Olli Thomson

Category: Off Topic

Losing an Enemy

At a time when one of President Obama’s genuine achievements is under threat from the current occupant of the White House, Trita Parsi’s book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy tells the story of the long and complex process that led to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

There’s a lot in here I didn’t previously know, like the role of the Omanis in facilitating direct negotiations between the US and Iran where the real progress was made. While I knew that one of the greatest obstacles to the deal was Netanyahu (and his Congressional cheerleaders, both Democrat and Republican) I did not know that Netanyahu’s rhetoric of Iran as an existential threat to Israel has its origins not on the Israeli right but on the left, with Rabin and Peres. The role of John Kerry, while a more sceptical Clinton was Secretary of State, in getting the process established before becoming Secretary of State himself was also new to me.


Part travel book, part ancient history, part early Christian history, part biblical criticism, part historical theology – there’s a lot to this book by Tom Bissell, one time Peace Corps volunteer, now a journalist and travel writer. Bissell sets out to visit the alleged tombs of the twelve apostles, which leads him into his discussions of early Christianity.

His reading of the Bible reflects a fairly mainstream historical-critical approach with a tendency towards the slightly more sceptical Bart Ehrman line, and a fondness for Raymond Brown’s Johannine community. But he has read, and grasped, an impressive amount of material, not only on the New Testament, but also the early church. He’s also at pains to avoid the wilder shores of speculative reconstructions of early Christianity.

Bissell speaks favourably of his youthful Christianity as an altar boy in the Roman Catholic church, a faith that he later lost. Yet he retains an interest in Christianity, hence this book. Well worth reading.

America in Laos

When I was in Laos in 2016 I visited the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang. There are only two rooms but, despite the small size, it’s a sobering place to visit. During the bombing campaign in Laos the US dropped an estimated 2.5 million tons of explosives – more than the US dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WW2. Among the weapons used were cluster munitions which dispersed 260 million bomblets across the country. An estimated 30% of these failed to explode – that’s 75 million of them. Today, more than forty years after the bombing ceased, people, including many who weren’t even born at the time, continue to suffer as a consequence. Despite the best efforts of de-mining groups large areas of the country are still contaminated with unexploded ordnance.

Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military C.I.A., tells the story of how the CIA launched and ran ‘Operation Momentum’, the anti-communist war in Laos of which the bombing was part. It’s a fascinating book, not least because a number of the key people in the conflict who were interviewed by Kurlantzick had died by the time the book was published earlier this year, so the book is in a sense their final word. While Kurlantzick occasionally relates the history of this conflict to other more contemporary events he doesn’t over stress this. Not that he needs to; any thoughtful person can make the connections.

Buda’s Wagon

Growing up in Belfast in the 1970’s car bombs were an integral part of the soundtrack of my youth, so Mike Davis’ book, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb was, as they say, a must read. The Buda in question was Mario Buda, an Italian-American, and his wagon was a horse drawn carriage packed with explosives and shrapnel which he left at the corner of Wall Street in New York on 18 September 1920. Thirty eight people died and hundreds more were injured in the cause of anarchism.

Davis defines car bombs as ‘delivery systems to create deadly explosions in public spaces’, excluding the use of booby traps on vehicles designed to kill the occupant, and traces their development and spread in the years since Buda’s wagon. It’s a fascinating read. Davis covers a lot of ground without getting bogged down in too much detail and brings to light the use of these devices in a host of conflicts across the world and down through the decades. As well as tracing their use by non-state actors Davis also looks at the way in which agents of the state – usually intelligence agencies with the US, Pakistan and Russia to the fore – have become adept at making use of car bombs to further their own goals.

On Watermelons

Our neigbourhood store was on Skender Luarasi. I don’t know if that’s what the street was called back then, when I lived in Tirana, but that seems to be how it’s known now. It was just round the corner from my house on a nameless street, now called Rruga Liman Kaba. The store was owned by two brothers – we assumed they were brothers, they looked like brothers, but since they spoke no English and I spoke only a few words of Albanian there was no way to know for sure. It was a tiny place, no bigger than a room with a covered area out front for the fruit and veg. They sold a little of everything, not unlike the corner stores that dotted Belfast when I was growing up. I shopped there because it was convenient and I wanted to support them, but also because the fruit I got there tasted better than most of the fruit I had ever eaten up to that point.


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