Graeme Wood

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Mercenary Hires Self, Has Fool for a Client

I reviewed Simon Mann’s memoir, Cry Havoc, for The National.

John Blake Publishing Ltd

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Everyone’s favourite kind of coup d’état is the bloodless one: El Presidente is surprised in his pyjamas, or while shopping in London, his trusted military aides turn out to be snakes, and he ends up, along with his loyalists, either under house arrest or in exile – padded at first, then increasingly threadbare as the secret accounts are frozen, one by one. Meanwhile, if you are an average citizen of his beleaguered country, not much changes. The money flows to anyone but you: meet the new Presidente, same as the old Presidente.

Simon Mann, one of the most famous living mercenaries, set out in 2004 to manage what he insisted would be a bloodless coup to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. But the Wonga Coup was so bloodless that it barely got started. Mann chartered a Boeing 727 full of armed men and planned to fly into the capital of Malabo, where an advance team led by the South African mercenary Nick du Toit intended to take over the airport. Mann hoped to install Severo Moto, the leader of a government-in-exile headquartered in Spain, as president, and in return reap millions in oil revenues.

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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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The Taliban Shuffle

Originally appeared in The National.

There are writers, and I am one of them, who believe that no book can be serious if it cannot also make you laugh. Permanent sobriety is no more trustworthy than permanent buffoonery. Why trust an author to tell you what’s grave and terrible when that same author seems to think everything is grave and terrible? Some critics may object that there is no comedy in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are exactly the people one can safely disregard.

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The Kidnapping of Ajmal Khan

Originally appeared in The National.

The last known person to see Ajmal Khan, the vice-chancellor of Islamia College University, was a newspaper hawker a block away from Khan’s home. The scene the man witnessed was a familiar one in Peshawar. Around nine in the morning on September 7, 2010, Khan left his house in a late-model Toyota. His driveway’s iron gates, decorated with ornamental metal grape-leaves, had barely closed when a white car cut him off. The hawker watched as assailants commandeered the car, shoved the chauffeur aside and sandwiched Khan between them in the back seat before driving off. The hawker then walked to the Khan’s gate, knocked, and informed the family: “Ajmal Khan has been kidnapped.”

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Filed under: National

Ice Kingdom

Originally appeared in  The National.

Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia

Toby Craig Jones

Harvard University Press

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Researchers recently announced that what was thought to be the most arid place known to man might actually be wet enough to support life. Just one small truckload of its soil, they say, can support the drinking, cooking, and showering needs of a person for a day, as long as you are willing to spend the energy needed to wring the water out of the dirt that conceals it.

This surprisingly wet place is, of course, the moon. Residents of the Arabian Peninsula are in some ways in a more precarious situation. There is not a single river or lake in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the factories that clean salt water consume massive amounts of energy, even though they are barely enough to meet the needs of the population. If these desalination plants were to shut down, Saudi Arabia would begin to die of thirst within days.

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Pork Politics

Originally appeared in The National.

The roads of Mi’ilya, an Arab town in the Western Galilee, snake their way up a steady incline, and the houses all have at least one window that looks out onto another village nearby. Most of those villages are hostile, in one way or another. The 2,800 residents of Mi’ilya are almost all Roman Catholic Arabs, though in the last few years a small number of Muslims have taken up residence, arousing some suspicion among Catholics who fear for the ethno-religious character of the town. The village’s closest neighbours are Jewish settlers. Just a few kilometres to the north, across the Lebanese border, Hizbollah reigns in a series of old and tightly clustered hill villages, the sites of rocket attacks against Israeli communities, including Mi’ilya, for the past five years. From the village’s highest vantage point, near the local church, one gets a showstopping panorama of enmity: Jews who hate Catholics, who dodge Shiite rockets that land near Sunnis.

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Filed under: National

A revolution silenced

Originally appeared in The National.

Death to the Dictator!: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran’s 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price
Afsaneh Moqadem
Sara Crichton Books
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“Afsaneh”, the pseudonym taken by the author of Death to the Dictator!, means “fairy tale” in Persian. Aptly, her book starts out like one. In Iran, against the backdrop of last year’s Green Revolution, for a moment anything seems possible. A generation disenchanted by its ageing political leaders discovers, in a rage-fuelled protest against a rigged election, that its season of liberation is at hand, and that its intifada against its elders might succeed so rapidly as to seem almost magical.

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Gas the Planet

Originally appeared in The National.

How to Cool the Planet

by Jeff Goodell

Climate scientists agree: the planet is sick, and what ails it is an excess of carbon in the air. The accepted cure is to stop putting so much carbon in the air. This sounds like the unfunny joke about the patient who goes to the doctor and says, “It hurts when I do this” – to which the doctor replies, “So don’t do that.” In this case, “doing that” means living the blessed life of modern industrialised man – driving cars, flying in planes, eating meat – and the reaction of most of us modern industrialised men is to keep on doing that anyway.

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