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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

March 11, 2017

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This book was recommended to me by my friend Tim. I was surprised not by how much I liked this book, but how much I ended up loving the main character, Ove (pronounced oh-vuh). The way Fredrik manipulates the reader in his development of the main character is masterful. And if “manipulates” sounds too negative, then maybe “reveals” is a better word. Ove is doled out in a way that repeatedly makes the reader feel we know him, only to have that concept of Ove challenged every time new information comes to light.

On the surface, Ove is a curmudgeon. A stubborn, cranky old man who’s rude to his neighbors and obsessed with meaningless rules. But as we get to know Ove, we learn that he’s also a man struggling with loss. Whether intentional or not, the fact that Ove’s name is one letter away from both LOVE and OVER seems significant.

We also learn through flashbacks that Ove is not as selfish as we might have made him out to be. He is just more a man of action—willing to play the role of the hero, albeit reluctantly (or so he would have you think).

“Charming” is a word that comes to mind with this novel, but that feels too shallow. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Ove, and I actually felt a little guilty for judging him early on in the novel. By the end, one has completely reconsidered who Ove is, because we know why he is.

The humor of Ove’s character reminded me of J Robert Lennon’s protagonist in The Mailman (an excellent novel), though in the end there is more redemption for Ove. He is also a more heartbreaking character and, perhaps because of that, will stick with the reader long after they’ve finished the novel.

From Novel to Film: No Country for Old Men ed. by Lynnea Chapman King, Rick Wallach, and Jim Welsh

February 25, 2017

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WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men was published in 2005. The Coen Brothers 2007 adaptation was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including for Best Picture. It’s my favorite film, and McCarthy is one of my favorite writers, but this book caught my interest after a recent re-reading of No Country. I noticed a few significant differences between the book and the film, which is in general a very faithful adaptation. By necessity, any novel-to-film adaptation requires omission. I was curious how the choices were made for No Country. This book doesn’t actually answer those questions (the Coens are notoriously coy about discussing their own process), but it’s a treasure trove of interesting literary and film theory.

Unless you’re really into both the film and the novel, this book isn’t for you. It’s a collection of mostly academic essays about the two works. Front to back, it starts with pieces focusing on the book, then pieces that compare the two, ending with an interview with Roger Deakins, the film’s outstanding cinematographer. Some of the most interesting themes across the collection:

An examination of the literary predecessors of No Country’s notorious villain, Anton Chigurh. Most of the discussion focuses on an intertextual examination of other McCarthy antagonists, predominantly Blood Meridian’s the Judge and, to a lesser degree, the “triune” from Outer Dark. But the most convincing case compares Chigurh to Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Heroism and masculinity in the context of the American Western tradition. McCarthy is certainly not the first to call BS on the myth of the American West, and Blood Meridian does it in a more visceral, over-the-top way than No Country. But it would be difficult to find a work that more subverts the notion of American heroism than No Country.

The traditional Western film protagonist is the most iconic of American heroes. He “serves for Americans the same purpose as Hercules did for the Greeks” (Jason Mitchell). And in that tradition, the most standard storyline is the sheriff who fights the outlaws to literally bring law and order to the town. In No Country, we find Sheriff Bell, an introspective, befuddled law officer. He is of the proper lineage, descended from Texas Rangers. Yet he constantly expresses his bewilderment with not only the carnage of the battle before him, not only with the ongoing borderland drug war, but with modern life in general. He is clearly an out-of-step old man, complaining of kids with “green hair” and “bones in their noses.” He remains one step behind the chaos and plainly expresses his unwillingness to engage with the darkness (“a man would have to put his soul at hazard”). When the time comes, he does just that. He refuses to engage, literally backs away from a confrontation with the villain.

Furthermore, we learn that he earned the Bronze Star for his supposed heroics during a firefight in World War II, but the actual story is less heroic than one would like to think—he retreated from a machine gun position, saving himself but leaving his dying comrades. Bell is conflicted, regretful of being the subject of the lie. But when he confessed to his commanding officer that he did not deserve the medal, he was told to shut up and accept it. And he did. Again, a hero might at least stand up for the truth and bear the consequences if nothing else. Instead, we learn of the truth in a quiet conversation between Bell and his old Uncle Ellis. Ellis assures Bell that a more heroic stand would have ended with him dead. But this pragmatism is little consolation. We want our heroes to be heroic. Pragmatic protagonists are not satisfying. And Bell’s order from his superior to take the medal, to go along with the official storyline that he is indeed a hero, is an acknowledgement that Americans value our comforting myths over our uncomfortable truths. McCarthy is having none of this. In Bell, he shows us a representative of the Greatest Generation on his knees, overmatched, bowing out of the fight.

Which brings us to Llewelyn Moss. Moss is a man of action. Capable, decisive, resourceful. An independent man if there ever was one. An interesting essay by Sonya Topolnisky on how costume supports character in No Country describes Moss’s character as a “certain type of man: working class and Western. Moss’s independent, daring nature fulfills what the viewer has come to expect from a Western hero…we see him mastering the terrain, outrunning the bad men, and dexterously manipulating his firearms.” Of the trifecta of main characters, Moss represents our actionable protagonist. He is the everyman we want to relate to, certainly the character we root for. Moss engages with the enemy. He assures Chigurh that he’s going to hunt the villain down, make him his “special project.”

But Moss is compromised from the beginning. His entry into the story finds him as an opportunistic thief. When he comes upon the scene of the shootout in the desert, dead bodies and dead dogs, his first thought is to find the last man standing, the “ultimo hombre.” The one, he knows, who will have the drug money. His decision to take the money is a conscious decision to not just put his life in peril, but to put “his soul at hazard,” as Bell says it. Moss follows this with a second choice—to return later that night to the scene of the shootout to bring “agua” to a dying Mexican drug runner. As he’s walking out of his trailer, he tells his wife, Carla Jean, that he’s fixin’ to do something “dumber than hell.” He knows it is the right thing to do morally, but wrong for his survival. This is perhaps his last truly proactive decision. Everything from this point is reactionary, in relation to the chase. By choosing to participate in this game, he has forfeited his right to free will. He is now living in Chigurh’s worldview, where everything is predetermined by fate. And this in itself is an inversion of the classic notion of a hero, who by definition has agency. “Control matters. Winning matters, and the ability to achieve that victory becomes the Western hero’s defining characteristic…” (“Models of Masculinity,” Stacey Peebles).

And Pat Tyrer and Pat Nickell point out in their essay “Characters as Relics” that, “In an inversion of a Western cliché, Llewelyn Moss frequently runs from his pursuers. His pickup is disabled early—he never has a horse…Moss has no heroic moments, and spends much of the film wounded, weakened or disabled.”

Viewers who found No Country to be a weird or unsatisfying film mostly griped about the ending. This isn’t surprising—the ending is constructed to subvert the classic film narrative. The last we see of Llewelyn Moss alive is walking past the motel pool with a six-pack when a woman catches his eye (in the book she is a hitchhiker he befriends). We next see him via Sheriff Bell’s POV after reports of a shootout. Bell pulls up just as a group of drug-runners are fleeing, and Moss is already dead. This is not the ending we had hoped for. In classic American hero storytelling, the good guy triumphs over the bad guy. At the very least, the hero dies in a heroic display of sacrifice (e.g. Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan) or resistance (Butch Cassidy, Thelma & Louise). What happens to Moss, in cinematic terms, is sacrilege. There’s no putting up a good fight, no heroic gestures, no dying words. It strips away any opportunity to perceive him as a hero. Exactly as it’s intended.

So as main characters, we have a trifecta that includes the villain, a mystified coward and an opportunist who misses the leap and falls voiceless into the chasm. And to rub salt in, not only does Moss get himself killed, but in an inversion of the hero-as-protector construct, he takes his family down with him. After Moss is gone, Chigurh calls on Carla Jean.

Female Resistance in No Country. I’ve read several critiques of No Country as yet another macho work where the women take a back seat while the boys run around shooting up the town. This seems a flawed argument, perhaps based more on screen time than attention to content. To the contrary, the women in No Country are the strongest characters. Sheriff Bell’s wife, Loretta, is an anchoring force. And the only two people to successfully stare down Chigurh are the woman in Moss’s trailer park office (to comic effect) and Carla Jean, who calls Chigurh out on his coin-flip method of determining whether people live or die.

Chigurh:                 Call it.

Carla Jean:             No. I ain’t going to call it.

Chigurh:                 Call it.

Carla Jean:             The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.

This moment effectively calls BS on Chigurh’s deterministic belief system. It is not enough to save Carla Jean, but as we see in No Country, living is not necessarily the same as winning. If Bell continues to live based on a pragmatic but unprincipled tack, Carla Jean is the opposite. She perishes but serves as the hero who finally wounds Chigurh in a way that counts. One could even argue that while her husband, in the masculine way, wounds Chigurh with bullets but fails to take him out, Carla Jean fires one clean shot at Chigurh’s ideology. “It’s just you.” Everything that Chigurh stands for is called into question in that one line. And as if in confirmation that something has been rattled in him, shortly after leaving Carla Jean’s home, Chirgurh’s car is side-swiped at an intersection, leaving him broken and bleeding, relying on two young boys for help.

Chaos vs Order. The notion of chaos vs order (or chaos theory) is all over McCarthy’s work. It’s often articulated as fate vs control or, as named for the analogy, the “butterfly effect” in which a small event (e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings) can alter a system in such a way that it eventually causes a much larger, unforeseen effect (e.g. a hurricane). In No Country, characters are thrown into stark categories when considered through this lens. Ironically, but perhaps by design, Bell and Chigurh are the two characters that most believe in order, though very different notions of it. Bell’s is a classic conservative social order, where kids respect their elders and men do the right thing. “Ed Tom [Bell] does not understand how a masculine character can act without an internal or social code” (“Gender Systems and Female Resistance,” Erin K. Johns). His despondency, however, is a result of him witnessing this code failing. He believes in a notion of social order that is disappearing and a religious order that is failing to materialize. In one of the saddest moments, Bell says, “I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow. And he didn’t.”

Yet the character with the most stringent code is Anton Chigurh. He believes that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all chained together in a series of perhaps unpredictable but purposeful events. In an early scene, he asks an uncomfortable gas station attendant to call a coin toss, asking the man if he knows the date on the coin.

Attendant:             No.

Chigurh:                 It’s 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here…

In other words, the events of the world have conspired to bring them to this moment. And when the man wins the coin toss, Chigurh expands on his thesis:

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of the same moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

As if continuing this train of thought in his conversation with Carla Jean:

This is the end. You can say things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.

Also pointed is Chigurh’s comment to Carson Wells before he shoots him: “If the rule you followed led you to this of what use is the rule?” In the film, that is followed by Carson’s response: “Do you have any idea how crazy you are?” Carson doesn’t understand Chigurh’s belief in connected events.

Wells and Moss, though their ideologies are less clearly denoted, are conversely characters that live by the seat of their pants. They seem to thrive in the disorder, both of them clearly believing they are in control of their own lives, that they can navigate the dangerous conflict before them. Both are tragically mistaken.

It’s also worth noting that Wells, Moss and possibly Chigurh are veterans of Vietnam (Moss a sniper, Wells a lieutenant colonel), whereas Bell is a vet of World War II. Culturally, the morally ambiguous nature of the Vietnam conflict as well as the nonlinear concept of messy jungle fighting contrasts starkly with the American role in WWII, the latter being the classic, heroic, clear-cut wartime narrative of the United States. Set in the early 1980s, the post-Vietnam hangover lingers. The myth of America as global hero is called into question.

Differences between the novel and the film. The final theme throughout this collection of essays is where the novel and film differ. There will always be differences required by the length constraints of film, but in an excellent essay by Dennis Cutchins (“Grace and Moss’s End”), he makes the case that through omission the film alters the character of Moss and in doing so alters the thematic judgment of the story. In the novel, we learn via the local sheriff that Moss was killed by a single assassin. The killer finds the hitchhiker Moss has befriended and drags her out of her room. Moss faces the killer with a gun but relinquishes his weapon when the killer threatens the girl. The killer then shoots Moss. The end result is still a dead protagonist, but this moment, nonexistent in the film, sets Moss up as a hero. A man of sacrifice. Even more important, it shows Moss having agency in this moment—he chose to act, and that choice led to his death. So while the film seems to accept Chigurh’s fatalistic worldview, the book is less certain.

I really enjoyed the various angles each essay takes on these two works. I was expecting the book to be more about the making of the film, perhaps a behind-the-scenes of some of the decisions that were made in the adaptation. I’d still be interested in that, but this book delivers in an ultimately more substantial way. It took me back to my film and literary theory classes from college and reminded me how fun it is to unpack works of art. If No Country for Old Men is a piece of art you’d like to unpack, then I highly recommend this book.


Related…

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American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

February 18, 2017

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For most people, the Patty Hearst story is summed up in a single photo. Patty, standing in the lobby of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a machine gun.

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That iconic image shocked the world. Hearst, the wealthy granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, had been kidnapped from her Berkeley home in February of 1974 by a radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

When Patty showed up in the bank heist photo two months later, some speculated that she had been brainwashed. This was five years after the Manson trial, so the notion of brainwashing was fresh in the cultural psyche. In fact, when she was finally captured and tried for her part in the robbery, the foundation of the defense was that Hearst had been brainwashed by her captors.

Toobin is clearly skeptical of the brainwashing defense. Hearst comes off as a privileged, confused, pliable mind. The theory I walked away with was that she had everything she could ever need except a purpose. And when the SLA came along, as confused as their ethos was, at least they believed in something. Hearst bought into it. Enough to rob a bank. Enough to spray bullets across a street in broad daylight outside of Mel’s Sporting Goods. Enough to open herself emotionally and physically to members of the group.

Toobin painstakingly recounts the Hearst story almost moment by moment. I kept thinking that it seemed like a Coen Brothers movie. The would-be revolutionaries were hapless and inept, but filled with dangerous ideas and a willingness to kill and die for their ill-conceived cause. In fact, several key members of the group did die for the cause in a shootout with the LAPD’s newly-formed SWAT unit in May of 1974.

The SLA was of the moment—the Bay Area in the early 1970s was a tumultuous and violent place. Toobin makes the point of the country: “America at this moment combined international turmoil, economic collapse and high-level depravity. The historian Rick Perlstein wrote of this period, ‘America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history.’”

The Hearst story is interesting as a bit of sensational trivia, and Toobin’s account of the story is thorough and engaging, but the most interesting aspect of the story is how it captures the bizarre spirit of that particular era. The country still reeling from Viet Nam, the revolutionary upheaval of 1968 splintering into its various micro-movements, the disillusionment and absurdity and San Francisco’s particular flavor of crazy—there is a confluence of all of this in the Hearst story. Jim Jones makes a couple of appearances, as does the Nation of Islam. F. Lee Bailey, here at the beginning of the “celebrity lawyer” era, was the defense attorney who would make the case for brainwashing.

I would recommend this book along with Helter Skelter (Charles Manson) and A Thousand Lives (Jim Jones) to anyone interested in this peculiar decade in history. They capture a desperate search for purpose, for change and for belonging. They are of California and of the moment. They each show idealistic notions perverted in the most macabre ways. And though it may be a stretch to generalize beyond the central characters, these stories all seem to point to a time when, maybe, the American Dream went a little crazy.

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All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor by Donald Stratton (with Ken Gire)

January 16, 2017

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In late November, 1941, the USS Arizona was scheduled to travel to Washington state for some upgrades. The spirits of the crew were high since this meant they would be home for Christmas. But on a foggy day in October, during exercises near Hawaii, the ship was struck by the USS Oklahoma. Damages were relatively minor, but it kept the Arizona in Hawaii for repairs.

This little twist of fate, among many others, is something Stratton openly grapples with in this memoir of Pearl Harbor. How did the world conspire to place him on the deck of the Arizona on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked? And when he thinks of all the men who were killed in that attack, the haunting question: “Why me and not those who fought beside me?”

This book is a fast read, but big in scope. Stratton recalls life growing up in Nebraska during the depression, his decision to enlist in the Navy, life aboard the Arizona and the events of December 7. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor as the date that the Japanese executed a surprise attack on the US Navy, ultimately pulling the US into the second World War. Stratton’s account gives it historical context, but it also makes it personal. He humanizes the story, giving us a deck-level account of the terror and heroism on the Arizona. And he traces the scars—physical, mental and spiritual—seventy-five years later.

Donald Stratton’s story is a swirl of complicated emotions. Stratton recounts reconciliation ceremonies in which Japanese pilots met American sailors, lamenting that he still can’t find forgiveness in his Christian heart. He discusses his lingering anger at US command, who had several warnings—including the sinking of a Japanese sub near Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7—that an attack could be imminent. And he draws hard-earned lessons from the attack—lack of foresight, poor communication and overconfidence—giving them the added context of the September 11 attacks sixty years later.

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Donald Stratton. USS Arizona survivor, American hero.

But the most significant purpose of this book, and the one for which everyone should read it, is the simple fact that it remembers. It remembers December 7, 1941 with all its lessons, and it also remembers the men who died, the men and women who came to the aid of the wounded, and the lives of men like Stratton himself. The Japanese dropped a specially-designed armor-piercing bomb on the Arizona. It penetrated four levels to the ship’s forward magazine (ammo storage). The explosion killed hundreds of sailors instantly. 1,177 Arizona officers and crewmen died that day. Stratton suffered burns on two-thirds of his body. He spent many months of excruciating recovery, years with painful emotional scars. Then, in 1944, he re-enlisted. He shipped out once again to serve his country. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

This book was a surprise Christmas gift from my mom. A great book to start the new year.

My 2016 Book List

December 31, 2016

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At the end of every year, a group of friends and I share lists of the books we’ve read and what we thought of them. It is one of my favorite annual traditions. Over the years, my “reviews” have gotten longer, sometimes more personal. Sometimes they wander. Books are a lens through which I try to understand the world. So these reviews are sometimes just me thinking out loud. And sometimes they’re just about the book.

It seems like forever ago that I kicked off 2016 with some random reads: books on method acting, Japanese artistic philosophy and prison life. None too notable.

But then I hit a string of excellent books: a re-read of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and Helen MacDonald’s amazing H is for Hawk.

For crime fiction, I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane. Live By Night (soon to be released as a film) didn’t disappoint.

In other books-to-screen, The Revenant book holds its own. And I re-read No Country for Old Men, the awesome source material of my all-time favorite film.

I read a few novels set during wartime. David Benioff’s City of Thieves rose to the top, though Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is captivating too.

Two novels about the Underground Railroad this year: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. Both deserve the hype they received.

I started reading stage plays this year and was blown away by Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Like nothing else I’ve ever read.

I was inspired by the ambition of Elon Musk, and the broad scope of Will Durant’s Heroes of History.

In understanding American culture at the moment, Hillbilly Elegy is a must read (paired with last year’s Between the World and Me, it should be required). But Gun Guys was also enlightening and entertaining. And Rise of the Warrior Cop leaves one dumbfounded and angry.

Looking overseas, Black Flags provides a good understanding of how ISIS came to be.

On the lighter side, Mary Roach is always an entertaining read. Grunt is funny and interesting, and Dan Lyons’s tales of start-up life are hilarious in Disrupted.

One book on writing this year, but it was a good one: How to Write Short.

And I like to end my years with a weighty, reflective book. When Breath Becomes Air is crushing. I’m still trying to digest it.

I write about books throughout the year on my blog, but here’s the full 2016 Book List.

As for my short list of recommended books…

 

FICTION

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

NONFICTION

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

 

Thanks to my friend Greg for convincing me to start this tradition 17 years ago. And to my mom who reads every review and makes astute editing suggestions.

What did you read? What did you love? Let me know. Happy reading in 2017!

 

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

December 31, 2016

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“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.”

When Breath Becomes Air is the bestselling memoir of a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer. He has a studied death. He has seen it in person, had patients and friends die, saw the agony in the faces of families who have suddenly lost a loved one. He knew cerebrally and philosophically that death is a part of life. But he grapples for understanding now that he knows he will know it personally. This is his search for meaning.

“As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know.”

Kalanithi was an obviously brilliant man. A neurosurgeon and writer, highly educated in not just medicine but in literature and philosophy. A man who considered his role as a doctor to be much more than a talented hand with a scalpel. He saw it his duty to understand his patients beyond the treatments and procedures. Before operating on a patient’s brain, he wanted to know what they held in their minds. What they loved. What they valued.

His memoir is an open and personal wrestling with what we all know at some level—that everything we believe about life is a product of cells and chemicals in our body. But he knows this at a deeper level than most of us. He has seen life at its barest, most literal, yet he contemplates its significance on the highest plane.

Kalanithi is humble, likable, vulnerable. He dives into literature, searching for insights on mortality. “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again.” He remains positive while accepting his fate, but there is no ultimate answer, only peace.

This is a heart-wrenching book, particularly as death arrives. Kalanithi and his wife chose to have a child while they could, and the final words he wrote are for her. He had imagined a series of letters that she might read when she was older, but he realizes he has no idea what she will be like when she is fifteen. So he leaves her with a simple message:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.

This is an emotionally tolling read, but well worth it. Summed up well in one of the epigraphs, a quote from Michel de Montaigne: “He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.”

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko

December 30, 2016

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In the introduction of this book, Radley Balko states that this is not an anti-cop book. Even though a good portion of this book is dedicated to stories in which police make egregious errors or use excessive force, this book is really about the misguided policy that puts officers in those situations. Stupid policy, based on old-school, narrow-minded blunt-force tactics. Stupid policy that has, over the past half century, contributed to a deterioration in the relationship between communities and the police that supposedly protect them. We see evidence of this deterioration regularly in the news. And once police lose the trust of the community they serve, they have also lost their authority. That puts the police at risk. So contrary to the presumed knee-jerk reaction, this book is really a pro-cop book. It’s about smarter policing. And it’s about questioning the policies that continually, stupidly, put our police in harm’s way.

The militarization of police is a broad topic, and Balko covers it broadly. He delves into the history of how and why the police came to adopt more militaristic tactics, tracing it back to the Red Scare days of 1919-1920, when anarchists and leftists were sending bombs to government officials through the mail. This was followed by the Prohibition Era and the need for more militaristic tactics to fight organized crime. When Prohibition ended, the police apparatus, rather than being disbanded, was taken over by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Johann Hari writes extensively about this in his excellent 2015 book, Chasing the Scream).

But according to Balko, the modern age of police militarization began with a confluence of events in the 1960s. The Watts riots in 1965 had instilled fear of a rising (and angry) black class, but the sense was that this was still just “urban toughs fighting amongst themselves.” The suburbs remained the secure bubble they’d promised to be. But then in 1966, two events—the Richard Speck case, in which Speck raped and tortured eight nurses in a Chicago hospital, and the Charles Whitman shooting at the University of Texas—popped that sense of security. With the Whitman shooting in particular, Austin police were completely unprepared. It set off a ripple of fear through the already agitated public, and police forces across the country sought to ensure they would never be so caught off guard.

Enter SWAT. In 1950, William Parker, a man with a background in military public relations, had become chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, a notoriously corrupt department. He’d taken on that corruption and instilled a rigid, militaristic hierarchy. He also instilled in his force the belief that they were all that stood between order and anarchy. He saw citizens as “at best ‘the other,’ at worst ‘the enemy.’” Parker loathed community policing, the notion that individual officers should have a stake in the communities they served. Stemming from the legacy of corruption in his department, he wanted a wall between his cops and the community (he was also oblivious to the disdain for his department in L.A.’s Black and Latino communities).

Coming up under Parker, and in the right place at the right time, was Daryl Gates (the name will ring a bell with anyone who remembers the Rodney King beating and ensuing riots). Gates shared Parker’s mindset of what police should be, and he had an idea for a military-style, tactical attack force to counter violent criminals (e.g. Charles Whitman), deal with hostage situations (e.g. Richard Speck) and put down riots (e.g. Watts). He proposed the name SWAT, for “Special Weapons Attack Team.” He was told he was crazy—there was no way they were going to introduce a police unit with “attack” in the name. So Gates went away and returned with “Special Weapons and Tactics.” Sold.

Gates eventually served as LAPD Chief (from 1978-1992). He would see the SWAT teams he’d conceived to counter snipers and rioters spread across the country. Their purpose would expand as well. In 2005, SWAT teams were deployed nearly 50,000 times; 80% of those deployments were to serve warrants, mostly drug-related. One study finds that between the 1980s and 2000 (the last year reliable evidence is available), SWAT team call-outs increased 1400%.

A few years after the LAPD introduced SWAT, the second driving force behind the militarization of police kicked in. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” The shiny new hammer now had some nails.

At the time, Don Santarelli was Director of Nixon’s Law Assistance Administration, the department in charge of distributing equipment and funding to local police departments. And thanks to the new federal crime bill, he had a lot more to go around; the budget for his office had jumped from $75 million to $500 million. Santarelli noticed many of the police chiefs had been adopting more gung-ho attitudes, and it showed in their requests. “They didn’t value education or training. They valued hardware.” Birmingham requested an armored personnel carrier. Other chiefs wanted tanks. Los Angeles asked for a submarine.

Despite this new hard-knocks approach to crime fighting, under Nixon, the national violent crime rate increased 40% and property crime increased 24%. Which, one could rightly say, proves little. A lot of factors influence crime statistics. Except that during roughly the same time period (1969-1974), Jerry Wilson was running his own little experiment as Washington, DC Chief of Police. Wilson believed in community policing—the exact opposite of William Parker. He wanted his officers invested in the community they served. And he outright refused to employ many of the new police tactics like stop-and-frisk, preventive detention, and no-knock raids (cornerstones of Nixon’s crime bill). While crime across the U.S. was increasing, DC crime was declining under Wilson. Violent crime in DC dropped 25%. Property crime decreased 28%.

The abject failure of the War on Drugs is well documented. I recommend Johann Hari’s excellent 2015 book, Chasing the Scream. Balko covers how the War on Drugs allowed local police forces, supported by the government, to justify increased spending and more militaristic tactics. But the part of this book that will make your blood boil is the litany of stories about one tactic in particular: “No-knock raids.” No-knocks raids are arguably a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and it’s worth a moment to consider the Fourth Amendment and why it exists.

The American founders were scholars of the first Roman Republic. As such, they drew much from Roman thinking, including the concept that a person’s home should be inviolable. That notion, known as the “castle doctrine,” (from the 17th-century English judge and politician Sir Edward Coke’s statement that “a man’s home is his castle”) usually surfaces in the U.S. during gun debates. But it has a broader purpose and historical significance. In fact, it was partly King George’s violation of colonists’ right to a protected home that incited them to a little insurgency we now call the American Revolution. It was also the inspiration for the Fourth Amendment, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

No-knock warrants are issued by a judge to law enforcement officers, typically for SWAT raids, in which there is reason to believe that suspects might destroy evidence. In other words, they allow SWAT teams to knock down the door, detain suspects and search the premises before the suspect can flush any drugs down the toilet. No-knock warrants are a tool of the War on Drugs, but the scope of their application has expanded over the years.

Balko tells story after story of no-knock raids gone wrong. In one, Herbert Giglotto of Collinsville, IL, was sleeping in bed when he heard a crash. It was a little after 9:30.

I got out of bed; I took about three steps, looked down the hall and [saw] armed men running up the hall dressed like hippies with pistols, yelling and screeching.” Giglotto turned to his wife, who was still in bed and said, “God, honey, we’re dead.”

“That’s right, you motherfucker!” one of the men screamed. The men—fifteen of them—then stormed the bedroom. One of them threw Giglotto to the bed, bound his hands behind his back, and put a gun to his head.

“Move and you’re dead,” the man said. “Who is that bitch lying there?”

“That’s my wife.”

A few moments later, after pleading with the intruders, telling them he knew they must have the wrong house, telling them he didn’t know anything about any drugs and offering to show them his ID, Giglotto heard one of the men call from outside, “We’ve made a mistake.”

Indeed they had. Giglotto’s wife was concerned about their pets, which the men had tossed outside. But in the end, the Giglottos got off relatively easy. They were merely terrorized. Other stories end with pets shot in front of children (any dog showing any sign of aggression toward a SWAT team—and what dog wouldn’t?—gets a bullet).

There are other stories of failed no-knock drug raids. Wrong addresses, mistaken identities. Addresses obtained from another druggie that turn out—shocker—to be inaccurate. Sometimes the suspect isn’t home or doesn’t actually live there. Still, knocking down doors persists, though there is ample evidence to suggest that waiting to take the suspect when they leave their home, are checking the mail or running out for milk, is safer and more accurate.

Over the years, the application of no-knock raids has expanded from drug cases to pretty much whatever the police want to use them for. In 2006, Sal Culosi was shot dead in a SWAT raid. His crime was betting on a college football game. SWAT raids of poker games—from small unofficial clubs to $20 buy-in neighborhood games—were frequent in the mid 2000s. In 2007, Cary, North Carolina cops, along with ATF agents and National Guard troops used a helicopter to raid a poker game, guns drawn. When all was said and done, they had served forty-one citations, all misdemeanors. In 2010, a SWAT team began knocking down the door of a man hosting a poker game in Greenville, South Carolina. With no idea who was trying to kick in his door, and having previously been the victim of a robbery, the homeowner grabbed his handgun and fired shots through the door. He was gunned down and killed.

People at poker games, parties, even barbershops have found themselves having fun one moment, and face down, tied up with guns pointed at them the next.

This is idiotic. I was furious after reading these stories. I imagined what my response would be if a bunch of dudes, cops or not, broke in, and one of them shot my dog in front of my kids and pointed guns at my family. If I had a gun myself—I don’t, but if I did—I would shoot them in the face. I would. And I don’t think I’d have any qualms about it. Then they’d shoot me and that would be the end of that. And I’m a peace-loving person. I have friends who are cops. I don’t want to shoot anyone. I definitely don’t want to be shot in my own home.

I was so disturbed by this thought. It all seemed so unbelievable, so Orwellian. I began to question the veracity of this whole book. So I emailed a good friend who has been on both sides of this, has seen it as a legal professional as well as a law enforcement officer. I said I’d been reading this book, that it seemed over-the-top, that I wanted to get his take on it. He made three very clear points in response:

  1. He confirmed that the War on Drugs is a “ridiculous failure” and said it’s all tied to pumping up police budget and politicians trying to prove they’re tough on crime.
  2. He agreed the militarization is out of control and said SWAT teams should be reserved for barricaded violent offenders and protection of large events/riot suppression.
  3. The third point he made, which Balko touches on too, is that police come out of training fearful for their lives. They have the “don’t let this day be your last” mentality drilled into them again and again. This mentality is responsible for the majority of police shootings. Hesitation means you might not make it home. So don’t hesitate.

I have a lot of sympathy for police officers. I really do. Even in the cases where they make a mistake and shoot an innocent person, I try to put myself in their shoes. I would not want to have to decide in a millisecond if someone is reaching for a gun or a wallet, running in fear or to flush the evidence, trying to attack me to push me away from their children. And if I’m all pumped up with adrenaline and fear, I’d probably get it wrong sometimes too. Which is why the burden needs to be on policy, not on the cops. It’s not fair to place cops in that situation.

Add on top of all this our Second Amendment. The assumption is usually that the police wouldn’t be breaking down your door unless you did something wrong. This has been proven an incorrect assumption time and again. But beyond that, with our Second Amendment situation, who knows what’s on the other side of that door? It could be a bad guy with a gun. It could be a good guy with a gun. It doesn’t matter. We’re putting our cops needlessly in danger because of some outdated, macho, bullshit ideas about what policing should be.

Here’s a news story I just saw recently that bears this out. In 2015, police in Corpus Christi, Texas were executing a no-knock raid. In the early morning, they broke into the home. They tossed a flash bang grenade into the bedroom. The man in the bedroom opened fire and hit three of the officers. At his trial, after two years in jail, he was found not guilty. As he should have been. Some might say the police got what they deserved. I think we all got lucky. Nobody was killed.

There are other aspects to this book—the financial incentives for departments, asset forfeiture, etc. But what I will always remember is my reaction when I imagined myself a victim of one of these raids. We regularly hear on the news about the breakdown in trust between communities and their police. If anyone needs a case study of what these kinds of raids do to a populace, they should read up on Fallujah circa 2003. These are military-style raids, and they will turn a population against you.