Iraq Through a Prism


Title: Redeployment

Rating: 4 Stars

Having some time ago finished The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which was an absolutely brilliant set of short stories about the Vietnam War, I began to wonder if there was an equivalent for the Iraq War. Redeployment appeared to be the closest candidate, so I gave it a shot. The bad news is that I didn’t find it as strong as The Things They Carried. The good news is that it was still pretty damn good.

Unlike O’Brien’s collection, which really seemed to be tinged with a sense of the nearly autobiographical, Klay’s stories are clearly fiction. Each of the dozen or so stories are told from a different point of view. You view the war as a private on patrol in an MRAP. You view it as a soldier that collected the remains of dead soldiers. You view it as a chaplain. You view it as a soldier in an artillery crew. You view it as a psych ops officer. You view it as a civilian in Iraq to help the reconstruction. There are a couple of stories of soldiers coming home and trying to adjust. Each of these stories open a different viewport into the war.

O’Brien’s collections was that rarity where every story was strong. Here, the stories are more of a mixed bag.

Money as a Weapons System is the story of a civilian sent in to help re-build Iraq. Here you get the Catch-22 nature of the Iraq War. He wants to do the right thing, but the government, the army, and the Iraqis themselves pretty much prevent that from happening. He wants to rebuild their water supply but just ends up having to pretend to have formed an Iraqi baseball team to please some congressman’s benefactor. This is the dark humor of unwieldy bureaucracies colliding in a place where solutions are impossible.

Frago is a raid of a suspected Al Qaeda house that goes wrong. As the house is getting cleared, a favorite Corporal is severely wounded. Also, as they go deeper into the house, they come upon a torture scene of two men bound to chairs, horrible beaten and crippled. The fresh Lieutenant has trouble coping. Members of the injured Corporal’s team are barely functional. In this story, the narrator is the Sargent. He has to be alert to everything and be responsive to the needs of the team. He has to know when to tell the dirty joke to lighten the mood and when to gently help a distraught private eat his ice cream. This is a deeply affecting story of the horrors that a team on patrol regularly must face during their deployment.

Sometimes I forget how young soldiers really are. These are men and women that face extreme hardship and need strong emotional resilience, but so many of them are only nineteen or twenty years old. In the story After Action Report, one of the soldiers who has just killed his first man (actually a boy), tries to escape his pain through endless hours of playing Pokemon. It just seems so unfair to them to ask to sacrifice so much. There’s simply no way that you can come back from some of those experiences unscarred, be it emotionally or physically

Especially in the early stories, there is a heavy reliance upon acronyms and jargon. It’s used to highlight the foreignness of the Iraq War. They are Americans fighting this war, but they are Americans that nearly have a language of their own. While I understood that, it did make for rough reading.

The stories also seemed to have a bit of an emotional distance. Perhaps Klay is still working on his craft and trying to draw so many characters was just a little too much for him. In too many of the stories, instead of feeling drawn to the character, I felt as if the character was just a straw man built to bring out another dimension of the Iraq War.

I found this to be an effective, affective collection, but it does not seem that this will be the definitive final literary word on the Iraq War.


A Few Scant Words About A Hypergraphic


Title: Joe Gould’s Teeth

Rating: 2 Stars

This has all of the makings of a great story. First of all, there is Joe Gould himself. He was a legendary, colorful, mysterious Greenwich Village character from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. He was known as a raconteur. He was allegedly writing an oral history of immense size. He walked around with copy books, incessantly writing in them (Lepore actually believes him to be suffering from hypergraphia). He gave volumes of writings to various friends and benefactors. He had literary friends such as E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Edmund Wilson that believed in him and tried to get him published. He had fairly serious mental problems, was constantly on the edge of homelessness, and spent time in various mental hospitals. Although not clear, ultimately he appeared to die in a hospital after a stew of electro-shock, possible lobotomy, and doses of psychotropic drugs. It’s truly a tale of a possible lost, misunderstood genius.

And then you have Joseph Mitchell, yet another New York character. He was Jimmy Breslin before there was Jimmy Breslin. For decades, he was a journalist for various New York papers. He hung around the edges of society and wrote about people that no one else wrote about. He consorted with strippers, bartenders, gamblers, and gave them a voice that they never had before. He was a Runyonesque character that served as the pattern and inspiration of every following New York journalist.

Their paths collide in the early 1940’s when Mitchell wrote a profile of Gould called Professor Seagull. Gould was called Professor Seagull because he had a habit of flapping his arms and squawking, which in hindsight apparently are symptoms of autism. The profile gave Gould a measure of fame. Whatever goodwill that might have been gained by this fame was pretty much squandered by Gould by his strange behavior, public drunkenness, and never ending requests for money.

Later, after Gould died in the late 1950’s, Mitchell set off in search of Gould’s oral history. By the time of his death, it should have consisted of many hundreds of volumes. Gould always wanted it to be published after his death and that it would change the entire concept of what a history is.

Mitchell searched high and low for it. Finally, he came to the reluctant conclusion that the oral history never existed. He believed that Gould, despite his incessant writing in his copy books, really had a massive case of writer’s block. He wrote a second piece about Gould describing this search called Joe Gould’s Secret, which was much acclaimed.

Mitchell wrote this book in 1964. Interestingly enough, Mitchell continued to go to work every day at The New Yorker for another thirty years after he wrote that piece (well into his nineties). Before that time, he was remarkably prolific. After, for the following thirty year period of time, he didn’t write another significant story.

Mitchell, after accusing Gould of a multi-decade case of writer’s block, proceeded to himself experience a multi-decade case of writer’s block.

Isn’t that a great story? Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone like a Erik Larson or a David Grann or a Laura Hillebrand would dive into the details of this period and these characters and piece together exactly what that happened?

Unfortunately, instead we have this book. As far as I can tell, it was written over a very short period of time as an exercise for Lepore’s grad students. She finds original sources, but then barely even talks about them. She finds hospitals where Gould might have stayed, but then barely even gets information out of them. She finds evidence of a curious relationship with an African American sculptor (Augusta Savage), but discovers little about their relationship. It truly appears that Gould’s last years could have been harrowing and possibly could have served a larger purpose of describing the horrifying state of mid century mental health care in America, but even that seems to have been give short shrift.

The research here is so shallow it’s dismaying.

When You Ask For James Bond And You Get Maxwell Smart


Title: Legacy of Ashes

Rating: 5 Stars

I first read this many years ago. So, as far as contemporary histories go, this is getting a little dated (written 10 years ago). However, given the history of the previous sixty years, it seems highly unlikely that the CIA has really changed in the interim.

It starts in the aftermath of WWII. Really for the first time in its history, the United States is truly an international power with interests that extend far beyond its shore. Clearly, the Soviet Union has designs beyond its border. What are its intentions? Does it want to take over all of Western Europe now that the bulk of it is in ruins? Will it try to spread communism all over the world?

Originally, all Truman wanted was someone to provide him an intelligence briefing that had more depth than what he could read in the New York Times. However, the veterans of the OSS had other ideas. They felt that the Soviet Union was an inexorable force and it must be fought back via all means possible.

And this sets a pattern for the future. The presidents, some of whom are more enamored with covert actions than others, by and large want one thing. They want to know what is going on in the hearts and minds of their adversaries. However, the bulk of the intelligence budget goes to covert action. You end up with CIA directors either outright lying to the president or at best misleading by misdirection.

All of this could be excusable if the CIA was at least good at either of the jobs. For most of its history, the CIA produced analysis, that at its best, is a just a rehash of what is known (several presidents claim they receive better analysis from The New York Times), and at its worse, is just blatantly wrong. With very few exceptions, the CIA has missed every historically significant event. If possible, the CIA might even be worse at covert action than it is at analysis.

Here are just some of the notable analysis failures of the CIA:

  • Said Soviet Union couldn’t produce an atomic bomb for at least 4 years at the very moment the Soviet Union set one off
  • Claimed that the Chinese would never cross the Yalu River into North Korea at the very moment that the Chinese were invading
  • Completely missed the Cuban missile crisis
  • Said Soviet Union wouldn’t invade Afghanistan at the very moment it invaded Afghanistan
  • Completely missed the Ayatollah coming to power in Iran and the rise of Islamic government in general
  • Missed the fall of the Soviet Union
  • Learned about the wall coming down by watching CNN
  • Had all kinds of warnings about 9/11 but could never synthesize it into actionable intelligence
  • Somehow mistook the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for a military warehouse; to this day many in China think its bombing was an at of deliberate provocation

In case missed analysis isn’t bad enough, how about blatantly misleading the president:

  • Falsified data to make it look like the Soviets were behind the terrorist acts of the 1970’s and 1980’s
  • Falsified enemy strength in Vietnam
  • Intentionally wrote up misleading assessments of WMDs in Iraq to make it look like the information came from multiple sources when it actually all came from one source aptly named Curveball
  • General multi-decade gross exaggeration of threats to ensure the funding would always be flowing

How about bad covert action:

  • Every single Soviet double agent was discovered, captured, and usually executed.
  • Thousands of partisans parachuted behind the iron curtain are either executed on the spot or turned to double agents.
  • Every single agent in Cuba recruited over a twenty year period was proven to be a double agent
  • Never could penetrate the Hanoi government during the Vietnam War
  • The primary impetus of Iran-Contra (I’ve now written about this a couple of times, it’s such an act of madness) was to free American hostages for arms to Iran but the net result was an increase of American hostages (since it basically set a market price for them)
  • An argument can be made that the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in the early 1950’s was the template that the United States was to follow (ie support a dictator and train his secret police) throughout the Middle East, ultimately leading to deaths of hundred of thousands of civilians and thousands of American soldiers
  • Arming the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan with absolutely no thought to the long term implications of doing so
  • Post 9/11, the CIA was given essentially super powers, which was squandered in secret prisons, torture, murder, domestic surveillance, and virtually no useful intelligence

How about morally reprehensible behavior?

  • Trained the brutal secret police of Iran, Iraq, Cambodia, Guatemala, Peru, and South Korea
  • Covertly funded the Ba’ath party, eventually leading to Saddam Hussein coming to power
  • At various times, provided intelligence to both Iran and Iraq during their war
  • Explicitly orchestrated overthrows of democratically elected governments in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile

I could go on and on. To quote from a Congressional investigation into the CIA: “Great successes are rare and failure is routine.”

For its entire seventy year history, the message has consistently been, give us five more years and we’ll really have this intelligence thing figured out.

Well, it’s clearly not working. Isn’t it time that maybe we just acknowledge the fact that secrecy and covert action is either anathema to democracy or possibly, at a fundamental level, just not part of the American character?


Jumping On The Fascist Crime Noir Bandwagon


Title: A Man Lies Dreaming

Rating: 5 Stars

Yesterday, when I wrote about Deadwood, I said that I probably gave it an artificially low rating because the HBO series Deadwood was one of my favorites and I kept comparing the novel unfavorably to it.

I have the exact opposite problem with A Man Lies Dreaming. This is one of those books that I just picked up at on a whim from the local book store. The cover was attractive and the blurb on the back seemed interesting, but I’d never heard of either the novel or the author, Lavie Tidhar. So, I had absolutely zero expectations going into it.

Well, it certainly blew past zero.

The basic story is a private detective in London in the late 1930’s named Wolf. It starts off like every hard boiled crime noir fiction starts. A beautiful siren with a problem and trouble on her mind enters a run down office of a nearly bankrupt, hungry for work, hungry for women, world weary PI (or dick, or shamus, or gumshoe). The case seems fishy, but Wolf takes it on.

As is usual in crime noir, nothing goes right for Wolf. The coppers have it in for him, rich men try to buy him off, their thugs knock him unconscious, and the dead bodies start to pile up. He in turn is a vicious man not averse to violence for his own ends.

It’s a pretty fine crime noir on its face.

But then…

You start to realize that this isn’t just any typical 1930’s London. Nazism has failed in Germany. The communists are in power there and have aligned with the Soviet Union. A huge influx of German immigrants have flooded into England. This has resulted in a dramatic surge in popularity for Oswald Mosley, a British Fascist who wants to throw out the German immigrants.

Wolf himself is a German immigrant. In fact (and this isn’t particularly disguised, so doesn’t really count as a spoiler), Wolf is Adolf Hitler. He had been thrown into a concentration camp as a result of the Communist takeover of Germany, but has managed to escape and is now living in London in obscurity.

But then…

Every couple of pages, the plot switches to Shomer, who is a Jewish prisoner barely surviving in a Nazi concentration camp. In his previous life, Shomer was a pulp fiction novelist. As he’s working, to keep his sanity, he is imagining an alternate reality in which Hitler does not rise to power but actually lives the life of a concentration camp prisoner himself before living a life of depravity, poverty, and obscurity.

So, the main plot of the novel is actually a novel within a novel that is the dream of another character in the novel.

For those of you keeping score at home, I believe that this makes this novel the very rarely executed hard boiled crime noir post modern WWII alternate history story in a story dreamed in a concentration camp.

What’s odd is that just a couple of months ago, I read a novel called Clinch, which was a crime noir (set in Sweden) in 1932. This work is the first of a series, possibly dealing with Sweden’s flirtations with fascism. Is this some kind of a trend?

If so, then it does make sense. The height of crime noir was probably in the 1930’s (think Chandler and Hammett), which coincided with the rise of fascism. Also, in crime noir, usually the down on his luck detective is having to fight some vague but menacing authoritarian power (think Chinatown), and what could be more menacing than fascists?

Be that as it may, I’ve read a lot of books. Most times, when you read a book, you can kind of see the overarching narrative arc of the work. I have to admit that I always give bonus points for stories such as this that surprises me. On top of that, I have a weakness for crime noir. I enjoy alternate histories. I went through a period of reading a lot about WWII.

Basically, I think that this novel was written specifically just for me.

And I appreciate it.

Beaten By A…Gasp…Television Series


Title: Deadwood

Rating: 3 Stars

First of all, I have to say that this isn’t a fair review. It’s actually a perfectly fine novel, probably worthy of a higher rating. It’s just that I can’t stop comparing it to the television series Deadwood, in which there really is no comparison.

First, let’s talk about the book. This is the story of the early founding of Deadwood. The first part focuses on Wild Bill Hickok and Colorado Charlie Utter. They are best friends. Hickok is a legendary figure but is down on his luck and is not in good health. Utter does his best to keep his friend out of trouble.

This is hard to do because he is Wild Bill and everyone in the town wants a piece of him. They want to gamble with him. They want to drink with him.  They want to swap stories with him. When Charlie leaves him alone to run an errand, Hickok is murdered. Charlie has to come back to bury him and to send condolences to his widow.

Hickok has an air of resigned fatalism. He seems to sense that Deadwood is going to be his last stop. He has some kind of urinary tract infection and his vision is slowly going (never a good thing for a marksman). With his weary detachment, he simply endures.

Utter is active, clever and sardonic. He has a wry quip for every occasion. Together, Utter and Hickok clearly form a strong bond.

The sections after Hickok’s death are not as strongly drawn. There’s an odd section where Utter, in his grief, consorts with a masochistic prostitute while a Chinese prostitute plots his demise. There’s another section where Agnes, Hickok’s newly minted widow, comes to visit Deadwood. Finally, there’s a section that focuses on Calamity Jane, the always drunk, slightly crazed, frontier woman that finds her true calling nursing victims of smallpox. She truly thinks that she has a gift of God and apparently does have some kind of immunity to the disease. However, mysteriously enough, even though she’s immune, usually within two weeks of her arrival into a town a smallpox epidemic always seems to erupt.

These sections are fine, but they pale to the Utter / Hickok section and at times, it wasn’t really clear what the purpose they were serving.

Now, contrast that to the HBO series. The similarities are that both capture Utter’s sardonic wit and Hickok’s weary acceptance of his fame and his fate. In both, their friendship is clear and strong.

However, the other characters in the series are just so much more richly drawn. Al Swearingen, who in the novel is a pretty weak, cowardly pimp, is a dark force of malignancy in the series. Seth Bullock, here a pretty straightforward law and order sheriff, is a grimly repressed man of compressed rage in the series. E.B. Farnum was a throwaway character in the novel but is fully formed in all of his toady, sniveling glory in the series. And so on…

And the language in the series! Rumor is it that writers wrote scripts for the series, turned them into Milch, and then Milch completely rewrote the dialog. I can believe it because the dialog, with its mixture of raucous crudity and Shakespearean eloquence, is the greatest that I’ve witnessed in, well, any non-Shakespearean play. It’s certainly the only television series that I’ve ever watched where occasionally I’d get so caught up in the beauty of the dialog that I’d lose track of the plot.

I know that it’s not fair. The novel was written twenty years before the series. The novel is 350 pages while the series is 36 hour long episodes. I get that. It’s just that with the series in my head, the novel just seemed like a pale reflection.

Infinite Jest, Jr


Title: Girl With Curious Hair

Rating: 3 Stars

I’d read this collection many years ago. I didn’t remember a whole lot from it, so I gave it another shot.

The good news is that I enjoyed the short stories. My favorite was Lyndon, which probably tells more about my minor obsession with presidents than it does the quality of the story.

It’s the story of a fictionalized aide to LBJ, rising from the lowly mail room to being in LBJ’s constant presence. It briefly touches upon his senate and presidential actions, but it focuses on LBJ the person. I’ve read a review that describes Wallace’s fictionalized depictions of real world people as being holographic. That’s pretty apt. Somehow, within the span of a short story, Wallace can draw a character and it seems to breathe life. All of LBJ’s bravado, crudeness, and insecurity are on display here.

My Appearance is the story of a fairly successful actress getting ready to appear on the David Letterman show. Bear in mind that this collection was written in the late 1980’s, when David Letterman was doing his late show and was considered the arbiter of all that was cool. The actress, the lead in a television series, had just started making hotdog commercials. Her husband and her friend are terrified that Letterman will rip her apart and ruin her career over this. There are very intense strategy sessions to try to figure out how to respond to his questions in a knowingly (but not too knowing!) ironic manner to demonstrate her knowingly unknowing ironic self awareness (but not too self aware!). The fact that very successful, very highly paid people are obsessively working out the calculus of a five minute television interview is humorous. Letterman, sketched with few words but again with holographic clarity, is, in his own way, completely non-ironically authentic, making a mockery of all of the stratagems that the actress’ handlers were trying to employ.

Predating Ken Jennings, there is a story about a woman who has a three year winning streak on Jeopardy. This is used to get behinds the scenes of a game show. As with My Appearance, it takes a fairly benign television event, and you see intelligent, very highly paid people taking it extremely too seriously. Merv Griffin is presented as some kind of mysterious guru sage dispensing advice only to his initiates. Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and Bert Convy, all faces of popular game shows, obsess over their appearance and try to fill the days between their easy work schedules.

My other favorite story was the Girl With Curious Hair. In this story there is a collection of punk rockers who have become friends with a wealthy conservative young Republican businessman. The anti-social actions of the punk rockers mesh with the sociopathic nihilist tendencies of the young man to disrupt a jazz concert. It contrasts the social violence of the punk rockers with the actual deranged violence of the young man (he burns people for sexual enjoyment). This marriage of two different violent attitudes bringing forth possibly even greater violence led me to Alex recovering his violent tendencies and getting into league with the government at the end of A Clockwork Orange (I’m ignoring the 21st chapter which the American edition excluded and  that the Kubrick movie also conveniently ignored 🙂 ).

The collection closed with a novella named Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way. For me, this was the weakest work in the collection. I haven’t read too many reviews of it. I’m guessing that it’s probably the most technically skilled of all of the stories. It’s the story of an advertising executive who has the McDonald’s account gathering together all actors that have ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial to appear in one more commercial that will be the apex of all McDonald’s commercials and possibly be the fin de siecle of advertising in general.

To me, this work is a dress rehearsal for Infinite Jest. It has the elements of post modernism that Wallace is famous for. There is the visible author of the story forcibly injecting himself into the work. There is the immediate now cultural references. There is gender confusion (is Magda really Dr Ambrose’s ex-wife or is she actually Dr Ambrose in drag?). There is the cognitive dissonance of literature (ie art) meshing with consumerism. There are obscure call outs to post modernists before him (eg John Barth).

And, oddly enough, there is Jack Lord. Yes, that Jack Lord, the star of the television series Hawaii Five-O. Bizarrely enough, about a year or two after this work came out, Thomas Pynchon released the long awaited Vineland, his first novel since Gravity’s Rainbow (I was literary aware then and it was kind of a shocking event since most people thought that the reclusive Pynchon had given up writing). Sure enough, in Vineland, Hawaii Five-O and Jack Lord make an appearance.

What is up with post modernists and Hawaii Five-O? Is it the overt colonialism (white man overhead in helicopter directing / imprisoning brown people)? Is the square jaw of Jack Lord some symbol of authority that they’re rebelling against? I haven’t read Vineland in a long time either, but I’m pretty sure at one point, just like here, someone says “Book-em, Danno”.

Anyway, this story, possibly a precursor to Infinite Jest, is definitely not Infinite Jest. It appears to be an early offering of an author trying to find his way. There really is nothing like a plot, it’s really just a group of people driving around in a car. The writing exhibits the worse traits of “look ma, no hands” kind of writing that Wallace made to much better use later (although, even here, as the omnipresent author, he amusingly acknowledges this self indulgence).

That’s not to say that Wallace’s genius doesn’t shine through. I don’t think it’s in him to actually write a bad story. Even in the novella and strewn throughout the other stories, there are almost throw away lines that made me laugh out loud.

Saving The American Way By Declaring Martial Law


Title: Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die

Rating: 3 Stars

This breaks American history into several phases. The first phase, of which not much time was spent discussing, was I guess what you’d call the innocence phase, which ended at the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

This was an age where the president was very accessible to people. Up until the beginning of WWII, the White House was open. You could just go in and walk around just like any other public building. Amusingly enough, up until the 1910’s, not only could you walk into the White House, if the president wasn’t in, you could just walk into his office and literally sit in his chair. For someone who has lived in a radically different era, this is pretty much unfathomable.

The constitution created the role of vice president and that was pretty much all that it said about succession. Concepts like presidential succession and continuity of government was just not something that was seriously considered. This is all the more astonishing considering the fact that during this time, three presidents were assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), and a couple of more died in office (Harrison, Taylor, Harding). There was no provision at all to replace a vice president. In the case of Madison, a two term president, both of his vice presidents died while he was in office. In fact, after one of them died, Madison himself became dangerously ill for several weeks. If he’d died and Congress was not in session, there literally would have been no one to succeed him. And no one seemed to care.

This was the situation for the first 170 or years of America’s existence.

And then we dropped the atomic bomb. And then the Soviets detonated their atomic bomb. And then the Cold War started.

This ushered in the second phase. Suddenly, our leaders, all conveniently and centrally located in Washington D.C., realized that one bomb could quite literally wipe out the federal government. With the rise of ICBM’s, the government could be wiped out with little more than thirty minutes notice. There were credible rumors that the Soviets had smuggled in components of an atomic bomb to their embassy in D.C., which meant that maybe the government could be wiped out with no notice.

This set off decades of planning and billions of dollars of expenditures. Caverns were carved out of mountains to serve as hardened facilities for rump governments. Billions were spent on advance warning systems watching for impending missile attacks. Shadow governments were defined to spring up in case of destruction.

Obsessed with making sure that one good turn deserves another, many, many billions of dollars were spent creating massively redundant systems that would guarantee that, if the American leadership was decapitated, that a full retaliatory strike on the Soviets would be unleashed.

What did that buy us? Our fail safe systems several times gave off false warnings of full incoming attacks. One came so close to retaliation that a call was placed in the middle of the night to President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, telling him that America was under attack. He decided not to wake his wife because he thought it would be better for her to die in her sleep.

The shadow governments that were supposed to be stood up post attack were a joke. First of all, there was no provision to save anyone’s families. The men (and yes, there were pretty much all men) would be required to abandon their families. Even during drills, unsurprisingly enough, many men simply refused to leave.

Ultimately, after all of the talk of setting up shadow governments with functioning laws and legislative bodies, it was clear that the end result was always going to be a dictatorship. The planners freely admitted this. Yay! We saved America! Let’s all live under martial law now!

We had all of this planning to meet the Soviet menace and their tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. So, what was the action that tripped our Continuity of Government (COG) processes? Nineteen guys with box cutters.

9/11 and its aftermath is the third phase of phase of our history. All of the plans that had been laid over the previous 50 years were tested out in real life. Shockingly enough, they failed miserably. George W Bush, aimlessly circling in Air Force One across the plains of America, had no access to what was going on. Occasionally, the plane would pick up local television signals as they flew over so he picked up tidbits. Secretary of State Colin Powell, flying back from Peru, had no access to information. Even Dick Cheney, in the fucking situation room of the White House, discovered that the situation room did not the ability to have two audio signals happening simultaneously. He could either hold a secure telephone call or he could watch CNN, but the room did not allow him to do both. Congressmen and Senators, who were supposed to be evacuated, milled around the Capitol building, sitting ducks if another plane were to appear. A plane containing FEMA personnel flying to D.C. to render assistance was almost shot down by a fighter.

It was a mess. Clearly, the answer is to spend untold billions of classified dollars remaking the plans and building even more structures, and so we did.

It’s a fascinating story. It is also chock full of facts that I found to be hilarious, such as:

  • After Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service frantically tried to find an armored car to transport FDR in. The only car that fit the bill was a confiscated one that Al Capone owned. For a while, the presidential limousine was a gangster’s ride.
  • Even into the 1960’s, security was occasionally laughably bad. At the time of JFK’s assassination, LBJ was living in a house in D.C. (this was before the VP residence). His address and phone number were listed in the D.C. phone book.
  • As part of the post apocalyptic planning, the IRS developed a plan to continue to collect taxes in a nuclear wasteland.
  • During the last days of Nixon’s presidency, worried about his sanity and alcohol abuse, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger quietly warned all of the military leaders to ignore any launch orders from Nixon. Similarly, on Nixon’s last flight, he assured everyone that he’d have the nuclear football (the suitcase containing the codes) until he landed. Unbeknownst to him, they’d already taken the football away from him.
  • The person involved with Reagan’s extensive COG was none other than motherfucking Oliver North. In a previous post, I’d nominated Kim Philby as person of the century. Oliver North gives him a run for the money. He was part of the Operation Eagle Claw, which was the failed mission to rescue the Iranian hostages. This was one of the opening salvos of the war in the Middle East that America has been fighting for coming on four decades now. He was a key player (possibly even the architect) of Iran Contra. And now I find out that he planned Reagan’s COG? Forget about going back in time and killing baby Hitler. How would the world be now if we just went back and killed baby North?

So, given all of this, what’s with the three stars? Although the tale is at times harrowing, infuriating, and hilarious, this was just absolutely bogged down in acronyms, obscure programs, and tedious plans. I appreciate the amount of research that went into this work, but the amount of research actually buries the narrative at many points. There were several times that I felt my eyes glaze over and I know that I just mindlessly skipped past many pages.

There is a great story to be told here, and most of it is told. It’s just hidden among a blizzard of arcana.

Purdue Pharma and Xalisco Tag Team America


Title: Dreamland

Rating: 4 Stars

Two forces collide at a vulnerable time in America.

After a couple of decades of globalization, there are broad swaths of the country economically depressed. Trapped in small towns where all manufacturing has left and main street businesses have been destroyed by Wal-Mart, all that’s left is low wage jobs at places such as Wal-Mart. People want to work but can’t get work and ultimately give up wanting to work.

At the same time, in slightly more successful towns, there are middle to upper middle class kids that are bored with pot and want to experiment more dangerously.

Into the void steps the small Mexican city of Xalisco in the small state of Nayarit. The people there are mostly poor, doing back breaking work growing sugar cane. The farmers in the hills have a long history of growing poppy and there is a local tradition of cultivating it to grow black tar heroin.

Starting small, a few of the local townspeople cross into the US and start a modest drug operation. Unlike the more famous Mexican drug cartels, they eschew violence. In fact, they intentionally stay away from those cities where gangs are already established. They set up bases in modest places like Columbus, Ohio, or Santa Fe, New Mexico.

They bring up young Xalisco men to serve as their delivery drivers. These young men are paid a straight salary and must not use drugs themselves. They haunt methadone clinics and give out free samples. They hand out business cards. If an addict calls, the drivers will deliver to the addict’s home. If an addict complains of bad service, he/she will be given free drugs. Since heroin addicts are used to having to go to the rough part of town and try to negotiate with street dealers, this is obviously a huge step up in customer service. They’re basically the Domino’s of heroin.

And like Domino’s, they quickly franchise. They seek out any mid-size city that does not already have a gang presence and that has a methadone clinic. That’s the signal to them that there are heroin addicts there and that they are not being well served. They quickly fan out to many cities spanning many states.

In the one instance where racism actually helps out the black community, the men from Xalisco are unsophisticated country boys from Mexico and believe that black men are violent, so they have another rule of never selling to a black person. All of the addicts that they serve are white.

Since they’re dealing almost directly with the farmers that grow the poppies, the heroin is essentially uncut, so it’s significantly more powerful. Just that fact alone makes the heroin more dangerous and causes more overdoses.

Along with what the author calls the ‘Xalisco Boys’, there’s another development. In 1979, a Dr Jick, who kept a database of medical records, noticed that very few patients that were prescribed opiates became addicted. He thought that was interesting, so he and a graduate student named Jane Porter submitted a letter (one paragraph) to the New England Journal of Medicine stating that fact. Dr Jick forgot about the letter and went about his business.

Later, a scientist at Purdue Pharma figures out a way to create a pill comprised of oxycodone that coats the pill in such a way that the drug is released over time. Hence OxyContin was created.

Along with this was a revolution in pain management. People began to study pain and wanted pain to be listed as the fifth vital sign (along with the normal body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure).

Purdue Pharma then sent an army of sales people out to doctors. Doctors, who previously were very reluctant to prescribe opiates, were now effectively being told that not treating pain could be considered malpractice (since pain was so vital to a patient’s health). Also, that one paragraph letter by Porter and Jick was now being called a ‘landmark study’ proving that, for people in pain, that opiates are not addictive. Since this was in the 90’s, the letter wasn’t online, so no one apparently decided to check up on the details of this ‘landmark study’. There was some pseudo-mystical explanation that somehow pain prevents the euphoria of addiction (and no, I’m not making that up).

So, there was an explosion of opiate prescriptions. But that was OK because opiates are not addictive and because of the time release nature of OxyContin, right?

So…it took addicts about 5 minutes to realize that if you crush the pill, that destroys the time release shell of the pill and then you’re left with pure oxycodone. Even worse, the makers of OxyContin actually placed a warning on the box that crushing the pill would increase the dose.

From that knowledge, an entire underground drug industry was built. Pill mills quickly cropped up. Doctors that could get no other jobs (convicted of crimes, lost their licenses in other states, themselves addicted) set up clinics where they did nothing but prescribed pills and only accepted cash. Some of the clinics served as pharmacies as well. Entrepreneurs would round up a car full of addicts and drive them from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions, would give the addicts half of their prescription and then sell the rest. Senior citizens sold their prescribed pills to supplement their retirement income. At one point, the town of Portsmouth, Ohio had an underground economy based upon pills, where addicts shoplifted or sold their possessions in exchange for a fixed amount of pills.

However, over time, even the OxyContin pills would not be enough to feed a person’s addiction. At that point the Xalisco Boys would step up and start selling the addict heroin.

Young white men and women, high school age, looking for a little danger, found themselves addicted, and often dead. The children of policemen, the children of bankers, football players, cheerleaders, they all found themselves addicted. Children would die of an overdose and the parent, ashamed, thinking they were the only ones, said that it was a heart attack. This secret shame let the epidemic continue on unabated.

There were more deaths in Ohio due to this epidemic than Americans killed in Iraq. More people died than in the crack cocaine epidemic. More died during this time than died of HIV.

If there is anything approaching a silver lining to this is that, at least in the Southern and Appalachian states, there is a growing awareness that drug addiction is not just a black problem. After a couple of decades of draconian drug sentences, there is now an understanding that drugs are a problem for all of us, and perhaps addicts should be treated instead of imprisoned.

This was a sobering work, obviously. It was well researched and well written.

The only glitch that kept it from being a pure five star review is the afterword. After all of the talk about the forces (economic, social, global) that led us to this point, Quinones makes the odd point that maybe the root cause is that kids don’t play in public parks anymore. I guess that you can make an argument that social isolation is not great, but to close with that statement, after laying out all of the other forces at work, seemed, well, I’m sorry to say, kind of asinine. The afterword, at least in my edition, is written in a slightly different font than the rest of the book, which almost led me to the paranoid suspicion that this was somehow covertly inserted into my copy. Such was the difference in tone and style between it and the rest of the book.

A Quiet Life Meticulously Told


Title: Stoner

Rating: 5 Stars

First things first, this has nothing to do with drugs. 🙂

This is the story of William Stoner. He’s a farm boy who is sent off to college so that he can study agriculture and apply the knowledge that he’s learned there back on the small family farm. Once there, he takes a mandatory introduction to English literature. He falls under the thrall of language and decides (with the help of a mentor) that he wants to become a teacher. He does so, falls in love, has a child, lives in an unhappy marriage, has a short but passionate love affair, gets caught up in a faculty politics, gets cancer, retires, and dies.

That’s pretty much it. Stoner does not live a big life. He does not live a heroic life. He doesn’t even live a particularly happy life.

And I think that’s kind of the point.

John Williams takes a inconsequential life, and in simple prose, gives it a much richer meaning.

One of the themes of Stoner is duty. In the year 2017, that probably sounds quaint. However, William understands the duties that are expected of him and he quietly, without complaint, shoulders them. He goes off to the university so that he can better help his farmer parents. He has a moment of crisis when he confesses to them that he wishes to stay at the college, studying for his masters, and then to teach. His father, himself a disciple to duty, understands his duty as a father to his son, and grants his permission for Stoner to continue.

William’s marriage to Edith is dreadful. She, mentally unstable and treats him with hate. At no point does William even contemplate leaving her. He understands his duty to her and faithfully fulfills it. Edith, at most times, wants nothing to do with their daughter, Gloria. In addition to his work at the university, William is the parent that feeds and clothes his daughter. In the current time, that is not particularly shocking. In 1965, I’d imagine that this would be treated as some sort of heroic devotion to duty.

Another theme is adherence to some kind of other world idealism. When WWI breaks out, William’s two best friends, Finch and Masters, sign up immediately. However, after careful consideration and with no trace of cowardice, William decides that staying at the university is more important to fighting. He risks his friendship with Finch and Masters, not to mention possible future career impact, in making his decision.

In a similar manner, years later as a professor conducting a review of a student, he feels duty bound to fail the student even though the student is a protege of his department head, Professor Lomax. Lomax takes his revenge out on William in the ensuing decades, refusing to talk to him and denying him a promotion to full professor until William is dying of cancer. In William’s world, accepting a known poor candidate into the ranks of teaching would be a complete abandonment of duty and a betrayal to the higher call of teaching, so even though he knows that he will pay a steep price, he cannot allow the student to pass.

In lock step with his obligations to duty, his life is filled with sadness. He has an unhappy marriage. His child, Grace, growing up in an unhappy house with an unstable mother, lets herself get pregnant just so that she can escape. Her reluctant husband almost immediately goes off and dies in WWII. Grace in turn abandons her child to her in-laws and starts to lose herself to alcohol. Even William’s affair with Katherine, for all of the joy that it gives him, is ultimately forced to come to a premature end due to Lomax, and he then must return back to the duties of his unhappy marriage and middling career.

In this dreariness, there are moments of what can be described as awestruck passion. The first time that William reads a Shakespearean sonnet. When his mentor offers him the career opportunity of teaching. The first time that he sees Grace. The first time that he actually gets his teaching groove on and realizes that he can teach and inspire. His first moment of passion with Katherine. In a dull, dreary life, these moments shoot off like fireworks.

Williams is saying that even in the most dull, monotonous, and nondescript lives there are these moments of passion, joy, or spirit. Lying on a deathbed, looking back on one’s life,  a person can remember and re-live these moments. It is these moments that make life worth living.

Contrarian Historian Hatorade


Title: The Politicians & The Egalitarians

Rating: 2 Stars

I picked this book up pretty much on a whim. I was just wandering through a book store and, as per usual, I checked out the staff selections. I mean, who would have a deeper passion for books than people working at a bookstore? So, I saw it there on the rack, read the back of the book blurb, and took a dive.

On the surface, it showed a lot of promise. Especially recently, in our hyper polarized political world in which we live, the idea of compromising politicians and the dirty wheeling-dealing of the legislative process has given politics a bad name. Reading a book that grants the possibility that sometimes social progress lurches forward via the half a loaf of compromise approach might not be such a bad message now. Also, given the ever increasing economic divide that our country has experienced over the last several decades, some few kind words about the radicals that rise up in history and tilt at windmills in the name of our country’s ideals of equality of opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness might be a soothing balm. Understanding the ying and the yang of the compromising politician and the rigorous absolutism of the egalitarian might have made an entertaining read.

Alas, this book was not that. It was a series of essays of various political figures. There were essays on Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. I was expecting that each one would be placed somewhere in the category of politicians or egalitarians or maybe how the pull of one or the other somehow moved the subject to a certain position.

But no, it was not that. Instead, a lot of it seemed to be throwing mud at previous historians. Apparently, over the last several decades, Thomas Jefferson has had some fair amount of shade thrown at him. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good for one of America’s philosophes, espousing equality for everyone and traumatized by the institution of slavery, to have had several children with a slave and upon his death, break up his slaves’ families in an auction to pay off his bills. However, here, Wilentz goes to some lengths to try to reclaim Jefferson’s reputation. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with the theme of politicians and egalitarians?

Even more oddly, some of his essays don’t really even have anything to do with politicians or egalitarians. He wrote an essay on the Homestead strike. He wrote another essay on the difference between liberals and leftists. He even wrote one about junk history, specifically focusing on Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States.

What is the tie that binds all of these together?

To top it all off, he closes (without not even so much as an afterword to try to tie these essays together) with an essay on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Robert Caro has spent much of the last 30 years writing a mammoth biography of LBJ. He’s finished the fourth volume and is trying to finish the fifth before he dies (he’s in his 80’s). These works have won national book awards and Pulitzers. Wilentz spends a significant chunk of this essay trying to take Caro down, basically claiming that Caro made a fundamental mistake in an assessment of LBJ’s character in the early stages of his work. He is now trapped by that mistake and as the decades unfold, is being forced to write within this trap of his own making.

OK, maybe that’s kind of interesting…if you’re a contrarian historian looking to take the piss out of someone, but again, remember your title and theme…you know…politicians and egalitarians?

He does try to tie this essay back to the theme by contrasting LBJ as the consummate politician who got shit done with Barack Obama, who theoretically wanted to be post partisan but was unable / unwilling to get down into the muck to actually get it done. Ultimately he even concedes that minor point by admitting that LBJ had huge majorities in both the Senate and the House, while Obama did not for most of his term.

Probably the only reason why this didn’t fall down to 1 star is because some of the essays were interesting (ie I didn’t know all that much about W.E.B. DuBois, so I found that essay enlightening).