Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Real Deal

Commandos are an excellent source of action story heroics -- from World War II when they first began to be used and called by that name even to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Their daring tactics and obvious bravery sometimes lend them an outsized reputation for effectiveness and impact, as historian James Owens outlines in his 2012 book Commando: Winning WW2 Behind Enemy Lines.

Owens shows how a handful of officers saw the need for small, quick striking forces to attack different enemy positions that needed Allied attention, so to speak, but didn't warrant full-scale assaults. Gradually, they developed several units for this clandestine work, which focused on sabotage more than anything else although they did sometimes involve gathering intelligence. Commando soldiers needed an extra helping of daring, bordering on recklessness in some cases, as well as the intelligence and initiative to operate on their own and make snap decisions. Additional training in close-quarters combat, languages, explosives and some decidedly non-sporting methods of dispatching the enemy silently also formed part of the commando skill set.

In reality, most commando missions cost heavily in lives, as sometimes less than half a team would return from a mission. And few paid off with the designed results and a particular installation or facility destroyed or crippled by the raid. Owens outlines this all quite clearly and makes a similar point towards in summary remarks at the end of the book. Whether the commandos of WWII were effective more in the minds of their fellow soldiers seeking any signs of fighting back during the dark times pre-D-Day, or in setting Axis forces off-kilter in fearing a raid on any dark night, Owens is clear that they were all brave men who believed their cause as well as the sacrifices it sought worth the risks they took.
In most states, the highest-paid public employee is not a governor or legislator -- it's a coach, probably football or men's basketball, at a state university. Usually, supporters of that kind of situation point out that the coach brings in enough revenue to his school to justify the large outlay. Whether you accept the proposition or not, the weight of the money involved is one of the many places where "the green" of cash tilts the scales in the supposedly amateur world of college sports. And this green is that which Mark Yost's 2009 book Varsity Green explores.

Although the book's subtitle mentions corruption in college athletics, Green almost has an ambivalence about the subject in some ways. For example, in the area of coaches' salaries, Yost admits that the gap between the best-paid coaches and other tax-funded state employee salaries is large. But, he says, large chunks of that compensation comes in contracts with athletic wear suppliers and other companies. The actual taxpayer share is really not as outsized as the bottom line figure would suggest. He seems to gloss over that these contracts aren't available to folks who do not lead premier college athletic programs and those implications, though.

Yost does describe just how much money flows through an athletic department when a football team makes a postseason bowl game, for example, and notes how well bowl officials themselves are compensated for what seems like less than arduous work. He notes several other areas where the massive amounts of cash involved can seriously threaten the supposedly amateur nature of college sports and perhaps the futures of the young men and women at the heart of all the fuss: the athletes. But Varsity Green's incomplete focus and its rather easygoing attitude towards attribution and footnoting weaken its potential lesson to college sport consumers or participants.
Heather Mac Donald regularly graces the pages of City Journal and other more conservative news and news/opinion outlets with her work, which is always data-driven and unwilling to accept status-quo answers if they aren't supported by that data. She's focused on social issues through most of her career, with some special emphasis on crime and law enforcement. 2016's The War on Cops draws particularly heavily on issues she discussed in her first two books, 2000's The Burden of Bad Ideas and 2003's Are Cops Racist?

Mac Donald wrote War following several violent demonstrations in the wake of police shootings and accusations that even honest police officers worked within systems that targeted minorities. In response, she notes the rise in crime rates in the areas where minority populations live, as police are unwilling to risk their careers or even their lives and take actions that could wind up on YouTube without context or official support. Police officers less willing to confront wrongdoers and suspects will only embolden and encourage criminals and leave other citizens less protected.

Aside from the later riots, demonstrations and incidents, War doesn't cover significantly different ground than Burden and Are Cops Racist? The new incidents are larger, more violent and unfortunately deadlier versions of events from the 2003 book, and the police retreat from more assertive law enforcement is an accelerated version of the responses seen in that book as well. Mac Donald does examine a sustained allegation of police misconduct as well as the more specious ones, but she also spends some time on financial issues affecting unionized prison employees and guards, which seems to stray afield of her central idea. The connection is not drawn very clearly. Some other chapters are not substantially different from their earlier appearance in different magazines.

The War on Cops is not necessarily an inaccurate or useless book, but it draws conclusions that require more support and spends a lot of time re-covering ground that this very author has been over extensively before.

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