Then We Take Berlin – John Lawton

Look at the cover quote from the New York Times:

“A stylish spy thriller”

Look at the cover quote from the Sun:

“Lawton’s up there with Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Yes, he’s that good.”

That suggests a certain quality which, regrettably, the book fails to deliver. (Who wrote those reviews?) My short review: a spy thriller that doesn’t quite match the leaders in the field.

Let’s see. What do we have?

The anti-hero and central figure is John Holderness, commonly known as Wilderness. We see Wilderness as a young man, living with his grandfather and joining in the older man’s house breaking activities. Without giving too much away, this apprenticeship leads to Wilderness’ elevation – from within the armed forces – to a sort of spook. The irrepressible fellow that he is, shortly after he gets to post war Berlin, he is knee deep in spies and smuggling. He eventually returns to Britain, but is then recruited for another mission: to smuggle someone across from East Germany. It means a return to Berlin and some old familiar places and faces.

On the plus side, the Wilderness character has a ton of potential. Unfortunately, I did not find the portrayal engrossing or interesting. Something was missing.

The background – from wartime Britain to post war Berlin – is rendered with detail upon detail. My impression is that the research behind the novel was extensive and the author felt the need to cram in as much of it as possible. Possibly too much, because at times the story flags under the weight of too much description.

The plot is not bad at all. It operates within reasonable boundaries and drives the tension up. To balance the complaint about the descriptions sometimes being over long, there were times when this book did become a true page turner.

So, in short, a bit of a mixed bag. It doesn’t live up to the cover quote – in my opinion, it needed a heavy edit to make it much better – but it was enjoyable enough.


Blind to Justice?

By way of follow up to my earlier post about the killing of Iyad Hallaq (or Iyad Hallak), the Times of Israel has some rather disturbing news:

Click image to go to Times of Israel article

How likely is it that one security camera was not turned on? How likely is it that all the security cameras covering this incident were not turned on? I stress that I am not speaking from a position of informed opinion, so I could be wrong. However, I believe it to be highly unlikely that there was no video coverage of this killing. Does it seem sensible or logical or likely to you? Why have such an extensive network of security cameras – that have been well used in the past – if you are not going to turn them on?

I would like to hear from anyone knowledgeable in these areas – perhaps someone who has been on security patrol in and around Jerusalem – to learn more about the situation on the ground and whether this ‘no video available’ line is indeed likely to be hogwash or otherwise.

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a previous incident where it’s been said that security cameras (all of them!) were not turned on.

If I am right, this is a nasty cover-up. If I am right, this is scandalous.

While I would dearly love to think an independent investigation would get to the root of the matter, I regret I am skeptical. If the authorities are being so brazen as to lie about the availability of the video evidence, what chance is there of justice for Iyad Hallaq either through the courts or by an independent probe?

Truly this is a black stain upon Israel.

[If it was the case that security cameras were not turned on, do you think that means anyone is going to be disciplined for that shocking state of affairs? No, I don’t think so either.]

Dear Haaretz

Do you think you might be able to find a native English speaker somewhere in your establishment? If so, I suggest you go and get them right now and ask them to sort out this rubbish (taken from your landing page).

Analyses? Really?

After all, there is a school of thought which says if you cannot be bothered about accuracy in general, why should anyone trust your news reporting? And there’s another school of thought which says your subscribers, and yes that includes me, deserve better.

Light Bulb Going On

Q: Who invented the light bulb?

A: Thomas Edison.

Q: Sort of. He invented the light bulb, but his had a paper filament that burned out quickly. So, who invented the light bulb with an enduring (carbon) filament?

A: No idea.

Do you know? It was Lewis Howard Latimer.  I had no idea until I watched this powerful video featuring Michael Holding (West Indian former cricket superstar).

I highly recommend you watch the whole video.

The point he makes about people not knowing Latimer seems spot on. A truly white perspective on history. I, for one, have been educated twice over: once about Latimer (clearly a wonderfully smart guy) and twice about just how deeply racism can seep into society.

Michael Holding, I salute you.

(A big tip of the hat to Michael Horesh for pointing this video out to me.)


On the table, Antietam (Sharpsburg) from Glory III, the Richard Berg designed system for American Civil War battles at the brigade level. Primarily I am playing this because I enjoyed my recent time spent with Glory II and it was an excuse to read up on the battle.

Stephen Sears’ writing about the American Civil War is always highly readable, entertaining, and informative. This is a great retelling of the battle.

In the actual battle, the massively outnumbered Confederates held on by the skin of their teeth because of critical Union command failures: McLellan sent in his Corps piecemeal and threw away the advantage of superior numbers.

The battle has begun – Union I Corps is in contact with the CSA defenses

As gamers, we would never under utilize our forces. Indeed, it’s a recurring theme that many games allow the player to push their cardboard warriors to efforts – and synchronized efforts at that – which would have been impossible. In the opening stages of the battle, for example, one of Hooker’s Divisions badly screwed up on the attack because only one brigade went into action and the other two stood around waiting for orders. That’s difficult to simulate without overburdening the players.  And, as mentioned, the Union forces did not attack as one.

Close up of I Corps in action – not getting things all their own way as the initial attack is repulsed

This system uses chits to activate forces. In Antietam, the Union player starts with only three chits. After the opening couple of turns, the Union player rolls to see if he gets, less, the same, or more chits. It’s frustrating for the Union player, but it’s reasonably accurate and it definitely adds some tension to the game.

One thing that struck me is the irony of playing a game about the bloodiest battle of the war using a game system that, arguably, minimizes the casualties with units able to rout, recover, and return to action. While I’d love to work at some variant, I do enjoy the fast pace at which it is possible to play the game as it stands.

In short, I’m having fun.

Must View

On the 23rd of June 2020, Ahmad Moustafa Erekat was shot to death by Israeli Border Police at a checkpoint near Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem.

The authorities reported it as the outcome of a terror attack, Erekat having deliberately driven his car at the checkpoint, injuring one of the soldiers and then he exited the vehicle with the intention of attacking other police.

His family, understandably, were angry and upset. PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat – the dead man’s cousin – was quoted as saying:

“Israeli soldiers shot dead Ahmad Erekat from Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem, on his sister’s wedding day…Ahmad was rushing through a checkpoint to bring his mother and sister from a beauty salon in Bethlehem.”

Erekat also said:

“My cousin, the nephew of my wife, was executed, murdered in cold blood and Netanyahu bears responsibility…”

Apparently the deceased Erekat was also due to get married in the near future.

Trying to view this objectively, it did seem strange that someone in that position would conduct a suicide mission. Not impossible, but unusual. Then a video surfaced of the dead man having some kind of internal crisis, denying that he was an Israeli informer, suggesting that he had shamed his family and was depressed. That made the situation less unusual, taking these things at face value. (For example, I believe there’s a dispute about when his video was made.)

The bottom line: a shooting with two opposing narratives as to what happened.

Then the Border Police released the security video of the incident. It doesn’t look like anything else other than a terror attack. (But do look at it and make your own mind up.) That video cleared the police, brought public interest to an end, and left the deceased’s family to mourn his death, facing the unpalatable truth that he had committed suicide by cop. Whatever formal investigation that will (or should) take place, is likely to be heavily influenced by the video evidence.

So far, so routine (regrettably).

On the 30th of May 2020, a 32 year old autistic man – Iyad Hallaq – was shot to death by the police in the Old City of Jerusalem. The police claimed that they thought he was holding a gun. His family said the only thing he was holding was his phone. Further, after the initial shooting, he was not dead. He managed to get away to hide in a nearby garbage room. There, apparently he was killed despite his care giver telling the police he was autistic, he didn’t understand, and she had the papers to prove it.

The bottom line: a shooting with two opposing narratives as to what happened.

Compare and contrast with the Erekat case.

First, Iyad Hallaq had no PLO connections. To put it another way, his family has nobody in a position of power and influence to fight for them.

Second, the Border Police did not release the security video or, indeed, any video. This Haaretz article (behind a paywall) makes it clear that there should be video coverage of the incident, but if it exists someone in authority has it and isn’t releasing it.

Third, it appears the evidence from the two police involved as to what happened differs in at least one material respect.

The border policeman who shot Hallaq had finished basic training only weeks before. He has said he suspected that Hallaq was planning an attack because he was wearing gloves; the officer says he opened fire after Hallaq made a suspicious move.

The officer’s commander insists that he told the new recruit to hold fire, but the younger policeman says he never heard such an order.

To be clear, I am making no judgement about what happened when Iyad Hallaq was killed. I wasn’t there and I don’t know. I also well appreciate that the security forces have to make snap decisions in moments of crisis when their lives or the lives of innocent civilians could be at risk. In addition, the way of the world is that accidents and misunderstandings happen. None of that matters.

What matters is that the authorities owe it to Iyad Hallaq and his family and all the citizens of Israel to fully disclose what happened, to release any and all video, and to ensure there is a full and independent investigation into his death. The delay so far has been shocking and cruel enough. The police should do the right thing, even if it means that they are portrayed in a bad light. Their continuing failure is an unforgivable  blight on the state.

(Note: It might be said that the video is being retained for the purposes of an investigation. That shouldn’t stop it being released. After all, Erekat’s video was released almost immediately. Any excuse on this front is unacceptable.)


Annexation Frustration

The media and political storm leading up to Bibi’s promised ‘annexation’ on 1 July was fairly predictable. Up until the last moment, however, what wasn’t predictable was what Bibi would actually do. Would this be another broken promise? Or would Bibi ignore everything – real and imagined – that was stacked up by way of opposition, and go ahead?

As we all know, what we got was indeed another broken promise. From my perspective, that was only half the issue.

(To be clear, I wasn’t counting on his promise. It wasn’t what I wanted to happen. It is also noteworthy that several commentators accurately predicted nothing would happen.)

The other half of the issue – one that seems to have largely been overlooked – was how we (Israel) got ourselves into such a position that one man could hold such power and potentially wield it in such a way that would irrevocably damage Israel, with no fear of an effective opposition. If Bibi wanted to extend civil law, it would happen.

Who is responsible for that state of affairs? The voters and Benny Gantz. Not a lot we can do about that now. However, it does seem that Gantz will pay for his perfidy should he face the electorate in the future. I do wish the voters would also make Bibi pay for his folly should he be around for the next election.

As matters stand, it appears the annexation topic is off the agenda while the government deals with more pressing issues. But I’ll take the opportunity to offer some random thoughts and observations.

  • Annexation is the wrong word. (But, it’s so much snappier than the alternatives!) What it is about is the application of Israeli law to certain territory.
  • Unless you make a unique interpretation of international law, there is only one country that has legal right and title to Judea and Samaria: Israel.
  • These two points having been made, however, there was no material gain for Israel to extend its law to parts of Judea and Samaria at this time. None.
  • There was the potential of a real downside for Israel.
  • It was scandalous to devote any resources to this project when there were far more pressing issues for a responsible government to deal with. Like coronavirus, the economy, and the ticking bomb that is Gaza.
  • If ever there were a single episode that proved you cannot be an effective Prime Minister while facing criminal charges, this was it!
  • The whole situation has probably hardened the divide between Israel and American Jews of a Democratic persuasion. Under Bibi, Israel has largely become a partisan issue. That’s bad. Very bad.
  • When even a hard-nosed Bibi fan like the Elder of Ziyon rightly says it’s been a debacle, and skewers Bibi in the process, that tells you how bad this has been for Israel.
  • The one bright spot – not that bright, but in this part of the world it’s all relative – was the Palestinian leadership making a counter proposal to Trump’s peace plan and declaring themselves now ready to negotiate. Do I believe anything will come of that? No. Do I want Bibi to do something about it? Absolutely. No matter how poor the prospects of success, our Prime Minister should start talking. As Dov Lipman once said, we have to be able to tell our grandchildren that we did all we could to try to make peace.
  • I have polished my crystal ball. It tells me that reviving the idea of extending Israeli civil law at any time in the next few years would simply be repeating past mistakes.

It is frustrating seeing such poor leadership from the Prime Minster of Israel. For the country’s sake, let’s hope such a woeful performance is not repeated ever again.

Pandemic Blogging Blues

It’s been a while since I regularly blogged. This coronavirus situation hasn’t helped; it seems to have sucked all the desire to write from out of my system. This post is the start of the fight back.

Jackson’s Attack

On the table is Glory II: Across the Rappahanock, a Richard Berg game published by GMT and featuring two American Civil War battles: Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

The system emphasizes speed of play over detail, with units representing half a brigade, hexes are 315 yards across, and daytime turns are 75 minutes. While there are artillery and cavalry units, the infantry brigades are the main players. Each has a full strength side and a disrupted side. A unit that is disrupted is withdrawn off the map and may return, disrupted, later. Since disrupted units can recover, the net effect is the appearance of no casualties, or at least less casualties than you might expect. That’s the core simplification that speeds play because you don’t track losses.

On the other hand, the system accurately portrays the superiority of the defense over attack, the need for reserves – fresh troops to stiffen the line or takeover the attack – and due to the chit drawn activation, the chaos on the battlefield. Out-of-the-box, you get a great game. The historicity is not as good as it might be because of two main factors: (a) the usual advantage gamers have of being able to see everything; and (b) the lack of an orders system restricting units so they can react instantly to events (near or far). To be clear, I like the game as it is. Not everybody wants super detail. Further, you can use the game in a learning fashion to illustrate elements of the actual campaign, especially when playing solitaire.

The Fredericksburg situation doesn’t really excite me, but Chancellorsville is full of good stuff. I have previously played the introductory scenarios. This outing, I have been playing (and enjoying) Jackson’s Attack, one of the bigger (but still a one map) scenarios. The short report is that the Rebels are being held back and will not win. The longer version is that while the game tries to recreate Hooker’s command failings on the day, it’s too easy (still) for the Union forces to mass effectively against the weaker Rebels.

There is a 3 map campaign scenario for Chancellorsville which I’d like to try one day. I wonder if it would work in a double-blind umpired fashion?

In preparation for playing the game, I skimmed through the Consimworld folder. It reminded me that while there was talk about doing Gettysburg using the system, it never came to anything. Shame.