Group. This transaction and its implications (including the “sanitization” of Ali’s image for economic gain) are barely mentioned in Eig’s book.
Lonnie Ali played an enormous role as Muhammad’s wife in overseeing the day-to-day details of living, supervising Ali’s health care, managing his finances and crafting his image over the final 30 years of his life. One can agree or disagree with some of the things Lonnie did. But her presence was at the core of Muhammad’s life; his life was better because she was in it; and her input is largely ignored by Eig.
Nor does Eig acknowledge Laila Ali’s boxing career, the fact that several of Ali’s daughters have married white men or that one of Ali’s grandsons was bar mitzvahed.
Other choices are equally strange.
Howard Bingham was Ali’s best, truest, most loyal friend for more than 50 years. No one was closer to Muhammad than Howard was during the whole of that time. Yet Eig introduces readers to Bingham when he meets Cassius Clay in 1962 and, thereafter, largely ignores him. Other members of Ali’s entourage aren’t mentioned at all. By contrast, while the importance of Bingham in Ali’s life is downplayed, the role of Gene Kilroy (who feuded with Bingham and was one of Eig’s significant sources) is overblown.
But let’s cut to the chase.
Ali, as portrayed by Eig, isn’t a nice man.
Eig’s Ali is not just a womanizer but a vain inveterate whoremonger who was physically abusive to two of his four wives. He’s characterized again and again as having an indiscriminate, selfish, ravenous sexual appetite and verges on being a sexual predator.
Some of Eig’s material is accurate. Some of it is based on rumor and unreliable sources.
I like Khalilah Ali. I think she’s a good woman who was thrust into difficult circumstances and the harshest spotlight imaginable when, at age 17, she married Ali. In February 2016, I conducted a six-hour interview with Khalilah for a documentary that aired on television in the United Kingdom. At that time, I also reviewed an unpublished manuscript that Khalilah had written.
Much of what Khalilah said to me and wrote was compelling and had the ring of truth. Some of what she said was “headline material” but otherwise unsubstantiated and conflicted with what I understood the facts of a particular situation to be.
Eig recounts an incident that supposedly occurred sometime around 1970, when, in his words, “Wilma Rudolph, Ali’s Olympic teammate, [came] to the Ali’s house in New Jersey asking for money to support a child that Rudolph claimed belonged to Ali. Ali admitted the affair with Rudolph, but told Belinda he didn’t believe the child was his.”
It’s a matter of record that 18-year-old Cassius Clay – along with just about every other male athlete on the 1960 United States Olympic team – had a crush on Wilma Rudolph. It’s possible that years later Ali and Rudolph engaged in a sexual relationship. But Wilma was a woman of exceptional dignity and grace. It’s unlikely that she would have appeared at the Ali’s home as described by Eig. The fact that she died of brain cancer in 1994 and is not here to speak for herself makes the allegation ugly.
Looking at the end notes to “Ali: A Life,” one sees that the sole source for the Wilma Rudolph story is Khalilah Ali. One might add that Khalilah gets her comeuppance in the unsubstantiated rumor category when Veronica Porche (Ali’s third wife) suggests to Eig that Khalilah might have tried to poison her.
Eig makes clear his belief that, while Ali was married to Veronica, he was also having sexual relations with Lonnie Williams, who would become his fourth wife.
There’s also an extensive recounting of the children that Ali fathered out of wedlock and references to affairs with girls who allegedly were as young as 12. Some of this has long been a matter of record. Some of it is of questionable veracity. And after a while, it seems like overkill.
Waxing eloquent about Ali’s sexual proclivities, Eig states, “Black women, white women, young women, old women, Hollywood actresses, chambermaids: Ali didn’t discriminate.”
I don’t think that’s accurate. More specifically, I don’t think there were white women.
When Cassius Clay was 13 years old, a 14-year-old African-American named Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly making flirtatious remarks to a white woman. Cassius Clay Sr. talked about the murder incessantly in the weeks that followed, and it made an impression on Cassius Jr on a primal level: Don’t fool around with white women. If you do, bad things will happen.
Later, that message was augmented by black pride.
During my years with Ali, I developed what I considered to be an easy-to-use reliable lie detector test. By that time in Muhammad’s life, he’d become deeply religious. He was doing his best to live his life in accord with what he believed to be the teachings of Islam. Whenever Ali said something I doubted, I’d ask him to “swear to Allah” that it was true. Many a fable (such as the falsehood that young Cassius Clay threw his Olympic gold medal in the Ohio River) was recanted pursuant to the “swear to Allah” standard.
Ali swore to Allah that he never had sexual relations with a white woman.
Further with regard to the issue of white women, Eig writes, “Everyone close to the fighter knew his proclivities.”
Well …
Lloyd Wells was the primary procurer of women in Ali’s training camp (although he had considerable help from others). Wells told me, “Ali was never involved with a white woman. Never, never, never! I’m a guy that tells it like it is, and I don’t think Ali ever had sex with a white woman. He had all sorts of opportunities. They’d throw themselves at him, some big names too. I saw them, but I never saw Ali date a white woman, and I’m sure he never had sex with a white woman. That’s just not the way it was. And I’d know if he had because, on that score, when it came to women, I was closer to him than anyone. I was the one he talked with. I was the one he came to before and after.”
Howard Bingham, as earlier noted, was as close to Ali as anyone on earth. Speaking of Ali and women, Bingham acknowledged, “His habits were bad. When we met in 1962, he looked at girls a lot but didn’t touch. Maybe he’d flirt a little. But even if someone was interested, which a lot of them were, it didn’t go beyond talking. Then Sonji turned him on and, after they split up, there were a lot of women. You know, most men have to wine ʼem and dine ʼem. But all Ali had to do was look at a woman and she’d melt. He got an awful lot of encouragement. But I don’t think there was ever a white woman. Some people have written and some women have bragged that I’m wrong about that. But I know Ali as well as anyone, and I don’t think there ever was a white woman.”
And a final thought …
There was a lot about Jonathan Eig’s work that impressed me as I read his book. Eig conducted an enormous amount of research. He puts words together well. But I never felt comfortable with what I was reading. Then, as I neared the end of the book, I realized what was troubling me most.
Eig fails to communicate how deeply spiritual Ali was in his later years. And he fails to understand what a genuinely nice man Ali was.
In reading “Ali: A Life,” I didn’t see the word “love” attached much to Ali as a human quality. But Ali was a loving man who, in many ways, taught the world to love.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at His next book – “There Will Always Be Boxing” – will be published this fall by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

An Exhaustive and Engaging Look at the Life of Muhammad Ali
By John Powers
October 6, 2017
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Ali fighting Cleveland Williams in 1966
To billions he was known by one name. The only boxer to win the heavyweight crown three times may have been even more famous after he left the ring and became a beloved and inspirational diplomat-at-large.
Muhammad Ali, the most controversial and compelling athlete in history, evolved from arguably the most reviled celebrity in America to the most revered, a magnetic figure who drew crowds across the planet for decades after he retired. “The only difference between me and the Pied Piper is he didn’t have no Cadillac,” Ali once observed.
Jonathan Eig’s exhaustive yet engaging biography, published 16 months after Ali’s death at 74, is the latest of a surprisingly small number of life histories of a rebel who changed his name and transcended his sport. “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” Ali said. “I had to show that to the world.”
While Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography is considered definitive, it was published in 1991. Eig’s account, which includes a detailed examination of Ali’s formative relationship with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (and his ill-fated friendship with Malcolm X), also covers the final quarter century of the champion’s life. It includes interviews with more than 200 people including Ali’s three surviving wives plus access to federal government files and voluminous taped conversations between Ali and Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was the great-grandson of a slave, the grandson of a murderer, and the son of a hard-drinking, brawling, womanizing sign painter who beat his wife. His introduction to boxing came with his introduction to Joe Elsby Martin, a white cop in Clay’s hometown of Louisville, Ky. The two met when a distraught 12-year-old Clay reported the theft of his bicycle. Martin trained amateur fighters as a hobby, and he invited the 89-pound Clay, an indifferent student, to come to his gym. “[B]oxing triggered something wholly new in Cassius: ambition,’’ Eig writes.
Clay began his amateur career about a month later, in November 1954, and six years later would win an Olympic gold medal (as a light heavyweight) in Rome, announcing himself with brashness and braggadocio.
His original model was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion whose victory sparked deadly race riots across the country. “I wanted to be rough, tough, arrogant,” Ali said. “[T]he nigger white folks didn’t like.”
When he fought champion Sonny Liston, a convicted robber and mob enforcer, in Miami in 1964 most of the country was rooting for Liston. “I am the greatest!,” Clay proclaimed after Liston threw in the towel. “I shook up the world.” After Ali (as he was by then was referring to himself) flattened Liston with a “phantom punch’’ in their Maine rematch the following year his primacy was undisputed.
A larger-than-life figure, Ali’s philandering was legendary throughout most of his life. He was married four times and had nine children, two of them out of wedlock. In his extramarital activities “Ali didn’t discriminate’’: “[b]lack women, white women, young women, old women, Hollywood actresses, chambermaids . . . Everyone close to the fighter knew his proclivities.’’
Had it not been for the Vietnam War Ali might well have dominated the decade. But after refusing military induction in 1967, citing his Muslim faith Ali was arrested, charged with draft evasion, stripped of his title, and banned from the ring for more than three years. To many of his countrymen Ali was an ungrateful traitor. To others he was an admirable martyr willing to sacrifice his career and freedom for his religious beliefs.
After four years of appeals the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction but his prolonged absence from the ring took an obvious toll when the 28-year-old Ali returned in 1970. The days when he could “float like a butterly, sting like a bee’’ had passed. To compensate for his flagging legs Ali adopted a risky “rope-a-dope’’ approach, letting rivals bang away at him until they tired.
That strategy helped him regain his crown from George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle’’ in Zaire in 1974 and to vanquish former conqueror Joe Frazier for the second time in the “Thrilla in Manila’’ a year later. But the rope-a-dope also subjected Ali to frightful beatings that likely caused permanent neurological damage. “It was like death,” he said after the third Frazier bout. To many observers it was clear that Ali, who had always lived a lavish lifestyle and supported a hefty entourage, was increasingly fighting largely for the money.
Yet instead of retiring Ali fought for six more years, struggling against rivals whom he once would have befuddled. Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks the following winter and ended his career at 39 with a loss to unheralded Trevor Berbick. “Father Time just got me,” he conceded.
By then the signs of Parkinson’s disease — slurred speech, trembling hands, unsteady feet — were unmistakable. But Ali’s frailty made him a sympathetic character even to his detractors. “They thought I was Superman,” he said. “Now they can go: ‘He’s human like us. He has problems.”
Ali became a beloved icon, a serene and smiling figure who spoke in a whisper. “More and more he is like a soul walking,” wrote sportswriter Frank Deford. For the rest of his life the former champion served as a goodwill ambassador and charitable fund-raiser whose efforts benefited organizations ranging from the United Nations to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
He traveled widely to Muslim countries and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Back home, where he had come to be regarded as a global citizen with a unifying message, Ali was chosen to ignite the cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, a fitting turnabout for the man whom Richard Nixon had called “that draft-dodger.’’
After his death from septic shock in June of last year, tens of thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral procession in Louisville. “Muhammad Ali shook up the world,” President Barack Obama observed. “And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”

Friday, October 27, 2017

Book Reviews: 'Hue 1968' by Mark Bowden

Urban Warfare, Then and Now

Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968 contains much that is timeless.

By Bing West — June 24, 2017
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In 1968, more than 500,000 Americans and 800,000 South Vietnamese troops were fighting 400,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese (NVA) soldiers. In early February, the enemy launched a surprise attack against dozens of cities and bases throughout the 400-mile length of South Vietnam. While most of the offensive was beaten back within days, it received enormous press coverage and badly shook the confidence of the military and political leadership in both Saigon and Washington.

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, the new book from Mark Bowden of The Atlantic, tells the tactical narrative of these events splendidly — albeit with a dubious epilogue focused on broader questions of strategy and foreign policy.

The most savage battle occurred inside the historic city of Hue in the northern part of the country. Ten thousand NVA seized the heart of the city, including the ancient citadel enclosed by stone walls 20 feet thick. For 25 days a confused, chaotic battle raged up and down the city’s streets. When it ended, most of the city was destroyed, and the death toll included approximately 250 Americans, 500 South Vietnamese and 5,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, plus 6,000 civilians killed in the fighting and another 2,000 executed by the NVA.

Bowden has stitched together dozens of riveting squad-level firefights, writing from individual points of view collected via dozens of extended interviews over four years of research. Via this accumulation of short stories depicting love, sacrifice, gore, madness, valor, blood, and horror, the reader follows the battle down the deadly streets day by day.

Journalists who shuttled in and out of the raging battle are quoted at length. In Bowden’s eyes, they are particularly admirable because they combine physical courage — intrepidly (if episodically) following after the squads — with intellectual honesty, exposing setbacks inexcusably denied by the military hierarchy. In recounting the battle, the observations of these journalists add color, depth, and pathos.

Bowden also adds to excellent past accounts — e.g., Nick Warr’s Phase Line Green and Eric Hammel’s Fire in the Streets — the perspective of the enemy. He traveled to North Vietnam and interviewed more than two dozen soldiers, both men and women. At several points in the book, he interweaves both sides’ perspectives on the same fight. The North Vietnamese were a superb light-infantry force — disciplined and determined to withstand hardship.

Unfortunately, South Vietnamese soldiers have scant voice in the story, although their losses were twice those of the Americans. The South Vietnamese fought hard. They deserved recognition. The vast majority of U.S. advisers — both at the local level where I served and in the major battles where the legendary Ray “E-Tool” Smith, a prominent figure in Bowden’s book, served — admired their doughtiness and developed a deep affection for our counterparts.

Bowden does not address why both sides fought so relentlessly. Regardless of their losses, the Marines smashed their way forward, one block a day, pushing the NVA back. Certainly the corporals and lieutenants wanted to say, Let’s take a break and get some fresh troops in here. Sometimes they said their orders were plain stupid and got them changed. But when that didn’t happen, they obeyed and went anyway.

For understanding the factors that underlay unit cohesion under extreme stress, the finest book is the novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It vividly portrays how tradition, heritage, discipline, and faith in leaders and devotion to each other combine to shape the 13-man squad, the 44-man platoon, and the 160-man rifle company.

In a city, the squad is the basic unit moving from house to house. A platoon covers a row of houses on both sides of a street, and a company advances down two streets. Four companies, about 700 men, constitute a battalion led by a lieutenant colonel. In Hue, most battalion commanders were a few streets behind the front lines. They were supposed to grasp the larger dimensions of the battle and accurately report their assessments to the colonels and generals in headquarters dozens of miles away. All too frequently, that did not happen.

Bowden does a first-rate job of showing how the realities of the front lines and the size of the NVA forces were willfully ignored by the higher-ups. He sets the scene and names those who failed their troops. Again and again, he cites “the valor of Americans . . . who were used badly.” Bowden does not conceal his anger at generals who dribbled their men into battles where they were outgunned and outmanned, and then relieved the hapless battalion commanders. Initially, Marine Brigadier General Foster LaHue dispatched two under-strength battalions, about 1,500 men, to push out 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The overall commander, General William Westmoreland, receives particular opprobrium for deciding — against all rational evidence — to divert more and more forces to Khe Sanh, an obscure plateau in the distant jungle near the Laotian border.

Bowden describes Hue as “the point at which everything changed” and American political will began to disintegrate. A discouraged and bewildered President Lyndon Johnson was in the process of replacing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who no longer believed the war could be won. General Westmoreland had become an “untrustworthy source of information.” He had lost his credibility in Washington political circles and throughout the ranks of the press covering the war. Walter Cronkite, the oracle of America, visited with the Marines during the battle for Hue. A few days later, he appeared on CBS Evening News. “There is scarcely an inhabitable building in the whole of Hue,” he said. “If our intention is to restore normalcy . . . [Hue] is obviously a setback. . . . The only rational way out then will be negotiate, not as victors.”

And what “victory” had Westmoreland been pursuing? For 32 months, the American military had divided its forces in an effort to achieve two objectives. Westmoreland pursued a strategy of searching in the jungles for North Vietnamese main-force units in order to destroy them. In Bowden’s judgment, the general “continually and falsely assured political leaders” that he could attrite the enemy forces to the point where North Vietnam would quit.

The other objective was called nation-building or counterinsurgency. It required deploying Americans units across 12,000 hamlets to drive out the local guerrillas and to persuade the famers to support the central government.

The American military did not agree which task should take priority. The Marines sustained about as many casualties in counterinsurgency/nation-building as in fighting the North Vietnamese divisions.

In his definitive book American Strategy in Vietnam, Colonel Harry Summers argued that our generals were wrong to pursue a two-headed strategy: “Instead of concentrating our efforts on repelling external aggression as we had in Korea, we also took upon ourselves the task of nation building.” The American military could have rendered North Vietnam incapable of sustaining its offensive. Mining the harbors up north would have prevented Russian military aid. Bombing the dikes would have diverted manpower to subsistence farming. Large-scale ground attacks into Laos and north of the risible Demilitarized Zone would place the NVA army on the defense.

However, no such operations were undertaken. Instead, U.S. troops fought on the defense inside South Vietnam, from which the U.S. had essentially withdrawn by 1972. In 1973, the U.S. Congress declared a termination of all bombing, regardless of the continuing attacks by the North Vietnamese. Each year after that, aid to South Vietnam was slashed, while the Soviet Union and China steadfastly armed and subsidized North Vietnam. In April of 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers manning Soviet tanks rolled into Saigon as the last Americans escaped by helicopter.

In the book’s epilogue, Bowden writes, “the battle of Hue and the entire Vietnam War seem a tragic and meaningless waste. . . . As some of the nation’s more recent wars have helped to illustrate, ‘victory’ in Vietnam would have been neither possible nor desirable.” This exculpation by blanket denial is both mystical and bewildering. It does not fit with the focus (one significant 25-day urban battle) or the deep research of the book.

Yes, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are comparable to Vietnam in two particulars. First, in all three cases America insisted upon democratic nation-building that was resisted by the indigenous cultures and eventually exceeded politically sustainable resources. Second, in Vietnam, we conceded a vast sanctuary to our enemy; in Afghanistan, we similarly allowed Pakistan to provide aid and refuge to the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

However, unlike North Vietnam, the Islamist terrorists pose a continuing danger to America. Defeating them cannot be dismissed as “neither possible nor desirable.” There must be “victory,” narrowly defined as an end state that is tolerable to our security interests. Tell me where we are in three years if I follow your strategy should be the directive the commander-in-chief issues to his generals. And most certainly Bowden’s aversion to nation-building should be heeded in regards to our future role in Syria. Beyond that, though, it is not clear how geopolitical lessons from Vietnam apply to our ongoing wars.

Fortunately, Bowden’s musings on strategy and foreign policy are merely an out-of-place epilogue hastily appended. Essentially, Bowden has written a classic narrative about the role of grit and the individual soldier in urban battle.

Hue was not a tactical microcosm of the war; indeed, it was the singular exception in a war fought in the rice paddies and jungles. Of the 58,000 American fatalities during the war, less than 0.5 percent occurred during the battle to retake Hue. But Hue’s import is not restricted to history.

We have not seen the end of city brawls of hurricane force, and the nature of the savage fighting has not changed. Urban warfare is increasing as more of the world’s population leaves rural areas. In 2004, American forces twice assaulted the city of Fallujah. Eighteen thousand of the city’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. More than 120 Americans and thousands of Iraqi civilians and insurgents died. Were it not for modern medical techniques, about as many Americans would have been killed in Fallujah as in Hue. Today, the battles raging across Syria and Iraq are mainly urban. In Mosul alone, tens of thousands have died, with many thousands yet to come.

The tactics Bowden describes in graphic detail — avoiding the booby-trapped doors and instead smashing through the sides of buildings, clearing room to room, staying off any street or open area, moving always by bounds — are as vital today as they were in Hue.


— Bing West served in Marine infantry in Vietnam and has written nine books about our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The Horror of Urban Combat in Vietnam

By Gary Anderson
May 30, 3017

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U.S. Marine takes cover while fighting in Hue, Vietnam, during Tet Offensive, 1968 (Don North)

A few years ago, I was lecturing my students on strategic surprise. I asked each of them to write paragraph on how surprise was used at Hue in 1968 based on what they knew of it. With few exceptions, the reply was that Hue was the battle where the Viet Cong won the war in a general uprising. These were graduate students, and their woeful knowledge of the Vietnam War was gained through the state of education in our high schools and undergraduate college programs. Their ignorance is more a comment on the “liberal” in liberal arts than in any defect in my students. Today, we are chronologically as far removed from Vietnam as my generation was from World War I in 1968; and its lessons are in danger of being lost. Mark Bowden tries to remedy this with his excellent new book, “Hue 1968.”
Mr. Bowden points out that the Tet Offensive campaign, of which Hue was the major battle, was a strategic surprise that ranks along with Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 as a colossal American intelligence failure. However, it was not planned and fought by peasant Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas. It was planned by the North Vietnamese general staff and political leaders in Hanoi and fought largely by regular regiments of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA); the VC were relegated to being scouts, guides, suicide sappers, and cannon fodder.
The NVA and Viet Cong lost every tactical engagement and failed to achieve their primary objective, a popular uprising that would topple the South Vietnamese government and force the Americans out of the war. However, Tet was the turning point of the war because America’s leaders were discredited by the surprise and lost the confidence of a significant portion of the American public. Tet ruined Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. There was no “light at the end of the tunnel.” Although the last U.S. bombs would not fall until 1973, the North Vietnamese had irretrievably gained the psychological advantage.
Mr. Bowden covers the overall planning for Tet to set context, but concentrates on the battle for Hue City in hour by hour detail as it represents the degree to which America leaders from the White House down to the tactical levels saw their assumptions and narratives shattered. Until Tet, the NVA and VC had generally waged guerrilla tactics and operated in battalion strength only rarely.
The Americans knew a big attack was coming, but they thought it would be at Khe Sanh in a remote area where the Americans hoped to lure the NVA into a climatic big battle, which would be the reverse of Dien Bien Phu where the NVA had crushed the French in 1954. The reality was that the planners in Hanoi used Khe Sanh as a “matador’s cape” to mask their preparations for a nationwide offensive. When U.S. general officers near Hue learned that the enemy had seized much of the city, they thought it was a few hundred commandos and ordered a Marine battalion to clean them out. The Communists had infiltrated whole regiments from the north and the Marines were initially attacking into a dug-in force that outnumbered them by at least 10-1.
What followed was an epic urban battle in which the Marine Corps (supported by what Army troops could be scraped up) eventually prevailed by dint of superior supporting arms and pure grit on the part of companies, platoons and squads. Mr. Bowden was a reporter before he became an author, and he uses a reporter’s concise style to tell both sides of the story from the president of the United States to a teenage VC scout/guide. Just about everyone in the battle went in with false assumptions, and came out with an altered sense of the horror of urban combat.
Many of the Marine characters such as Ernie Cheatham and Ron Christmas became legends of the corps and as senior officers urged all the services to get better at urban combat. Their efforts paid off in places like Ramadi and Fallujah from 2003-04. Unfortunately, we have been less adept at teaching our friends and allies the lessons of urban warfare. The battle for Mosul in Iraq looks depressingly like Hue, albeit on a much larger scale.
Mr. Bowden has done a superb job of telling the story as he did with “Blackhawk Down.” One can sometimes get lost in the plethora of Vietnamese names, but as in war the individuals are less important than lessons imparted; and in Hue, there were lessons aplenty.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
A ferocious Vietnam battle portrayed as a pivotal moment of the war
By Frederik Logevall, June 22, 2017
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Marines in Hue, February 19, 1968(DoD/National Archives)

The plan was nothing if not audacious. On Jan. 31, 1968, after months of meticulous preparation, North Vietnamese leaders launched a series of closely coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, timed with the start of the Lunar New Year, or Tet to the Vietnamese. Their aim: to deliver a debilitating military blow to U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and incite the southern populace to rise up and overthrow the Saigon-based government of Nguyen Van Thieu. For 2 1 / 2 years, large-scale fighting had raged in Vietnam, and Hanoi officials hoped in one bold campaign to change the equation and secure victory in the war.
The Tet Offensive did not succeed in this core objective: The general uprising did not occur, and the coordinated attacks were beaten back by American and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) forces. But the endeavor nevertheless represented a political victory for Hanoi, as it called into question U.S. military leaders’ confident — and, as we now know, disingenuous — predictions in earlier months that the war would soon be won. The heavy fighting inflamed American domestic opinion and indirectly caused an embattled President Lyndon Johnson to reject a further increase in the U.S. troop presence and to rule out (publicly at least) a run for reelection. In May, peace talks began in Paris.

Small wonder that Tet looms large in our collective understanding of the war or that it should be the focus of Mark Bowden’s vivid and absorbing, if not entirely convincing, new book, “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.” Hue (pronounced Hway), Vietnam’s cultural capital and its third-largest city, was the setting for the most ferocious battle during the offensive. Not since the early days of the French struggle against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, in 1946-47, had Vietnam seen this kind of urban warfare, as North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong troops went up against American and ARVN units, often block by block.

By the time the battle ended, on Feb. 25, the U.S./ARVN side had prevailed, but the city lay in ruins. Almost 6,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting, not including several hundred South Vietnamese civil servants who were executed by communist soldiers. The Americans lost 250 Marines and soldiers, and 1,554 more were wounded. ARVN casualties ran approximately twice as high. Deaths incurred by what Bowden refers to as “The Front” (short for the National Liberation Front, but confusing here in that the NLF would typically refer to the Viet Cong alone, not the combined communist forces) totaled between 2,400 and 5,000, depending on which account one trusts.

A veteran journalist and the author of “Black Hawk Down,” a gripping account of the brief and disastrous U.S. military campaign in Somalia in 1993, Bowden opts here for the same narrative approach that worked well in the earlier book: a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, reconstruction of events. There is a potent immediacy to his narrative, an almost cinematic vividness, and the momentum seldom flags, even over more than 500 pages. Given especially the multiple armed forces involved in the battle and the sprawling cast of characters, this is no small feat.
Not the least of the book’s virtues is its author’s staunch refusal to speak in terms of heroes and villains, at least as far as the fighters and their local commanders are concerned (the respective senior civilian and military leaderships come in for harsher treatment, depicted as arrogant and mostly out of touch). Both sides, the author shows, were capable of acts of courage and of ruthlessness; neither had a monopoly on dedication or self-doubt. The Vietnamese, so often cardboard figures in histories of the war, here emerge as flesh-and-blood players with their own hopes and ambitions and fears — even if the ARVN mostly recedes from view as the story progresses.
As he did in “Black Hawk Down,” Bowden relies heavily on interviews to bring the events to life. The recollections of Americans as well as Vietnamese form a core part of his research and a core part of his narrative. At times these individuals evidently were able to recapitulate for him verbatim dialogue from half a century ago — either that, or Bowden has a worryingly casual attitude toward the use of quotation marks. More broadly, the author’s minimalist approach to source citation makes it hard to know where he gets a lot of his information. Many chapters have barely any endnotes.
(More minimalism: I’ve been reading serious nonfiction history books for a long time, and never before have I flipped to the back for the index only to be directed to a website.)
As befitting a battle history of this kind, the book has relatively little to say about the broader political and military context in which the encounter in Hue occurred. When Bowden does venture into this terrain, he is not always sure-footed. For him, as for many authors on the war, a principal problem for the United States in Vietnam was that its leaders supposedly did not understand the environment they had entered, did not comprehend the Vietnamese, did not appreciate the nature of the task before them. He approvingly quotes one American veteran of the battle: “I do not think we really understood much. . . . Our policy makers, I do not think really had any grasp at all on what was going to happen.”
Color me skeptical. As Bowden’s own evidence shows, senior U.S. officials knew long before the Tet Offensive that the obstacles in the way of lasting success in the war were formidable and growing; many of them indeed knew it even before they initiated the air war and sent the first combat troops in early 1965. Although largely ignorant of Vietnamese history and culture, they understood full well that the odds were against them.
For this reason one can question Bowden’s assertion that Tet, and the Battle of Hue, was “the pivot point” in the war, after which “the debate was never again about how to win but about how to leave.” Discontent in elite and general American opinion had been rising for many months before the offensive; almost certainly, it would have continued to grow even without Hanoi’s bold gambit. Militarily, both sides pursued aggressive battlefield operations after Hue, and both drove a hard bargain when the Paris talks commenced in the spring. President Johnson, though no longer officially a candidate for reelection, stuck to a firm bargaining position and quietly hoped that whoever succeeded him would wage the military effort with vigor — as indeed Richard Nixon did. Ten thousand Americans would be killed in Southeast Asia in 1969, as many as in 1967. Not until early 1973 would the negotiators in Paris at long last sign a peace deal.
But fine: If some of Bowden’s broader claims are questionable, what remains is still impressive. In “Hue 1968” he has given us an engrossing, fair-minded, up-close account of one of the great battles in the long struggle for Vietnam.
Fredrik Logevall, a historian at Harvard, is the author most recently of “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for History.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

We Need an Investigation of the Entire Justice Department Now

By Roger L. Simon
October 25, 2017

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Bravo, Charles Grassley! The Iowa senator has turned into something of an aging Mr. Smith taking on corruption in the Obama administration (and its Justice Department) and calling for a special investigator for the metastasizing Uranium One Scandal.  But is it enough?

As has been reported, this 2010 deal was made despite a hitherto unknown FBI investigation that exposed bribery, kickbacks, etc. on the part of the Russian company involved.  The pact resulted in 20% of U.S. uranium in Putin's hands (some of whic, in lethal yellow cake form, has already disappeared into the ether) and millions of dollars in the Clinton Foundation's coffers, basically at the same time.

Or should we now call this the Podesta, Podesta & Manafort Scandal, because an ongoing and related report on Tucker Carlson's cable show is unmasking a series of connections that make the most paranoid conspiracy theorist seem rational?

A thus-far-reliable source who used to be involved with Clinton allies John and Tony Podesta told Tucker Carlson that press reports appearing to implicate President Trump in Russian collusion are exaggerated. 
The source, who Carlson said he would not yet name, said he worked for the brothers' Podesta Group and was privy to some information from Robert Mueller's special investigation. 
While media reports describe former "Black, Manafort & Stone" principal Paul Manafort as Trump's main tie to the investigation, the source said it is Manafort's role as a liaison between Russia and the Podesta Group that is drawing the scrutiny.... 
Manafort was, at the time, representing Russian business and political interests during the Obama era. 
The source said the Podesta Group was in regular contact with Manafort while Hillary Clinton was America's chief diplomat.... 
According to Carlson, "Manafort was clear that Russia wanted to cultivate ties to Hillary" because she appeared to be the presumptive 45th president.
In other words, as the French say, it's the world upside down. Russia? Trump? Oh, sorry, no, it's the Brothers Podesta and, through them, Hillary. Meanwhile, over at the also related (phony) Trump Dossier Scandal:
In the midst of a court case that threatened to reveal the dossier’s funding, it emerged Tuesday night that political consulting firm Fusion GPS was retained last year by Marc E. Elias, an attorney representing the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. The firm then hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to write the dossier that contained unverified and lurid allegations about Trump and his team’s ties to Moscow.
In the latest news, it appears Elias' firm was being used as a cut-out to avoid campaign disclosure laws in the promulgation of Fusion's garbage.  Possible criminal liability looms.  It's "unclear" whether Mrs. Clinton herself knew about this utterly disgusting behavior in her name, though loyalist Brian Fallon hinted as much on cable news Wednesday.

More disturbingly, indications are that the FBI itself relied on this execrable pack of nauseating lies to jump-start the Trump-Russia collusion investigation.  They may even have made additional payments to Fusion GPS themselves.  [bold decidedly mine]

Holy Toledo!  Has the FBI turned into CNN? Or are they just dumber than the proverbial stones?

Speaking of which, we also have the unanswered questions about Deborah Wasserman Schultz and her Pakistani computer expert who had access to the data of dozens of congressional Democrats, not to mention the unsolved mystery of the murder of Seth Rich and the hacking of the DNC server.  The FBI and the DOJ have told us next to nothing about either.  In general, we learn more from Julian Assange, like him or not.

And then's there's the Unmasking Scandal with its attendant mysteries.  Who was ordering Samantha Powers to do hundreds of unprecedented  unmaskings of U.S. citizens in foreign intelligence surveillances?  Where does that trail begin and end? With the death of democracy?

It's obvious these various scandals are beginning to intersect or, more precisely, intersected long ago and now the connections are being revealed.  Undoubtedly, more are to come.  And it's a safe bet they'll be yet more astonishing.

Grassley's calling for a special investigator for Uranium One, laudable as it is, is far too circumscribed.   There are so many scandals, not to mention people at the highest echelons of our government, involved here it's hard to count them.  They keep popping up like rodents in a game of whack-a-mole.

Peter Berkowitz wrote the other day in the WSJ that "James Comey and Robert Mueller Imperil the Rule of Law. " Indeed they do. But the recusal of Mueller, which I previously called for, is not enough. We have a systemic problem within the DOJ and FBI that has been going on for some years and has grown to the extent these organizations act like mini-states, impervious to supervision by anyone, especially the very people they are supposed to serve -- you and me.  They are the Deep State taken to the tenth power.  The internal conflicts of interest are so many they'd fill the Mariana Trench.

The time has come for a thorough airing to renew the trust of the citizenry.  That means a special investigator, but one with a wide berth to look into the entire DOJ and FBI, its patterns and practices, and, let's be honest, our intelligence agencies as well. We're living in a bureaucratic nightmare.  As Mark Steyn  put it so succinctly on Tucker Carlson's show Wednesday night, "Everyone is colluding with Russia except Trump!"

The question is: how do we find this person or persons untainted and honest enough to conduct this investigation?  Oh, Diogenes!

Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media.  His latest book is I Know Best:  How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If  It Hasn't Already.