The List, Part 3: Books

My favorite books of all time.  Ranking books is especially difficult because there’s such a difference between fiction and non-fiction, between edge of your seat excitement and fascinating knowledge, but I’ve done my best to represent both here.

As always, comments and suggestions are much appreciated.  I’m always looking for a new author to read.

10.  The Rosenberg File (Second Edition) by Professor Ronald Radosh (1997)

Radosh, a former communist, brilliantly lays out the evidence that Julius Rosenberg was indeed guilty of espionage against the United States, and his wife Ethel certainly knew of his activities and may have participated as well.  While criticizing the government’s conduct in the prosecution, he makes it clear that the Rosenbergs brought the death penalty upon themselves by refusing to admit their role and proclaiming total innocence despite the evidence against them.

9. The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy (1991)

Tom Clancy’s crowning achievement, Sum of All Fears is probably the most gripping novel I’ve ever read.  It’s rare that a book will get your heart racing in the way a movie can, but this book was almost impossible to put down.  Clancy isn’t just the master of the techno-thriller, he’s a master of suspense too.

8. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK by Gerald Posner

The Kennedy assassination is one of the most fascinating incidents in 20th Century American History.  Even more fascinating is the plethora of ridiculous conspiracy theories that have arisen in the nearly 50 years since that fateful day.  Posner’s book works hard to discredit those wild theories and put to rest the argument over whether Oswald committed the crime himself.  No matter what your personal opinion, this book will provide a unique insight you won’t find many places.  Namely, Posner argues that the Warren Commission was massively flawed and almost literally stumbled onto the correct answer in spite of its own glaring incompetence.

7. The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism by Paul Kengor (2007)

A mesmerizing account of how Reagan spent his entire life fighting communism and preparing himself for the day when he would lead the entire free world in the final battle with the Evil Empire.  Despite overwhelming odds and a nation that no longer believed in itself, Reagan used the force of his personality and conviction to drag us all along in his just cause.

6. Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Joe McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies by M. Stanton Evans

For as long as I can remember, I’d been told by teachers and media and everyone else that Joseph McCarthy was one of the worst human beings to ever live, a vile monster who destroyed innocent people’s lives by accusing them of being communist spies.  And for almost as long I had doubted this story.  I mean, this isn’t the 18th Century witch trials; this was the Cold War, when communists really were trying to bring America down.  Why would McCarthy, or anyone for that matter, falsely accuse people of being communists when there were so many real ones out there?

Well, turns out I was right.  And this book lays the truth out in intricate detail, how everything McCarthy said was true and everyone he accused was a pinko commie bastard.  McCarthy was one of the greatest patriots this country has ever produced, and he was destroyed by the left wing establishment for nothing more than protecting our nation.  He is a true martyr.

5. Treason by Ann Coulter

By far Coulter’s best book, she shows with unflinching detail how Democrats have been on the wrong side of every major national defense issue since the end of World War II.  She devoted much of her book to defending Joseph McCarthy (kind of like a primer course for my #6 book, Blacklisted), and also shows the failures of Democratic presidents from Harry Truman all the way through to Bill Clinton.

4. Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr (1994)

I’m cheating a little bit here by using a compilation of a couple of Kerr’s books, but the Bernie Gunther series is astounding all the way through.  Imagine an old fashioned, hard-boiled detective novel.  But now imagine that detective lives in Nazi Germany, and thinks none too highly of the Nazis.  And that’s the story of Bernie Gunther, a loud mouth detective with a chip on his shoulder, trying to solve cases that the Nazis usually don’t want solved.  Start with this trilogy of books and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

3. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988)

Alan Furst is my absolute favorite author.  Picking his best novel is tough, but this week at least his first is my favorite.  All of his stories are set in Europe in the days leading up to (or the very early days of) World War II, and usually involve characters trapped between the dual evils of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  These are more cerebral stories than action spy novels, but there’s still plenty of tension and intrigue as you follow the lives of everyday people just trying to survive while still keep their humanity in a world going to hell.

2. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick

While this book is supposed to be about the fall of the Soviet Union (the author was working in Moscow when the failed coup led to the collapse of the USSR), to me the most fascinating part of the book is just the stories of the atrocities committed by the KGB and others during the reign of communism.  From Katyn Forest to assassinations of dissidents to the gulag system, this is one of the best works on the monstrosity that was the Soviet Empire.

1. Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull

Set in three different time periods during one man’s life, Losing Julia tells the story of World War I veteran Patrick Delaney and his experiences in the war, 10 years after the war at a soldiers’ reunion, and as he is dying in a nursing home at the age of 81.  A haunting story of the horrors of war and how true love never dies.

Honorable Mention: The Alienist by Caleb Carr; Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming by Terry Frei; The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough; The Main Enemy: The Inisde Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB by Milt Bearden; Clear and Present Dangerby Tom Clancy; Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Will Bagley; I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max; The Myth of the Great War by John Mosier

And anything by Alan Furst: Dark Star; The Polish Officer; The World at Night; Red Gold; Kingdom of Shadows; Blood of Victory; Dark Voyage; The Foreign Correspondent; The Spies of Warsaw; Spies of the Balkans.

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How Rambo Saved the World

In addition to being a pervert and a drunkard, you may not know that I’m also a history buff.  So when I’m not chasing girls with shots of vodka, or chasing shots of vodka with girls, I’m usually philosophizing (is that a word? I’m a history major, not an English major) on the evolution of warfare and America’s struggle against the evils of communism, terrorism and hippieism.

Which brings me to today’s topic, how Rambo saved the world.  Actually, to be fair, I should say Sylvester Stallone, since it was a combo of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV.  But since Rambo killed commies, whereas Rocky only knocked them out, and since Rambo was a life-altering figure in my development, I’m going to give him the bulk of the credit.

In 1985 I was 9 years old.  Too young to truly appreciate the peril the free world faced from the evils of communism.  Oh sure, I knew the Soviets were the “bad guys,” but to my young mind they might as well have been Cobra to America’s G.I. Joe.  I had seen R-rated movies by that time, but they were nominally censored by my parents. We had a VCR (I think it was still a Betamax), and if my brother or I wanted to see an R-rated movie my parents would screen it the night before to determine if it met their standards; sometimes they would fast forward through a sex scene –it was years before I finally saw the supremely disappointing sex scene in The Name of the Rose— or particularly gruesome killing, but for the most part I wasn’t too censored.

But Rambo was the first R-rated movie I got to see in the theater, unscreened and uncensored.  I have to admit, 9 years old is probably too young to be taking a gamble like that (if we’d been going to Silence of the Lambs at that age I’d probably be completely fucked up today as opposed to just slightly), but Dad wanted to see it as badly as I did so I got to go.

I won’t go too deeply into my own personal experience, but it’s safe to say that Rambo changed my life.  It put a face on the enemy.  It gave me an appreciation of the sacrifices our veterans made in Vietnam and every other war.  And it awakened me to the fact that not everyone in America was really on the right side in this life-or-death struggle with totalitarianism.  The world would never be the same for me.

On a world scale, Rambo’s affect was no less profound.  Ronald Reagan was our president, and for the first time in the entire duration of the Cold War we were actually trying to win the war as opposed to merely contain our adversary.  This is not a political rant.  It is not partisan.  Republican presidents Nixon and Eisenhower were just as incompetent in fighting the Cold War as Truman, LBJ and Carter.  Like monkeys trying to fuck a football, the whole bunch of them. For 35 years, from the end of World War II in 1945, to the day Reagan took office in 1981, we were on the retreat in the Cold War.  You could count our victories on one hand.  Meanwhile, the losses piled up: Albania, China, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Cuba, Yemen, Congo-Brazzaville, Benin, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Nicaragua, the Seychelles and Grenada.  Most of the Middle East’s Muslim states allied themselves with the Soviets even if they did not become communist.  (I’m pretty sure California went communist at some point in the 60’s as well.)  It was a dark time.  The light of liberty was literally flickering out across the world.

Until Reagan.

But even the great Ronald Reagan couldn’t do it alone. He needed help.  That help came in the form of Pope John Paul II, himself a child of Soviet oppression in Poland.  It also came from Margaret Thatcher, the greatest British leader since Henry V.  (And no, I haven’t forgotten Churchill, Maggie blows him away.)  But until 1985, that’s about all Ronnie had.

But in 1985 Sylvester Stallone brought Hollywood squarely into the Cold War with a propaganda campaign unseen since the days of Casablanca.  In May Rambo came out; it portrayed the Soviets (and Vietnamese) as soulless, vile war criminals, hell bent on world domination.  And in November Rocky IV came out; it portrayed the Soviets as soulless, vile cheaters, hell bent on athletic domination through steroids and intimidation.

Rambo and Rocky were huge on the homefront too.  After years of declining morale and patriotism, Reagan had focused much energy on raising the national spirit.  Both movies grossed over $300 million, and their blatantly pro-American message made people’s hearts swell with a pride that hadn’t been felt in years.

With the Soviets already on the defensive for the first time since the battle of Stalingrad, this new front did not sit well with the embattled Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachev.  He publicly blasted the Hollywood propaganda machine (funny how he never seemed to mind when they were spewing out the usual Soviet-friendly propaganda Hollywood was notorious for during most of the 20th Century).  The Soviet Minister of Culture decried Stallone’s movies as part of an “anti-Soviet campaign.”

And how did good ol’ Ronnie respond?  Unlike past presidents who would have groveled and apologized, disavowed the films as not representing the true feelings of Americans, he embraced them.  He bragged about watching Rambo in the White House movie theater.  He mentioned Rambo in speeches, taunting Gorbachev and making it crystal clear that the days of American backpedalling were over.

To make a long story short, after being on the defensive for literally every day since the end of World War II, it took just 9 years to turn the tide so completely that the Berlin Wall fell.  By 1991 the Cold War was over, and the Evil Empire was consigned to the “trash heap of history.”  And Rambo was an instrumental part of it all.  It wasn’t just the bad-ass way he blew Russkies away with his M-60 machine gun (shot one handed from the hip no less!)  It wasn’t just that he carried a knife bigger than most swords.  It was his will, his indomitable American spirit in the face of the seemingly unbeatable nemesis.

So next time you see any of the Rambo movies come up on AMC (that’s right, Rambo movies air on the American Movie Classics channel, so all you haters can suck it!), kick back and enjoy the flick.  And don’t be afraid to shed a tear or two when he gives his famous speech.

A few other notes about the great John J. Rambo:

–Lest you think Rambo was just another action hero, a caricature similar to a thousand other brainless Seagal or Van Damme movies: The original First Blood novel used to be taught in college literature classes before Hollywood commercialized the name and story.  David Morrell’s excellent novel is acknowledged as being one of the first works to discuss Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In fact, First Blood dealt with the issue of vets struggling to re-assimilate into society before the medical community had even coined the term PTSD.  Rambo is not a superhero, he is not invincible.  He is flesh and blood.  He also happens to be a badass motherfucker.

Rambo III, released in 1987, saw Rambo head to Afghanistan to face down the Soviets once again.  Since 9/11 this film has been mocked and derided for portraying the Muslim mujahedeen as allies and heroes.  In fact, the film is even dedicated to the mujahedeen.  And it’s true, those same mujahedeen would later produce such modern-day sweethearts as Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban.  But let’s not be naive, this is the way the world has always been.  Allies today become the enemies of tomorrow.  Don’t forget, we once crawled into bed with “Uncle Joe” Stalin to defeat the Nazis.  That’s right, in order to crush the Nazis in three-and-a-half years we allowed a new foe to flourish, one that would take 46 years to defeat.  So by my calculations, as long as we defeat the Muslims in the next… uh, let’s see, carry the one… 604 years, it won’t have been as big a blunder as cozying up to the Evil Empire turned out to be.