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Books I Read: Where Men Win Glory

Remembrance Day in Canada, and Veterans Day in the United States is this Wednesday. With on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this day takes on greater resonance.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Jon Krakauer’s compelling new book, “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman“. Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League and a rising star, who, in the spring of 2002, declined a contract extension and instead walked away from the NFL to enlist in the military. He became the first and only athlete from a major professional sport to do so. Two years later, he was killed in Afghanistan in an incident of friendly fire.

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The title of the book only tells part of the story. The life of Pat Tillman is certainly a big part of it. Tillman, his younger brother Kevin (who enlisted alongside him, and served in units with him right up until his death), and Pat’s wife Marie are central characters in the book. Through them (Pat wrote religiously in his diary), we get a glimpse into the life and mindset of a soldier, and of how it affects their loved ones as well. The book also covers the history of Afghanistan, starting in the 1970s. Early on, the book alternates between sections about Tillman’s life and the developments overseas, leading up until the decision to enlist. As much as the book is about Tillman, it’s also about Afghanistan, and how American decisions over the previous three decades contributed to the present day situation.

The two stories converge in 2002 with Tillman’s enlistment. From then on, the story focuses on three angles:

– The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on a macro level
– The Tillmans’ involvement in those wars
– The mindset of Tillman, mostly as told through his diaries, with some focus on Kevin and Marie as well.

Krakauer pulls no punches when examining the wars and the actions of the pentagon. He investigates and criticizes their attempts to spin the Jessica Lynch capture and Tillman’s death into good PR. He is critical of their strategies, offering that the leadership ignored advice of their subordinates which would have greatly increased the chances of an early, decisive victory. He goes into painstaking detail to try and recreate the precise series of events of the day where Pat Tillman perished.

He continuously draws on Tillman’s writing, both to frame situations, and to better understand Tillman. This aspect of the book is fascinating. It gives the reader a glimpse into Tillman’s thoughts, and how they evolved from enlistment (he felt a sense of duty) to the frustration of being away from his wife, and of having to serve in Iraq (which he felt was an illegal war). Reading it, I wondered if it could serve as a reasonable proxy for how other soldiers feel and think as well? I’m interested to see how it compares to “The Unforgiving Minute” once I’ve read it.

If you like feel-good books, this is not for you. While fascinating and well written, it’s ultimately also pretty depressing. There are protagonists, but no winners. The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq don’t resolve themselves in this book, and they likely won’t for years after. In all likelihood, both will result in stalemates at best, with lots of damage done to all parties involved. The Tillmans enlisted for the honourable reasons, Pat’s life was ended, and Kevin’s and their family’s was devastated on that fateful day in April 2004.

All this being said, if you want to read more about these on-going conflicts, and about how soldiers think and how their lives are affected, this is definitely worth a read.

Also worth reading: Drew Magary’s review.

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Books I Read: Open & Shut

Canadian politics is in flux, or malaise, or disarray, depending on who you ask. We are perpetually dissatisfied with our options at the ballot box, and with the fact that we are returning to the ballot box with increasing frequency. We hold out hope for an inspirational leader to arrive on the scene. After 8 years of looking down at our neighbours to the south, we were enthralled by the 2008 election in the United States, and with the candidacy of Barack Obama. We keep looking for an Obama-like figure to arrive on the scenes and usher in a new era. We should be prepared to wait a while, according to John Ibbitson. In his new book, Open & Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper, Ibbitson argues that Canada’s system works against the success of an Obama-like figure.

That is to say, in the United States, it’s not unusual for an outsider to rise to the top of his political party by appealing to the grassroots and by bringing in disengaged voters in a drawn-out series of primaries and caucuses.. In Canada, our political parties are closed off, and leadership selection tends to happen by a small, elite group of members at one given time.

This is but the first of many contrasts Ibbitson draws between us and our neighbours to the south over the course of 160 pages. He begins by contrasting the political cultures, especially regarding political parties, then covers the civil service and foreign affairs. He then throws in a chapter about the threat of the tightening American border, before returning to the contrasts by looking at cities and education reform. The book ends with a chapter titled ‘We Should Talk”, which reinforces the fact that we have misconceptions about the United States, and encourages the reader to see what we can learn from them, and to have a dialogue with fellow citizens.

Ibbitson’s final point certainly has merit. We have always had a peculiar relationship with the Americans. Seen one way, it’s a history of antagonism and resistance to the ever-expanding American monolith. Many of our earliest anglophone settlers were loyalists to the British Empire who emigrated to Canada from the thirteen colonies following the War of Independence; we repelled American invasions in 1775 and 1812, and in recent years ‘American-style’ has been a widely used pejorative, and we took endless delight in ridiculing President George W. Bush.

But seen another way, we’ve spent 200 years balancing British and American influences, with the latter slowly and ever-increasingly becoming the dominant outside influence. The rebellions of 1838-39 were seeking American style government, but instead served as the catalyst to move towards our system of responsible government. Our Fathers of Confederation were heavily influenced by the American experience – both the positive and negative aspects. We are each other’s largest trading partner. Today, we consume American culture in spades, probably more so than our own. The American influence is everywhere; we like to pretend we reject it, but we embrace so many aspects of it.

Though I think Ibbitson paints an overly rosy picture of the American situation at times (and I’m someone who sees a lot of positives in the American system), he brings up several key points. Our top-down political culture stymies meaningful involvement. Leadership selection is just one example. Another is the referendum process. While this can certainly go wrong (California being the textbook example), it can also serve as a way to get around intransigent legislators or force specific issues onto the public agenda that aren’t receiving the attention they may warrant. Yet, when brought up in Canada, it’s routinely dismissed, or ridiculed. Whether you agree with his examples or not, it’s hard to argue against talking about what merit they may or may not have. It’s hard to have a serious discussion when ‘American-style’ is a commonly-used pejorative.

Ibbitson also contrasts the two political cultures. In Canada, we lack the “creation myth” that the War of Independence provides to the US. Canada’s evolution was a slow one – Responsible Government came to the colonies in the 1840s, Confederation was achieved 20 years later. It took World War I for us to be recognized as a legitimate independent entity in the eyes of the world, and it wasn’t until 1982 that our constitution was patriated.

The final key point, to my mind, is the benefits and drawbacks that our “closed” political system provides. We tend to lack the extremes of US politics. Leaving aside the Constitution battles and the separatist movement in Quebec, our politics tend to be stable. Save for a few periods of turmoil, our politics settled nicely into a homeostatic place. Ibbitson argues that the US is constantly changing. This change can lead to bad outcomes (deregulation of the financial markets and the corresponding financial meltdown, finding oneself mired in the Iraq War), but it also makes the creation of a solution more likely. On the other hand, the closed system makes change hard. If we are stuck in a rut, it’s harder to get out of. Change is unlikely to come from within, and the system is stacked against outsiders trying to upend it. As a result, we’ve avoided the extremes of our neighbours, but we’re stuck in mediocrity. There’s a lack of vision and action. As Ibbitson says at one point, we may lose Canada because of a lack of mandate.

The book is worth a read for anyone interested in politics, or concerned about the future of our country. To me, this book is not an endorsement of either the Canadian or American system. There are good and bad things about both, and both the good and bad should be discussed and understood by citizens. But the Canadian way has been to find balance and compromise – between different cultural groups, between warring external influences. There are things we could learn from our neighbours, and maybe even adapt to make work for us. This book is a good start that should get the reader thinking about that.

(h/t to Ken Chapman, whose blog post spurred me to read this book).

Books I Read: Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar

Since first hearing about it earlier this summer, I have been looking forward to reading Rich Vivone‘s book “Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar“. There has yet to be much of a post-mortem in print on the Klein years in Alberta, and as an insider to government I anticipated that Vivone would have much to say on the topic.

Rich Vivone spent 25 years in Alberta politics, from 1980-2005. For the first five he was the executive assistant to David King, MLA and Minister of Education. For the next twenty, he published the newsletter “Insight into Government”, reporting on activities in the Legislature and government.

His book is part memoirs and history of his years in politics, and parts a critique of the players past and present, along with recommendations on how to make things better.

I picked up the book at his book launch in Edmonton last Wednesday, and read it over the past few days.

Rich Vivone speaks at his book launch for "Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar".

The book launch itself was an interesting event. Rather than reading from the book, Vivone talked about how he got involved in politics (David King was a university friend, and convinced him to come work for him at the Leg), his impressions of the Wildrose Alliance win in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election (might be a flash in the pan), his thoughts on apathy in the province (the Tories encourage it, the opposition parties will merge, and once there is a one-on-one battle with the Tories, and people think the result could go either way, they’ll turn out), among other things. While I don’t agree with all of his arguments, they are certainly interesting and thought-provoking.

The Q&A was the most interesting part. People asked more about apathy and disengagement, and about what made politics in Alberta competitive for that brief window in the late 1980s and early 1990s (okay, the latter was my question). It also became a forum for people to talk about why they were frustrated with politics, and why they had given up after years of investing time and energy in the political system. This all culminated in David Carter, former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, taking the floor and saying that while Lougheed and Getty came down on any MLA who talked about “power” or using it to their advantage, that went out the window with Premier Klein. In his words, and he said we can quote him, “Ralph was a dictator”.

Rich Vivone signs copies of his book and speaks with attendees at his book launch for "Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar".

As the Q&A/discussion was happening, I found myself thinking ‘is this the road to improving democracy in Alberta?’ By that, I don’t mean holding a series of book readings, but getting citizens together and giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns and frustrations. One of the drivers of apathy, in my opinion, is isolation, the instance where one isn’t connecting with others. Another is the feeling that nobody shares your concerns, and that your concerns won’t be listened to or given any thought. If we have more forums where people who are frustrated with politics in this province (and this country), can come together, it would be a positive thing. The dialogue coming out of them might lead to the ideas and actions that will change politics for the better.

Anyway, I promised a book review, so I should get to that. I have no reservations about adding this to my short list of ‘must-read’ books about Alberta politics. Mark Lisac‘s “Alberta Politics Uncovered” is the other one I definitely recommend. Vivone’s book is a series of essays which can be read as stand-alone pieces. They include a piece on his impressions of Premier Klein, an overview of the Getty years, topical pieces on the Oil Sands, Health Care, Scandals, the plight of the Alberta Liberal Party, Education and Children’s Services, and the issue of apathy. He closes with a piece on the failed Jim Dinning leadership campaign, and finally with an open letter to Premier Stelmach.

The book is worth reading for the anecdotes and historical value alone. It’s impossible to condense 25 years of experience into 250 pages, but Vivone does a good job of covering the major issues of his time. He also considers the causes of some of the dominant issues and events in Alberta politics, and in some cases prescribes solutions to them. I don’t agree with his analysis, but he makes an argument and attempts to justify it.

There are two themes I take umbrage with. First, I think he too easily lets the general public off the hook. He correctly surmises that the media and the powers that be have taken actions (intentional or not) that discourage participation, but doesn’t focus enough on the general population’s willingness to ignore politics, or to not engage and scrutinize the actions of the government and opposition parties. Second, his concept that “Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar” is somewhat undermined by his analysis of Ralph’s character and tenure as Premier. I agree with him that Ralph’s first term was his most successful (in terms of accomplishing his agenda, regardless of whether you agree with the aims or not) and he increasingly lost drift afterwards. However, he also describes this as a trait in Ralph’s personality – he needed a clear, concise goal to pursue. This, and an unwillingness to pursue largely controversial measures, held him back from pursuing and achieving greater things. (Note: Don Martin‘s book “King Ralph” also talks about Klein’s struggles with confrontation). Similar depictions colour the chapters regarding Jim Dinning’s loss in the 2006 leadership race, and the (so-far) unfulfilled potential of Premier Stelmach’s tenure. In a nutshell, what I feel Vivone is arguing is not that Ralph (or Ed) Could Have Been a Superstar, but that someone leading a government with tons of political capital and no serious opposition should be able to achieve more. It’s a story not so much about Ralph or Ed (or Jim), but our collective unfulfilled potential as a province.

Whether you agree with Vivone’s take on politics or not, this book, as I said, is a must-read if you’re interested in Alberta politics. Albertan or not, you will gain insight into where Alberta has come from politically in the past thirty years. Understanding our politics and where we’ve come from is key. If we want to make politics in the future better, we need to understand the history and circumstances that have led to where we are.