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Insightful but not entirely convincing.

Psychology professors Solomon (Skidmore Coll.), Greenberg (Univ. of Arizona) and Pyszczynski (Univ. of Colorado, Colorado Springs) follow up their study of the psychological effects of 9/11 on the American population (In the Wake of 9-11: the Psychology of Terror, 2003) with a look at how the knowledge of mortality impacts human culture.

The authors’ contention that fear of death has been a primary driving force of human culture is controversial, but its relevance in incontestable. They began working together on the elaboration of what they now call “Terror Management Theory” in the 1970s when they were doctoral candidates in experimental social psychology. Although other species appear to mourn their dead, only humans are aware of their own mortality and terrified by this knowledge. “The awareness of death,” write the authors, “arose as a byproduct of early humans' burgeoning self-awareness…hurling our terrified and demoralized ancestors into the psychological abyss.” This inspired their creation of “a supernatural universe that afforded a sense of control over life and death” and the possibility of immortality. In the authors' view, it was the practice of religious rituals associated with these beliefs that spurred the development of social organization and technology, as well as medical advances. The authors offer accounts of their experiments as evidence to buttress their contention that under stress, we look for social stability. In one, subjects were asked to evaluate candidates’ statements in a hypothetical gubernatorial election. After subjects were given a reminder of death, their choices switched dramatically to favor a charismatic leader. Conversely, challenges to the accepted social order were shown to evoke thoughts of death. The authors also examine how we are motivated by conscious thoughts of death, subliminal reminders of which we are consciously unaware can elicit more powerful, potentially destructive defenses responses.

Insightful but not entirely convincing.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6747-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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Still, his account of the war's origins, though surely arguable at many points, fills in many gaps.

If you listen closely, you can hear the guns of August blasting a decade and more before WWI actually began.

Fromkin (History/Boston Univ.; The Way of the World, 1999, etc.) delivers a thesis that will be new to general readers (though not to specialists): WWI came about because of the very different, but conveniently intersecting, ambitions of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, and the signs were evident long before the fighting began. The Habsburgs wanted to crush Serbia, which they (perhaps rightly) perceived to be a potent threat to Austro-Hungarian designs in the Balkans; the Austrian chief of staff “first proposed preventive war against Serbia in 1906, and he did so in 1908–9, in 1912–13, in October 1913, and May 1914: between 1 January 1913 and 1 January 1914 he proposed a Serbian war twenty-five times.” Just so, the Kaiser wanted to crush Russia, which he regarded as Germany’s one real rival for European dominance; war against Serbia would provide a useful pretext, though it wasn’t essential. Indeed, writes Fromkin, when a Slavic nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, the rest of Europe practically yawned; even Austria did not retaliate immediately, despite Germany’s urging to get on with the game. “Austria did not play its part very well,” Fromkin writes, and did not even bother declaring war on Germany’s enemies until some time after the war had actually begun. Similarly, Germany neglected to declare war on Serbia, “the only country with which Austria was at war and which, according to Vienna, was the country that posed the threat to Austria’s existence.” Fromkin’s notion that a pan-German conspiracy caused WWI is credible, even if the events he describes sometimes seem more a comedy of errors than a model of efficient militarism.

Still, his account of the war's origins, though surely arguable at many points, fills in many gaps.

Pub Date: March 25, 2004

ISBN: 0-375-41156-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2004

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A tenacious attempt to answer the question, “How do ordinary little human cogs make up a torture machine?”

Through the grim travails of one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals, journalist Steavenson (Stories I Stole, 2003) examines the dictator’s edifice of totalitarianism and moral corruption.

Taking her title from a verse of the Koran promising to mete out justice even to the “weight of a mustard seed,” the author weaves a fascinating account of how good men went terribly wrong. Steavenson worked as a journalist in Baghdad in 2003–04 and continued her interviews of exiled Iraqis in London and elsewhere, probing deeply into the stories of former Baath Party officials. Through a high-level Iraqi doctor who had served in the medical corps during the course of four Iraqi wars, the author was put in touch with the surviving family of Kamel Sachet, a commander of the special forces and general in charge of the army in Kuwait City during the Gulf War. The general was shot as a traitor by order of the Iraqi president in 1998. Born to an illiterate family in 1947, Sachet became a policeman and then joined the special forces, rising through the ranks to major. He distinguished himself during the Iran-Iraq war, gaining Hussein’s trust but also his occasional ire, which led to prison and torture. Sachet led the assault into Kuwait, but with the retreat and subsequent scourge by the United States, he became disillusioned with the violence and bloodshed and retired as a devout Muslim. Steavenson ably explores his and others’ obedience in fulfilling the dictator’s grisly demands, echoing works by Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Stanley Milgram.

A tenacious attempt to answer the question, “How do ordinary little human cogs make up a torture machine?”

Pub Date: March 17, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-06-172178-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Collins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2009

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