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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory - Ben Macintyre The basic story is well known, but since the appearance of the first book, The Man Who Never Was, an extraordinary amount of new material has become available. Even if you've read The Man Who Never Was (I had), I can't recommend Operation Mincemeat highly enough. This is, quite simply, the most extraordinary book of its kind that I've ever come across. I couldn't put it down, and finished it in a little more than a day.

The plot in a nutshell, in case you aren't already familiar with it. It's early 1943, and the Allies have just pushed the Germans off North Africa. The next step is use that as a springboard to invade Southern Europe. But where? A quick look at a map shows there's only one sensible target: Sicily. Any sane strategist would be expecting an invasion of Sicily, and, indeed, it's just what the Allies were planning.

On the other hand... suppose they could confuse the Germans, and make them think they were really planning to strike elsewhere, say in Greece? It seemed impossible, but a few resourceful people in Counter-Intelligence thought they could see a way to do it. They would take a dead body, attach a briefcase to it containing some papers, let it wash up on a Spanish beach (Spain was neutral) and make it look like he was a courier whose plane had crashed while he was on the way to deliver a top-secret message. If it was done right, the Germans might just swallow the bait.

They did it, and it worked. In the earlier book, written by one of the people who masterminded the operation, it was made to look comparatively easy, and he glossed over all the really interesting details. Not his fault; he wasn't allowed to reveal them. Now, 67 years after the event, most of the story can finally be told, and what an exciting story it is! The plan was on a knife-edge the whole time: it was almost impossible to find a suitable body, there were obvious holes in the cover story that the Germans could easily have spotted, the Spanish nearly didn't hand over the briefcase to the Germans, and the operation's security was compromised from the beginning. Even though you know how it's going to end, it's a white-knuckle ride.

One of the most interesting aspects is the analysis of why the plan succeeded. The author argues, very plausibly, that great pieces of deception only work when people want to be deceived. If the Abwehr had been doing its job properly, they would have spotted the ruse. An organisation, however, is only as good as its people, and the people who made the individual judgements all turned out to have reasons for wanting to believe this apparent windfall. Some of them were nervous about their jobs, and hoped it would put them in better standing with their superiors; some were just lazy and incompetent; one key analyst may well have figured out what was really going on, and knowingly passed incorrect information to the German High Command.

The author never says one word about it, but I couldn't help thinking of the greatest intelligence failure of our own time. In 2003, why did the Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction? For all of the supposedly solid evidence presented to the UN Security Council, Saddam's WMDs turned out to be as illusory as the Allies' 1943 plan to invade Greece. I still haven't seen anything approaching an explanation of how people could get it so wrong. Perhaps, in 2070, we'll get to find out what really happened.