Fun History

I’ve read a couple of enjoyable books about history in the past few weeks.

First was “Stupid Wars: A Citizen’s Guide to Botched Putsches, Failed Coups, Inane Invasions, and Ridiculous Revolutions” by Ed Strosser and Michael Prince. The title alone gives you a sense of the tone of this book: snarky. The depths of contempt these guys have for every person in each of these conflicts is hilarious. Did you know that the US invaded Russia in 1919? Yeah, not the best attempt at regime change in our history. The series of South American conflicts are Monty Python level exercises in pathos. The most surprising thing about the book (given the current political climate) is that there’s nothing mentioned from the last fifteen years. (It ends with the coup that knocked Gorbachev out of the Kremlin.) In fact, I’m convinced this book was waiting for a publisher, and someone decided to snap it up on the off chance readers would pick it up. Really, there’s nothing political about this book at all, but I did feel like I learned some stuff.

Second was a touch more political, Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation”. Told from a perspective of a woman who holds a weird fascination with the darker corners of American history, dragging family and friends around the country to see obscure locations and museums, Vowell tells three stories, about the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. Most of the book is a combination of witty reportage of the historical events, and witty discussions of the “vacations” in question to dig up all this history. As though she doesn’t want to, but still can’t help herself, Vowell does take a few shots at the Bush administration, making a series of interesting comparisons between the Iraq War and the Spanish American War.

Iraq War: We invaded Afghanistan, then left it to fester (re: Osama bin Laden) and shifted our focus to invading Iraq to bring them democracy, thus getting stuck for a long struggle against insurgents. The war is motivated by a valuable and scarce resource known as black gold… oil!

Spanish-American War: We invaded Cuba, then left it to fester (re: Fidel Castro) and shifted our focus to invading the Philippines to bring them democracy, thus getting stuck for a long struggle against insurgents. The war is motivated by a valuable and scarce resource known as white gold… sugar!

I enjoyed both books, in different ways. “Stupid Wars” is all about the history and how dumb it really is. “Assassination Vacation” is more about Vowell’s personality, which is really fun. I mean, how can you not like the writer who comes up with this: “But when I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.” That’s just beautiful.

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