Book Reviews

by Jonathan Marin

Actual Innocence : When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right   by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld

Nuremberg Diary  by Dr. Gustave M. Gilbert

Lies My Teacher Told Me  by Dr. James W. Loewen

The Myth of the Great War : A New Military History of World War I  by John Mosier

Rule by Secrecy : The Hidden History That Connects the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, and the Great Pyramids  by Jim Marrs

Actual Innocence : When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right

by Jim Dwyer, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld

Signet - Mass Market Paperback - 432 pages - Reissue edition (March 6, 2001)

Innocent Citizens, Guilty System  

The book details the history of ten cases of men who served years in prison for crimes committed by others, and were eventually exonerated by DNA technology. It also touches briefly on perhaps a hundred other cases. As human interest, it is compelling. As an insight into the "system" it is chilling.

How do innocent citizens get convicted of crimes they had nothing to do with? It's easier than you might think. Police rig photo line-ups to induce a witness identification, and then reinforce tentative IDs until they become positive. In court, they simply lie in order to give justice a little push in the right direction. Laboratories - dependent on police and prosecutors for business - fudge or falsify forensic tests to help out their client. Prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense, and use testimony they know to be untrustworthy without checking it out. (The prevailing ethic seems to be that they haven't done anything wrong unless they *know* it to be false. One prosecutor used the "jailhouse confession" testimony of a witness to put a defendant on death row, even though a man put on death row by nearly identical testimony from that same witness had been exonerated and released.) Governors drag their feet in granting pardons to men whom DNA tests have conclusively proven to be innocent. (A prisoner in Oklahoma remained incarcerated for 6 years after DNA lab results had exonerated him.)

Defense lawyers -- usually working for very low pay -- often don't bother to vigorously challenge prosecution witnesses. They don't investigate to verify their client's story, or to locate and present solid alibi witnesses. Many have an astonishing faith in the police and prosecutors, and suppose that their client wouldn't have been charged if he wasn't guilty. They pressure their clients to accept a plea bargain, and become so miffed at their refusal that they refuse to prepare them for the witness stand. Theatrics is poor substitute for preparation.

Only a small sampling of criminal cases involve biological evidence. If it is a fair random sample, then a large number of innocent people whose convictions can never be overturned by DNA are in prison, and new ones are convicted every year. DNA exonerations are a only a window into a system afflicted with very deep rot.

The book contains many common sense suggestions for improvement. At the heart of many of them is accountability. Police and prosecutors run essentially no chance of getting caught for fabricating evidence or falsifying testimony. Once convicted and in prison, the defendants are buried there. The system is presumed to have worked properly, and the possibility that the wrongdoing will ever come to light is practically nil. Even when they do get caught, thyere are no consequences to them personally. Prosecutors don't prosecute each other or bring charges against witnesses who have testified for the state. And the law gives broad civil immunity to police officers. Almost none of the police officers, perjured witnesses, or prosecutors involved in the book's cases was punished.

The advent of DNA took the system by surprise, and shined an unexpected light on the rot. Officials were surprised and perhaps embarrassed, despite their pronouncements to the contrary. When a building collapses, or a hospital patient undergoes the wrong operation, or an airplane crashes, there is an investigation. People are disciplined and procedures are changed to prevent a recurrence. In the analogous disaster for the criminal justice system -- the wrongful conviction of an innocent person -- the system confidently affirms that it did everything right.

We are in the golden age of DNA exonerations. The window is open to public scrutiny and the possibility of reform. But we are approaching the day when we will have exonerated all of the wrongfully imprisoned who can be exonerated by DNA -- everyone whose case evidence has not been degraded, lost, or destroyed. The word is out in the law enforcement community to be on good behavior if a new case is among that small minority where there is biological evidence. As to all others, the old rules still apply. The public is more acutely aware than it has ever been of how many innocent people are sent to prison, and of just how impervious the system is to self-correction. Once the DNA exonerations cease, that awareness will fade. The window to reform will close and the opportunity will be gone.

No human system can be perfect. There will always be mistakes. But they should be honest mistakes. The system should be on guard against them, and be as willing to exonerate the innocent as it is to convict the guilty. This book is absolute must reading for everyone who believes that "justice" is not a synonym for "punishment".

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Nuremberg Diary

by Gustave M. Gilbert

Da Capo Press Paperback - Reprint edition (September 1995)

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Crimes

The author, Gilbert, was an American intelligence officer who in his capacity as prison psychologist at the Nuremberg Jail had unlimited free access to the top Nazi leaders throughout their trial. He produced an invaluable book. With few exceptions, the top Nazis reveal themselves as ordinary men promoted to higher positions than their abilities merited, and willing to do or at least tolerate pretty much anything in order to hold onto them. What they say privately about each other gives a unique perspective on the interplay of personalities and motivations that produced the Nazi regime and its horrors.

Foremost among those exceptions is Hermann Goering. Goering's character is rich and multifaceted. The facets can hardly be reconciled as belonging to the same person. So much about him is appealing - his intelligence, his sense of humor, his expansive good-natured bonhomie, his childlike responses to praise or reprimand. But a man can smile and smile and still be a villain. Goering uses the weaker defendants to pressure the more independent ones to toe his "party line" of maintaining loyalty to Hitler. He offers to trade or withhold testimony, inveigles his lawyer into intimidating a witness, and even threatens retaliation by the Feme kangaroo courts. In part because the author's duties required him to prevent that sort of behavior, he spent more time with Goering than with any of the other defendants. In part, though, I think he just found him fascinating.

The author's duties as psychologist required that he spend considerable time with Streicher, whose leering, lascivious, bigotry probably indicated mental illness. Streicher's anti-semitism was obsessive - it was the only subject he talked about - and he incessantly lobbied anyone who would listen. Gilbert also had to monitor Hess (Bormann's predecessor) and Ribbentrop (Foreign Minister) because of Hess's recurrent amnesia and Ribbentrop's descent into depression. Hess was empty-minded even when his memory was intact. Ribbentrop was an endless stream of rationalizations, denials, evasions, and lies - truly a washrag of a man. These entries become tedious, but are instructive as an antidote to the Hollywood image of the hard, focused, strong-willed Nazi. So too with Keitel, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces High Command whom the author fairly describes as having no more backbone than a jellyfish, and with Hans Frank, Governor General of Occupied Poland. When with the author, Frank was all introspection and contrition, but in the dock with his fellow war criminals, he joined freely in their stock rationalizations.

The author is sympathetic toward those defendants - Speer, von Schirach, Jodl, Fritsche - who passionately wanted the world to learn as much of the truth as possible about the Third Reich and its crimes. He usually but not always manages to restrain his animosity toward those who persisted in rationalizing or denying their guilt, particularly the vicious anti-semite Rosenberg (Nazi philosopher and Reich Commissioner for Eastern Occupied Territories) cold callous Frick (Minister of Interior) and the unspeakable Kaltenbrunner (Chief of RSHA - SD and Gestapo).

A story related by Funk (President of the Reichsbank) is especially revealing. After Kristalnacht, his wife wanted him to resign from the government. She said that the whole antisemitic business was just disgraceful, and they should have no part in it. He felt she was right. But to give up the status and luxury that went with his position and go live in a three-room flat? He just couldn't do it. Funk was no monster. Of his own volition, he wouldn't have hurt anybody. But step by step he went along, until he was accepting deposits of dental gold from the camps.

Active malice is rare. This book makes clear that although great evil may originate from active malice, its success in this world depends upon weakness - human, understandable, and frighteningly common weakness.

Copyright (C) 2001 by Jonathan Marin

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Lies My Teacher Told Me:

Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

by James W. Loewen List Price:  

A Well-researched Roasting of Textbooks

The author, a professor at the University of Vermont, spent ten years exhaustively analyzing and fact-checking the twelve American History textbooks most widely used in U.S. high schools. He documents hundreds of errors, distortions, disputed hypotheses presented as fact, critical omissions, and outright fabrications. These flaws are partly due to slipshod work by second-rate historians and by publishers' employees who are not historians at all. For the most part, however, they are systematic -- well-chosen in service of an agenda of boosterism. Regarding America, its government, and its pantheon of heroes, the rule seems to be: If you can't say something nice, don't say it. The textbooks are intended as propaganda; that is why it is fair for the author to call the flaws "lies".

Why should students bother studying history at all? Among the reasons must be their development as citizens, their understanding of live present day issues, and their ability to evaluate sensibly the claims of politicians and others advocating causes.

In the interest of developing good patriotic citizens, the texts ignore or paper over anything that might reflect badly on government or invite questioning of authority. From Columbus to Viet Nam, they treat history as the annals of the acts of government and benign authority. Their idea of good citizenship seems to be: pay taxes, vote regularly, and support the actions of government. Chronologically as they were enacted, they present Emancipation, women's suffrage, child labor laws, and civil rights laws as if they had been foreordained and inevitable. They ignore the struggles that led up to them, and eschew any suggestion that the efforts of the Abolitionists, Suffragettes, labor organizers, or civil rights workers might have helped bring them about, or that these people had effectively exercised their rights as citizens.

Race is an aspect of many live issues and is itself a live issue, at least in the sense of white fear of black violence and black fear of white prejudice. But from the end of Reconstruction on, practically anything to do with race is taboo in the texts. Students' first and only exposure to segregation, Brown v Board of Education, enables the books to dismiss it as a thing of the past -- a rather peculiar attitude for a history book. Loewen exhaustively documents the pervasive, official antiblack racism that lasted from the end of reconstruction until the 1930s and beyond. He provides countless instances of racist laws and incidents, sufficient to support the generalization that a black had no rights that a white was obliged to respect. The textbooks omit any reference to any of this. The author emphasizes the disempowering effects these omissions and distortions have on black students, but I believe that they know better; the really harmful effect is on the white students. Absent any knowledge of the history of racism, the whites have no basis for understanding blacks' suspicion of white motives and of government; they can be expected to dismiss the concerns as groundless and irrational, and forgiven for doing so.

It is impossible in a short review to do justice to this wonderful book. The section on the texts' treatment of John Brown is alone worth the price. Some readers will find many of its opinions too "PC" for their tastes, but the facts are there for you to draw your own conclusions. Some readers may find the endless catalog of facts and errors a bit tedious. Strong conclusions require strong evidence, however, and America's American History textbooks warrant very strong conclusions indeed.

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The Myth of the Great War : A New Military History of World War 1

by John Mosier

HarperCollins -   Hardcover - 368 pages - Edition (April 24, 2001)

"Lords of the Lies"

The author deftly and thoroughly skewers the leadership of the British and French armies and the inability of their governments to control or even get honest reports from them. He examines all the campaigns and offensives on the Western Front. By careful reasoning, backed up by exhaustive meticulous research, he argues that:

* From the beginning of the war until the appearance of Americans at the Front, the Germans won every engagement - offensive and defensive - against the British Expeditionary force, and until Petain's three limited offensives late in 1917, every one against the French.

* The "Miracle of the Marne" was a propaganda hoax. Myth is too kind a word. The Germans were implementing a strategic withdrawal to a prepared defensive line - a fighting retreat necessitated by shortages and a hanging flank.

* The "Race to the Sea" also existed in propaganda only. The British were already there. The Germans drove them out of Antwerp, and mostly out of Belgium, winning a coast from which their submarines operated effectively for the duration of the war. Some race.

* From the beginning of the war the German army had not only superior weapons (which he details gun by gun) but better organization and better tactics.

* In the course of the war, the Germans developed and successfully employed many tactical improvements -- offensive and defensive -- that were well adapted to trench warfare. Defensively they revised the role of riflemen into guardians of the machine guns, and sharply reduced the number of men holding the first trench line. Offensively they exploited the potential of the flame thrower and hand grenade, and developed new tactics of infiltration. For the most part, the British and French top leadership failed to understand and imitate what the Germans were doing. When they followed the Germans at all they followed late, slowly, and poorly.

* The high-ranking British and French generals are shown with few exceptions to have been men whose cynicism would make a Nazi blush, whose main focus was on protecting and advancing their careers, and whose chief expertise was in finding scapegoats and shifting blame. They were men who would unhesitatingly sacrifice tens of thousands of their soldiers in order to create a pretext for a dishonest self-congratulatory communique; men who could neither admit their failures nor imagine that the enemy might have anything to do with them.

* The Allies' intelligence was abysmal. Much of the "information" was worse than useless. Not only were the numbers wrong, but they were counting the wrong things. When accurate and potentially valuable information was ocasionally acquired, the high commands resolutely managed to ignore it if it failed to fit their preconceptions, or to misinterpret it.

The author makes a compelling case that but for the Americans, the Allies would have lost the war. But in writing as if the Americans practically won the war by themselves, he is over-claiming his case, even in respect to the Western Front.

And he forgets the Balkan front. The book last mentions the allied forces in Greece in the context of their failure to relieve Rumania in 1917. But surely, Franchet d'Esperey's September 1918 offensive launched from Greece is worth a mention. It came at a time when Germany's allies had reached their breaking point and it precipitated the collapse of all three. Hard-pressed Germany would have to defend not only an American-strengthened Western Front, but a new Southern Front, and do it all without their allies' supplies of food and fuel.

Much of the book's material has appeared elsewhere, but it is wonderful to have it argued and documented so well in a single book. It is unfortunate that such a fine book should suffer from shoddiness in typesetting and proofreading that is frequently exasperating and makes several of the maps unintelligible. The book is well footnoted and indexed. Beyond that, there is even an 18 page essay at the end which briefly covers a hundred or more sources, with short comments about what they are (and are not) good for.

(C)2001 by Jonathan Marin

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Rule by Secrecy : The Hidden History That Connects the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, and the Great Pyramids  by Jim Marrs

HarperCollins -  Hardcover - 467 pages - Edition (April 25, 2000)

Unchecked Facts and Unsupported Claims

The author warns us in his introduction what to expect. He writes: "There is no guarantee that all of the information presented here is the absolute ground truth" and "But to get a grasp on truth requires as much data as possible. Nothing should be dismissed out of hand. All information, no matter how seemingly outlandish or inconsequential, should be considered and evaluated." He is telling us right up front that what he has produced is no so much a book as a do-it-yourself kit, some of whose parts may be defective. Many are.

The author seems to have looked for sources that support his conspiratorial view of the world, and used them without either evaluating their quality or checking their facts. For example, Marrs erroneously names Bruce (not Wallace) as King Edward I's enemy at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and attributes the rout of the King's army to the appearance of a few dozen Templars. Perhaps he was thinking of Bannockburn, where Bruce defeated King Edward II with the aid of some French soldiers who might(?) have been Templars. The error isn't important to his line of argument; the significance is that it's such an easy fact to check. Factual accuracy is fundamental - you can't trust inferences based on untrustworthy factual claims. Worse, the inferences - in this example (supported only the claim of unnamed "mason writers") that the mere presence of a few dozen knights could cause an army of thousands to drop its weapons and run - anchor conclusions which would have serious implications if they were true.

Marrs writes that George Washington lost Fort Necessity on instruction from the Freemasons, because they wanted grist for the issue that taxes ostensibly collected for the defense of the colonies were not being used for the purpose. His evidence for this claim is only that Washington was a Freemason, that he suffered the defeat, and that the defeat was later used in that way. Far-fetched does not begin to describe it.

The book is littered with similar examples of the author claiming to infer intent from result. It is also replete with cases where the author invokes conspiracies to account for phenomena which can be explained and understood without resort to them. It recites, for example, an impressive set of facts to show that the media cover junk news extensively but give scanty coverage to really important news, especially news that could adversely affect the conglomerates that won them. The facts accord with experience and common sense, and one can agree there is a problem. But the conspiracy connection isn't even argued. Marrs just assumes that if you agree with his characterization of the problem, you must agree with his explanation. One might equally argue that junk food is harmful, therefore the manufacturers of junk food have conspired to poison us.

It doesn't stop with non sequitur. Dishonorable rhetorical devices also abound, most frequently the forestalling of possible disagreement with outlandish claims by introducing them with "No one denies that ..." and similar phrases.

At best, the author has provided us with an ore of unknown grade, and left it to his readers to sort the metal (if any) from the slag. Perhaps he is hoping someone will write to tell him which is which. If this book has any value at all, it is as a window into the astonishingly low standards for factual accuracy and reasoning that some of the people who are receptive to conspiratorial explanations seem willing to tolerate.

(C) 2001 by Jonathan Marin

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