5 stars
War from the inside of the American empire

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers. Comprising 7,000 pages, they are an internal history of the Vietnam War compiled by the US government. By doing so, Ellsberg made himself a target of the Nixon administration. The first operation of Nixon’s infamous “White House Plumbers” was the burglary of the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to find materials that could be used to discredit him. Later, members of the group would break into the Watergate hotel, bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

Secrets, first published in 2002, is Ellsberg’s memoir. It focuses on his work for the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon, including the time Ellsberg spent in South Vietnam, and the influences on his thinking that ultimately moved him to become a whistleblower.

A Harvard-educated intellectual, Ellsberg was quickly drawn into the upper echelon of US policymaking. In the early part of his memoir, he describes how, at the Pentagon, secrecy was used not just to conceal information from the public, but also to wage turf wars between departments, with new classifications being invented just to prevent rivals from seeing a certain memo or document.

He is not shy to admit the seductive and addictive nature of access to secrets, and how it breeds contempt from political insiders for the outside world. The public, after all, never knows the true reasons why a political decision was made, so how could the judgment of any member of the public be trusted? Lying to the public in official statements is so common that when lies are used to justify war — as was the case after the Gulf of Tonkin incident — it hardly seems notable to those on the inside.

From skeptic to cynic, from cynic to activist

Yet, Ellsberg was not a critic of this system at the time; he was a willing participant. When he was offered his role at the Pentagon with a specific focus on Vietnam policy, he was at first reluctant not because he questioned US motives in the war — as a Cold Warrior, he shared a desire to limit the spread of communist influence — but because he was skeptical that the war was winnable.

During his two years in South Vietnam, Ellsberg’s skepticism turned into cynicism, as he observed how, with all the unspeakable brutality of the war, there was no strategy or tactic that promised real gains against North Vietnam, short of the total destruction of the country. Moreover, forces on the ground even fabricated entire operations to pretend that “pacification” was around the corner at any moment.

Upon his return to the US, Ellsberg struggled to understand how successive presidencies could push forward a war that was going nowhere and costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Had these presidents simply been victims of their own propaganda? To find out, he participated in the creation of the report known as the Pentagon Papers. And it was his inside knowledge of the report, combined with his exposure to the peace movement, that ultimately caused him to become a whistleblower.

The Pentagon Papers showed that, far from cluelessly bumbling into war, the United States had recklessly escalated a war of aggression against a country that, to begin with, had sought independence from a colonial power, much as America had once done. But here, America had chosen the side of the colonizers.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had willingly signed off on escalation after escalation, even as advisers were telling them that far greater efforts were needed to “win” the war. And it was the Nixon administration that would take the war to levels that can only be described as state terrorism, as Nixon himself promised privately: “We are not going to let this country be defeated by this little shit-ass country.” And he made it clear to Henry Kissinger: “You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians—and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.”

While Ellsberg would only learn about these statements when the Nixon White House tapes became public, he did know from insiders that Nixon was lying about pursuing peace in Vietnam, and that he was instead prepared to again escalate the war’s brutality in hopes of forcing North Vietnam to “negotiate” with the United States.

This threat of escalation motivated Ellsberg to try various venues to get the Pentagon Papers out, ultimately releasing them to many newspapers as a dramatic man-hunt against him got underway. The Pentagon Papers didn’t cover the Nixon period, and they mostly reflected poorly on previous Democratic administrations. Nevertheless, Ellsberg felt that making visible how administration after administration had made the same mistakes in Vietnam — and lied about it to the public — would at least help hold Nixon to account.

Nixon, for his part, privately welcomed the leak. It was only when he feared that Ellsberg had more material pertinent to his administration that he fully escalated an effort to silence Ellsberg. Aside from the break-in at his psychiatrist’s office, the Plumbers planned a physical attack against Ellsberg at a rally. In his own autobiography, Gordon Liddy confessed that the Plumbers even considered lacing Ellsberg’s soup with LSD before a public speech, to make him appear like a nutjob.

This criminal campaign failed, and as it was exposed, so did the indictment against Daniel Ellsberg. To this day, Ellsberg remains an outspoken activist against war and secrecy, and in defense of whistleblowers like himself.

The verdict

Secrets is an essential account of how secrecy can turn a republic into an empire, at least where foreign policy and “national security” are concerned. As a book about the Vietnam War, it cannot begin to scratch the surface of the horrors inflicted upon the Vietnamese. But to understand how we can prevent history from repeating itself — how we can undermine the secrecy machine by supporting whistleblowers, and how we must demand transparency whenever our government kills on our behalf — Secrets is as timely and necessary as ever.

Disclosure: I work for Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Ellsberg is a Board member.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
4 stars
Provocative inquiry into the nature of human progress

As of this writing, James C. Scott is 81 years old. Best known for Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (reviews), he is an accomplished scholar of non-state societies. Near the end of his career, Scott is not pulling any punches. Against the Grain seeks to dismantle the standard civilizational narrative — that early state-based agricultural societies were part of a linear progression towards civilization as we understand it today.

Scott demonstrates that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that preceded sedentary agriculture was egalitarian, relatively peaceful, and allowed for significant leisure time, and that early human cultures combined a variety of approaches to survive. Beyond hunting and gathering, these included shifting agriculture, pastoralism (raising livestock and moving the herd in search of new pastures), and even sedentary agriculture, well before the emergence of states.

Our ancestors were opportunistic and looked for the quickest way to make a living. Agriculture wasn’t necessarily a response to population pressure — depending on the environment, it just offered a more reliable return than hunting and gathering.

In Scott’s narrative, the creation of what he calls “late-Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps” — settlements where humans, livestock, other domesticated animals like dogs, and domesticated plants lived together for extended periods of time — caused never before seen levels of drudgery and misery. The high population concentration led to disease and crop failures, and agricultural cultivation created tedium and reduced cultural complexity.

But it also created opportunities for those who accumulated power to attempt to preserve it. The settlements could be strengthened by abducting and enslaving nomads or members of other communities. By standardizing on cereal grains — “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable’” — early states were able to sustain their bureaucracies (and increase elite wealth) through taxation.

A polemic against civilization

War and slavery were not inventions of the state, Scott acknowledges, but it is only through the concentrated power of early states that they could they be brought to a previously unseen scale. When state societies collapsed, many of the enslaved or coerced members (if they survived—a big “if” Scott glosses over a bit too readily) were better off. And state collapse occurred frequently, due to disease, war, starvation, rebellion, and other causes.

Meanwhile, the “barbarians” who did not join state-based societies (and who could not easily be captured because of where they lived) became more sophisticated, extracting tribute from the state — but also selling each other out to serve as mercenaries for hire.

Where Scott’s writing turns into polemic is when he dismisses the idea of “dark ages” (such as the Greek Dark Age or, though he barely writes about it, the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire). The fact that we don’t find monumental buildings, wall paintings, or a strong written tradition, he reminds us, doesn’t mean nothing of interest happened — after all (a point Scott repeats), Homer’s great epic was composed during a “dark age” and transmitted orally.

Scott persuasively marshals the evidence that concentration caused many new hardships, and led to societies which were frequently (if not always) deeply unjust. But he does not attempt to examine the arguments against dispersal, or for large numbers of humans living with each other in close proximity, sharing ideas and beliefs at a pace previously unimagined.

He dismisses “elite displays” such as monuments and temples, but does not write about roads, aqueducts, libraries, poverty relief such as the Cura Annonae, or any legitimate effort to better the life of a community’s members, if such life was organized partially through a state.

Indeed, the word “science” does not appear in the book’s index. Human progression that is the result of better understanding our world and applying that knowledge is too readily dismissed in an effort to keep the book true to its title.

Here, Scott’s book — so critical of ideological views of “civilization” — is itself ideologically committed to rejecting an evidence-based view. “But what of the slaves?” one can imagine Scott saying. “But what of the elites, enriching themselves?” Yes, but what of Euclid, Democritus, Ovid? What of the Library of Alexandria, or the Antikythera mechanism, or the art of Pompeii? What of the religious extremism that followed Rome’s collapse, and probably followed earlier collapses as well?

The verdict

Scott uses language not to obfuscate, but occasionally in ways I would describe as performative. Against the Grain makes frequent use of technical terms from agriculture and anthropology; the writing is dry (though suffused with a dark academic humor) and sometimes repetitive. What keeps the book interesting is its challenge to orthodoxies and its willingness to put things plainly when required, e.g., when writing about slavery.

Against the Grain does re-cast our understanding of history. Scott is correct to critique those who want to see linear progression in human history; a rise from savagery. Deep history that looks at the distant past of our species is crucial to get a clear picture of how we became who we are. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were far from stupid, and their minds were far from simplistic compared to our own, nor were their lives especially brutal or difficult.

History cannot be understood without examining the accumulation of power and resources, all too often including slaves and other coerced labor. If we want to build morally just societies, we must understand how this accumulation of power is at odds with moral progress, even as it has often enabled scientific or technological progress.

But here ends the usefulness of Scott’s book. The fact that his work celebrates the dispersed life beyond the reach of the state is perhaps precisely why his colleagues can celebrate him as an anarchist academic. His writing poses no threat to real systems of power, because it offers no alternative. It is an important read, but only as a starting point for developing a more nuanced understanding of the human story, correcting misconceptions in the common narrative still taught in schools. In the final analysis, Scott is a rebel without a cause.

4 stars
Facts and factoids about nature, elegantly illustrated

Julia Rothman is an illustrator from New York; in Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of the Natural World she expresses her love of nature through 223 pages filled with colorful sketches, brief explanations and descriptions.

The art is simple but elegant, conveying the most recognizable characteristics of a leaf, a mushroom or a butterfly in just a few strokes. The organization varies from page to page:

  • annotated illustrations (“anatomy of a flower”) with brief explanations;

  • illustrations without any text or explanation other than a species name;

  • illustrations with brief facts about a species (“Woodchuck: Woodchucks can climb trees if they need to escape”)

  • recipes and other offbeat material, e.g., instructions for printing plant patterns.

This kind of presentation is fairly typical for the book: elegant illustrations accompanied by one or two facts. (Credit: Julia Rothman. Fair use.)

Of course, the book can only sample the natural world (and it does so with a North American bias), but it does attempt to provide some broader explanations as well, e.g., about moon phases or the layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

Some of the text is in cursive, giving the book the feel of an intimate journal. That’s clearly the idea: making the complexity of nature less intimidating by focusing on its beauty and by conveying descriptions and explanations in a casual manner.

At the same time, this approach can no more than whet the appetite for more detailed explanations why nature is the way it is (for which speaking about evolution, which this book hardly does, is essential).

Is this approach suitable for getting young people excited about the natural world? I’m no longer a young reader, but if I was, I bet I would have been in equal parts frustrated and pulled in by this book; pulled in by its art, and frustrated by its failure to go beyond enumerating names and facts. I would give the book 5 stars for art and 3 stars for the text—a good purchase for extending one’s appreciation of the patterns of nature, if not necessarily for understanding them.

 Older reviews