Graeme Wood

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Tale of a Lost City

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Bashar Assad’s father Hafez destroys Hama and kills thousands

Up until Friday, it was possible to imagine that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had a softer touch than his brutal father Hafez. One hint: His American biographer, the former minor-league baseball pitcher David W. Lesch, reported in 2006 that Bashar likes the soothing tones of Phil Collins music. But over the last few days, Bashar has responded to protests by killing at least 120, including dozens at funerals in cities all over Syria. If Hafez Assad is gazing up at his son from Hades, he can be certain that the family business of brutality is still going strong.

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The Bay of Pigs

The cartoonish Bay of Pigs plot falls short in every way

Originally appeared in The Daily.

When Fidel Castro kicked the capitalists out of Cuba in 1959, he created an embittered exiled class only too eager to help his main enemy, the United States of America, oust him as soon as possible. If you want to topple a government, its exiles can be a tempting tool: They have money, spies on the inside and a level of rage so incandescent, you could read a map by it on a moonless night. Unfortunately, as President John F. Kennedy learned 50 years ago today, all that and a few hundred million dollars in military training won’t buy regime change.
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Holy Treasure

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad Ali Samman and his brother wandered away from their village in central Egypt, hoping to scoop up a few buckets of soft dirt to fertilize his crops. Digging next to a large boulder, Muhammad Ali found a mysterious earthenware jar about 3 feet tall. He and his brother backed away from it, worrying that it might contain a genie. Then, on further reflection, they considered that it might contain gold, and they smashed it apart, thereby releasing a force in some ways more disruptive to traditional Christianity than any genie could have been. Read the rest of this entry »

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The British Invasion of Mesopotamia

Review of Charles Townshend’s Desert Hell (Harvard University Press).  Originally appeared in The National.

In the history of colonial Britain, the name Charles Townshend is usually said with a scowl. It wasn’t always thus. In 1895, as a young captain, Townshend led the besieged garrison at Chitral Fort and held out heroically until the arrival of reinforcements. But his reputation and ignominy live on mostly because of his defeat two decades later in what is now Iraq, against an Ottoman opponent generally judged weaker and less equipped than Townshend’s own Indian soldiers. Townshend led his soldiers up from Basra towards Baghdad, only to meet fierce Turkish resistance at the Battle of Ctesiphon, near the enormous sixth-century Sassanian arch that is one of the wonders of pre-Islamic architecture. In December 1915, he retreated to Kut in eastern Iraq near the modern Iranian border, and after five months’ siege he surrendered to the Turks. In their custody, fully half his surviving men perished, mostly from exhaustion and disease.

The author of Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia (who is, oddly enough, also named Charles Townshend, though he admits to no relationship) echoes conventional wisdom in rating the defeat at Kut the most embarrassing British military defeat since Cornwallis’s surrender to American tax protesters at Yorktown in 1781. In this book, the blame meted out to Townshend the general is less than he has received in previous accounts, but still enough to place him in the low ranks of British generalship. To his superiors, Townshend expressed reservations about the push to Baghdad, arguing that the gains would be minor and the potential costs extreme. But in the end, the superiors’ views won out, and Townshend pushed forward, with disastrous consequences.

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A Libyan Misadventure

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Last week, two American aviators crashed their F-15E fighter jet outside Benghazi, leaving it a smoking wreck on the ground.  When the airmen parachuted unharmed to safety, they may have wondered about a historic precursor, a lanky 24-year-old Norwegian-Englishman who crashed in eastern Libya more than 60 years earlier and was not so lucky. That pilot nearly died. And if he had, the world would be a poorer place because that pilot was Roald Dahl, among the world’s most beloved children’s authors. Dahl’s books (including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach”) make children and adults squeal with delight and shudder with horror, in part because his own life had its share of delight and horror both. On the night of Sept. 19, 1940, Dahl nearly burned to death under the stars in the Libyan desert.
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