Non-Fiction Reviews

Head Shot

(2010) G. Paul Chambers, Prometheus Books, US$25, hrdbk, pp260, ISBN 978-1-616-14209-4


Just in case you have missed the story … On Friday 22nd November 1963, a motorcade was making its way through Dallas, Texas. Just after 12:30 pm, as it passed through Dealey Plaza, several shots rang out - resulting in serious injury to John Connally, the state’s governor, and in the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States of America.

There were witnesses who were to the rear of the presidential vehicle and reported that they heard shots from behind them, from a building known as the Texas School Book Depository; there were witnesses who were to the front of the vehicle and reported hearing shots from behind them, in this case from an area that has become known simply as the grassy knoll; and there were witnesses who reported hearing shots from other locations. Less that two minutes after the shooting, a police officer looking for the assassin(s) spotted Lee Harvey Oswald in the Depository but at the time he was dismissed from suspicion as this was his place of work.

Some forty five minutes later, three miles away in the Oak Cliff part of the city, Police Patrolman J. D. Tippit was also on the lookout for the assassin(s). He stopped a member of the public who then pulled out a handgun and shot the officer dead; the offender was identified as being Oswald. A further thirty five minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a nearby cinema and charged with the murder of the patrolman. Meanwhile, the FBI had been searching the Depository and had found a rifle hidden behind some packing cases as well as three used cartridge cases. Ballistics examination showed that at least one of the bullets that had hit the presidential vehicle had been fired from this rifle, and records showed that it belonged to Oswald. The police therefore also charged him with the murder of the President. Oswald claimed to be innocent of both charges.

Just two days later, as the police were moving him from the Dallas City Hall to the county jail, Jack Ruby, a bystander, stepped out from the watching crowd and shot Oswald dead. Anything Oswald might have added to the investigations would no longer be heard. Ruby was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death (though he died of cancer whilst awaiting a retrial).

The above is well documented and accepted. Beyond that, though, there is much disagreement and many, many conspiracy theories.

It is oft said that the assassination of JFK is one of those rare moments in history when almost everyone can remember where they were when they heard the news (I, for one, was soaking in the bath listening to the BBC Light Programme). Since then, I have lost count of how many documentaries and articles I have seen or read which return to the subject, but I have never made a point of seeking them out or studying the events to any depth. Like many people, though, I have formed the general opinion that the official government version of the time was rushed and under-investigated. Because this book ignores the many conspiracy theories and associated “facts”, refuses to speculate on possible motivations, and looks only at the evidence and asks what it really proves, I have for the first time found myself actually wanting to read a book about the subject - and I am glad I did.

Just seventeen days after the assassination, the FBI produced a 384-page report and it declared that Oswald was the killer and had acted alone; the report was widely criticised for leaving too much unanswered. Meanwhile, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the new president, had ordered a commission to fully investigate the assassination and report its findings. This was headed by US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and its report, published 28th September 1964, also concluded that Oswald was the killer and had acted alone; and it too was much criticised. When discussing key issues in the report, commission member Senator Richard Russell said “Well, I just don’t believe it”; “I don’t either” replied LBJ. Four of the seven-man commission, including Earl Warren himself, were later to admit that they had no faith in their own findings. Furthermore, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations met in 1979 it rejected the report, concluding that there probably had been a conspiracy, and recommending that the whole matter was investigated again (though their recommendation was never followed).

In Head Shot, G. Paul Chambers is only concerned with the one very simple but very important question - was JFK indeed assassinated by the lone gunman Oswald or was there a conspiracy (i.e. two or more people working together (possibly, but not necessarily, including Oswald))?

What makes this book interesting is that the author does something that apparently no-one else has done before - he reaches his conclusions solely by looking at the actual evidence which was officially gathered and subjecting it to strict scientific examination. To use the current term, he has done a CSI on it. Dr. Chambers is well qualified for this task; according to the cover blurb he has a PhD in physics and engineering, his various appointments have included working for the NASA Goddard Optics Branch and the Naval Surface Warfare Centre, and his specialities include shock physics, high-velocity impacts and deformation of solids, and detonation sciences. In short, he is a physicist who understands these things and is concerned with the actual evidence. Other than mentioning they exist, he steers well clear of speculative theories and possible motivations.

One is, of course, left wondering how anyone, the authorities included, could conduct any sort of investigation or reach any sort of meaningful conclusion without collecting and examining all the evidence and applying scientific rigour to their endeavours. One might wonder… but it seems that not bothering about such niceties as the actual evidence and thorough scientific examination of it has been perfectly acceptable to everyone else. No wonder the conspiracists have been so busy for so long; unencumbered by proven facts they have had a field day (or a field half century!).

Assuming that he has done his research properly (he makes 302 references to other works and documents), I can save you worrying too long and reveal that he demonstrates that the idea of the lone gunman can only be wrong – it simply is not consistent with the evidence. He proves that it must therefore have been a conspiracy – and he has convinced me too. However, whilst he soundly succeeds in making his case, and I found a lot of interesting facts and details in his account, he has not succeeded in writing a book which is a particularly good read.

As any writer of fiction knows, you have to tell a story. What some writers of fact miss is that they too have to tell a story; it is not enough to merely put down the facts in any old order, the writer needs to engage the audience and take them on a journey - and this book fails to do that. I’ve read enough non-fiction and text books in my time to know that even the most “boring” of subjects can be made surprisingly interesting if the book is well written. Sure, there was a great deal in this that I found interesting, but the book as a whole was a poor read.

The problem starts with the author launching straight into his case, assuming that the reader already knows an awful lot about the assassination and is familiar with the history and many of the names and terms used. For example, it is only on page 90 that he specifically mentions the date, and we get to page 182 before finding the nearest we have to a run-through of the events. The Zapruder film is held up as important evidence from the outset but it is not until Chapter 8 that he tells us anything much about Abraham Zapruder, his film, and why he was there (he was a local man who had popped out at lunchtime to watch the president drive by, he had taken his cine camera with him and was filming JFK as the bullets struck).

Let us start with the general layout. Chapter 1 deals with the Warren Commission, which was doomed to failure from the outset. It was given conflicting aims (to investigate and report the facts but also to demonstrate that America was not under any form of attack), too short a timescale, all the commission and its subordinates were lawyers, there was no technical expertise, they investigated nothing for themselves and relied solely on information from the FBI, and even moved one of JFK’s wounds from "just below his shoulder" to “"the rear of the neck" to make it fit their explanation. The Commission was disbanded immediately after the publication of its report and was therefore unable to explain itself or deal with any of the many criticisms it received.

Chapter 2 discusses Edward Epstein’s book Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth; this would be more meaningful if the reader had happened to have read it. Chapter 3 discusses the witnesses then Chapter 4 wanders off to talk about how science arrives at the truth. Personally I found some of this chapter interesting from the viewpoint of the history of science - but we should not need to be establishing the Scientific Principle in a book like this!

Chapter 5 discusses the medical evidence - which was conflicting. The doctors in Dallas, who were trying to save JFK’s life and were used to treating gunshot wounds, reported that the wound to his throat was an entry wound caused by a smaller calibre round such as .22 (i.e. smaller than the .26 calibre round of Oswald’s rifle). Incidentally, the smaller calibre round is much more the assassin’s tool than the larger calibre - it packs less punch but instead of passing straight through the body it tends to stay inside and do a lot more damage. Amazingly, the body was then moved to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the official autopsy. I say amazingly because this was contrary to the Texas law of the time and was only achieved at gun point! The autopsy was carried out by doctors less used to gunshot wounds such as his, and they declared the throat wound to be an exit wound from a larger calibre gun. The descriptions of the wounds from the two teams of doctors varied in many details - which should not, of course, be the case. Statements from some of those involved indicate that the body may have also been examined, unofficially and unrecorded, en route to the autopsy, thus changing the apparent nature of some of the wounds.

Chapter 6 looks at the acoustic evidence (collected from recordings made of radio conversations with police officers at the time, where shots can be heard in the distance). Chapter 7 discusses the factual inaccuracies in books by Vincent Bugliosi and Gerald Posner (again - has the reader read these?) and Chapter 8 at last gets round to telling us about the Zapruder film. The importance of this film includes allowing a frame-by-frame analysis to establish the exact timing of the events within the president’s vehicle (i.e. exactly when and who the shots hit). Chapter 9 introduces the evidence for a second rifle and Chapter 10 explains why it all matters (where would the World be now if JFK had lived? would there have been a Vietnam war?).

And the story just does not flow – it just meanders around. Had it been me, I would have opened by setting the scene, recounting the details of the assassination and describing the timeline for the events – this would help tell the story and add structure to the whole account. I would then move on to describing and discussing the history of the investigations (the local police, the FBI, and the Warren Commission). I would follow on by looking at and discussing the evidence (witnesses, medical, the Zapruder film, sound recordings, and so on). Finally, having described the activities and the various (sometimes conflicting) accounts, I would get to the nub of the matter and enter into a discussion of the ballistics evidence; just where could bullets have come from, the paths they could have traversed and the wounds they could have caused, and reached my conclusion that the only explanation that meets the ballistic requirements and explains the wounds is that there was more than one weapon involved.

I would not attack other books – my argument should be based on what I could prove, not on proving the errors of others. If necessary, I might add an appendix to show, scientifically, where others had erred - but it would not be part of the main text. Vincent Bugliosi’s comment, "I had avoided taking physics in High School", does wonderfully illustrate the problem with most conspiracists; I have always found them to be vague when it comes to hard fact and only too eager to believe the obviously dubious. As one conspiracist said to me a long time ago, in a conversation on a completely different subject, "stop bringing facts into this, you’re just trying to confuse the issue".

Similarly, I would not include the history of scientific reasoning, interesting though it was (though again, if I needed to increase the page count, I might add it as an appendix).

The author often criticises others for omitting necessary details, yet I found the same applied to his book - there were so many times when I was left with questions. Furthermore, the way the facts are scattered through the text has made it very difficult for me to go back and check details as I write this, so I apologise for any errors of memory that have slipped in.

And now to look in a little detail at a couple of the points Dr. Chambers raises and that have provided the conspiracy theorists with so much ammunition.

We start, of course, with Oswald’s rifle. Officially three shots were fired and it has been much claimed that it was simply impossible to fire all of them in the time allowed. In most tests, even experienced gunmen could not fire it quickly enough; however, it was found that a few marksmen who were very familiar with this rifle could, just, get the shots off in time, provided they did not stop to take aim. There is no evidence that Oswald was sufficiently experienced with this type of rifle to be that fast, let alone accurate at the same time. Secondly, the tests showed that the telescopic sights found on the rifle were seriously faulty and could not have been used for accurate firing, which you would have thought that Oswald would have known; either he removed them and used the standard sights (and very quickly reattached them afterwards) or else he successfully made an allowance for them, i.e. aimed the correct amount off target, whilst shooting very, very fast at a moving target. Although Oswald was trained by the Army and had achieved Marksman status, this is still asking an awful lot – if not the impossible. Oh, and, as mentioned before, there are a few problems with the calibre of the bullets and the wounds sustained.

The other big problem is that of the 'single bullet theory'; there were, of course, three bullets officially, but this refers to one particular bullet having caused most of the damage to both JFK and Governor Connally (the paths of the other two bullets having been established beyond reasonable doubt). It requires this one bullet to make two changes in direction by bouncing around within JFK (which is quite possible), and still being able to cause several severe wounds to both its victims, and, when its fragments are reassembled, being heavier afterwards than it was before. Here, the author shows that it simply could not have done all that was claimed of it and quotes the official evidence to prove it. What does explain the injuries, though, is there being an additional bullet(s) hitting the two men at almost the same time, i.e. at least four in total must have been fired. If the 'extra' bullet was a smaller calibre and from the front then more of the evidence could be more satisfactorily explained. The likelihood is that a volley of at least five shots was fired from two, if not three, different positions (the Depository, the grassy knoll, and probably a nearby bridge). That makes it a coordinated attack – and therefore proves a conspiracy!

Mind you, what the conspiracy was, who was involved, and why, is a whole other ball game.

In conclusion, I would say that the author has proven his case well but written it up badly. There is a wealth of detail and interesting information, but you have to work for it. Despite my opinions on its layout, I would recommend reading this book. If you are a conspiracist then this proves you right (but you will still have to provide your own motivations and conspiracy details). If you believe the official, lone gunman theory, then you need to know that you have been misled.

Peter Tyers

See also Duncan's take on Head Shot.

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