Archive for March 14, 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy

March 14, 2013 Leave a comment


I finished Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty three days ago. A marvelous, imaginative blend of history and fiction on the Soviet economy of the 1950s and 1960s, however unlikely such a combination may sound. I should say more, but I’m on to the next book, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.

I can’t resist books about contemporary Detroit. There was Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis last November, which I wrote about here and here. Before that, Paul Clemens’Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, and before that, his superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir. (See here and here.) Once I read my first review of LeDuff’s book, I knew I would find my way to it sooner or later.

Sooner, as it turns out. I’m halfway through now.

LeDuff was a NYT reporter—part of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning team—but left the paper in 2007 and made his way back home to Detroit, where he began writing for The Detroit News. The book arose from pieces he wrote for the paper. It comprises many short chapters describing a wide variety of characters and incidents, with LeDuff’s own family story as a connecting thread.

In one passage, LeDuff comments on complaints that he focused

on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things?

It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.

But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.

What galleries and museums have to do with a dead man is beyond me. Writing about sh*t like that in the city we were living in seemed equal to writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza strip.

As for the book reviews that led me to LeDuff, Paul Clemens wrote the recent one in the Sunday NYT. Another native Detroiter, Thomas Lynch, tackled the book for the WSJ:

A little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good-Samaritan—it is hard to ignore reporting like Mr. LeDuff’s, even if he seems to think that history happens mostly whenever and wherever he goes looking for it. … His boldness serves the book well, however, as he is willing to connect the dots between the derelict city, its feckless and malfeasant political class, and the nation’s general fall from grace.

Lynch concludes:

For 300 years, the city has been a study in human enterprise and industry, and hometown to the creative, inventive and restorative arts. Those who have underestimated Detroit’s resilience, from Chief Pontiac to Mitt Romney, have come to grief. Detroit, Mr. LeDuff reminds us, has plenty to go around.

And if he wants to be the cover boy of the current story, he has, on the evidence, earned the right. Whether the fate of Detroit is global, national, regional or local news remains to be seen. But its grim and hopeful narrative, told here by a reliable witness, is more than worthy of careful consideration.

Categories: Books

Ronald Reagan Departs

March 14, 2013 Leave a comment


[Patrick Robinson]

Just after Christmas, I wrote about our Christmas dinner aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, which has spent the last year being refurbished at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton (across Puget Sound from Seattle). Recall, as I explained then, that the Ronald Reagan is the ninth of ten Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest US Navy ships.

Refurbishing complete, it was out for a spin Saturday. Patrick Robinson of the West Seattle Herald captured the outing in a series of photos, including the one above. In the accompanying caption, he writes that “it passed by thousands of surprised onlookers who crowded the beach along Alki on a sunny day.” That would have been fun to see.

My understanding is that the Reagan heads out for good tomorrow, making its way to its usual home port, San Diego. And with it goes Jessica’s boyfriend, Bryan. I’m glad we had the opportunity to explore it while it was here, and wish it an uneventful journey.

Categories: Big Ships, Family

The Verdict of Battle

March 14, 2013 Leave a comment


James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War came out last fall. From the book’s website:

Today, war is considered a last resort for resolving disagreements. But a day of staged slaughter on the battlefield was once seen as a legitimate means of settling political disputes. James Whitman argues that pitched battle was essentially a trial with a lawful verdict. And when this contained form of battle ceased to exist, the law of victory gave way to the rule of unbridled force. The Verdict of Battle explains why the ritualized violence of the past was more effective than modern warfare in bringing carnage to an end, and why humanitarian laws that cling to a notion of war as evil have led to longer, more barbaric conflicts.

Belief that sovereigns could, by rights, wage war for profit made the eighteenth century battle’s golden age. A pitched battle was understood as a kind of legal proceeding in which both sides agreed to be bound by the result. To the victor went the spoils, including the fate of kingdoms. But with the nineteenth-century decline of monarchical legitimacy and the rise of republican sentiment, the public no longer accepted the verdict of pitched battles. Ideology rather than politics became war’s just cause. And because modern humanitarian law provided no means for declaring a victor or dispensing spoils at the end of battle, the violence of war dragged on.

The most dangerous wars, Whitman asserts in this iconoclastic tour de force, are the lawless wars we wage today to remake the world in the name of higher moral imperatives.

I might have overlooked the book if not for two posts last week by Daniel Larison in The American Conservative, along with his link to David Bell’s review in The New Republic.

In Larison’s second post, with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War’s start approaching, he ponders this passage:

Wars enter their most dangerous territory not when they lose touch with chivalry but when they aim to remake the world.

That suggests a second lesson: great risks for the law of war arise when we commit ourselves to grand campaigns in the name of good government, campaigns for regime change… .The curse of modern warfare, and of the modern law of war, is that … our wars have consistently ended up raising basic, revolutionary questions about the organization of society and the legitimacy of states. We want to go to war only when there is something foul or evil or aggressive about the regime we fight. In America in particular we want to fight only “good wars.” Most especially we want to fight good wars that begin in self-defense and end in the revolutionary cause of spreading democracy through the world. Yet “good wars” easily become bad wars. (p. 251-252)

Larison adds:

One of the problems created by this sort of thinking is that it encourages us to keep expanding what we mean by self-defense. We saw this during the Iraq war debate, when preventive war was sold to the public as a pre-emptive act of self-defense. Despite the fact that the U.S. was illegally initiating hostilities when it attacked in 2003, it was apparently very important to the administration that the war be perceived as one waged in self-defense. Of course, wishing to fight only “good wars” doesn’t necessarily mean that a government fights fewer wars. It usually means that it dresses up the wars that it does fight as if they were justified especially when they often aren’t. Explicit ideological justifications for war create another danger, which is the tendency to argue that the ends justify the means. The main problem isn’t that war supporters are insincere in their desire for democracy promotion, though they might be, but that a war with ambitious ideological goals is one that is very difficult to bring to an end and even harder to “win” in any meaningful sense.

Sounds right to me. Indeed, it sounds obvious. Unfortunately, a lot of people with power didn’t, and still don’t, agree.

Inspired by Larison, I downloaded the opening portion of the book and began reading. I’ve put it aside for now, but may return soon.

Categories: Politics, War