Category Archives: Book Reviews

Gunfight and Glock: Book Reviews

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about Sandy Hook. I know roughly what happened, but that’s as far as I can get, because this is such an abominable failure of a society to keep its most vulnerable members safe. That’s not just Sandy Hook, of course – it’s every massacre. And nothing ever happens in the aftermath – no real efforts to curb gun violence, nothing that expands mental health care – and I’m with the Onion here.

But maybe I’m being too cynical and defeatist. Maybe this, this finally, is what will mobilize America to demand change from ourselves and our leadership; to undercut the grip the gun lobby has on politics; to recognize that there is a middle ground between arming everybody and total disarmament. So for those who are getting going on this issue and need some good background reading, and also because G&L is collecting Best Books We Read in 2012 (contribute on Twitter with #bestbooks!), I wanted to post two book reviews/opinions I’ve been sitting on for way too long.

NB: these are snarky reviews, as serious book reviews can be found in other places, and nobody reads serious book reviews, and I actually think Gunfight is worth reading, and if I can convince you to read it by being flip, then it was worth it. But I do not take the issue of gun violence lightly, and I hope this will not be read as making light of the tragedies of the past week/month/year/decades (gun violence is epidemic, and it is vital not to decontextualize any one incident).

Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms In America, by Adam Winkler (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.).

Should I ever be asked to explain the history of America’s relationship with guns, I intend to hand over a copy of Adam Winkler’s outstanding Gunfight. On the surface, Gunfight is the story of the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled DC’s ban on handguns unconstitutional and settled the question of whether the Second Amendment is an individual right or not. And while I find the term ‘legal thriller’ to be an oxymoron, Winkler gives life to the characters involved in the DC v. Heller case as it worked its way to the Supreme Court. So that’d be reason enough to read Gunfight; the strategic maneuvering around the case is pretty interesting.

But more usefully, Winkler traces the history of the tension between gun control and gun ownership in America, using the 2008 case as a backdrop. He gives a very readable, founding fathers-onward march through America’s weird love affair with guns. He covers the extensive regulations around guns in the colonial and post-colonial periods, providing an alternate (and well-researched) history that undercuts many of the “but the founding fathers said we could have guns!” arguments that seem to still hold water these days. Because it’s not just that the guns of yesteryear were slow to load and broadly inaccurate; they were also locked up most of the time. Likewise out in the Wild West; you gave your guns to the sheriff when you got to town, and you got them back on your way out.

Given the heat the NRA’s taken in the last week, it’s particularly instructive to look at the organization’s history, and Winkler does an excellent job here (and for those with short attention spans, so does Toobin). Once upon a time, the NRA wasn’t the trade association it’s essentially become (okay so technically the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the trade association. But the NRA’s funding comes mainly from gun manufacturers, and the NRA’s lobbying wing is the most active in the industry, and if there’s one thing gun manufacturers want, it’s to sell more guns, which means loosening laws and creating fear that those laws will be tightened ANY MINUTE BUY NOW OBAMA WANTS TO TAKE YOUR GUNS AWAY! It’s… weird. And really effective.)

Anyway! Once upon a time! Back in the 1930s! The NRA wasn’t like that. They actually lobbied for gun control. Karl T. Frederick, a past president of the NRA, was a conservationist and a crack shot who once said, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” (210-211) Madness! And none of the NRA’s advocacy was about the Second Amendment, because it wasn’t seen as a particularly strong argument against gun laws. Ah, the glorious 30s. Except for the Great Depression and the start of World War II, that was a real good decade, I tell you.

And then the 1950s came along (whatever, 1940s, nobody loves you), and the soldiers came home and there were just lots of cheap guns left over after WWII, and while there were purchasing restrictions, they weren’t that onerous, and that’s when proliferation in America really kicked off. And then we had the 1960s, with the social upheavals thereof, and crime started to rise, and people started to arm themselves more for self-defense than for hunting. The NRA’s membership started to shift from hunters and recreational shooters to self-defense-oriented folks.

And then, in 1976, the executive vice president and de facto head of the organization decided to relocate the NRA headquarters out of Washington, DC, and get out of the lobbying business in favor of outdoorsman activities and environmental awareness programs. This did not sit well with the self-defense crowd. Harlon Carter, the head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, and Neal Knox, who thought the assassination of MLK, Jr. was a government plot to advance gun control, engineered a coup that turned the NRA into the organization that it is today. Oops. Moral of the story: know your bylaws.

Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, by Paul M. Barrett

For my birthday, some very dear friends bought me Paul Barrett’s new book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun after we wandered into his talk at Politics & Prose. And I wanted to like it, because hey, birthday present! Books about guns! This has been a winning combination in the past. But unless you care a lot about marketing strategies or are really into reporters’ notebooks, just borrow this one from the library.

Unfortunately for Mr. Barrett, the history of Glock, Inc. doesn’t span centuries, as American Rifle does, or involve global domination, as The Gun does, so there’s just not that much to write about that hasn’t been well-covered elsewhere. Here, I’ll sum up Glock:

  • In the early 1980s, a hard-working Austrian named Gaston Glock comes up with cheap semi-automatic pistol that holds 17 rounds at the same time American law enforcement begins to realize that revolvers are a pain to reload, especially when you’re getting shot at. Smith & Wesson fails to notice that revolvers are on their way out of law enforcement.
  • Glock hires a really, really good sales guy, Karl Walter. Really Really Good Sales guy is really really good. Boy, is he good. Strippers! Free training! Discounts for law enforcement and Hollywood!
  • Hard-working Austrian and Really Really Good Sales Guy manage to get their guns in the hands of law enforcement. The rest of the firearms industry, by contrast, twiddles their thumbs and looks sad.
  • Gun control advocates kick up a big fuss over the magazine size, light trigger pull, alleged undetectableness, whatever else they can find. Gun nuts buy them by the boatload. Some more pouting happens on the part of other manufacturers.
  • Really Really Good Sales Guy gets fired for being too good. Another sales guy is hired who eventually hires somebody to kill Gaston Glock. Assassination attempt fails. Exeunt.

There. That’s the book (okay, maybe there’s more, but I gave up around p200). It’s an interesting story, but it’s not 267 pages worth of interesting, and the writing isn’t particularly compelling. In short, Glock is synonymous with gun in America for the same reason Xerox is both a brand and a verb: good marketing and slow-footed competition. Glock holds this special place in the American psyche simply because it hit the ground running with a novel product and some smart business practices in the 80s; it captured the law enforcement market early in its existence, giving it a way to quickly scale up production and a stamp of approval for other marketing efforts.

Glock seems to be the work of a reporter who thought it’d be cool to write about guns and needed an excuse to do some research. And there’s a lot of research. To his credit, Barrett did his homework, and he’s got a lot of facts and figures and dates to report. Oh, and anecdotes. So very many “and then I talked to this other random person” anecdotes. There’s also the irrelevant story of Barrett learning to shoot by… entering a competition? Okay, whatever. There’s just so much fluff, but I suppose that at 267 pages with wide margins and large font, any editing for fluff would’ve made this too short to be worth publishing as a book.

Glock tries to situate itself in the pantheon of Definitive Books About Guns, but it’s better suited to the business section. Pass.

***

I know Americans aren’t a particularly history-oriented bunch, by and large, but the history of gun laws in America is one that needs to read and internalized. Many of the proposals and op-eds I’ve read in the last week are, frankly, rehashes of history. This is not to dismiss them; rather, I simply encourage anybody writing or reading or lobbying or agitating or whatever you’re doing around the effort to curbing gun violence and/or proliferation to do your homework. Start with Gunfight. Skip Glock.

PATRICK KASTNER/DISPATCH
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You Don’t Have to Go Home But You Can’t Stay Here: A Review of Last Men Out

I grew up hearing fantastical stories about the fall of Saigon from my dad, who witnessed the terrifying and chaotic final days of South Vietnam as a young foreign service officer. Panicked South Vietnamese parents, having heard horror stories about the brutality of the approaching North Vietnamese Army, tossed infants over the U.S. embassy gates in the hopes they’d be taken to safety. Rich politicians and their wives demanded that their gold-bar-filled luggage and prized dogs be allowed on board the tiny helicopters, even though space and weight were already at a premium. Helicopters were pushed off flight decks of Navy ships into the South China Sea so more could land. Stories like these seemed absurd and unbelievable to me, so when I was offered a copy of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s Last Men Out to review, I jumped on it, if only to get some independent verification of these tales. Who knows? Maybe my dad made it all up.

Not pictured: My dad (he’s behind the cameraman).

Except… turns out he didn’t. In roughly 270 pages, Last Men Out covers the finals days of April 1975 when, in the face of General Van Tien Dung’s push towards Saigon, the United States finally closed up shop after 25 years in Vietnam and rocked a helicopter-based evacuation called Operation: Frequent Wind. Last Men Out narrates the fantastical evacuation through the lens of the Marine Corps Security Guards (MSGs) posted to the embassy at Saigon and a few other provincial capitals, and it’s all there – thrown babies, gold and dogs, the disposal of perfectly good helicopters into the sea.

The authors do not, of course, mention Afghanistan, but the parallels are hard to miss.* The heroes and villains are clear: the MSGs are the very portrait of Real American Heroes, while the CIA, the State Department, and Washington come out covered in mud. Sound familiar? The narrative of America in Afghanistan is that the troops are doing their best with the policies and information available to them, while the politicos and policymakers that are to blame for the way things are going.

Interestingly, NVA’s General Dung, who (SPOILER ALERT) conquers Saigon in the end, is treated generously for refraining from attacking the city until Americans had left. The calculus behind his decision to wait for the Americans to evacuate gave me pause. While Dung certainly wanted to punish the U.S., he chose not to close on the city lest the Americans come back en masse to rescue or avenge their countrymen. I’m hardly suggesting we’ll see Kabul encircled by the Taliban on the day we finally close up shop – merely noting that the enemy has a say in how that day goes. Looking past the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan to the idea of a small advisory mission that will continue to help the Afghan National Security Forces, Last Men Out makes clear that as the number of U.S. troops declines, the risk to those still on the ground grows. The twin pressures of weak and fearful local allied forces and an enemy emboldened by fewer troops and the reduced likelihood of open hostilities could put any advisory mission in jeopardy.

In their treatment of the South Vietnamese, the authors display a frustrating tendency to stereotype – the politicians are corrupt, the civilians are childlike and helpless, the local security forces are sullen and liable to turn on their allies. Scattered moments of heroism and agency are all the more notable for their scarcity. The final moments of chaos in which the Vietnamese attempt to get to the roof to catch the last helicopter out make them seem like animals or barbarians – not frightened human beings who know what will happen when the NVA arrive. Again, this tracks with current popular understanding of the Afghans – politicians corrupt, civilians can’t help themselves, green-on-blue killings becoming endemic, etc. – with little attempt to understand the war from the Afghan perspective.

Honestly, it’s hard to read Last Men Out as straight history. It reads somewhat like a historical novel, like the war nerd’s version of The Other Boleyn Girl, and it’s a gripping story, especially if you’re not familiar with the intricacies and dramatis personae of Frequent Wind. You’re not sure who will live or die, whether the NVA will enter Saigon before the MSGs get out, or who gets left behind.  If you can suspend disbelief a little bit it makes for a real page-turner (the level of detail suggests some liberties were taken with the dialogue and descriptions, but the authors address this in the endnotes, so I’ll forgive them that).

But it also makes for some sobering reading when read with half a mind to the next war we’ll leave unfinished. Though the parallels are not perfect, it’s especially worth considering how we treat – and leave – our local allies, both civilian and military, and how they’ll perceive themselves to have been treated. The image of 400 non-Americans patiently standing in the embassy courtyard waiting for a helicopter that never came is haunting, much like the stories about Iraqi interpreters left languishing in visa application purgatory. While we can’t save everybody, and we can’t and shouldn’t stay forever, we should take care not to offer false hope and to do what we can where we can.

* NB: I’m not arguing that Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.0, nor am I suggesting analogical thinking is particularly valuable in this instance. I’m merely noting the elements of this narrative that led me to consider their modern parallels.

Posted in Afghanistan, Book Reviews, Iraq, Military, War | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments