Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
“I do miss something from the war,” Bosnian journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic tells Sebastian Junger halfway through his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Ahmetasevic is talking about the wartime closeness she shared with friends in a basement bomb shelter in besieged Sarajevo. “The love that we shared was enormous,” Ahmetasevic says. “I missed being close to people, I missed being loved in that way.”
The sentiment lies at the heart of Tribe, a book offering a surprising thesis about the ways humans have traded communal belonging for excessive safety.
Junger gets a considerable amount done in a quick 133 pages: Tribe posits a reason why white settlers found life among Native American tribes appealing, theorizes about false PTSD claims among returned U.S. veterans, and conveys the author’s equality-minded view of how heroic behavior varies between genders — all in addition to remarks on hitchhiking, attachment parenting, Junger’s dad’s opinion of military service, and more. It’s an awful lot of ground to cover in such a short book, and it’s inevitable that Tribe would either feel inchoate and sketched or else aggravatingly dense. Because Junger is an adventurous storyteller (rather than, say, an academic theoretician), he opts for the former.
It’s not necessarily a good thing. The book’s lightness makes it accessible, an easy entry point to weighty subject matter. But its concision can make Tribe feel breezy even as it discusses life and death — if not outright incomprehensible.
Tribe is essentially a critique of modern civilization, beginning with Junger’s observation of the inexorable appeal of Native American lifeways to early settlers (“The intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessary compete with”). It proceeds through an examination of how disastrous or violent circumstances can create similar human closeness, and includes a discussion of how our society’s distancing itself from such harsh conditions has inadvertently sharpened those events’ capacity to traumatize the people who endure them.
All of these points have been covered in other, heavier books. Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday examines traditional tribal lifestyles’ usefulness in the present day. The entanglement of war with human closeness and purpose is the focus of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. (Both Hedges and Junger include the same anecdote, in fact, about a teenage couple in besieged Sarajevo, that dies, sniper-shot, on the banks of the Miljacka River.) Junger also briefly mentions the work of seminal disaster researcher Charles Fritz, noting that Fritz could find almost no examples of mass panic during large-scale disasters. This plays into his overarching point that difficult experiences can be unifying rather than shattering. The exact same studies by Fritz and fellow researchers — and that exact same, crucial point — are detailed in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant A Paradise Built in Hell.
Junger uses these insights towards another point. “Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer these things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate,” he writes. “This gives people access to sympathy and resources but also creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” This is an important observation. It, too, resonates quite closely with previous work — in this case Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman’s seminal book Trauma and Recovery, which remarks that “to hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance.”
What Junger achieves, then, is to assemble parts of all those books into one slim volume. So much the better for the busy reader. Unfortunately, Junger’s quick look at violence, trauma, and modern anomie also omits important information from other books, and as a result ends up on shaky ground, failing to consider counterpoints or bring its own arguments to a close.
Part of the takeaway from this book is that regarding military service as a source of permanent psychiatric disability is incorrect for most soldiers. Junger includes a lengthy discussion of how the U.S. Veterans Administration mishandles former soldiers’ mental health issues, and how America’s cultural misunderstanding of war plays into that deleterious milieu. The information isn’t wrong per se, but what it has to do with the rest of the romanticizing of foregone tribal lifeways, etc., or why that necessitates anything more than the 2015 Vanity Fair article from which the book sprung is never quite made clear. Worse, Junger says that the low rate of combat engagement among U.S. soldiers means their diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder often aren’t real — but he fails to consider that some soldiers develop PTSD from military sexual trauma, or from other adverse experiences outside of combat or before their enlistment.
Worse, he seems to misunderstand the diagnosis entirely. Here, as in the Vanity Fair article, Junger describes his own bout with what he calls “classic short-term PTSD,” departing from this insight to further dissect trauma and the ways modern society misunderstands it. The problem is, there really is no such thing as “short-term PTSD.” It sounds like what Junger had was post-traumatic stress, a weeks- or months-long psychological adaptation to adverse events (in his case, exposure to war) that typically resolves on its own. Although psychological care can sometimes be relevant, most mental health professionals don’t regard this as an illness. (Tellingly, Junger’s approach to his diagnosis involved little more than an acquaintance’s ad hoc comment at “a family picnic.”) Post-traumatic stress disorder is only diagnosable after three to six months, does not often go away on its own, and can endure for a lifetime if untreated. The implication that Junger’s case is typical PTSD is misleading — and to some extent, calls his conclusions into question.
The problems in his argument go even deeper. “In Bosnia — as it is now — we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people,” Ahmetasevic tells Junger. “We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you.” Junger’s thesis is that other cultures (the “Stone-Age tribes” white settlers once joined) did learn that lesson. But he assumes that violence is innate to humans and necessary for human closeness, never parsing evidence that it is not. And he doesn’t examine what this Bosnian journalist means by “really bad,” and how becoming so after the war might have arisen directly from the painful, long-lasting effects of the severe trauma Junger doesn’t quite seem to believe in.
He does argue that collective dissatisfaction with our “society that is basically at war with itself” should lead to a large-scale rearrangement of our lives and lifestyles. (“I also believe that the world we are living in — and the peace that we have — is very fucked up if somebody is missing war,” Ahmetasevic offers.) In a time of impending ecological disaster, that’s worth considering. Junger’s point about encouraging stronger communities and more human closeness is a good one. But this half-baked, too-brief book, so scattershot that its message is hard to ascertain, won’t get us there.
Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski’s on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus’ book The Histories – a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski’s lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this one, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image, etc., something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.And of course, I’m sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski’s books have had “a certain advantage over the actual trip.” With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn’t be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn’t all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn’t consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote “To define [Kapuscinski’s] books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers.” In speculating about Herodotus’ way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer’s right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible… that the rhythm of Herodotus’s life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity – something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski’s motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and “colorful” descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf. George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy – lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski’s admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski
This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.Counterterrorism officials in the United States, and elsewhere, have failed to utilize two easily accessible tools in the war against terrorism, according a former FBI undercover agent who uses his personal experiences to support his recommendations in Thinking Like a Terrorist (Potomac Books, 2007).Author Mike German’s prescription is simple: Examine publicly available texts published by terrorist groups and study effective techniques previously used by governments to combat terrorism.So how should the United States and its allies deal with al Qaeda? Readers who are hoping to gain secret access to the mindset of Osama bin Laden and his operatives will be sorely disappointed. The book devotes a mere 10 pages, out of 200, to discuss the U.S.-led war on terrorism.Instead, neo-Nazi groups in the United States and the Irish Republican Army are discussed in great detail. In that respect, German sticks to what he knows best, and he tends not to overreach. It’s unfortunate, though, because German doesn’t apply yesterday’s lessons to today’s challenges, other than pointing out that the United States fulfilled al Qaeda’s wishes by bringing the war on terrorism to the Middle East.In this very readable book, German’s greatest strength comes in describing his years working undercover for the FBI infiltrating neo-Nazi groups. His tales are riveting and put a human face on people known more for their appearance, as skinheads, than the complexity of their ideology. This 25-page section at the beginning of the book not only lends credibility to German’s later insights, it also reads like a primer on neo-Nazi activities in the United States, explaining how infighting and a lack of funding have rendered this fractured movement ineffective.But from there the book takes a questionable turn as German asserts that all terrorists operate in the same way. He says terrorists “don’t behave differently just because they live in different parts of the world.” Readers in Israel would undoubtedly dispute this claim, especially when one considers the prevalence of suicide bombers in the Middle East compared with the United States. To hear German tell it, busting up al Qaeda should be no more challenging than dismantling the Ku Klux Klan or the IRA. But that’s easier said than done.For one thing, the number of Arabic- or Urdu-speaking agents available to infiltrate al Qaeda is limited, to put in mildly, compared with white English speakers for undercover assignments in the United States or Northern Ireland.But when it comes to the meat of the book – how terrorists think, and what they think about – German excels. He describes how terrorists hate being referred to as mere criminals. They prefer to be known as political prisoners, if apprehended, and the martyr status that comes with it.Perhaps the most common characteristic among terrorists is having an us-versus-them mentality. It justifies all actions, no matter how violent. And these justifications come in the form of articulate and charismatic speakers, as well as prolific writers, aiming to foment fear and attract new members.Recognizing that there are always two sides to terrorism – terrorists and their targets – a significant portion of the book analyzes the actions of governments and discusses how they can sometimes act as the ultimate recruiting tool for terrorists, from investigations to prosecutions to torture. (References to abuses in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib are conspicuously absent in this portion of the book, though he later criticizes the detention of enemy combatants.)German takes an even-handed approach in describing the views of terrorist groups by letting them speak for themselves. He uses excerpts from communiques and manifestos rather than relying on experts to give summarized interpretations. Many readers are likely to be exposed to these unedited texts for the first time.But in citing these texts, German often disparages modern-day terrorist groups for cribbing their mission statements from previous terrorist organizations. At times, the same could be said of German’s book. Besides his personal experiences with law enforcement, German uses the work of historians, and even philosophers, to buttress his arguments.German eventually tries his hand at original analysis by introducing what he terms the Government Accountability Scale after writing, “First we need to find a way to evaluate the relative legitimacy of different governments using objective criteria.”c A noble goal, to be sure, but such evaluations usually require more than the four pages allotted by German.The scale is meant to measure the extent to which a government is either repressive or free and open, as a way to determine the legitimacy of terrorist activities. The only problem is that there are only two data points on German’s scale: fascism and democracy. Governments are either like Italy under Mussolini or the United States since its inception.This analytical tool contributes little to the existing body of knowledge about the relationship between states and terrorists. And for a book that doesn’t hesitate to lapse into government speak with acronyms like COINTELPRO, short for the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program, the Government Accountability Scale receives no such shorthand. Perhaps that’s because referring to “the GAS” would detract from the issue at hand.German often takes a historical approach in laying the groundwork for his analyses. In doing so, he poses several thought-provoking, what-if scenarios to highlight terrorism’s evolution, and how perception plays a determining role.For example, should Polish Jews who attacked Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto be considered terrorists or members of the resistance? And what if Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was targeting child molesters? Would his actions be more acceptable?Overall, the book offers overwhelming praise for the infallibility of the U.S. legal system in its usefulness in fighting terrorism. But German has harsh words for American officials conducting this war, and he offers the moral of this story with the book’s parting words: “We can’t survive as a nation committed to the rule of law if we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We know what that kind of thinking is. That’s thinking like a terrorist.”
There was a certain buzz in the air before Michael Hastings’s The Last Magazine was published back in June of this year. His personal story, in fact, is the stuff that good fiction is made of. A prominent journalist, he died just over a year ago in a single-vehicle crash in the hours before dawn, triggering speculation that he had been murdered. He began his career at Newsweek, which was how I came to know him.
I worked far away from the glitz of the New York office, running the Middle East bureau of Newsweek in Jerusalem, researching, and eventually writing. I spent hours working on stories focusing on the Middle East conflict that seemed urgent, fresh, and original until they reached the svelte boardroom of the editors come Monday morning, where they were invariably shot down or changed beyond belief.
I met many Newsweek writers as they passed through the bureau on their way to assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hotspots. Photographers, journalists, editors — they all dropped by the bureau with their flak jackets, cameras, and sat phones. Mike Hastings was one of them, back then a reporter en route to Iraq for the first time. We had drinks one night in the bar of the American Colony, a favourite hangout of many foreign journalists. I liked Mike, sensing that underneath the bluster of war correspondent was a genuinely nice guy, jittery about his professional abilities but incredibly ambitious, wondering when he should propose to his girlfriend and whether he should encourage her to follow him to Iraq. He did propose, she did follow him, and a short time later she was killed when her convoy was attacked by Iraqi militants, as documented in Hastings’s autobiographical work, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story.
Around the time of his death, he had just published “Why the Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” an aggressive indictment of the Obama administration. According to reports, he emailed colleagues that he was now “onto a big story” and needed to go “off radar” for a while. Some say he was being tailed by the FBI.
Hastings was just 33 when he died, but had already made his mark in the world of mass communication. After cutting his journalist teeth on Newsweek, beginning as an unpaid intern, he went on to write for Rolling Stone