December 2011

Boykin, William G. and Tom Morrisey. Kiloton Threat. Nashville: B&H Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8054-4954-9.
William G. Boykin retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 with the rank of Lieutenant General, having been a founding member of Delta Force and served with that special operations unit from 1978 through 1993, then as Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command. He also served as Deputy Director of Special Activities in the CIA and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. When it comes to special operations, this is somebody who knows what he's talking about.

Something distinctly odd is going on in Iran—their nuclear weapons-related and missile development sites seem be blowing up on a regular basis for no apparent reason, and there are suspicions that shadowy forces may be in play to try to block Iran's becoming a nuclear armed power with the ability to deliver weapons with ballistic missiles. Had the U.S. decided to pursue such a campaign during the Bush administration, General Boykin would have been one of the people around the table planning the operations, so in this tale of operations in an Iran at the nuclear threshold he brings an encyclopedic knowledge not just of the special operations community but of the contending powers in Iran and the military capability at their disposal. The result is a thriller which may not have the kind of rock-em sock-em action of a Vince Flynn or Brad Thor novel, but exudes an authenticity comparable to a police procedural written by a thirty year veteran of the force.

In this novel, Iran has completed its long-sought goal to acquire nuclear weapons and intelligence indicates its intention to launch a preemptive strike against Israel, with the potential to provoke a regional if not global nuclear conflict. A senior figure in Iran's nuclear program has communicated his intent to defect and deliver the details necessary to avert the attack before it is launched, and CIA agent Blake Kershaw is paired with an Iranian émigré who can guide him through the country and provide access to the community in which the official resides. The mission goes horribly wrong (something with which author Boykin has direct personal experience, having been operations officer for the botched Iranian hostage rescue operation in 1980), and while Kershaw manages to get the defector out of the country, he leaves behind a person he solemnly promised to get out and is forced, from a sense of honour, to return to an Iran buzzing like a beehive whacked with a baseball bat, without official sanction, to rescue that person, then act independently to put an end to the threat.

There are a few copy editing goofs, but nothing that detracts from the story. The only factual errors I noted were the assertion that Ahmadinejad used the Quds Force “in much the same way as Hitler used the Waffen-SS” (the Waffen-SS was a multinational military force; the Allgemeine SS is the closest parallel to the Quds Force) and that a Cessna Caravan's “turboprop spun up to starting speed and caught with a ragged roar” (like all turboprops, there's only a smooth rising whine as the engine spools up; I've flown on these planes, and there's no “ragged roar”). Boykin and co-author Morrisey are committed Christians and express their faith on several occasions in the novel; radical secularists may find this irritating, but I didn't find it intrusive.

I have no idea whether the recent apparent kinetic energy transients at strategic sites in Iran are the work of special operators infiltrated into that country and, if so, who they're working for. But if they are, this book by the fellow all of the U.S. Army black ops people reported to just a few years ago provides excellent insights on how it might be done.


Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-40884-6.
Ambassadors to high-profile postings are usually chosen from political patrons and contributors to the president who appoints them, depending upon career Foreign Service officers to provide the in-country expertise needed to carry out their mandate. Newly-elected Franklin Roosevelt intended to follow this tradition in choosing his ambassador to Germany, where Hitler had just taken power, but discovered that none of the candidates he approached were interested in being sent to represent the U.S. in Nazi Germany. William E. Dodd, a professor of history and chairman of the department of history at the University of Chicago, growing increasingly frustrated with his administrative duties preventing him from completing his life's work: a comprehensive history of the ante-bellum American South, mentioned to a friend in Roosevelt's inner circle that he'd be interested in an appointment as ambassador to a country like Belgium or the Netherlands, where he thought his ceremonial obligations would be sufficiently undemanding that he could concentrate on his scholarly work.

Dodd was astonished when Roosevelt contacted him directly and offered him the ambassadorship to Germany. Roosevelt appealed to Dodd's fervent New Deal sympathies, and argued that in such a position he could be an exemplar of American liberal values in a regime hostile to them. Dodd realised from the outset that a mission to Berlin would doom his history project, but accepted because he agreed with Roosevelt's goal and also because FDR was a very persuasive person. His nomination was sent to the Senate and confirmed the very same day.

Dodd brought his whole family along on the adventure: wife Mattie and adult son and daughter Bill and Martha. Dodd arrived in Berlin with an open mind toward the recently-installed Nazi regime. He was inclined to dismiss the dark view of the career embassy staff and instead adopt what might be called today “smart diplomacy”, deceiving himself into believing that by setting an example and scolding the Nazi slavers he could shame them into civilised behaviour. He immediately found himself at odds not only with the Nazis but also his own embassy staff: he railed against the excesses of diplomatic expense, personally edited the verbose dispatches composed by his staff to save telegraph charges, and drove his own aged Chevrolet, shipped from the U.S., to diplomatic functions where all of the other ambassadors arrived in stately black limousines.

Meanwhile, daughter Martha embarked upon her own version of Girl Gone Wild—Third Reich Edition. Initially exhilarated by the New Germany and swept into its social whirl, before long she was carrying on simultaneous affairs with the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet NKVD agent operating under diplomatic cover in Berlin, among others. Those others included Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who tried to set her up with Hitler (nothing came of it; they met at lunch and that was it). Martha's trajectory through life was extraordinary. After affairs with the head of the Gestapo and one of Hitler's inner circle, she was recruited by the NKVD and spied on behalf of the Soviet Union in Berlin and after her return to the U.S. It is not clear that she provided anything of value to the Soviets, as she had no access to state secrets during this period. With investigations of her Soviet affiliations intensifying in the early 1950s, in 1956 she fled with her American husband and son to Prague, Czechoslovakia where they lived until her death in 1990 (they may have spent some time in Cuba, and apparently applied for Soviet citizenship and were denied it).

Dodd père was much quicker to figure out the true nature of the Nazi regime. Following Roosevelt's charge to represent American values, he spoke out against the ever-increasing Nazi domination of every aspect of German society, and found himself at odds with the patrician “Pretty Good Club” at the State Department who wished to avoid making waves, regardless of how malevolent and brutal the adversary might be. Today, we'd call them the “reset button crowd”. Even Dodd found the daily influence of immersion in gleichschaltung difficult to resist. On several occasions he complained of the influence of Jewish members of his staff and the difficulties they posed in dealing with the Nazi regime.

This book focuses upon the first two years of Dodd's tenure as ambassador in Berlin, as that was the time in which the true nature of the regime became apparent to him and he decided upon his policy of distancing himself from it: for example, refusing to attend any Nazi party-related events such as the Nuremberg rallies. It provides an insightful view of how seductive a totalitarian regime can be to outsiders who see only its bright-eyed marching supporters, while ignoring the violence which sustains it, and how utterly futile “constructive engagement” is with barbarians that share no common values with civilisation.

Thanks to James Lileks for suggesting this book.


Cawdron, Peter. Anomaly. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4657-7394-4.
One otherwise perfectly normal day, a sphere of space 130 metres in diameter outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York including a slab of pavement and a corner of the General Assembly building becomes detached from Earth's local reference frame and begins to rotate, maintaining a fixed orientation with respect to the distant stars, returning to its original orientation once per sidereal day. Observers watch in awe as the massive slab of pavement, severed corner of the U.N. building, and even flagpoles and flags which happened to fall within the sphere defy gravity and common sense, turning on end, passing overhead, and then coming back to their original orientation every day.

Through a strange set of coincidences, schoolteacher David Teller, who first realised and blurted out on live television that the anomaly wasn't moving as it appeared to Earth dwellers, but rather was stationary with respect to the stars, and third-string TV news reporter Cathy Jones find themselves the public face of the scientific investigation of the anomaly, conducted by NASA under the direction of the imposing James Mason, “Director of National Security”. An off-the-cuff experiment shows that the anomaly has its own local gravitational field pointing in the original direction, down toward the slab, and that no barrier separates the inside and outside of the anomaly. Teller does the acrobatics to climb onto the slab, using a helium balloon to detect the up direction as he enters into the anomaly, and observers outside see him standing, perfectly at ease, at a crazy angle to their own sense of vertical. Sparked by a sudden brainstorm, Teller does a simple experiment to test whether the anomaly might be an alien probe attempting to make contact, and the results set off a sequence of events which, although implausible at times, never cease to be entertaining and raise the question of whether if we encountered technologies millions or billions of years more advanced than our own, we would even distinguish them from natural phenomena (and, conversely, whether some of the conundrums scientists puzzle over today might be evidence of such technologies—“dark energy”, anyone?).

The prospect of first contact sets off a firestorm: bureaucratic turf battles, media struggling for access, religious leaders trying to put their own spin on what it means, nations seeking to avoid being cut out of a potential bounty of knowledge from contact by the U.S., upon whose territory the anomaly happened to appear. These forces converge toward a conclusion which will have you saying every few pages, “I didn't see that coming”, and one of the most unlikely military confrontations in all of the literature of science fiction and thrillers. As explained in the after-word, the author is trying to do something special in this story, which I shall not reveal here to avoid spoiling your figuring it out for yourself and making your own decision as to how well he succeeded.

At just 50,000 words, this is a short novel, but it tells its story well. At this writing, the Kindle edition sells for just US$0.99 (no print edition is available), so it's a bargain notwithstanding its brevity.


Tarnoff, Ben. Moneymakers. New York: Penguin, 2011. ISBN 978-1-101-46732-9.
Many people think of early America as a time of virtuous people, hard work, and sound money, all of which have been debased in our decadent age. Well, there may have been plenty of the first two, but the fact is that from the colonial era through the War of Secession, the American economy was built upon a foundation of dodgy paper money issued by a bewildering variety of institutions. There were advocates of hard money during the epoch, but their voices went largely unheeded because there simply wasn't enough precious metal on the continent to coin or back currency in the quantity required by the burgeoning economy. Not until the discovery of gold in California and silver in Nevada and other western states in the middle of the 19th century did a metal-backed monetary system become feasible in America.

Now, whenever authorities, be they colonies, banks, states, or federal institutions, undertake the economic transubstantiation of paper into gold by printing something on it, there will always be enterprising individuals motivated to get into the business for themselves. This book tells the story of three of these “moneymakers” (as counterfeiters were called in early America).

Owen Sullivan was an Irish immigrant who, in the 1740s and '50s set up shop in a well-appointed cave on the border between New York and Connecticut and orchestrated a network of printers, distributors, and passers of bogus notes of the surrounding colonies. Sullivan was the quintessential golden-tongued confidence man, talking himself out of jam after jam, and even persuading his captors, when he was caught and sentenced to be branded with an “R” for “Rogue” to brand him above the hairline where he could comb over the mark of shame.

So painful had the colonial experience with paper money been that the U.S. Constitution forbade states to “emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”. But as the long and sordid history of “limited government” demonstrates, wherever there is a constitutional constraint, there is always a clever way for politicians to evade it, and nothing in the Constitution prevented states from chartering banks which would then proceed to print their own paper money. When the charter of Alexander Hamilton's First Bank of the United States was allowed to expire, that's exactly what the states proceeded to do. In Pennsylvania alone, in the single year of 1814, the state legislature chartered forty-one new banks in addition to the six already existing. With each of these banks entitled to print its own paper money (backed, in theory, by gold and silver coin in their vaults, with the emphasis on in theory), and each of these notes having its own unique design, this created a veritable paradise for counterfeiters, and into this paradise stepped counterfeiting entrepreneur David Lewis and master engraver Philander Noble, who set up a distributed and decentralised gang to pass their wares which could only be brought to justice by the kind of patient, bottom-up detective work which was rare in an age where law enforcement was largely the work of amateurs.

Samuel Upham, a successful Philadelphia shopkeeper in the 1860s, saw counterfeiting as a new product line for his shop, along with stationery and Upham's Hair Dye. When the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a replica of the Confederate five dollar note, the edition was much in demand at Upham's shop, and he immediately got in touch with the newspaper and arranged to purchase the printing plate for the crude replica of the note and printed three thousand copies with a strip at the bottom identifying them as replicas with the name and address of his store. At a penny a piece they sold briskly, and Upham decided to upgrade and expand his product line. Before long he offered Confederate currency “curios” in all denominations, printed from high quality plates on banknote paper, advertised widely as available in retail and wholesale quantities for those seeking a souvenir of the war (or several thousand of them, if you like). These “facsimiles” were indistinguishable from the real thing to anybody but an expert, and Union troops heading South and merchants trading across the border found Upham's counterfeits easy to pass. Allegations were made that the Union encouraged, aided, and abetted Upham's business in the interest of economic warfare against the South, but no evidence of this was ever produced. Nonetheless, Upham and his inevitable competitors were allowed to operate with impunity, and the flood of bogus money they sent to the South certainly made a major contribution to the rampant inflation experienced in the South and made it more difficult for the Confederacy to finance its war effort.

This is an illuminating and entertaining exploration of banking, finance, and monetary history in what may seem a simpler age but was, in its own way, breathtakingly complicated—at the peak there were more than ten thousand different kinds of paper money circulating in North America. Readers with a sense of justice may find themselves wondering why small-scale operators such as Sullivan and Lewis were tracked down so assiduously and punished so harshly while contemporary manufacturers of funny money on the terabuck scale such as Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and Mario Draghi are treated with respect and deference instead of being dispatched to the pillory and branding iron they so richly deserve for plundering the savings and future of those from whom their salaries are extorted under threat of force. To whom I say, just wait….

A Kindle edition is available, in which the table of contents is linked to the text, but the index is simply a list of terms, not linked to their occurrences in the text. The extensive end notes are keyed to page numbers in the print edition, which are preserved in the Kindle edition, making navigation possible, albeit clumsy.


Chivers, C. J. The Gun. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7432-7173-8.
Ever since the introduction of firearms into infantry combat, technology and military doctrine have co-evolved to optimise the effectiveness of the weapons carried by the individual soldier. This process requires choosing a compromise among a long list of desiderata including accuracy, range, rate of fire, stopping power, size, weight (of both the weapon and its ammunition, which determines how many rounds an infantryman can carry), reliability, and the degree of training required to operate the weapon in both normal and abnormal circumstances. The “sweet spot” depends upon the technology available at the time (for example, smokeless powder allowed replacing heavy, low muzzle velocity, large calibre rounds with lighter supersonic ammunition), and the environment in which the weapon will be used (long range and high accuracy over great distances are largely wasted in jungle and urban combat, where most engagements are close-up and personal).

Still, ever since the advent of infantry firearms, the rate of fire an individual soldier can sustain has been considered a key force multiplier. All things being equal, a solider who can fire sixteen rounds per minute can do the work of four soldiers equipped with muzzle loading arms which can fire only four rounds a minute. As infantry arms progressed from muzzle loaders to breech loaders to magazine fed lever and bolt actions, the sustained rate of fire steadily increased. The logical endpoint of this evolution was a fully automatic infantry weapon: a rifle which, as long as the trigger was held down and ammunition remained, would continue to send rounds downrange at a high cyclic rate. Such a rifle could also be fired in semiautomatic mode, firing one round every time the trigger was pulled without any other intervention by the rifleman other than to change magazines as they were emptied.

This book traces the history of automatic weapons from primitive volley guns; through the Gatling gun, the first successful high rate of fire weapon (although with the size and weight of a field artillery piece and requiring a crew to hand crank it and feed ammunition, it was hardly an infantry weapon); the Maxim gun, the first true machine gun which was responsible for much of the carnage in World War I; to the Thompson submachine gun, which could be carried and fired by a single person but, using pistol ammunition, lacked the range and stopping power of an infantry rifle. At the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers carried bolt action or semiautomatic weapons: fully automatic fire was restricted to crew served support weapons operated by specially trained gunners.

As military analysts reviewed combat as it happened on the ground in the battles of World War II, they discovered that long range aimed fire played only a small part in infantry actions. Instead, infantry weapons had been used mostly at relatively short ranges to lay down suppressive fire. In this application, rate of fire and the amount of ammunition a soldier can carry into combat come to the top of the priority list. Based upon this analysis, even before the end of the war Soviet armourers launched a design competition for a next generation rifle which would put automatic fire into the hands of the ordinary infantryman. After grueling tests under all kinds of extreme conditions such a weapon might encounter in the field, the AK-47, initially designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a sergeant tank commander injured in battle, was selected. In 1956 the AK-47 became the standard issue rifle of the Soviet Army, and it and its subsequent variants, the AKM (an improved design which was also lighter and less expensive to manufacture—most of the weapons one sees today which are called “AK-47s” are actually based on the AKM design), and the smaller calibre AK-74. These weapons and the multitude of clones and variants produced around the world have become the archetypal small arms of the latter half of the twentieth century and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future in the twenty-first. Nobody knows how many were produced but almost certainly the number exceeds 100 million, and given the ruggedness and reliability of the design, most remain operational today.

This weapon, designed to outfit forces charged with maintaining order in the Soviet Empire and expanding it to new territories, quickly slipped the leash and began to circulate among insurgent forces around the globe—initially infiltrated by Soviet and Eastern bloc countries to equip communist revolutionaries, an “after-market” quickly developed which allowed almost any force wishing to challenge an established power to obtain a weapon and ammunition which made its irregular fighters the peer of professional troops. The worldwide dissemination of AK weapons and their availability at low cost has been a powerful force destabilising regimes which before could keep their people down with a relatively small professional army. The author recounts the legacy of the AK in incidents over the decades and around the world, and the tragic consequences for those who have found themselves on the wrong end of this formidable weapon.

United States forces first encountered the AK first hand in Vietnam, and quickly realised that their M14 rifles, an attempt to field a full automatic infantry weapon which used the cartridge of a main battle rifle, was too large, heavy, and limiting in the amount of ammunition a soldier could carry to stand up to the AK. The M14's only advantages: long range and accuracy, were irrelevant in the Vietnam jungle. While the Soviet procurement and development of the AK-47 was deliberate and protracted, Pentagon whiz kids in the U.S. rushed the radically new M16 into production and the hands of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The new rifle, inadequately tested in the field conditions it would encounter, and deployed with ammunition different from that used in the test phase, failed frequently and disastrously in the hands of combat troops with results which were often tragic. What was supposed to be the most advanced infantry weapon on the planet often ended up being used as bayonet mount or club by troops in their last moments of life. The Pentagon responded to this disaster in the making by covering up the entire matter and destroying the careers of those who attempted to speak out. Eventually reports from soldiers in the field made their way to newspapers and congressmen and the truth began to come out. It took years for the problems of the M16 to be resolved, and to this day the M16 is considered less reliable (although more accurate) than the AK. As an example, compare what it takes to field strip an M16 compared to an AK-47. The entire ugly saga of the M16 is documented in detail here.

This is a fascinating account of the origins, history, and impact of the small arms which dominate the world today. The author does an excellent job of sorting through the many legends (especially from the Soviet era) surrounding these weapons, and sketching the singular individuals behind their creation.

In the Kindle edition, the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly linked to the text. All of the photographic illustrations are collected at the very end, after the index.