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Gordon Book Review Blog

Bad Blood - The story of Theranos

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 17, 2019 @ 07:15 AM

The Bonnie Lea Book Club met to discuss the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley darling which had attracted over $900 million in investment capital, running for over 15 years, based on lies, deceit, employee abuse and legal intimidation.  Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, became a billionaire, until the author, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, began unraveling the lies and exposing the company for what it was.   It is a study in human nature, business, start-ups, a little science, as well as deception, abuse, and power.  This book had it all.  And will be a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Elizabeth Holmes 2014 (Wikipedia.jpg

Theranos was founded in 2003 by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes; over 15 years, she was the pitchman for a dream that everyone wanted to believe: a simple easy way for ordinary people to discern what ailed them: a finger prick blood test that could be done at your local pharmacy.  To her credit Holmes assembled an impressive group of investors, a board that included Henry Kissinger, Howard Shultz, David Boies and General James Mattis, and investors that included a who’s who of Silicon Valley.  But we concluded that she was simply a sociopath who sold a dream, causing pain and damage to innumerable investors, employees, and patients. 

The writing had the pace and feel of a news story (John Carreyou writes for the Wall Street Journal), not a novel, so the first half of the book read as a chronicle, mostly of the people who worked at Theranos.  Because of the high turnover and interesting people working at Theranos, there were too many names to remember.  Most of us found the first few chapters tedious.

About halfway through the book, the author began a chapter using the noun “I”.  Immediately, the book got better. Carreyou’s version became a personal story, not a report.

Jeff recommended this book, so started our discussion with: “How early in the story was Elizabeth ‘faking it’?”   Did she begin lying right away, or only after interest in her vision had real attracted money, and progress on delivering the promises was challenged?  Geoff argued that given her father’s time at Enron, her family’s history of great wealth and its generational evaporation, that honesty and integrity were never part of Ms Holmes makeup.  She lied the moment people began buying into her vision.

Holmes was an exceptionally good liar.  Her vision had a high moral ground: a true force of “good”.  Several of us had watched the HBO documentary on the subject; watching the interviews, her capacity to lie seamlessly, with conviction, was extraordinary.

We discussed the culpability of the Board.  It appeared to have served only an advisory capacity, to give the company credence; they gave her validity, but failed in oversight.  Interestingly, she held full voting control, so could fire Board members that did not suit her.  Furthermore, Board members were men with great achievements... in disciplines other than science or medicine.  Though at one point, the Board conspired to fire her for a variety of corporate infractions; but she made a plea to stay as Chief Executive, and they folded.  We’d all like to have been at that meeting. 

In a private company setting, oversight of financial practices, review of major contracts, understanding of the underlying science, is more limited than in public companies.  Interestingly, Board members were not qualified in the science of what Theranos was doing; but rather, were men of substance in different fields, evidently taken by Holmes’ personality and presence.   And then there’s the generational factor: old guys taken by her charm and looks and the beautiful vision.

The discussion of the board prompted the additional question, Could a guy have pulled it off?  We agreed NO, the whole premise of Theranos was a dream come true for the board and the big investors: high morality around the concept, a woman entrepreneur in a man’s field, a self-made billionaire.  The story need all those elements to reach the level Theranos did.

But there were so many questions, all evident to Monday morning quarterbacks.  How do we count the red flags?

Poor project management. Why didn’t any employee recognize the poor project management?  Theranos attracted incredibly qualified people from many successful businesses.  Jeff offered an example of a phone aggregation scheme which approached his firm years ago based on a new and compelling cost saving angle.  Part of their due diligence was, ‘show us the contracts with the carriers’ before we commit.  Delays and excuses were common: ‘It’s still in legal review’ being the stock answer.  It took Jeff’s company 18 months to discover there was nothing behind the promises; Theranos lasted 15 years.

Employee management was characterized by all the wrong practices for successful businesses: silos between departments, oppressive oversight, often by Elizabeth’s boyfriend Sonny (a truly despicable character), high turnover, and heavy handed post-employment legal intimidation.  Even employees posting anonymously to GlassDoor, an employer rating site, were harassed for bad reviews.   The life and death (by suicide) of scientist Ian Gibbons was among the most tragic human events I've read in non-fiction.

Rick posed an insightful business strategy question:  Why didn’t Theranos build on early little victories to gain time for continued improvement and development?  Holmes’ commitment to her vision was admirable from a certain perspective, but science and physics prevented many core aspirations from coming true.  Some visions defied laws or thermodynamics or physics.  Perhaps for the dream train to keep running, the impossible dream had to remain alive.  

Juxtaposed to the high minded vision is the overall morality displayed: so many people suffered. $900 million taken from investors, employees working in a toxic environment characterized by lies and intimidation, and customers, patients  and doctors who relied on blood tests to make health decisions.  Rob asked, Could a fraud of this magnitude happen again?  While there are many bad actors in business, and capitalism attracts its fair share of these, today's oversight and business transparency should prevent a repeat.  But that's what we said after Ponzi, and Madoff.  Only time will tell.

Elizabeth Holmes’ trial begins next summer.  We asked, What’s the appropriate sentence?  We agreed her transgressions cross so many lines: securities, employment practices, health care, regulatory.  We began with thoughts of a minimum 5-10 years sentence, real time, would be a start.  Some argued the damage done deserve way more than just 5-10.  Will the Holmes charm get her a lighter sentence?

We discussed some of the legal elements.  Legal was big.  Of the $700 - $900 million that Theranos raised, some $300,000,000 was consumed in legal expenses.  One third of a company’s budget was spent to quell the truth!  Super lawyer David Boies is revealed to be almost as despicable a character as Sunny Balwani, Holmes’ paramour and company hatchet man.  We asked, can an NDA be enforced if either party is violating or compelling the counter-party to violate a criminal law?   Maybe maybe not, but the threat of a lawsuit that will bankrupt an employee will prevent employees from talking.  Legal intimidation at its worst.

One interesting side story was that of Richard Fuisz, former family friend who for reasons motivated purely by personal malice, tried to sabotage Theranos when it appeared to be a real company.  Fuisz was just another character in the parade of dirt bags the Holmes family hung out with, but also succumbed to the legal onslaught by Theranos’ high priced legal team.   In the end, however, he was able to connect the author with Theranos’ former medical director, giving the investigation a boost.

Beyond the incredible lies and intimidation and legal muscle, how did Holmes keep this together for 15 years?   For one, she played the gaps in regulations exceptionally well.  FDA oversight? They always seemed to provide enough reason to avoid oversight.   Everybody wanted this to work.  Everyone wanted to believe in the dream.

But at the center was Elizabeth Holmes.  When giving demonstrations of the ‘Edison’ black box that was tasked with performing multiple analyses from a single fingerstick blood sample and it failed, she redirected the conversation to the customer, but didn’t go back to engineering and say fix it!  She knew it couldn’t be fixed.

A doctor friend of Rob’s pointed out that Elizabeth never took the Hippocratic oath, nor understood ‘patient first’.  She was neither a health care professional, nor biochemist, nor engineer.  She was a fake.  And an unusually good liar.

Were there any winners?  Yes, a few.

Tyler Shultz, former employee, grandson of George Shultz, and early whistleblower, is now succeeding in a business with micro fingerstick tests.  While the tests cannot do 200+ different tests, it can do several, enough to build a successful company around.  Shultz and his parents were the epitome of integrity.

Erika Cheung was a young 22 year old biologist who was one of the early whistleblowers.

The blogger from the Midwest, - a nobody from nowhere who gave the author John Carreyrou enough science and a contact to get the story started.  Dams get broke by a little leak.  He knew something about the science was suspicious, and made connections  for the story finally to come to light.

There have been some comparisons of Holmes to Steve Jobs: our conclusion, aside from the black turtlenecks, he had the goods, she was a sociopath. 


Our next book is The Emperor of All Maladies, a study of Cancer


Tags: Business, business ethics

Educated A memoir

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Thu, Apr 18, 2019 @ 05:00 PM

Mal had recommended our book selection for April, so he began our discussion with the question, ‘What’s the allure?’ Why is this book so popular? The writing was good, it’s a good story, but beyond that, why a best-seller?

Geoff suggested that one attraction is its insight into a kind of world that few readers knew existed. Bill countered that out West, you get to know people like that, those hill people who come down into town on occasion, for festivals or races, but then return to their country to live. It’s not so unfamiliar in the rural west. Or in New Hampshire, or Maine come to think about it.

This also gave insight into the effects of myopic views toward the world around us, a condition common in America today with ideological views bending reality to fit an ideological perspective. We agreed generally that personal experiences are a better foundation for developing ideas for life: in the words of Marvin Gaye, believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear (earlier popularized by Edgar Allen Poe). Along that same theme, Pete added that much of today’s nationalist and religious conflict around the world arises from this myopic thinking.

The book is also a testament to how religion can play a powerful role in ideological re-ordering, though the author made a pointed warning not to conflate LDS / Mormonism with the dysfunction within her family. Agreed: Don’t conflate bad behavior with religion. Bad people will cloak themselves in religion to deflect or conceal their true color or their objectives. The mental health (bi-polar father and similarly mentally deranged brother) contributed plenty to fill that role; it wasn’t the religion.

The fundamentalist survivalist theme (Ruby Ridge) also provided a look into paranoia influenced action, in this case preparation for an attack by the government. We are all products of our own environments. We are all victims of our own biases. Same trailer, different park.

Next, we explored the question, how much of this story is really true? Bill, a writer by profession pointed out that the book shifted effortlessly and elegantly from plain spoken language to insightful conceptual reflection. This had the feel of a teamwork editor approach; the technique is incredibly difficult for a single person to do. A few of us countered, unless you have a 150+ IQ.

Adding to the question of accuracy were the descriptions of events: some described down to minute detail; others described with footnotes indicating alternative possible scenarios. But her description of the mountain before her leaving it, and her changing perspectives as she was exposed to BYU, to Cambridge, to Harvard, and her return to the Mountain (The Princess), was literary excellence. The irony that her PhD thesis was about the impact of historians getting to write history was not lost on us with Tara’s writing her story here.

We discussed the family, asking questions about many of the characters. We agreed that her mother was the most sympathetic character, though she was also complicit in the family’s dysfunction through her passivity. Her ability to take charge of her homeopathic salves business when father was recuperating from his immolation was impressive; her passivity upon his taking control when he became healthy was predictable but sad.

Family dysfunction clearly began with father, how he treated all the kids like mere tools. Clearly a smart man, his detachment from any concern for safety manifested itself in repeated life threatening injuries, including his son’s and his own self-immolation. How about operating the metal cutting machine? Not a job for a human to be around. That said, the father taught self-sufficiency, fortitude, hard work to the whole family, values that are liberating in themselves.

On the topic of mental health, we asked, Why did she go to the father first on that topic? Her bother (Sean) demonstrated plenty of mental health issues, though she never seemed to suggest his sickness, beyond descriptions of his behavior.

On reflection of the story, we asked, is Tara still scarred as a person? She seems to continue to seek acceptance from her father and brother. Her final letter to her father might have been cathartic to her in this struggle. Her own reflection included that you have to forgive your family to forgive yourself.

The part of the book where she received a grant was poignant and illuminating: once unshackled from debt and financial pressure, she became liberated to focus on her studies, her Education. Her freedom from debt was liberating, as it is with so many people.

We pondered, is ‘Educated’ the best title? It could have been Emancipated, Liberated, Aware, or a number of other titles. For the author, educated is actually all of these. As she wrote, “Positive liberty - the ability to take control of your own mind.” And “Emancipate yourself from intellectual slavery.” Powerful thoughts, especially today, in America’s politically splintered myopic world.

Overall, we found the book to be a great reference point for our discussion into life, into ideas, and into family dynamics.

Our next book is Bad Blood – the story of Theranos, one of Silicon Valley’s greatest con jobs

Tags: Educated

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jan 16, 2019 @ 08:11 AM

The Bonnie Lea Book Club tackled a book about the world’s most influential religion, examining how it grew as an offshoot out of a minor ancient sect based in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire (Judaism) into the foundation of the West’s religion and philosophy for the next two millennia.

The author, Ehrman credits Christianity with overturning a culture of dominance, spreading an ethic of love and service in which everyone is equal before God. I agree and believe Judeo-Christian morality was the philosophical underpinning for America’s founding documents and subsequent European democratic development, while Mal rejected that high level of influence. How the religion became so successful, and how it replaced the existing order, particularly in its first three centuries, was the focus of the book.

In summary, the book examines three concepts: first, the existing pagan belief system was vulnerable to Christian spiritual and social arguments; second, its messengers, most influential, Paul; and finally the influence of Roman emperors, most consequentially Emperor Constantine.

The members of our book club had the broadest overall spectrum of reviews that we’ve had in several books. Mal did not like the writing, clarity or organization at all, and couldn’t finish it; Bill thought it was Ehrman’s best of three he’s read, and excellent. Most of us agreed that the organization and logic was disjointed; the writing dense at times, and Rob commented that for a relatively short book (less than 300 pages), too many topics were redundant and repetitive. And yet the insight into pre-Christian paganism, the appeal of Christianity to the masses, its inexorable growth, one convert at a time, and the Roman leadership structure made for interesting historical insight.

To be clear, for a highly respected New Testament scholar, Ehrman’s analysis was remarkably devoid of any theological depth or modern aspects of faith; this was a historical sociological study. To its credit, it provided a thorough examination of pre-Christian paganism that was the established philosophy of the day, where magic, mystery and a pantheon of gods brought answers to the difficult questions of why things happened. Paganism did not have a name; that is our retroactive label. It simply was.

Ehrman refers to the Bible frequently, so a brief overview of its organization and authors may provide some perspective. The first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the Jewish ‘bible’ before Jesus. It is here that Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments (first in Exodus) and rejecting certain foods (pork), are introduced. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written decades after his death by those authors about Jesus and his acts, words and teachings. Acts of the Apostles follows the Gospels, introducing us to Saul of Tarsus, an educated Jew (Pharisee) who dramatically converts to Christianity after leaving Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, faced with a blinding light, and hearing a voice (from Jesus) asking “Why do you persecute Me?” Paul wrote the majority of the rest of the New Testament (Letters of Paul) to the new churches he systematically established throughout the eastern Mediterranean to Rome.

The book began and ended with Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity upon his march into Rome to unseat the previous emperor, and arguably the most influential character in Christianity’s rise. His mother was a Christian and his father a henotheist (believing in one top god, in his case the Sun God, Sol Invictus). But above that, he was an astute survivor, and a successful emperor of Rome for thirty years. He oversaw the congregation of bishops in Nicea, resulting in the Nicene Creed, still recited today in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and which outlines the church’s core doctrines.  In addition he settled and developed Constantinople, (today’s Istanbul), on the Bosporus, easily defended and strategically located, where the Eastern Church was seated for over a thousand years until the Ottomans conquered the City in the 1400s.

Another of Constantine’s signature edicts was the Edict of Milan, which established for the first time a governmental principle of freedom of religious belief under the law.

The question of whether the inexorable growth of Christianity would have continued as swiftly without Constantine’s support tilted to no, it couldn’t have.  His support also had the effect of permitting Christianity to influence the educated, economic military and political policy makers,  While the trajectory would probably continue to rise, its ascendancy as the dominant religion of Europe and the Mediterranean was greatly influence by this Emperor.  Ever the astute leader, he may simply have decided to ride this religious wave to hold together an increasingly broad and disparate empire. The emperor waited until shortly before his death to be baptized (though this was not an uncommon practice at the time to ensure entry into heaven). 

Julian, a few emperor’s later, re-instituted the persecution of Christians; but he lasted less than two years (killed by Persians in battle). We also surmised whether a thirty year survival of Julian might have changed history.

Paul, formerly Saul, described above, was the great marketer. We discussed whether Paul’s interpretation of Christianity as we know it would have been approved by Jesus. James’ own words give us insight: he would NOT have, due primarily to Jesus’ intent to have his message become a natural extension of Judaism, rather than a religion most appealing to Gentiles or pagans.  The appeal to pagans might have been Paul’s greatest success. While we know Jesus said that Gentiles could accept the Jewish God, it was clearly Paul who took this message and spread it to the densely populated cities along the Mediterranean, chronicled in the books of the New Testament. 

The message had remarkable consistency (marketers take note).    The main attractions were:

  • This God was bigger and better than the pagan gods;
  • the Jewish concept an ethical foundation; developed further where sinning could be washed away by this God, through Jesus;
  • immortality, heaven, was the eternal joy and reward for conversion, while hell was eternal torture, a concept too many were familiar with.
  • The message of Love thy Neighbor, Help the Poor, and establishment of communities of faith created social benefits

These simple messages provide an attraction, and conversion seemed most effectively to be a one-way door.   Pax Romana also had created stability and fertile ground for a merchant class not solely concerned with survival to the next day, but time to contemplate bigger issues of the spirit.  Converts and their offspring rarely returned to paganism.

Chuck’s notes were outstanding and made for a well organized discussions.

 Here's a link to the book


Our next book is Educated by Tara Westover


Tags: Christianity, book review, review

Without Precedent - the Story of John Marshall

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 @ 10:46 PM

Without Precedent, by Joel Richard Paul, was the story of Chief Justice John Marshall, our country's most influential and most prolific Chief Justice's in the nation's history. Over 34 years Chief Justice Marshall oversaw 1129 decisions, of which over 1000 were unanimous, with 547 authored opinions. While Marshall was not perfect, his commitment to Washington's and Hamilton's vision and execution of Federalism for the young nation's first four decades was remarkable and extraordinary. Most importantly, he established the Judicial branch a a near co-equal to the legislative and executive branches.

Unlike many of the other founding fathers, Marshall's upbringing was not among the elite class of large plantation owners and lawyers, such as his cousin, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson grew up in privilege on a plantation with 500 slaves, while Marshall came of age as the oldest of 14, scraping out a living on the edge of the wilderness on his father’s farm. His childhood taught him resilience and humanity, and his experience in the Revolution, at Valley Forge with Washington, Hamilton and Stuben, taught him the real suffering of war.


Marshall was a quick learner, however, getting a law degree and demonstrating leadership and  skills in compromise and collaboration. His sharp mind got him noticed by the elites in the young republic. His simple hardscrabble upbringing did not limit his opportunities, and ultimately contributed to his legendary contributions to American jurisprudence.

The book seemed to be broken into three parts: Marshall’s early life including his service during the Revolution, the time in France negotiating terms of peace for his new country, and finally the Supreme Court years. In France, (with too many pages dedicated according to Doug), he was exposed to both government corruption and runaway ideologies. These seem to have influenced his ideas of how an effective judiciary could limit flawed humans from establishing autocratic rule. For me, the most memorable part of the time in France was the overt demands for a bribe from France’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, before commencing in negotiations between nations.  For others, the descriptions of revolutionary Paris and the collapse of due process under the law, under the guise of ‘equality’ was equally remarkable.

Thomas Jefferson was relentlessly criticized throughout the book. Part of this view is historical: the closer we look at Jefferson, the more elitist and detached, and flawed, he appears. Juxtaposed to his cousin, Marshall ended up being Jefferson’s greatest nemesis during his presidency.  Some examples: Marshall had a close business and personal relationship with his slave, all his life. Jefferson had Sally Hemmings. Marshall lived simply, and left substantial landholdings to his family, while Jefferson always lived in and died, deeply in debt.

We expected the court cases to be long and arduous; but were pleasantly surprised. The descriptions leading up to the decisions were well organized and clearly described, and the relevance of the decisions to affected parties at the time, as well as to the development of legal thought, including establishing precedence, for the young nation was outstanding.  Every case made sense.

The first case described of course, was Marbury vs Madison, the first case they discuss in law school. The relevance of this case was the establishment of the Judiciary as an equal to the Executive branch. Madison (he defendant - and Jefferson's Secretary of State) didn’t even appear at the hearing, so little was thought of the controversy at the time. The Constitution barely mentions the Supreme Court, and nothing in it says the Court can stop the legislature.  Marshall established these standards through his brilliant early opinions. This particular case (MvM) established Marshall’s credentials as a force on the national scene – against his cousin, President Jefferson.

We delved into the disparity of concepts of equality within the Declaration of Independence (authored by Jefferson) versus what actually made it into the Constitution (written mostly by James Madison). The Declaration spoke about all men being equal by God, while the Constitution held that slaves were valued at 3/5ths of a freeman; and women and non-property owner men had no vote, no representation. The Constitution was eventually amended to grant voting rights to non-property owners, and 100 years later to women,   Marshall laid the foundation well ahead of his time, through contract resolution and three Indian cases, where he ruled that Indian Nations were in fact entities qualified to execute contracts, thus effectively placing them on equal footing as white landowners,.

We talked about how Federalism vs States Rights affects us today. Doug talked about how the energy sector - its bifurcation is one result of different states’ policies toward energy. Today securities and aviation are nationally regulated, while energy (and insurance and many other industries) is regulated by states. States’ rights issues were potentially limiting to the economic growth of the nation in the early 1800’s; the establishment of Congress’ authority over ‘interstate commerce’ stopped monopolistic state standards in transportation in particular, opening up the eastern seaboard to the rest of the continent. Marshall knew enough about international trade to know that different regulations by states would hamper the country's economic vitality, and its trajectory.  He was not about to protect monopolistic interests under the law.

We disagreed over the role of the judiciary in solving social issues, a reflection of the Kavanaugh hearings. Should the court serve as England’s House of Lords, deciding social issues? We disagreed.  London's Supreme Court does not overrule laws as they do here.  Washington warned against parties (factions) in government, and parties are often influenced by social influences.  

Chuck remarked that the current stable of justices, exclusively from Harvard Law or Yale Law today, does not play well in the heartland, really anything between Route 5 and the Acela Corridor. If Trump had found someone from UT or other qualified institution for the Kennedy vacancy, the disgraceful hearings in September might have taken a different tone.

We asked and revisited the question, Did the founding fathers have any idea of the enduring influence of the institutions they built?  I argued they did. They had a continent to populate and develop, and they knew (and often wrote of) the importance of getting it right after the Articles of Confederation. Getting it right rested in a document and a national commitment to remain a country of laws, of liberty, and most importantly of limiting the natural aggregation of power by people or groups of people.  Marshall’s consequence was a judiciary which can stop the legislative and executive branches both form incurring on the people’s freedom.  Without a strong judiciary, we’d’ve become an autocracy, a true dictatorship of the majority.  Or worse, a human controlled autocracy more common on the world today, as through history.

Marshall’s ability to bring parties of opposing views together was as remarkable as his mind. How many decisions were made over a bottle of claret in a boardinghouse, where the justices lived in the early days? Imagine the arguments they had, the projection of consequences, the collaboration over the best interests of a new country. They knew.

Overall, we agrees this book was one of the best to read to understand the fragility of the men, and indeed fragility of the structure of our republic. John Marshall was a quiet giant among giants, and his influence in the strength and dynamism of our country that we know today cannot be overstated.

Next book
Bart Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity





Tags: legal

12 Rules of Life - by Jordan Peterson

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 18, 2018 @ 06:50 AM

Our discussion of Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life - an Antidote to Chaos began with criticism of his verbose prose and slightly scattered style, contrasted with appreciation for the jewels of wisdom about exploring and developing lives of meaning.  On balance we all felt it was well worth the effort.   A summary of our book club's meeting necessarily leaves out the depth and breadth of the content, but this brief list of chapter highlights and comments gets us started.  Overall, this book prompted some of the deepest personal  discussions we’ve had as a group in a while.  Highly recommended.

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back 

We all heard this from our parents and grandparents (a recurring theme to many of the rules), but agreed that when you act the part, you can BE the part.   Bill reminded us that in competitive sprinting, form and structure are critical. As in life.  This chapter's dive into the brain chemistry of the lobster, and human, drove home the point that some of our deepest traits are hardwired into our Being.

  1. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping 

As they tell you on the airplane, look after yourself first, so you can look after and help others, better.  His example that many people look after their dogs better than themselves was a good springboard into this chapter.  A corollary, recognize, to avoid, self-destructive behavior. 

  1. Make friends with people who want the best for you 

This chapter was unique in that it was all formed in Peterson's own personal experiences, unlike others  where he draws from philosophers, clinical research, and religious traditions.  Said otherwise, if you had a  friend whom you would not recommend as a friend for your brother, sister, or other loved one, why do you have that person as a friend? 

  1. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. 

Success can be measured in so many ways today, because there are so many games being played across the fields of life. Some are measured by their nature: sports and business, for example.  When viewed from the Long View, small steps, in the right direction, add up over time.   But comparing yourself to others is too often a dark and unproductive path.

  1. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

Most of us liked this chapter and we all like our kids.  For a group of guys, several with grandchildren, we talked about the state of college bound students today.  College and university resources dedicated to psychology and socialization (and coddling) dwarf those from our ‘sink or swim’ generation.  Too many college kids today have the emotional IQ of 2-year olds and that's a shame.

  1. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world 

We can't know other people's dances. In the words of the great philosopher Thumper, if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.

  1. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). 

This chapter delved into evil, whose roots are in expedience.  Just make things better; you don't have to make them perfect.  In the words of Mrs. Raymond, ‘There is little value in things easily attained.’   Evil is so far worse than tragedy; the differentiation is foundational to life. 

  1. Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie. 

The most dangerous lies are those we make to ourselves, justifying empty lives steeped in ideologies, detached from human interaction or reality.  Little lies enable big lies, and big lies by ideologues led to over a hundred million innocents murdered in the 20th century.

  1. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't 

Rick and Geoff talked about Emotional Intelligence, and its effectiveness within organizations today.  EQ (as distinct from IQ) allows us to listen and understand: ‘he who speaks first loses (control over the direction of the conversation.)’   Several of us have found emotional intelligence training in business to be equally valuable in life.

  1. Be precise in your speech 

And be especially careful what you tell yourself. The world is simple only when it is predictable. When things go wrong is when chaos rules.  These rules are the antidote to Chaos.

  1. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

This  chapter admonished the general public for closing skateboard parks, but Peterson rejects that, asking why would we discourage such dedication to improving at something.  For me personally, this moved the dial on what others, younger people in particular, do to fill their time, to improve. 

  1. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street 

We don't understand other people's struggles, so don't assume their motives are any less pure than our own.  Even if you prefer dogs.  This rule covered pain and tragedy, so central to humanity. Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you. 

We discovered from several reviews that this book has come under criticism for its matter-of-fact discussion of the difference between sexes, hierarchies, and a focus on the individual.   While some of these criticisms may have merit, Peterson's overall message to look after yourself first, seems to be good advice.  We all liked this book.  

 Here's a link to the book:

The book prompted a discussion on Emotional Intelligence, a topic embraced by several of us, and widely employed in business today.  This book includes an overview and a self assessment test as part of the price.   Worth it.

  Our next book about Justice John Marshall will help us to understand Justice Kavanaugh better


Tags: 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson, Rules for Life

Rogue Heroes - the story of the SAS, the first 'special forces"

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Apr 18, 2018 @ 05:25 PM

Rogue Heroes is the non-fiction historical accounting of the development of the world’s first “special forces”, the British SAS (Special Air Services), conceived and developed in the African theatre in World War II, subsequently used effectively in France, Italy and Germany in a variety of tactical needs to securee the Allied victory.    
Chuck led our discussion, and began with some of the characters.  He began with the initial force behind the birth of the SAS, David Stirling.  This aristocratic soldier hadn’t accomplished much in his life until the war.  He was openly contemptuous of mid-level military leaders as he considered different ways of achieving bigger strategic goals.  His aristocratic upbringing helped him make connections to high command from the outset, as the stodgy military command he challenged was still stuck in the Great War.   Many obstacles stood in the way of getting up and running, not least of which was the legacy British sense that this was not the proper way to fight a war.  But the bucking authority theme ran throughout the book: two examples much later in the book were when senior officers disobeyed direct commands to stand down: one “accidentally fell out of a plane" (to join his team on the ground), and another told high Command that he didn’t get the order to stand down until the mission had been underway.  This tendency to think independently and find solutions irrespective of higher military authority became part of the special forces ethos that endures today.   

Paddy Mayne was the other force behind the development of the SAS, and couldn’t be more different from David Stirling.   An Irish rugby player, prone to extreme violence when drinking, and ready to kill people under any circumstances.  Initially he and Stirling competed for control and influence within the SAS, but soon developed a working relationship recognizing each other’s strengths and differences.   About halfway into the book Stirling was taken prisoner and Paddy Mayne became the defacto sole leader of the SAS.

The development of Paddy Mayne reflected the development of many of the soldiers serving in the SAS, veering from asset destruction to assassination. Morality blurs in war.  Early in the war, destruction was the goal; by the end, killing was indiscriminate.  War changes people.   Not that Mayne began as a tender character; author Ben MacIntyre commented that Paddy Mayne had so many demons he could populate his own Hell.

The blurry line between murder and a fair fight was highlighted on several occasions.  We discussed the relative breadth of field tactics that SEALS have compared to other military units.  Chuck cited a New York Times article questioning the accountability of these special forces in the field often unrestrained by rules-of-engagement.  Geoff argued that the purpose of these forces is as psychological as tactical.  Canoeing became the topic of debate between Geoff and Rob.

The brutality of the men in these SAS forces was always underlying their efforts, but the war changed  in the move from Africa to Europe. Even in Africa, the early objective was to destroy materiel, but tactics employed by Germans (Hitler’s Commando Rule: shoot all operators behind the lines), mass killings, civilian killings changed the behavior of Allied forces in Europe dramatically.

The book had so many characters identified by so many stories, our discussions often went from character to character, with some of the crazy events highlighting the men involved.  In this case, the series of short stories kept us all captivated.

On the other hand, the death of so many characters was an insight into the destruction in war, a far cry from movies and history written by the survivors.  Unlike a novel, so many characters play a major role in one operation, then killed in the next. 

We talked another moral question, that of injured soldier Seymour, left behind to be captured by advancing Germans.  He was abandoned by his buddies, so he's feeling betrayed.  His story after the war did not add up, and many asked whether he was one of the sources of so much intelligence on the entire SAS operation including leaders, tactics, supply sources, and on and on.  How much can one ask of a man held captive, subject to torture?

Other characters we discussed were: the captured officer who had dinner with the German general, who told him, we can't guarantee your safety once these (SS) guys take you. Knowing you're going to be shot sharpens the mind: they escaped.

In the desert, Sadler was the navigator, trained in celestial navigation, taking the team dozes of miles from an oasis to an airport.  Incredible talent on display.

We talked about how today's special forces are similar, and how   they are different. They are similar in training intensity and high fall-out rate; physical and psychological fortitude; and the breadth of operational latitude.  The breadth in operational latitude prompted the discussion of how much is too much, reviewed earlier.  What is fair in war?  

The differences are the assets dedicated to supporting these warriors.

The impact on the men who go into special forces is life changing.  Even the survivors of operations become different people because of what they are asked to do.  And their impact, psychologically and militarily, remains over-sized to their footprint.

On a topic that we could only discuss because we have warriors out in the world allowing us to live a life of freedom and independence in an otherwise dangerous world, we will discuss the 12 Rules of Life, by Jordan Peterson.




Machine Platform Crowd

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Tue, Jan 23, 2018 @ 10:46 PM

The Bonnie Lea Book Club convened to discuss a book on the social and economic revolution happening today, entitled Machine Platform Crowd. The book begins with examples of the Triple Revolution, a quick synopsis of three major trends that the book focuses on: computing power, including deep learning, self-learning "Machines"; Platforms, where new business ideas can be tested and shaped, giving us the largest transportation company in the world (Uber), with no vehicles, the largest hospitality company, Airbnb, with no properties, and the largest content creator in the world that doesn't create any content (Facebook); and finally the crowd, small market microcosms, inspiring businesses exactly what products consumers want, ss well as solve problems too big or complicated for individuals operating independently.

The writing was OK, but the volume of information and examples cited made reading tedious in large chunks. Further, while excellent in technology, was less insightful in matters of business.  That said, we are all glad we read it for the insight into the trends affecting our economy and our society.

Computers have only recently emerged from a marginal role in business, keeping track of money, information transmission, and data storage, into a more central role in decision making today. Instant recall and deep thinking analysis of ever greater amounts of data means machine decisions eclipse many traditional human roles.  In many businesses, the only humans that matter are the customers. This is the second machine age.  It's bigger than the first.

One of the distinctions of this confluence of deep learning machines and platforms is between bits of data and atoms. When information (bits) is the product, platforms can distribute to customers as perfect products, for free, and instantly.  Music is one example: there is no marginal additional cost to distribute a song to another listener.      Free, perfect and instant is difficult to compete with.  And this ‘free, perfect and instant’ is changing the economic applications of supply and demand with lower and lower prices bringing more new buyers into a  market.   

An example of what the crowd can create, consider Linux, an open-source operating system, meaning its source code is freely available, and anyone can make changes to make it more stable and effective. Microsoft and Apple hold their source code close.  Today Linux powers over 1.5 billion Android phones, and is the most professional operating system in the world. The crowd brings a diversity of thought, experience and insight that no panel of experts can offer. Crowd solutions work best when open and self-regulating: good solutions progress, bad ideas die.  One of the contributors to Uber's and Airbnb's success is that both buyer and sellers of service can rate each other.  These solutions can exceed the performance or insight of the "core", the experts - the HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person in the Office).  

Platforms will not cannibalize everything, and in some cases simply add demand that hadn't existed: Airbnb's offer of homes and interaction with hosts, for example.  However, disruption to all industries with information assymetries will still be widespread.

Decentralization and fast powerful computing enable Bitcoin, an open, decentralized currency. Because ledgers exist in blocks, showing where each bitcoin has been spent, the chain of previous ledgers provides the entire history of bitcoins spent.  However, digital currencies may not survive national governments interests (China) or ownership by a block of more than 50% (who could decide who keeps their currency).

We talked a lot about the disruption expected in employment: millions will be displaced. New jobs will be created as others are made. The question is the transition, the re-tooling.  Digitization puts pressure especially at the lower end of wage earners.  We know that wages as a percentage of GDP are shrinking; capital is taking an ever larger share of GDP.  This trend is sure to accelerate.  While the book doesn't delve into the social implications of this pattern, the conclusion is easy to draw: bad for the lower half of today's wage spectrum; possibly bad for the lower 90% in a few years. 

Doug and Rob both talked about the effect of block chains on the internet of things; including whether processing power can keep up with the volume of data.  Both agreed that the open nature of block chains will have tremendous impact on financial transactions, as they can eliminate the risk of fraud, and can follow every transaction to the nano-grids.

Our conversation eventually turned to when machines eclipse human creativity, and then, the Skynet concept, the Rise of the Machines, a new Alpha on planet earth.  Bill argued that human creativity, with every nuance from personal experiences, will never be eclipsed by machines. Can a machine hold two different opinions on a single subject?  Not today. Not yet?  

The social benefits of lower prices will continue to benefit workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum. But what will these folks do when the jobs they’ve trained for don’t exist?

The book talked about the future of platform development, and the continued disintermediation of the knowledge vendor.  The internet has already disrupted travel, finance, and many other industries.  Platforms thrive where asymmetrical information exists, accelerating the disintermediation process.  Are future platforms only for the FANGs?  - the digital giants: Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google. Is economic growth limited to the FANGs with their head start on the aggregation of data?  The immediate solution is to provide the services along with the human element.  It may be a barbell effect: OK for the very large, already ahead, and OK for the small, who can leverage the powers of this second machine age without the legacy ballast.  Time will tell, but recognizing the landscape is one requirement.

Overall, the book was a wake-up call on this new economic age we're entering into.  Worth the read. 




Our next book:


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Red Notice by Bill Browder - Bonnie Lea Book Club review

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Mon, Oct 23, 2017 @ 10:46 AM

Red Notice is the story of big finance in Russia by Bill Browder, founder and driving force behind Hermitage Capital, a uniquely successful mutual fund that took advantage of undervalued, recently privatized Russian companies' assets in the early to mid 1990's.   As well as a story of power, greed and corruption in Russia today.
We began with a few personal experiences with Russia.  Bill had visited USSR in the 1970's: gray, dingy, repressive. No children to be seen anywhere.  Bill told a more recent story about the son of a friend who was held at Russian border only 3 years ago, for a $65,000... 'exit fee'. The U.S. State Department said to pay it before the boy became an embarrassment and disappeared. Such was our single direct contact with Russia before beginning our discussion of the book, the book about systemic human abuse, greed, corruption. Russia is a dangerous place, run by nasty people.

The book begins with Browder's arrival to Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, toward the end of his run in Russia at Hermitage. On the flight he had read a story about another American in a foreign country, China, which had imprisoned a fellow Stanford MBA, Jude Shao; this was troubling foreshadowing, as Browder was then held at the airport, unlike hundreds of prior flights. The opening scene was tense, setting the stage for the strong arm of the Russian legal system.

The privatization program where Browder was in the right place and the right time, with the right drive and intellect and willingness to be on the ground floor, was one of the greatest arbitrage opportunities in modern investing history.  Dealing with the Russian state was another matter.

Browder began his valuing and investing career in Poland, where he saw an opportunity to buy ownership in a company for a nickel on the dollar, as that country was trying to de-nationalize many former state-owned industries. Opportunity soon brought him to Russia, where his efforts led to a ‘eureka moment’ in Murmansk.  Consider this: a fishing company with about 100 ships, each costing about $20,000,000. The fleet was roughly half depreciated, meaning the fleet – the physical assets alone - was worth about $2,000,000,000 new, or a billion dollars after 50% depreciation (average age was 7 years).  Management had an opportunity to purchase this billion dollar business for $25 million, or about 12 ½ cents per hundred dollars of value. Just for the physical assets.

Kremlin image.png

What Browder learned, and was struck by, was that very few people in Russia had any idea how to value a business.   These owners had no idea, no background, and no experience in determining a value.  After all, after a hundred yeears of 'state-owned' industries, value was unimportant..

In another example, consider the distinction between "preferred shares" and "ordinary shares"; this distinction is different from the U.S. differences.  Preferred shares paid 40% of profits by contract; and ordinary shares paid nothing.  Ordinary shares had voting rights, but preferred shares were selling at a 95% discount to these ordinary shares.   These too were bargains that may never exist again on such a scale in world capital markets.  Nobody alive in Russia had ever needed to know the concept of value.

These incredible arbitrage opportunities were not known to brokers in western cities: The realization could only be understood by being there on the ground, talking to business owners, learning the nascent equity markets. Doug concurred with the hard work described: as a consultant, he described the heady days of consulting overseas trying to stay ahead of the client's understanding. Bad food, bad accommodations, cold winters.   Bill Browder was there.

Some other amazing stories we discussed centered on the people Browder was able to connect with: Edmund Safra, a world famous investor early in the book; a meeting with John McCain later.  Bill Browder could open doors.

Joel questioned the credibility of several of the story lines, including Browder's luck. One example was when Vadim bought a CD on a street corner, full of information about public company structure in Russia. This was full of crudely organized data about corporate control, sold on the street corners of Moscow: a virtual Rosetta Stone of corporate ownership in Russia.  But Jeff reminded us on his professional respect for the work that Browder did from the ground up, the street work, understanding how things got to be the way they were.  This tedious work created opportunities and understanding.  The data would be useless to most people; Browder and his team recognized its value, and leveraged it.

Within Russia, a small group of other people did recognize the opportunities.  These people today are Russia’s richest people. Vast fortunes were created by aggregating assets – often through entirely phony ownership transactions – in the early days of privatization,  Putin was among these, but was separately slowly securing his own power.  We all recalled the scene in the book where an oligarch is sipping champagne and sampling caviar on his yacht in the Med; he sees Mikhail Khodorkovsky on TV in a cage in a Moscow courtroom.  Putin had consolidated power.  Oligarchs asked, what did it take not to be stuffed in a cage?  Putin: Fifty per cent.

Putin is Russia's new tsar. It took 100 years of interim, but he's the tsar.  His financial value is difficult to quantify because so many assets are held nominally by others, but U.S. News estimates $200 billion.  Forbes has ranked him as the most powerful man in the world for the past six years.   He is 65; what is his end game?

We believe that Browder’s own drive for justice was based on measures of guilt, lost justice, and need for revenge.   As the powerful began circling, how could Browder put others in his team at so much risk?  The escape of some employees juxtaposed to Magnitsky’s failure to escape was reminiscent of Jan Karsky (Secret State).  We questioned whether they all truly understood the danger of making money in Russia.  Clearly, Sergei Magnitsky overestimated the power of law and justice in his own country; and Russian traditions of criminals using the government as a tool to their personal ends prevailed.

The opportunities were limited to natural resources companies. Trawlers, oil, No intellectual property or businesses providing services. Such is the nature of Russian assets.

Sergei Magnitsky's brutal treatment by the government was systemic, built into foundation of the system itself.  Russia’s long history of human abuse is blossoming under Putin.  Nothing was fair or right.

The book's last chapters followed the tedious and circuitous route to passing the Magnitsky Act, which now appears to be an effective thorn in Putin’s and his oligarchs' sides.  Witness the meeting arranged by Natalia Veselnitskaya with team Trump in 2016.  Browder himself testified before Congress that the effort to repeal the Magnitsky Act was orchestrated by high level Kremlin officials.  Browder also testified that opposition research company Fusion GPS lobbied against the Magnitsky Act as well. These are big, well fimded influence peddlers.

An overall takeaway from this book is the absence of a rule of law, no independent court system, no check on the theft, the abuse. The foundational flaw is the lack of effective checks and balances, permitting cover, deception, and lack of accountability. Here in the U.S., there is a level of expectation, rarely perfect, but within a range of predictable and reasonable, that truth eventually emerges.  Russia still denies these truths exist.  Learning this through an interesting, but tragic Russian story made this book selection one of our favorites of the year.


Get it here        Our next book is Machine Platform Crowd: 

Tags: Red Notice, Bill Browder, Sergei Magnitsky

Agent Storm by Morten Storm with Mark Cruickshank and Tim Lister

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 19, 2017 @ 12:33 PM

Agent Storm is the story of a Danish man's personal transformation from street thug, to jihadist, to secret agent for Danish, British, and American intelligence agencies. It provides a bird's eye view of Islamic terror networks, the links injecting Middle Eastern Islamic beliefs into European societies, as well as the personal allure and ultimate rejection of Islam by the Dane, Morten Storm.

Young Morten Storm grew up in a poor, dysfunctional home, with a violent alcoholic step-father. By 18 he found brotherhood with the Bandidos, a drug running gang of Danish miscreants, and was in and out of jail. A fellow prisoner introduced young Morten to Islam, and the transformation, right at the library, was swift. Almost too swift for credibility. His embrace of Islam prompted him to rid his body of drugs and alcohol, and drove a hunger to learn from the clerics in his Danish, and later Birmingham (UK) neighborhoods. The allure of Islam to someone living with chaos and deprivation was strong, but Islam also justified and provided a release for his violent temperament.

We explored the evolution of the world's religions, the co-evolution of societies and governments and their delivery of economic stability and opportunity, intolerance of religious differences where social order is fragile, and other broad topics. Deviating from the book itself was easy and frequent. This first conversion was the first notable example of the credibility stretch in this book. There were several examples where we questioned the veracity, if not the 'whole story' of the narrative. This is Storm's story; the basic story was clear.  However, we all often wondered if events cited in the book were really just as described, or if they were bent by perspective.

The book never provides specific violence against 'kaffir', non-believers, but it is difficult not to believe his ascendancy into the inner circles of worldwide terror networks didn't include plenty of illegal muscle along the way. Selective omission is the writer's prerogative in an autobiography, but many absences were noticeable.

Storm's first trip to Sana'a in Yemen begins his deeper conversion to Islam, absorbing the philosophy of Salafism, a transnational religious - political movement rejecting of all things non-Muslim, further along the path to jihadist. This spectrum of belief was central to this topic: the allure of Islam as a religion of submission to God's will is not far from the allure of violence on others, especially amongst societies where violence or lawlessness are already extant. And while the book never described killing soldiers or civilians, such actions are entry level for Mafia, drug gangs, and other violent organizations, so expected within a jihadist community.

Having read Reza Aslan's No God but God and more recently Andrew Bacevich's America's War for the Greater Middle East, Chuck asked whether a national strategy of active containment - including targeted assassinations - is effective against a religious based threat. The question has gained importance with collapse of Libya and Syria, and the rise of Daesh / ISIS, and unprecedented migration. While America's physical distance, restrictive immigration policy, and a history of integration into the American ideal provides greater protections against the migration overwhelming Europe, the threat from conversion of society's disenfranchised into jihadists may be as dangerous here, and clearly more challenging to identify and intervene. Will AI and its expected employment disruption create more fertile opportunities for this avenue? Is Islam fundamentally incompatible with democracy?

Storm had become committed to two particularly important operations: delivering Aminah, the wife for Al Awlaki, and later his assassination. After Al Awlaki was successfully incinerated, the CIA told Storm his operation was not what led to the Awlaki kill, no payoff. Beyond the details of the Awlaki operation and subsequent non-payment, what does the evolution of the relationship say about Storm's emotional ties to these people, and Storm's ultimate goal?

His subsequent trip to Jaar and Azzam in Yemen gave further insight into the loose and disparate worldwide network of al-qaeda. Unlike national entities defined by borders, the glue that holds al-qaeda together is the draw to kill Kaffir, non-believers, and to instill sharia law throughout the world. As one character had said, 'we love death more than they love life'. This adds additional perspective of the nature of Salafism and jihad.

The book also gave a good look into three foreign service operations: PET (Dansih foreign service) paid him while the police watched him to keep a seat at the table with CIA and MI5. When Chuck asked if Storm's fear of the CIA was well founded, we all agreed he was an expendable asset, that his fears were probably well founded. His tell-all book is a statement in itself.

We closed with Bill's question: when is the movie coming out? While there are many forces eager to keep this story from broader distribution, it prompts important questions, and is full of action and intrigue. Morten Storm probably needs the money, having gone dark. Who will play Morten Storm in the movie?

Next book is Bill Browder's Red Notice. Browder was the force behind sanctions against Russia for murdering his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and in the news recently.

   Next Book:


Tags: best selling books, agent storm

America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew Bacevich

Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Apr 19, 2017 @ 09:53 AM

The book America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a four decade chronology of America's military involvement in the Middle East, taking military and civilian leaders to task for a strategy that has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, with little to show for it.   Colonel Bacevich does not offer any easy solutions to the crisis in the Middle East today, but argues persuasively that the efforts of the past four decades has produced no discernable positive results, likely creating more problems that it has solved.  Colonel Bacevich joined us for about forty minutes of our two-hour discussion, adding depth and a personal connection.  For me personally, it moved the needle on my perspective toward military action in the Middle East.

The war began with the Carter Doctrine, based on the premise that American demand for predictable oil out of the Middle East had to be protected from outside interests, at the time primarily Iran and Russia.  As Rob pointed out, the gas lines of the mid-70’s made Americans feel vulnerable to foreign forces that threatened our way of life.  Efforts to prevent disruption in oil were politically defensible.   While Bacevich begins his timeline with President Jimmy Carter, several agreed that the time line could have begun decades before or after Carter.  Reagan pursued military involvement as an extension of the Carter Doctrine and was president when a force of U.S. Marines in Beirut were bombed in 1983, resulting in over 300 deaths.   Reagan pursued his own small scale war against Libya' Moamar Gadhafi for his involvement in the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings, and played both sides of the long running Iran - Iraq war, including the convoluted and illegal affair known as “Iran-Contra”.  As an aside, one of our member’s brother was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot painted by a U.S. manufactured air defense missile system operated by Iran during Operation Preying Mantis naval battle in the Persian Gulf (1988), illustrating the absurd complications present in the Middle East even in the 1980’s.   In retrospect, the 9 year Iran-Iraqi war stalemate might have been one of the most stable times for the region in the past 40 years, an idea resurrected in our conclusion.   George H.W. Bush was at the helm when our former ally Saddam Hussein decided to annex Kuwait, violating the premise of the Carter Doctrine, and placing the supply of Saudi oil in jeopardy.   Desert Shield was employed to protect Saudi oil fields (though tactically limited to Kuwaiti fields), soon followed by Desert Storm, all under the same basic premise of the Carter doctrine: the political demand for a predictable oil supply.

Clinton took a different approach, siding with Muslims in Kosovo during the Balkans conflict, while never securing Islamic appreciation for U.S. engagement there.  To his credit, the focus on air support limited U.S. casualties unlike any previous conflict.   George W. Bush went back to Afghanistan and Iraq big:  After 9-11, Congress’ transfer its constitutionally derived war powers through the “Authorization to Use Military Force” Act (AUMF) to remove Saddam Hussein from that country and to remove the Taliban and Islamic militants from safe havens there.  The Bush Doctrine took a step beyond Carter Doctrine with a focus on pre-emptive action, taking the war on terror to them.  George Bush's greatest mistake in Iraq may have been the false optimism that we could impose or insert democracy into a place like Iraq.  The ‘nation builders’ never adequately considered the impact of religion, cultural, tribal and ethnic forces.   More recently Obama turned back to Afghanistan, while trying to disengage from Iraq, but returning there and making the same mistakes Johnson made in Vietnam, gradual escalation by half steps.  Obama also amped up use of drones as tools of assassination inconceivable thirtty years ago, while opening up new fronts in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya, and offering US military assets to over 50 African nations in an attempt to preempt radical Islamic influence. His legacy was to expand the fronts of war geometrically.  The story behind the detailed and meticulously referenced chronology is consistent: continued involvement of United States military assets, for objectives rarely clearly articulated to the American people.

The book spares no one. Civilian leaders never took a long view, often swept along by political winds and politically motivated decisions, and military planners focused on military solutions, killing or degrading, while Middle Eastern societies crumbled and new leaders, often worse than their predecessors, emerged.  The demonstrable effects of this decades long war has been political instability, social degradation in, and most recently, a humanitarian disaster of migration from the area.  One of the known sources of instability are the legacies of western incursion.

Much of the book reads as Monday morning quarterbacking, with scathing criticisms of many American military leaders including Stan McCrystal, David Petraeus, Norman Schwartzkopf, to name just a few.  Mal wondered whether Colonel Bacevich is still on the Christmas card list of anyone at the Pentagon.  Not likely.

The premise of the wars’ earliest justification, predictable oil, has since been turned upside down, as American engineering ingenuity and competitive solutions to oil price pressure have given us a $60 bbl oil price ceiling.  The Bakken Shield in North Dakota alone has rendered imported oil merely a pricing mechanism.  The original need for oil price stability and supply predictability have been solved, without the military.

Could we roll back to Carter's famous malaise speech, and question whether disengagement would have produced any better results for America?   Had we let market forces develop alternatives thirty years earlier, would the Middle East be a better place?   And more relevant, now that oil predictability is not held hostage by foreign nations, can we leave now?  American armies have a way of showing up but not leaving.  Should this always be the case?  Looking forward, the candidate Trump was critical of wars in the Islamic world: America First.  But the Syrian tomahawk missile strike was a questionable legal act, and accepted by Congressional leaders from both parties.  Dare we hope that this strike in Syria and the MOAB in Afghanistan will be the closing bell on militaristic solutions to the Middle East?

As a group, we discuss and ague about paths forward to help us define our own positions on these topics. While the book offers a few closing thoughts on how diplomacy and military disengagement are better solutions, they lacked depth.  Our discussion with Colonel Bacevich on what a successful strategy would look like in his mind was much clearer from him directly.   Simply stated, success looks like the absence of war and a balance of power contained within the region.  This balance, with an absence of a broader war does NOT necessarily include democratic governments, respect for human rights, or tolerance for many of what many Americans consider social imperatives.   Nor can we expect an ambitious Iran or adventurist Russia to play along.   A strategic objective should be to persuade and facilitate countries to manage their own affairs better, without spilling out broadly beyond the region. Change to a region skeptical of any change happens at a slow pace.   In the west we’ve figured out how to reconcile faith with politics.   In the Islamic world, that social contract appears unrealistic.  At best, it will be a long time before any peace comes to the area, but great limits of American military solutions would be a good starting point.  


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Tags: War in the Middle East

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