Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book review: "A Sliver of Light"

Three Americans Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd were visiting the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2009 when they decided to go for a hike. Locals directed them to a hilly area and soon the Americans headed up a trail.

As they neared a ridge, the Americans spotted an isolated stone building with a soldier standing next to it. The soldier waved to them to come over. They did. And just like that, Bauer, Fattal and Shourd unknowingly crossed the border and become prisoners of Iran.

Shourd would be imprisoned for the next 13 months; Bauer and Fattal for more than two years.

In "A Sliver of Light," the three hikers tell the story of their capture and imprisonment, which drew international attention.  The authors describe the mental wear and tear of their captivity, their nuanced relationship with an array of interrogators and guards, and how they eventually found subtle ways to resist their captors.

While the Americans are never physically tortured during their captitivity, they emphasize that the long imprisonment eats at them psychically . Shourd, particularly, is affected by a long period of solitary confinement. "I talk to myself, eat my food with my hands. Like an animal, I spend hours crouched by the slot at the bottom of my door listening for sounds."

Still, one of the more surprising elements of their confinement is how far it is from a "Midnight Express"-style prison hellhole. The Americans are fed adequately and eventually are able to "order" a wide variety of foods. They have hot showers. They get books and, one time, a birthday cake. They eventually get TVs, a DVD player and a refrigerator in their cells. To celebrate Bauer's birthday in 2011, the guards take him and Fattal out for a picnic where they have pizza and ice cream.

As a factual accounting of the Americans' experience, "A Sliver of Light" does a fine job. But in terms of emotional engagement, it falls short.

In this kind of book you want to root for the captives, but in this case, Bauer, Fattal and Shourd are just not that likeable. In fact based on their own words I often found them annoying.

They are incredibly slow to realize that they are political prisoners, and in the early going they naively believe that if they cooperate completely with their captors they will be set free.

During one interrogation, Bauer is so eager to please the Iranian across the table that he wonders, "Are we bonding? Is he interested in me? Does he feel guilty for partaking in my captivity?"

Even though the Iranians repeatedly lie to the Americans, the gullible Shourd trusts each new interrogator. At one point, she says, "I truly believe he wants to help me, to speed up this process and play his part in getting me out of here." This "kind" interrogator orders her to keep her blindfold on.

It is over a year before Shourd has an epiphany: "They knew from the first day that we weren't spies and that we did not willingly cross the border, yet they decided to hold us anyway."

The Iranians interview the Americans for long periods, clearly poking around for information they can use to frame them as spies. But the American don't resist in the slightest, failing to recognize that they have leverage to ask for a quid pro quo some short time for them to be together, for example, or the opportunity to make a phone call. 

It take a whole year before the Americans realize they do have some power to get better treatment, but it requires them to resist. "Defiance gets results," Fattal discovers.

On one night early in their confinement, Bauer is able to sneak into Shourd's cell and the dating couple have sex. Hey, sex is good, but since this is their first time together in a long time, wouldn't this also be a great time to discuss their situation and develop a strategy for the interrogations? Maybe they could try a hunger strike, a tactic they later find quite effective. Nope after sex, Bauer just leaves and goes back to his cell.

Worse, perhaps, is that the Americans repeatedly come off as smug and self-righteous. You might think it would be hard for people in their situation to seem smug, but somehow these three do it.

They lecture the reader on politics, American foreign policy and even the institution of marriage. "Why trap yourself in an institution that is so feeble, that so often crumbles and wreck lives," Bauer wonders. "Why participate in the state incentivization of one particular type of relationship: one man and one woman."  (Bauer and Shourd are now married.)

When Fattal and Bauer decide to divide the food in their cell between them, they don't use the word "divide." They call it "privatizing."

And after they're all released, they refuse to help the FBI in a investigation into another American missing in Iran.

If you like these sort of stories, check out the National Geographic Channel's series, "Locked Up Abroad."

An excellent book about someone held hostage in the Middle East is "Buried Alive" by Roy Hallums. He didn't have hot showers and his captors never took him out for pizza.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Citi's American Airlines credit card: The good, the weak and the ugly

The Citi American Airlines Mastercard, which I just got, comes with a host of bonus features. Some of these are very good. Some others might be good depending on your needs. But most of the "bonuses" are nothing more than parsley on a dinner plate they make things look good but offer practically nothing of value.

The card comes with a $95 annual fee. I hate annual fees, but this one is waived for the first year. I'll decide before the year is up whether to cancel the card.

Here's a look at the various perks of the card, from the good to to the lame.

Very Good

First bag checked free for you and up to four traveling companions. This is the reason I got the card. Normally, you pay $25 to check your first bag on American. I will be flying with my two kids next month going one way on American and since we'll each have a bag to check, we'll save $75 right there.

If you fly a lot on American, this could amount to significant savings.

A bonus of 30,000 AAdvantage miles after you spend $1,000 within the first three months.  Thirty thousand miles is enough to buy a round-trip ticket, so I figure this is worth $400 or so, at some point.

Kinda good

Earn frequent flier miles. When you use this card, you earn miles in American's AAdvantage frequent flier program. That's not bad, but I'd prefer to just to get a 1% cash rebate as some cards offer.

Group 1 boarding. This means we will get to get on the plane ahead of those poor slobs in "general boarding." (Insert imperious sneer here.) The advantage, I guess, is that you get first shot at the overhead bin space. I consider this only a very slight benefit. My family and I are not the type of travelers who have a lot of carry-ons, and when we do need bin space, I haven't had a problem finding it.

Auto rental insurance. Covers damages to your rental car when you use the card for the transaction. Nice, but nearly all cards offer this. 

Just OK

Double AAdvantage miles on American Airlines purchases. If I'm buying American Airlines tickets and use this card I get double miles. It's better than nothing I guess.

Earn miles for using miles. If you redeem your AAdvantage miles for a flight or something else, you get 10% back. I use AAdvantage miles so rarely, this isn't worth that much, but it is better than nothing.

"Parsley" benefits

25% off food, drink or headsets on board.  Whoopee. The food and drink on board are about 40% overpriced. It's easy to bring your own food and headsets.

Personal concierge service. "We'll make your dinner reservations, purchase tickets to events, coordinate business arrangements for you worldwide, locate hard-to-find items, and buy and deliver gifts with the costs of goods or services billed to your card." By the time you explain what you want, and go back and forth a few times explaining how much you want to spend, you could have done it yourself.

$100 American Airlines Flight Discount if you spend $30,000 in a year. Maybe some people charge an average of $2,500 a month, but not me. And if you do spend $30,000 annually, then $100 doesn't seem like much of a reward.

Reduced mileage awards. This is one of those "benefits" that sound good, but upon closer inspection really aren't. This bonus allows cardholders to use up to 5,000 to 7,500 fewer miles than normally required to get a roundtrip flight to certain cities.

But the eligible cities and dates in this program are so spotty, that this is like grabbing a deal from the discount bin at Big Lots. Oh, yay, I can get a price break on a flight to Beaumont, Texas, or Kalamazoo, Michigan! You can use the discount to go to Jackson, Miss., in April, but not in May, June or July. The discount is available for Fort Lauderdale in May, but not April, June or July.

In short, if you happen to benefit from this feature, it would only be by sheer luck.

 "Buyers Security Program." This feature, supposedly, will protect purchases you make with this card for 90 days against fire, theft or accidental breakage. OK, you might think, you're not going need that very often, but it would be nice to have just in case.

Well, good luck using this if you need it. There are a full 1,139 words describing the conditions of this, and most of them say what is not covered.

Theft from vehicles is not covered. Nor are boats, motorized vehicles or their equipment and accessories. Also not covered: "permanently installed items, fixtures or structures," "tickets of any kind," plants, "consumables" or "perishables." "Theft or damage of jewelry, cameras and video recording equipment contained in baggage is not covered." Items given as gifts are not covered.

There are many other limits on the coverage, plus strict requirements for making a claim. If anyone has actually successfully used this program, please let me know in the comments below.  Until I hear from such a person, I deem the program as worthless.

"Price Protection Program." If you buy something with the card, and see a printed ad offering the same item for less money within 60 days, Citi supposedly will refund the price difference up to $250. But the restrictions on the offer are so many to make it a virtually empty promise.

First, the ad must be for the exact same item.  It does not apply to Internet purchases or advertisements. It also does not apply to any ad with the words, “limited quantity,” “going out-of-business,” “cash only” or “close out.” There are 19 other bullet points in the fine print outlining exceptions to the offer.

Bottom line: worthless.

Others.  There are several other bonuses that come with this card, including lost luggage coverage, trip cancellation and interruption insurance, an extended warranty program, travel accident insurance, roadside assistance service, and a "price rewind" feature. All sound nice on the service, but a look at the small print shows so many limitations that the chance of actually benefiting is miniscule to non-existent.

If you actually have used any of these bonuses, let me know in the comments below.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

What caused the Bataan Death March?

War always has its horrors, but in 1942 on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, the Japanese Army treated American and Filipino prisoners with a cruelty rarely matched in human history. Over 10 days, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 allied soldiers died from disease, mistreatment, exhaustion and, in some cases, cold-blooded execution.

The Bataan Death March took place immediately after some 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942.  The prisoners were then forced to make an 80-mile march, with little food or water, to reach a prison camp. Eventually, the path of the march was littered with bodies.

Why did things go so terribly awry? In "Whisper in the Darkness," an excellent account of the events in Bataan, authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman detail the factors that created the Death March.

First, the Normans note, the shear number of prisoners took the Japanese by surprise. The Japanese had anticipated no more than 40,000.

Second, the surrender took place earlier than the Japanese expected. They were not prepared to handle prisoners yet.

Third, the American and Filipino soldiers were already weakened by hunger and disease. The two sides had been fighting for four months, and after the Allied forces withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula they were cut off from resupply. Food and medical supplies dwindled. Men lived on half-rations of rice and not much more. Sick soldiers, absent proper medicine, couldn't get well.

Fourth, the march occurred, by chance, during the hottest and driest part of the year. Under the relentless sun, with little water available, throats became parched and men became dizzy and faint. Some men drank polluted water from fetid ditches and became sick.

All that said, there is no question what the biggest factor was: The Japanese were ready and willing to treat the prisoners cruelly.

The fighting on Bataan, the Normans note, was bitter. Early on, the Japanese had suffered severe losses. They hated their enemy and, given the chance at payback, they didn't hesitate.

The culture of the Japanese Army was a factor. In training, soldiers were abused and beaten to toughen them up. They were taught to fight to the death and they learned to have no respect for any solider that would surrender.

Lastly, as the Normans' book makes clear, there was little reason for the Japanese to try to keep their prisoners alive. The more that died, the fewer prisoners they would have to deal with. This was part of the reason many of the marchers went without food day after day, the Normans note.

"The Japanese, chronically undersupplied, habitually unprepared, and stoically indifferent to the distress of men who were their sworn enemies, simply could not, or would not, feed them."

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Vocabulary guide to "Tears in the Darkness"

The book "Tears in the Darkness" is an outstanding account of the experiences of soldiers involved in the fighting on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines during World War II.  But every once in a while in the book, authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman throw in a word that exceeded my vocabulary.

So, to help you read "Tears in the Darkness," here are some of the words and terms that stumped me when I read them. It's not a long list, but three of them show up repeatedly in the book.

Opprobrium: Harsh criticism or censure

Abattoir: A slaughterhouse.

Fata Morgana: A type of mirage seen just above the horizon

Subalterns: A junior officer or subordinate

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Book review: "Tears in the Darkness" by Michael and Elizabeth Norman

Perhaps you've heard of World War II's Bataan Death March and have a vague idea of how bad it was. Still, the reality was far worse than you can imagine.

In the compelling "Tears in the Darkness,"  authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman detail the horrific events that occurred on the Philippines' Bataan Peninsula in the spring of 1942.

It was on Bataan, after 76,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered to the invading Japanese army, that the vilest elements of hate and inhumanity emerged.

Some prisoners were tied up, repeatedly bayoneted in the torso, their dying bodies kicked into a ravine.

Men denied food and water on the hot 80-mile march to a prison camp collapsed in agony. If they failed to get up quickly enough, guards shot or stabbed them.

Men were herded into fetid, overcrowded holding pens, often forced to sleep on ground covered with excrement, mucus, urine and blood. Sick and ailing soldiers were tossed into graves while still alive, their comrades ordered to toss dirt on them. In all, some 7,000 to 10,000 men died on the march.

This is, of course, not the first book about the events on Bataan, but the Normans' account shines because of their consistent attention to detail and because they manage to find small stories of human persistence amid the bleak circumstances. In particular, they follow the story of American Ben Steele, who manages to survive not only the Death March, but further atrocities in Japanese prison camps.

One of the strongest elements of the book, at least in the first half of the book, is the fact that the Normans tell the story from Japanese perspectives as well as the Americans'. The viewpoints of the Japanese soldiers may be most fascinating, perhaps because they're rarely told.  (Disappointingly, the Japanese perspective almost disappears in the second half of the book.)

With its tales of American soldiers being abused in Japanese prison camps, "Tears in the Darkness" will draw obvious comparisons to the 2010 bestseller "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.  But while the subject matter is similar, the stories of each are unique. I liked both books and it would be hard for me to recommend one over the other.

There's more to this book than the Death March. The Normans at first describe the bitter fighting in the Philippines, and note the little-remembered fact that the American and Filipino forces whipped the Japanese in the early stages. In fact, the Normans note, the besieged Americans and Filipinos would have been able to hold out for much longer except they failed to bring tons of stockpiled food to their Bataan positions. As it turned out, hunger was a main reason for the surrender on April 9, 1942.

The food screwup was the fault of General Douglas McArthur, say the Normans, a leader for whom the authors have no kind words. They portray him as an officer only interested in promoting himself and one whose leadership featured mismanagment and indecision.

"Tears in the Darkness" is an outstanding book, but it's not perfect. While the Normans do well providing perspectives from Americans and Japanese, there is little from the third party in the room: The Filipinos.

I'm also not sure that a chapter at the end that covers the post-war trial of Japanese general Masaharu Homma fits with this book. The section is interesting but in a book that focuses mostly on the experiences of lower-level soldiers the introduction of a general as a major character late in the story seems out of place. This chapter really should be the seed for a separate book.

If you're interested in the World War II events in the Philippines you might also consider "Escape from Davao" by John D. Lukacs. This book doesn't have the depth of "Tears in the Darkness," but the story of some Americans' daring escape from a Japanese prison camp is dramatic.

See also:
"What caused the Bataan Death March?"
"Vocabulary guide to 'Tears in the Darkness'"

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