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History's Worst Decisions, And the People Who Made Them (Illustrated Edition) by Stephen Weir.


Title: History's Worst Decisions, And the People Who Made Them (Illustrated Edition).
Author: Stephen Weir.
Genre: Non-fiction, history, religion, social criticism, sociology, anthropology, war, romance, politics, political dissent, travel and exploration, WWI, WWII, ethics, animals, zoology, ecology, medicine, astronomy, cults, science, business and finance, biography, espionage, national disasters.
Country: U.K.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 2009.
Summary: History is a catalogue of errors, and this book shines a light on 50 of the biggest. It doesn't just point the finger at individuals; the actions of governments and corporations are also scrutinized. The motivations - often sinister, sometimes naïve - that led those responsible to commit their mistakes are unveiled, as is the lasting impact that their decisions have had on the world that we live in today. The books discusses: Adam and Eve, Menelaus and Helen of Troy, Hannibal and the avalanche, Cleopatra's men, Nero and the burning of Rome, Erik the Red's "Dream Island" (Greenland), Pope Sylvester II and the "end of the world", Pope Alexander III and the search for Prester John, George Podiebrad, Moctezuma and Hernán Cortés, Johan de Witt and Manhattan Island, Lord North and George III's Boston Tea Party, Napoleon's march on Russia, the War Office versus Florence Nightingale and disease during Crimean War, the War Office versus the Indian army and the mutiny over beef fat, Thomas Austin's rabbits, General Custer and Little Bighorn, King Leopold and the scramble for Africa, the Romanovs and Rasputin, lack of sufficient life-boats on the Titanic, assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Winston Churchill and Gallipoli, General Haig and the Battle of the Somme, Maginot's Line, Winston Churchill and the creation of modern Iraq, Stalin and the Great Purge, Shenton Thomas and the fall of Singapore, Suhrawardy and the Bengal rice famine, John Wakefield's peanuts in Africa, Mohammed Mossadegh and Iranian democracy, the British nuclear legacy of Maralinga, Sir Anthony Eded and the Suez Canal, Thalidomide, AIDS and the chimps of the Congo, Mao and da yue jin (Great Leap Forward), Robert McNamara and Agent Orange, Mariner 1 spacecraft disaster, the history of the island of Naru and its phosphate, Jim Jones and the Jonestown suicides, the Bhopal explosion, Robert Maxwell and The Mirror pensioners, Chernobyl, CIA and Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan, Gerald Ratner, the Bangladesh floods and the destruction of the Himalayan Rainforest, Lockheed Martin and the Mars mission, Y2K, Robert Mugabe's great Zimbabwe land grab, Enron, and the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand.

My rating: 8.5/10
My Review: This is a fun surface-history/trivia study of all the atrocious, stupid, and unconscionable things that are most well-known throughout history. Volumes like this are useful, because they can give you the basic knowledge that you can then follow-up on in detail elsewhere. I enjoyed that for a general trivia-like book, it was well written - eloquently, but with humour, clearly separating fact and theory. The only problem I found with this book was that it's hard to take any history book seriously that starts with discussing Adam and Eve, and moves on to Helen of Troy. It would seem that this book is that of general human beliefs, and Genesis is surely a famous story that applies (by choice of their religion) to a lot of people, but I still find it distasteful finding such subject matter in a history book, side-by-side with major history events and personages. Other than that pet-peeve, however, I thought the book compiled a pretty accurate and thorough chronological list, and expanded on each topic just enough to give all the pertinent information, but wet the appetite for further research. (As a side note, this edition, though preferable to me because illustrated with historical photographs and relevant imagery, had more than one grammatical errors and rather bad editing.)

♥ Oddly enough, scientists using DNA analysis have found that there were indeed two individuals whom we can all consider to be our common ancestors. All women receive their mitochondrial DNA from their mothers, and it is possible, working back, to find a common female ancestor, an earth mother, who lived around 200,000 years ago, and is in essence, give or take a few generations, our 10,000-times great grandmother. Science knows her as "Mitochondrial Eve." Similar research using Chromosomes place "Y-Chromosomal Adam" only around 90,000 years ago. Although not the first humans, like the Adam and Eve claimed by the Abrahamic religions, "Mitochondrial Eve" and "Y-Chromosomal Adam" are considered, as are their mythical counterparts, to be our common ancestors.

♥ She is temped by Satan in the form of a serpent, and talks Adam into trying the Forbidden Fruit. Adam - the good, if slightly naïve gardener who has been busy naming flora an fauna - suddenly realizes that he is naked, she is naked, and the good times are over (or just starting, depending on your point of view). Satan gets well and truly onto the picture, the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran get a proper villain, and there's always someone to blame for everything thereafter.

♥ Some have claimed that after the last Ice Age, as the waters rose, the Pison and Gihon, and the fertile lands they created, disappeared under the Persian Gulf, and it was the loss of this Paradise that resulted in the myth. Indeed, both the words Eden and Adam are suggested to mean, in a pre-Sumerian language, "fertile plain" and "settlement," suggesting clearly that it was the loss of the land, attributed to God's anger, that led to a literal expulsion from Eden; and moreover, the end of an easy life, resident on fertile land that provided ample wealth, and the transition to a more complicated and nomadic hunter-gatherer existence.

♥ Only 80 years after the war, it seems that the homelands of most of the Greeks who waged the wars were overrun by Doric raiders. Not foe the last time, it seems heading overseas for obscure reasons to take over a land you don't know much about is not good for those at home.

♥ The second Punic War is famous for Hannibal's exploits; however, few reflect on the fact that although spectacular, Hannibal's brave charge and moment of madness in all likelihood destroyed his campaign before it had really begun. The dogged tortoise Scipio Africanus ended up beating the hare-like Hannibal to the line. It says something about what appeals to us today that we remember the spectacular but short-lived achievements of the loser instead.

♥ Not without reason was she known as the last of the pharaohs. Perhaps somewhere she smiled as General Nasser won his victories in the cause of Egyptian independence during the Suez crisis many centuries later.

♥ Tenochtitlán itself - now Mexico City - was by the time of the Spaniards' arrival perhaps grander than any European city, with a system of canals that reminded the Spaniards of Venice. The Mexica were extremely skilled in design and sculpture, metalwork, woodwork, and mosaics. They had complex ball games and gran pageants pf music and dance They also, perhaps most devastatingly, had a very hospitable demeanor. They had a wonderful and beautiful city, but failed to make key technological advancements; they had not invented the wheel or gunpowder, and had no knowledge of seafaring. Moctezuma's costly leap of faith would probably not have occurred if they had.

♥ The army brass were willing to allow her to go to Turkey but no further and wanted the whole mission to be under the aegis of the Church. They disliked interference, but while they may have beaten the Russians, they were no match for Florence Nightingale.

♥ Her real war, against the benighted High Command, had only just begun. She was determined to be the avenging angel: "I stand at the altar of the murdered men, and, while I live, I fight their cause," she wrote on her return in 1856. She refused to accept the "no blame" verdict of the first enquiry, and with support from Prime Minister Palmerston, and even with the support of Queen Victoria following a royal audience, she set sights at demolishing those responsible: namely, Sir Benjamin Hawes, permanent secretary to the War Office and Sir John Hall, the army chief medical officer in the Crimea.

In the end, the War Office more or less held together and most of her recommendations were turned down, but there were some real reforms: a new awareness of the need to improve sanitation in barracks and in hospitals, and a new permanent army hospital. The guilty men were never brought to the kind of justice they probably deserved, but the ignorance that led to losing more troops to disease than to enemy action was thoroughly and forever quashed.

♥ What happened next lives on in history - not so much for the British, who were used to their men being sacrificed bu their generals, but for the New Zealanders and Australians. For them, April 25, 1915 is known as ANZAC Day, the first day those newly independent nations saw battle. And for the Turks, the genesis of the new secular country of Turkey under Kamal Ataturk would start with the fierce defence of Gallipoli, a source of pride for a homeland defended in stark contrast to the decadent and weak rule of the Ottoman Empire. Churchill, too, would go on to greatness in World War II. Three countries would create legends from the thousands about to give their lives in a hopeless assault on impregnable terrain.

♥ The new nationalisms that had exploded in the Balkans and had began the decline of the Ottoman Empire spread swiftly into the newly liberated Ottoman provinces, and bitter riots against any attempt at British rule began. The home audience had no stomach for this: "How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population and elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?" asked The Times of London.

♥ Not surprisingly, Hitler and Stain, arguable the two worst tyrants of the twentieth century, stand head and shoulders above the others. Interestingly, both of their worst excesses were at best disbelieved, at worst deliberately ignored, b those in other countries whose vested political interests deemed it better to be looking in another direction. Hitler's crimes are now well known, the numbers and extent documented by dint of German efficiency, even in the matter of mass extermination. The untold millions who died as a direct result of Stalin's tyranny are even to this day highly debated. Hitler had a point to prove, no matter how evil. and some sort of plan in place. Stalin's terror in retrospect was scattered, insane, and in one specific aspect, utterly reckless, with sever consequences not only for those unfortunate victims but for world affairs in general.

♥ There was, in particular, deep suspicion of anyone negotiating with or influenced by outside powers. Since the new corps of the Red Army were German-trained, that essentially included all of them. It was this kind of idiocy - creating a corps with German assistance to train the army against the growing German threat, then killing them for consorting with Germans - that passed beyond even the normal barbarism of internal security forces.

♥ That the damage he inflicted on his own cause was not fatal to the Revolution was no credit to Stalin; it was due only to the sheer number of the Russian population and their willingness to die for their country.

♥ Everyone remembers December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and precipitated the American entry into World War II. The very next day, Japanese forces landed on the east coast of South Thailand and North Malaya, embarking on an invasion that no one, especially those about to be invaded, had imagined possible. Fifty-five days later, the cornerstone of the British Empire in South-east Asia would fall to a small Japanese force, undermanned, underfed, and travelling mostly by bicycle. A combination of pride and sloth, contempt for a misunderstood enemy, and total lack of foresight takes the fall of Singapore above and beyond the realm of normal military blunders.

♥ The British, though, were not impressed. They immediately put into place a massive economic blockade on Iranian oil, backed by the British navy in force, effectively shutting down the economy. A substantial propaganda campaign was launched against Mossadegh, focusing on his supposed ties with the Soviet Union. By the time of The Hague court decision, the British - under Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had persuaded Allen Welsh Dulles, director of the CIA, to support them in a plot to overthrow Mossadegh who, just to be clear, was a democratically elected prime minister whose policies were uniformly popular within his own country.

♥ But from the vantage point of half a century later, the consequences seem more dire and the coup more foolhardy than ever. Certainly, greed was involved, and the refusal to allow countries to exploit their own resources was a throwback to the old colonial days. Certainly, pride dictated that an upstart politician could not be allowed to thumb his nose at government or corporate control. But overwhelming those, the rampant hypocrisy of deliberately overthrowing the only democratic regime in the region showed everyone living in the Middle East precisely what democracy and freedom as offered by the West actually meant in practice, if that democracy did not agree with what the West wanted. The lesson did not go unlearned.

♥ Conspiracy theories abound as to the introduction, spread, and causes of AIDS - and no less as to its cure. A recent study suggested that 12 percent of African-Americans believe AIDS was introduced by the CIA, as many as half that it was deliberately made and targeted at minorities. South African President Thabo Mbeki's statements querying the paramount importance of AIDS in care aid to South Africa has been taken as brutal, uncaring, and detrimental to the population of his country. What he actually said was that AIDS needs to be taken as part of the overall health - and more important, poverty - crisis that is overwhelming the continent of Africa, and that subsidized condoms and expensive medications may not be the most important concentrations for the South African health system.

♥ Paradoxically, it is steel that is China's biggest growth industry in the early twenty-first century. China is the world's biggest producer and market. The toll on lives is still considerable, as the staggering death rate in coal mines will testify. The cost to the environment may also be extremely high as China's demand for fossil fuels expands. This time, it is highly unlikely that the people will starve and that the projects will collapse from underfunding. But the essential idea - that China must become an industrial nation to survive and thrive in the globalized word, and cannot continue just to ensure that its people can eat - is the same idea as the one that Mao put forward. Mao managed to kill more of his own subjects than any other leader mentioned in these pages.

♥ Not for nothing as it turns out, was Murphy's Law promulgated during the rocket-sled "G-force" tests in the 1950s that were early stages of the space program. Edward Murphy, Jr. was an engineer at the tests who had to report to Lieutenant Stapp - who had nearly died on one test - that, in fact, the sensors had been put in backwards. Ironically, a more recent disaster of the space program - the crash-landing of the interplanetary probe Genesis at full tilt into the Utah desert in late 2004 - turned out to have a similar cause: the decelerators had been installed in front. These two bookends of the space program, half a century apart, stand as a testament to some strange behavior with very high monetary costs.

♥ Nauru, which lies between Australia and Hawaii, is the world's smallest republic, covering just over 5,000 acres (20 sq. km). It is also the setting for one of the most flagrant examples of idiocy one can imagine - the bankrupting of one of the world's richest countries (in per capita terms) in matter pf years by sheer greed. The story, remarkably, brings together the Russian mafia, the British West End stage, Collins Street in Melbourne, Afghan refugees, North Korean scientists, and bird droppings - a lot of bird droppings.

♥ Jonestown was perhaps a microcosm of 1970s' discontent; the heritage of Black Panther radicalism; the beginnings of televangelism; the lifestyle of the 1960s hippies; and the appearance of strange cults; coupled with the deep violence of the era, and the ease of belief in the coming nuclear apocalypse. The United States was barely out of Vietnam, its cities on fire, its leading politicians and leaders gunned down, its prestige and values in tatters. It is too easy to blame it all on one man, as has popularly been done, or even on the folly of the believers. It was all much more complex than that. Nonetheless, 900 or so people willingly drank poison out of faith in the words of one man. There is little evidence, though, that any of them thought they were going to a better hereafter. Jones did not preach the glories of Heaven. He had a much more apocalyptic and political message. Those who drank the Kool-Aid, with the exception of the unfortunate children whose parents poured it down their throats, believed their act to be one of "revolutionary suicide." Once it was clear their cause was lost, they chose to end their lives. From the few who escaped, there is little evidence of coercion.

♥ The absolute failure of safety precautions, which no one really denies, in a plant using what amounted to poison gas points to a level of neglect that chemical companies all agree should never be repeated. In 1991 the local government in Bhopal charged Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's CEO at the time of the disaster, with manslaughter. If tried in India and convicted, he faces a maximum of ten years in prison; but he has never stood trial before an Indian court. He has, instead, evaded an international arrest warrant and summons to appear before an American court. For years his whereabouts were unknown, and it wasn't until August 2002 that Greenpeace found him, living in luxury in the Hamptons in New York. Neither the American nor the Indian government seems interested in disturbing him with extradition.

♥ "The most important lesson from all the events is that high ethical and professional standards must always be put before commercial advantage. The reputation of the financial markets depends on it," read the conclusion of the final Department of Trade and Industry report on the Maxwell case.

I can still picture the bright raspberry glow; the reactor radiated light from within somehow. I had never seen anything like it, even in the movies. Or read about it. When it got dark the whole town piled out onto their balconies, and people who didn't have one went to friends and neighbors who did. We were on the ninth floor, with great visibility. People took their small children outside, lifted them up and said, "Look, how beautiful! Don't forget this!" And these were people who worked at the reactor - engineers, laborers. And teachers. Physics teachers. We stood in the horrible black dust... talking.. breathing... admiring. We did not know - that death could be so beautiful." --Unidentified witness of the Chernobyl explosion

♥ One month later a partial meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island, an American nuclear facility at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which had been open for only a year. The reports into this incident over the years bear striking parallels with Chernobyl: poor design, inadequate training, weak systems, bad construction. Much has been made of Chernobyl as an emblem of the general malaise of the Soviet system, an allegory for the fall of the regime itself. But it is reasonably clear that the Three Mile Island incident was just one step away from a tragedy of equal proportions, and that one misstep, as happened in the Ukraine, could have had a similar devastating effect on the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.

♥ As is the way of diplomacy, former enemies became friends, including some particularly unsavory elements. Unfortunately, the fall of the Soviet Union found the Americans believing too much of their own rhetoric and, with extraordinary sloth, they allowed the anticommunist elements they had themselves armed to become an enemy, not only ideologically antagonistic but extraordinarily well armed. Aiding and abetting the arming of a future enemy on such an alarming scale led directly to a series of anti-American terrorist attacks across the world, peaking in the events of September 11, 2001.

♥ Thus, American policy in general - although the United States Department of State hotly disputes this - and Ahmed Badeeb in particular were instrumental in arming the man who would becoming the FBI's "most wanted terrorist." And also in allowing a vacuum to develop following the Soviet exit from Afghanistan, which was soon to be filled by the unholy alliance of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Regardless of the initial rights and wrongs of America's involvement in the anti-Soviet campaign, the cost of the subsequent ignorance, inattention, and disinterest in what might follow a Soviet withdrawal is still being counted today.

♥ While much of the hype was clearly misplaced, it is harder to ascertain an absolute cost of the paranoia that surrounded the advent of the new millennium. Certainly there were financial implications, but perhaps the lesson is not so much that mistakes were made - although they certainly were - but that despite a millennium's learning and all the technological advances that it has brought, the human psyche remains much the same as a thousand years before.

♥ These pages have seen famine visited on populations by their own leaders before, and we have also looked at the suffering of Africa, but Robert Mugabe has managed to combine these elements, making a mockery of the fertile lands of his own country, and abusing and ultimately starving his own people. Through a combination of anger, greed, pride, and envy, a country that even after independence was bountiful in the extreme, a net exporter of food, now receives food aid and massive shortages are reported in many places. The cause was not drought, disease, nor even warfare - the scourges that have led to dreadful famines in Ethiopia and Sudan - nor even the optimistic leap forward of Mao who wreaked havoc on his country while trying to improve its lot, but just the stupidity and impatience of an old man who did not consider his job of nation-building finished.

♥ Ironically, if Enron could have just hung in there, its legitimate profits from the energy price spike caused by September 11, 2001 could have been astronomical without resorting to anything other than normal business pr practices. BP announced profits of US $2 billion in 2004 just from trading energy globally, much of its growth coming from the gaps in the market left by Enron's collapse. The distance between illegality and brilliance in the corporate world can be, to return to the analogy of the racetrack, little more than a short head.

♥ So, a ten-year-old girl saved more than 100 people, and birds and animals, a few thousand more while the pride of our modern technology saved none. Somehow it makes you think this final entry won't be the last manifestation of such human folly.
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