Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Target

The Target – David Baldacci

The third Will Robie book. I read the first, and seem to recall enjoying it.  Having skipped the second, I now wish I would have read that one before picking this one up.  There are too many references to that story here, and I feel as though the details were so detailed in places, that it essentially spoiled the reading if I ever did decide to pick up #2.  

That fact aside, I still really didn’t enjoy this book that much.  This, sadly, tends to be a pattern for me with Baldacci. He seems good coming up with ‘big’ plots, but when he’s forced to write about detail, such as two people talking to each other, his weaknesses are really apparent.  There’s just too much here that is contrived, forced, and unbelievable.

Robie is a tough, macho CIA agent that is assigned top level clandestine missions for only the very best.  Apparently, he became entangled with co-agent Jessica Reel in the second book. She’s just as good as Robie, but being female, she seems to have a rather large chip on her shoulder and seems to swagger her machismo a bit much. In fact, this book seemed to be more about her than Robie. Apparently in Book 2, the two “did the right thing” but didn’t “follow orders” on a crucial mission. So now the CIA wants to get rid of them (i.e. kill them), but the duo is too high profile and too good, so the CIA has to suck up their bravado and put up with these two misfits.  Again, the dialogue between all parties is pretty stupid.

Anyway, the main story here is pretty decent. Robie and Reel are initially called in to help orchestrate a coup in North Korea, but things go a bit wrong, tables are turned and some of the particulars get changed. We then focus on a female North Korean agent who’s being recruited to retaliate against the Americans.  Her story is pretty interesting, and I found the chapters detailing her plight to be the most entertaining.  Had Baldacci focused on this aspect throughout the whole book, it could have been a much more satisfying read.

Well, I’m guessing that when Baldacci finished this story, he only had about 275 out of the required (?) 400 pages written. Since he couldn’t milk the story any more, he basically inserts a second story within these pages that is completely unnecessary, stupid, and contrived (why do I always use that word when reviewing Baldacci?). This subplot involves a dying old prisoner on death row, some fanatical Neo-Nazis, and Jessica Reel’s past.  This portion of the book should have been left in the garbage.  It’s completely stupid and unnecessary. There really isn’t anything wrong with a 275-page book, you know. Less would have definitely been more in this case.

Even the ‘main’ story had some issues of unbelievability.  At one point, Robie and Reel have to infiltrate a prison camp in the heart of North Korea. The way Balcacci describes the event, it seems about as difficult as driving on the freeway during rush hour. The whole incident takes up about half a chapter.  This could have been fleshed out more and made the story much more enjoyable.

Often when a person dislikes a book by an author they enjoy, they’ll state things in reviews such as “I’m convinced that (this author) had nothing to do with this book! It must have been ghost written by someone else!”  Well, sadly, I’ve read a lot of subpar books by Baldacci to know that the things that made this book somewhat unenjoyable have also been present in some of his other clunkers. In fact, I really think he SHOULD try co-writing with someone else. Someone who can write simple, believable scenes - like when two characters have a conversation with each other.

This Kind of War – The Classic Korean War History

This Kind of War – The Classic Korean War History by T.R. Fehrenbach

I have found that books detailing the Korean War are the hardest to find amongst the major American wars. There seems to have been many books written about certain elements of the war, but not many that give a straight-forward account from beginning to end. I’m a bit surprised that this one remained off my radar for so long. Especially since it was written back in 1962. Maybe I couldn’t find it because it wasn’t available in e-format? Regardless, I loved this book yet felt a bit gypped that it took me so long to discover it. I wish I would have read this book years ago.

This book does give a detailed account of the conflict, but also much more. We begin by learning a bit about the history of the poor maligned country – fought and mauled over for centuries due to its unfortunate geography (sandwiched between bullies Russia, China, and Japan). We then learn about the country’s subjugation under Japan during World War II. This causes the people of this little country to become hard and uncaring.

Well, without going into too much politics – The Communist North invades the Free South in 1950. Harry Truman and the newly formed United Nations feel they must make a stand. The U.S. gets involved and suffers brutal losses as the enemy pushes the allies literally into the corner of the country. Enter Douglas MacArthur and the famed invasion at Inchon. Not only does North Korea retreat back past the 38th parallel, but MacArthur chases them all the way back to the Yalu River (the border of Korea and China).  Calmer heads suggest such a move isn’t necessary and could have serious repercussions if Communist China enters the war on the side of their North Korean allies.  MacArthur is convinced China won’t enter the war. He’s wrong. So the allies are driven back to the 38th parallel, essentially each side is now back to where they were when the war started. All of this happens within the first six months of the war.  The sides negotiate and talk peace, but no ceasefire happens until 2 ½ years later. In the meantime, many more are wounded and killed.

As far as the fighting and the battles go, this book is very detailed. It might be too detailed for some tastes. It’s a bit cumbersome to have to digest so many names, locations, military units, etc. but each chapter gives us the overall feel of how the tide is turning at the particular time. The detail is quite graphic. We must remember that it wasn’t until the next American war (Vietnam) where television brought the conflict into our living rooms. People on the outside still couldn’t quite fathom how bad ‘hell’ really was when one said ‘War is Hell’. Fehrenbach does his due diligence describing the horrid details in very explicit fashion.   I think that if I had a child or loved one that died during this war, I wouldn’t want to read this book. It makes your heart break to read about the torments and torture that the soldiers suffered through.

There are a few other themes that the author devotes a lot of page space to, yet he curiously glosses over events that seemed to get the most press and attention. There’s very little here on the Inchon planning and landing, and only a small amount detailing the conflict between MacArthur and Truman (which eventually got MacArthur fired). 

One curious theme that is discussed in detail is that the author claims that the young American soldier simply wasn’t ready to fight in this particular conflict. The politicians made many budget cuts after the traumatic second world war, and the boys sent to Korea were simply out of shape and unprepared for the horrors. We read several times of soldiers mouthing off to their commanders in the thick of battle, throwing their weapons in the air, and running away.  In fact, the overall theme of the book seems to revolve around the fact that war must try to be avoided at all cost, yet if absolutely necessary, it must be fought with total commitment and total dedication. This is something most Americans (on and off the battlefield) simply didn’t have because they couldn’t really understand just what in the hell we were doing there in the first place.

He also spends a fair amount of time talking about the contrast between the POW camps on both sides of the conflict. Not surprisingly, the Americans are treated incredibly poorly and with contempt. The Americans, however, treated their prisoners with much more compassion. The argument was, we need to show these soldiers what life in a democracy is really like, and if the only place where we can do that is within the barbed wires of a prison camp, so it must be.  In fact, we see the North Korean prisoners being treated better than their captors.  Results end up being quite mixed. In fact, the POW issue was the main area of focus that kept the ceasefire from going into effect sooner. When the fighting ended, the U.S. wanted to give their captors the ‘choice’ of whether or not they wanted to go back to their communist country.  Not surprisingly, then enemy is appalled by such a suggestion. So the fighting goes on and on.

What I enjoyed most about the book is that the author convinces the reader that even though the war seemed a futile conflict, it did, in fact, set some very clear precedents about how the free world reacted towards a communist aggressor. The U.S., along with the United Nations, proved that they wouldn’t let communist countries run rampant over their democratic neighbors. A costly war all things considered, but he makes a convincing argument that the free world was probably a better place when the fighting eventually stopped.

On a negative note, there were no pictures within the pages of the book, nor were there any maps. Maps were sorely missed since there are so many places described when the battles are detailed. Fortunately, technology allows us to quickly pull one up via Google so we can see all the places that the author refers to in meticulous detail.

A great book on a sad, overlooked war.

William Henry Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The Ninth President 1841

William Henry Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The Ninth President 1841 by Gail Collins

My second ‘American Presidents Series’ book that I’ve read. These books are handy for the obscure presidents that don’t get a lot of attention. Speaking of obscure, William Henry Harrison has the distinction of being in the office the least amount of time of any commander in chief: 1 month. Yep. That’s it. He actually died before his wife could make the trip from native Ohio to live with her husband. Travel was a bit slower back in 1841, remember.

Not surprisingly, this was a very brief read. Give author Gail Collins credit for writing a respectable biography of a subject without there being much to say. Most presidential biographies have a decent amount to say about the man prior to being office, and then contain much about their comings and goings as president, and finally a fair amount of detail after they’ve retired from public life. Collins doesn’t really have the luxury for the latter two.

When we read the early life of Harrison, it seemed to me that large chunks of the man’s life were ignored. It could be because there just wasn’t much to say. His biggest claim to fame was as a general during the war of 1812. He wasn’t necessarily known for fighting against the British, but rather the Native Americans. He acquires the nickname “Old Tippecanoe” and was famous for instrumenting the death of the famed warrior Tecumseh.  Even this, the author claims, was more luck than anything. It seemed that Harrison happened to be at the right place and the right time with a far greater force than his adversaries. We’re left to believe that there wasn’t really that much substantial about his military career despite all the hoopla.

Following the war, a life of politics leads him to be the governor of the Ohio territory, and we quickly jump to when he eventually runs against incumbent Martin Van Buren in the election of 1840 for President. Van Buren is one of the least liked Presidents ever at this time, and Harrison’s major advantage and campaign strength is….well…that he’s not Van Buren. In fact, his political party – the ‘Whig’ party – really doesn’t have any substantial platform other than they oppose Van Buren and his ilk.  It’s a bit amusing to see politics played rather dirty during the election – something that would never change. The famed Harrison easily wins the race. Even before he takes office, others claim that he looks “old”, “tired” and “not well”.   During his inauguration, he makes a 2-hour inaugural address in the cold rain. Not surprisingly, the 68 years old succumbs to a bad case of pneumonia.  30 days into his term, he’s dead.

Well, that’s about it. Short and not too sweet all things considered.  This book isn’t a bad read, and one (such as myself) really shouldn’t expect much. I only read this book because it’s a bucket list of mine to read at least one bio of every American president.  On that note, I’m glad I read it.  I’m also glad it was quite brief.  Not a necessary addition to most people’s reading collection, but it sets out to do exactly what it should do. And that fact warrants merit.