Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire [NOOK Book]

Overview

Born in the wake of World War II, RAND quickly became the creator of America’s anti-Soviet nuclear strategy. A magnet for the best and the brightest, its ranks included Cold War luminaries such as Albert Wohlstetter, Bernard Brodie, and Herman Kahn, who arguably saved us from nuclear annihilation and unquestionably created Eisenhower’s "military-industrial complex." In the Kennedy era, RAND analysts and their theories of rational warfare steered our conduct in Vietnam. Those same theories drove our invasion of ...
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Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire

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Overview

Born in the wake of World War II, RAND quickly became the creator of America’s anti-Soviet nuclear strategy. A magnet for the best and the brightest, its ranks included Cold War luminaries such as Albert Wohlstetter, Bernard Brodie, and Herman Kahn, who arguably saved us from nuclear annihilation and unquestionably created Eisenhower’s "military-industrial complex." In the Kennedy era, RAND analysts and their theories of rational warfare steered our conduct in Vietnam. Those same theories drove our invasion of Iraq forty-five years later, championed by RAND affiliated actors such as Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Zalmay Khalilzad. But RAND’s greatest contribution might be its least known: rational choice theory, a model explaining all human behavior through self-interest. Through it RAND sparked the Reagan-led transformation of our social and economic system but also unleashed a resurgence of precisely the forces whose existence it denied -- religion, patriotism, tribalism.

With Soldiers of Reason, Alex Abella has rewritten the history of America’s last half century and cast a new light on our problematic present.
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Editorial Reviews

Jacob Heilbrunn
…an entertaining and fast-paced account of the RAND Corporation…Abella excels…in his descriptions of the colorful characters who populated RAND at its inception, like the mathematician John Davis Williams, who "personified what would become hallmarks of RANDites—a love of pleasures of the flesh, a dedication to abstract theory, and a sense of absolute self-righteousness married to an amoral approach to politics and policy."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

When President Eisenhower famously warned against the military-industrial complex, he largely meant the Department of Defense-funded programs of the RAND Corporation. Abella (coauthor, Shadow Enemies: Hitler's Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States) presents a sometimes dry but thorough account of this think-tank, which he asserts not only played a key role in the U.S.'s biggest foreign misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq but also, through its development of "rational choice theory," has affected every aspect of our lives, not necessarily for the better. Abella, working with the cooperation of the usually secretive organization, details RAND'S history, from analyst Herman Kahn's energetic support of a virtually unrestrained nuclear arms buildup to the organization's role in sparking America's involvement in Vietnam and the current war in Iraq. But even more, Abella says, RAND theorists' notion that self-interest, rather than collective interests like religion, governs human behavior has influenced every aspect of our society, from health care to tax policy. The RAND Corporation continues today-as brilliant, controversial and, in Abella's view, amoral as ever-with the complicity of all Americans. "If we look in the mirror," Abella concludes, "we will see that RAND is every one of us. The question is, what are we going to do about it?" 8 pages of b&w photos. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A crisp history of the world's most influential think tank, which the Soviet publication Pravda once called the "academy of science and death."The Manhattan Project proved to the military during World War II the efficacy of assistance from independent civilian scientists. Seeking to maintain that link and understanding the need to cope with peacetime threats to national security, Air Force hot shots, including the legendary Generals Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold and Curtis LeMay, helped to found RAND (for "research and development"). Throughout the next half-century, RAND's intellectual gunslingers-its researchers and advisors have won 27 Nobel Prizes-expanded their role and helped set large portions of America's military and political agenda. RAND's detractors accuse the corporation of subordinating morality to the achievement of U.S. government policy, of operating wholly without conscience and of practically inventing the Cold War. Los Angeles Times contributor and novelist Abella (Final Acts, 2000, etc.) takes a swipe at the problematic implications for the country of RAND's seeming amorality, but he deals far more successfully with the corporation's history, particularly the early years, and the procession of larger-than-life personalities who passed through RAND's portals and who influenced the nation's thinking far more than any single policy paper the institute produced. RAND's luminaries have included the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, thermonuclear war expert (and model for Dr. Strangelove) Herman Kahn, national-security expert and Cold War strategist Albert Wohlstetter, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and even the humorist Leo Rosten. Its theorists havecontributed to our everyday lexicon such words and phrases as "fail-safe," "doomsday machine," "systems analysis," "futurology," "zero-sum game" and "prisoner's dilemma." How many enemy factories can we destroy with the kind of aircraft we possess? After a nuclear exchange, would the living truly envy the dead? Paid to think the unthinkable, RAND's analysts and their mission come off here as simultaneously marvelous and horrible. As good a look as we're likely to get about an organization where, Ellsberg notwithstanding, keeping secrets is second nature. Agent: Joe Regal/Regal Literary
From the Publisher
Praise for SOLDIERS OF REASON
 

"Well-researched... Kudos to Abella."—San Francisco Chronicle
 

"[R]evealing and original... Abella does an excellent job ferreting out details... Abella's book is an introduction to the broad range of ideas RAND has espoused."—Chalmers Johnson, Asia Times

 

The Barnes & Noble Review
Rollicking is not the kind of adjective one would expect to describe a study of a defense policy think tank. Thus it is to Alex Abella's considerable credit that much of his Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire is often a lot of fun to read. The first half particularly exudes a Strangelovian Cold War madness, with its portrait of a brilliant coterie dreaming up apocalyptic nuclear strategies and trying to reduce the messiness of human motivation to mathematical algorithms.

Abella, the author of four novels, has a fiction writer's eye for detail and scene setting. He is, unfortunately, not nearly as good at political analysis or capturing ideological currents, which is why this book grows frustrating when it attempts sweeping claims about RAND's ultimate significance. In attempting a unified theory of the RAND Corporation, Abella makes grand assertions that are not borne out by the rest of the book, too often substituting style and hyperbole for depth. Soldiers of Reason skitters over the surface of more than a half century of defense policy. There are many fascinating moments, but it's hard to see what it all adds up to.

The RAND Corporation was founded in the aftermath of World War II in order to ensure that some of the staggering brainpower mobilized for the conflict would continue to be available to the military. It's fascinating, given the seeming anti-intellectualism of American politics, to realize what a profound influence the ideas of the RANDites would have. In pursuit of this connection, Abella offers an overblown metaphor: "In a very real, very tangible way, in this great maelstrom of consumerism called Western civilization, all of us are the bastard children of RAND. Put in everyday terms, RAND's rational choice theory is the Matrix code of the West...Think of this book then as the red pill that will make visible the secret world that rules us all."

Actually, don't. Think of it, instead, as an interesting tour of the ideas and characters that have influenced postwar American defense strategy and, to a lesser extent, economic policy.

The book begins in 1945, with General Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, trying to find a way to "hire the best brains in the country, put them together in a space they could call their own, and have them come up with weapons nobody had ever imagined." RAND -- the name stands for "research and development" -- was born as an idea factory for the Air Force, and under its aegis, some of the smartest men in the country were given free rein to go wherever their powerful intellects led them. Abella describes one early hire, John David Williams, head of the mathematics division: "He personified what would become hallmarks of RANDites -- a love of pleasures of the flesh, a dedication to abstract theory, and a sense of absolute self-righteousness married to an amoral approach to politics and policy." Life at RAND, writes Abella, "was a boy's conception of what a man's life should be, down to the fragrant pipe tobacco, fast cars, and clubby exclusivity."

Ideas that came out of RAND were enormously influential in guiding American nuclear doctrine. (Among the think tank's innovations was a system to communicate in the event of a nuclear attack that presaged the Internet.) Abella shows how theories that evolved to deal with a war with the Soviet Union -- particularly, the sustained escalation of force, or "counterforce" -- were applied, with disastrous results, to Vietnam. He suggests that RAND was implicated in the intellectual arrogance that led the United States into that quagmire, although he just barely skims the story that David Halberstam told so definitively in The Best and the Brightest. Indeed, it's hard to tell exactly how Abella judges RAND's role in Vietnam, as well as in Iraq, where a number of RAND veterans would become important players in the neoconservative movement that pushed for the American invasion. His analysis can be so muddy that his conclusions sometimes seem to spring from nowhere.

Within RAND, the "animosity between the pro- and antiwar groups was so bitter that fistfights broke out in management sessions." But despite having access to RAND's archives -- and to the memories of Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers -- Abella doesn't really capture the mood inside the organization in the 1970s with anything like the richness of his writing about the 1950s. Given that he acknowledges ideological divisions among RANDites over Vietnam, it's somewhat jarring when he essentially proclaims the think tank as morally culpable for the war as then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. By supplying the operative military theory, he suggests, "RAND was responsible as those who put counterforce into effect." That is a stark conclusion, and not supported by the rest of the book.

Similarly, Abella shows how several of the architects of George W. Bush's war in Iraq passed through RAND, but he never really demonstrates how the Weltanschauung of the place encouraged their fatal, hubristic errors. One can infer from passages elsewhere in the book that Abella is arguing that RAND, because of its emphasis on reason and the measurement of quantifiable variables, led people associated with it to underplay the importance of factors like faith, pride, and tribe. As he writes in the conclusion, "Let us grant that the people of RAND...acted in good faith, wanting only to shed the light of reason on a dangerously irrational world. Their choice of instrument has unleashed world-changing responses driven precisely by the forces their instrument cannot handle -- religion, nationalism, patriotism." But Abella also shows that RAND was a pioneer in terrorism studies, foreseeing the rising danger of religious extremism, so it's unclear how the flaw in their ideology was a misguided faith in the power of reason.

One finishes the book impressed by the world-straddling lives of some of RAND's intellectuals and convinced that, within its hothouse environment, others conceived destructive policies that they foisted upon the world with the swaggering confidence of the elect. But all this really proves was that RAND was an important incubator of defense intellectuals. A deeper reckoning with RAND's particular role in the world, and its signature intellectual contributions, remains elusive. For a book about analysts, no matter how lively it is at times, that's no small shortcoming. --Michelle Goldberg

The author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg is a news and political reporter for Salon.com. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Observer, New York, In These Times, The New Republic online, The Guardian (U.K.), The Utne Reader, Newsday, and other publications and newspapers nationwide. She was a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and for Shift magazine and has taught at New York University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156035125
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/4/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,109,622
  • File size: 335 KB

Meet the Author

ALEX ABELLA is the coauthor, with Scott Gordon, of Shadow Enemies: Hitler’s Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States and the author of four novels. He has also been a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times. Born in Cuba, he lives in Los Angeles.
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Read an Excerpt

1

A Great Beginning

The RAND Corporation’s the boon of the world They think all day long for a fee They sit and play games about going up in flames For Counters they use you and me. —"The RAND Hymn," by MALVINA REYNOLDS

  ON OCTOBER 1, 1945, less than two months after the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces boarded a flight from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco on a trip he was certain would be as momentous as the Manhattan Project.

A man of medium stature, with pudgy features, clear eyes, and a constant smile, General Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold was a true believer in the power of the Air Force. He was one of only nine people ever to earn the rank of five-star general and the only one with that rank in the Air Force. He had received his military pilot license in 1912, and since then had pushed for an Air Force independent of the Army; he never wavered in his conviction of the usefulness of maximum destructive power in combat. On hearing doubts on the legitimacy of the Allied fire bombing in Dresden, Germany, Arnold wrote, "We must not get soft. War must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless."1

General Arnold had welcomed the development and deployment of nuclear bombs—especially since it had fallen to the Army Air Force to deliver, and thus control, that mightiest of weapons. (By 1947 President Truman would cleave the Air Force from its Army concatenation, setting up both services as rivals for the Pentagon’s largesse.) But Arnold was concerned that the amazing concentration of scientific minds that had made possible the Manhattan Project would prove hard to duplicate under peacetime conditions.

Washington had recruited talent from far and wide for its crusade against the Axis. The production capabilities and sheer output of the country’s industries (General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, General Electric) had been harnessed by the best and the brightest minds from the country’s top scientific research centers (MIT, Princeton, Columbia), giving the world radar, jet fighters, the atom bomb. In the span of four years, the country had grown from a second-rate power to the greatest military behemoth in history. It was the dawn of the American New Order. Like ancient Athens and her league, it would be an empire of the willing—America’s allies willed her to rule the world and rule the world she would.

Yet now that the battle was won, the unlikely alliance that had guided the United States to victory was splitting apart. Businesses wanted to make money and scientists wanted to do research. Few wanted to put up with the military’s restrictions and low pay. General Arnold feared that if everybody went back to industry or academia, America’s enemies could one day hold sway. The likeliest adversary: our erstwhile wartime ally, the Soviet Union.

Already in March 1946, former British prime minister Winston Churchill had warned about an Iron Curtain descending on Europe.2 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had shattered his wartime alliance with the United States, and his troops, firmly in control of Central and Eastern Europe, were pressuring Italy and France. Soviet boots seemed ready to crush all political opposition; it was only a matter of time before a major American-Soviet conflict developed. That was why Arnold was flying to California, to find a way to hire the best brains in the country, put them together in a space they could call their own, and have them come up with weapons nobody had ever imagined.

Even in the midst of the war, a year earlier, Arnold had requested his chief scientific adviser, a colorful Hungarian named Theodore von Kármán (who was also director of the Guggenheim Laboratories), to devise a plan to entice scientists to continue working for the Air Force during peacetime. Kármán had come up with a report called "Toward New Horizons," which called for the establishment of a new kind of scientific community, "a nucleus for scientific groups such as those which successfully assisted in the command and staff work in the field during the war," a university without students and with the Air Force as its only client.3 In other words, a prototype for the organization that would become RAND. Arnold had been delighted with the plan, but the exigencies of the war had made him put it aside until the right moment. That moment came when lean, steely-jawed, blue-eyed former test pilot Franklin R. Collbohm, visiting from California, came into Arnold’s office one day in September of 1945.

A fanatically fit former marine, Collbohm swam in his pool every morning, rain or shine, before going to work.4 He had fled his childhood environs in upstate New York for the wide skies and opportunities of the West as soon as he could, eventually becoming the right-hand man of Donald Douglas, head of Douglas Aircraft, America’s largest airplane manufacturer, and the special assistant to Arthur E. Raymond, the company’s vice president and head of engineering.

Arnold and Collbohm had met in 1942, when Collbohm procured nascent radar technology being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Army Air Force.5 Both men shared a passion for aircraft and a deep love for the armed forces, to the point that they might have been inverse images of each other—Arnold advocating for scientists among the military and Collbohm standing up for the Air Force among the intelligentsia.

Like Arnold, Collbohm was concerned with the imminent dispersal of the best brains the United States could hire, and had approached a number of officials in Washington, D.C., about finding a way to retain top scientists after the war, with little success. When he finally came to Arnold’s office, though, Collbohm did not even have to finish describing his idea for setting up an advisory group of independent scientists consulting for the military before the general slapped his desk and exclaimed, "I know just what you’re going to tell me. It’s the most important thing we can do." He told Collbohm to call Douglas right away to enlist his cooperation; they were to meet at California’s Hamilton Air Force Base in two days. Collbohm was to have a list of all the things required to make the project come to fruition—the men, the machines, the money.6

Collbohm grabbed the first plane he could out of Washington, a B-25 bomber, and landed at Douglas’s Santa Monica plant. He gathered all the Douglas officials he needed for the meeting and then looked for a plane to get them to the San Francisco Bay Area. The only aircraft available was President Roosevelt’s private plane, a Douglas C-54 dubbed "The Sacred Cow," so Collbohm and his people grabbed that and flew to Hamilton in it, arriving at the base just an hour ahead of Arnold, with barely enough time to round up a luncheon for the meeting.7

When the general’s B-21 rumbled into Hamilton Air Force Base, waiting for him were Collbohm, Raymond, and Douglas, whose daughter had married Arnold’s son. Arnold had brought with him Edward Bowles, a consultant from MIT who had collaborated with Collbohm in setting up the first instance of coordinated civilian and military efforts in wartime planning, the B-29 Special Bombardment Project in 1944.8

Lunch was served and the men got to work. One of the chief concerns of the meeting was how the new organization would help develop the technology of long-distance missiles, which Arnold was convinced was the wave of the future. Arnold and his group were adamant that only the Air Force and no other branch of the armed forces should control the new weapon. By the time he finished his coffee, Arnold had pledged $10 million from unspent wartime research money to set up the research group and keep it running independently for a few years. Arthur Raymond suggested the name Project RAND, for research and development. Collbohm nominated himself to head the group while he looked for a permanent director.9 (His temporary stay would eventually stretch to more than twenty years.) And so was RAND conceived.

At first, Project RAND had no specific definition of purpose other than the very general outline hashed out in Hamilton Field—a civilian outfit to come up with new weapons. But how? Besides long-range missiles, what other kind of weapons? How many? Arnold, Collbohm, Bowles, and Douglas exchanged memos, letters, and suggestions on the future of the organization for months, but final details were not worked out until General Curtis LeMay came into the picture in late December.

Gruff, aggressive, demanding, and some would say demented, LeMay was the coldest of the cold warriors. With his bulldog swagger and "never surrender" attitude, he served as a prototype for several generals in the movie Doctor Strangelove, advocating massive attacks on the enemy—whichever enemy America happened to be facing at the time, although usually the Soviet Union—while chomping on a stogie.10

Named Air Force Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development, LeMay included among his responsibilities the supervision of the new research group. Whether purposely or by the sheer serendipity that can accompany government work, LeMay turned out to be the ideal candidate to shepherd the fledgling organization. With typical impatience, he tore through the red tape hindering the birth of RAND—at one point gathering all the Air Force bureaucrats needed for budget approval in one room and refusing to let them leave until they signed off on Project RAND’s exact mission. Finally, on March 1, 1946, RAND officially was delivered. Its charter was clear: "Project RAND is a continuing program of scientific study and research on the broad subject of air warfare with the object of recommending to the Air Force preferred methods, techniques and instrumentalities for this purpose."11

Unlike other government contractors, RAND would be exempt from reporting to a contracting command. Instead, the unfiltered results would be delivered straight to LeMay. LeMay made sure that Project RAND could accept or reject Air Force suggestions for research and that RAND alone would determine the overall balance of its research. In exchange, the Air Force would receive information on intelligence, plans, and programs to optimize the value of its research; nevertheless, the project in no way was meant to exempt the Air Force from its own decision-making responsibilities.12 In other words, RAND would always be subservient to the Air Force when it came to deciding what would get made and how.

Arnold, Collbohm, and LeMay proved prescient on the government’s need for continued assistance from independent civilian scientists in peacetime. Within a few years, a new mind-set would take hold in government: science, rather than diplomacy, could provide the answers needed to cope with threats to national security—especially vis-à-vis the growing Soviet military menace.

The United States had demobilized its armed forces after World War II; new weapons, such as the atomic bomb, were seen as cheaper and more efficient than keeping large numbers of soldiers stationed abroad. Rather than nationalize key military industries, as Great Britain and France had done, the U.S. government opted to contract out its scientific research development to private concerns. The private sector, not bound by the procurement and personnel requirements of the Pentagon, could create new weapons faster and cheaper. RAND would be a bridge between the two worlds of military planning and civilian development.13

Copyright © 2008 by Alex Abella

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

ContentsForeword 1Part 11 A Great Beginning 92 The Human Factor 243 The Wages of Sin 40Part 24 A Talk Before Dinner 675 The Secret Keepers 726 The Jester of Death 957 In RAND’s Orbit 105Part 38 A Delicate Dance 1279 Whiz Kids Rule 13210 The Art of Science 14311 A Final Solution to the Soviet Problem 15812 An Irresistible Force 168Part 413 A Night in Rach Kien 19114 The Price of Success 19515 Stealing Away 21316 Plus Ça Change 21717 Team B Strikes 230Part 518 Witnessing End Times 24919 The Terror Network 26220 Yoda and the Knights of Counterforce 27521 Back to Iraq 287Part 622 Death of a Strategist 29923 Whither RAND? 304Acknowledgments 313Endnotes 315Bibliography 345Index 363
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