Sunday, June 22, 2014


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This is my favorite kind of nonfiction.  It's written for a general audience but is thoroughly researched, with complete footnotes in the back for readers who would like to pursue the subject further.  In this particular biography there is a personal touch in that the author actually knew his subject when he was young and he had the cooperation of Ames' widow and children.  Kai Bird is an author I will seek out in the future for highly readable history.

Robert Ames was a CIA agent who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut.  Ames' death was a great loss for CIA operations in the Middle East because he was a common sense agent with friends in all the right places.  His chief source of information for many years was a VIP in the PLO.  The CIA kept insisting he formally recruit the man but he had the good sense not to do it. That would have put the man in terrible danger and ruined their relationship.  

The depth of his friendships with Arab figures is shown by the fact that one of them was a huge help to Bird in his research for this book.  Ames defied CIA protocol from the beginning as he immersed himself in Arab language and culture.  For reasons I still don't understand, such knowledge was discouraged and certainly friendship was out of order.  Ames would drive out through the desert, stopping to talk with Bedouin tribes.  They would invite him for a meal, the worst part of which was that as the honored guest he was given the eye of the goat to eat.  Ames hated that but he ate it rather than insult his host.

We learn an amazing amount about the culture and customs of that part of the world, something we know is terribly important because of almost constant conflict among religious and nationalist organizations there.  We also get a hint of the kind of life his family had.  He and his wife didn't tell their children he was CIA until the oldest daughter was grown, and then only because both of them were taking a trip that could be dangerous and someone needed to know who to contact and how.  It all brings Robert Ames back to life as a man who was brilliant at his job, and only his family surpassed his dedication to that job in importance.

Highly recommended
Source:  LibraryThing win

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