THE BODIES IN PERSON

AN ACCOUNT OF CIVILIAN CASUALTIES IN AMERICAN WARS

Grim indeed and sometimes gruesome—and a brave work of investigation.

A firsthand look at the terror of war as visited on noncombatants exposed to American fire.

Civilians are always hurt and killed in war, collectively deemed “collateral damage” with all due regret. As McDonell (The Civilization of Perpetual Movement: Nomads in the Modern World, 2016, etc.) writes, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and other American theaters of operation, many of them have become “excess mortality,” a grim and Orwellian term that would seem to mean those killed beyond the actuarial numbers that enter into the calculus of “acceptable” death: If a sniper is on a roof and 100 civilians are slated to die in the bombardment required to eliminate that threat, then the 101st gets a whole new category. By any measure, according to a well-quoted epidemiological study, “at least 650,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the first three years of the war”—a figure, notes the author, that George W. Bush dismissed, saying that it was “only” 30,000. As to numbers, McDonell—who began his career as a teenager as the author of an undercooked but popular coming-of-age novel but hardened up as a roving journalist—does the math to show “information about innocent death in foreign wars is most accessible to America’s cosmopolitan wealthy, even though it’s mostly the working classes, domestically and abroad, who become casualties.” The statistics he turns up, working at the fringes of classified military information, are ugly, and they tell stories that speak to those working-class experiences—a pair of young Iraqis, for instance, who, braving fire to recover the body of a relative, court death by Iraqi or American fire, a choice that “is not their own, precisely.” The author concludes, with righteous anger, that “killing innocent people to increase our own security is cowardly.” That it also seems to be accepted military doctrine puts the lie to any notion of moral superiority that we might bring to the enterprise.

Grim indeed and sometimes gruesome—and a brave work of investigation.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1157-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Blue Rider Press

Review Posted Online: June 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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