Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Donald and Hillary

Ah, Countrycompanionaires,

Again, I have left you forsaken too long.  Events continue to transpire, and you don't know what to think.

Partly it's the computer -- my blog directory disappeared here in New Hampshire, and it took the local magician/goatherder to get me back in business.  But here we are.  The politics of the summer is challenging, but let me get everybody straightened out.

The first conundrum is the astonishing materialization of Donald Trump across the political landscape.  He's like the blowfish in the bathtub -- how can you find the soap?  The real question is, why is he doing this?  Bobby Kennedy once assured me that the only two tangible advantages of the presidency were the airplanes and the telephones.  Trump has airplanes comparable to the federal government, and I'm sure he can get an outside line, so what is he after?

I activated my contacts behind the scenes and came up with the following scenario.  Trump has been going broke.  The Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt and his real estate loans are crushing him.  He has discovered that candidates for the presidential nomination, no matter how far-fetched, get to keep a lot of the cash they raise.  Better, facing serious competition, Hillary Clinton -- whom Trump has been slipping money to for years -- gave him a call and indicated that the Clinton Foundation might find a way to bail Trump out if he would get into the Republican primaries and sow utter havoc.  The Deal looked good to The Donald from every angle, and in he has strode.

Meanwhile,her e-mail problems lately have been agitating the hyperkenitic Hillary Clinton like a late-blooming eczema.  It took a Clinton presidential pardon to get CIA Director John Deutch off the hook when he did classified business out of his house, and General Petraeus may yet get sentenced.  More annoying, snide comments about those overstuffed pants-suits, Hillary's power uniform, are circulating among the cognoscenti.  She needs a style breakout, something so daring and unexpected that nobody can again claim she is smug, inimaginitive, behind the wave.

And just in time the initiative she needs is appearing.  Nationwide, feminists in the know are getting behind the Free the Nipple movement, the overdue awareness that while men may strut around topless even during business hours on Wall Street, the law requires women to keep their beloved    pectorals covered up.  Is this reasonable?  Is this gender equality?  The plan being hatched by the Hillary braintrust requires that, at the.peak moment during her next major presentation, the candidate divest herself and reveal her dedication to the movement with all the courage and originality her millions of followers have been craving all along.

The all-consuming Donald, who remains markedly overweight, can never trump that.  So to speak.  You heard it here first, remember.

Ever, troops,

Burton  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Holy Land IV

Coconspiritors Everywhere,

Again, a bit more of a hiatus than anticipated.  The world turns.  I was reminded, swerving on my bike back into our driveway in St. Petersburg the other afternoon, to find the bougainvillea sapling I planted a few years ago in the island of our turnaround exploding with Chinese red blossoms. Ripeness is all, and spring comes with a gratifying violence around here.  I wrote a poem once addressing this recurrent miracle:

                                                Florida: The Permutations of May

                                                        The ibises in committee
                                                         Are pecking up our lawn,
                                                         Their black-tipped probes must aerate
                                                         Our sprinkler-driven dawn.

                                                          The stately jacaranda blooms
                                                           Drop filtering through our tea.
                                                           The transference of spring is rife
                                                           With deep psychiatry.

                                                            Beside our pine the egret towers
                                                            And eyes me from afar.
                                                            If I would peck grubs from the bark
                                                            He'd gladly drive my car.

                                                            The trees are putting out fresh scales,
                                                            The lizards all are budding.
                                                            The rock is crawling on the moss,
                                                             Its stony heart is thudding.

                                                            This is the time our solid core
                                                            Turns to a molten thing.
                                                             Don't ask what spring can do for you.
                                                             What can you do for spring?

I sent a copy of this poem to Edward Kennedy, whose biography I was working on at the time.  I knew he would pick up on more than the reference.  He wrote me he liked it a lot; he wrote poetry himself from time to time, although he tried to keep that quiet.  His difficult death has been a weight on my spirit ever since.  When Walt Whitman composed "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" he dealt with some of the misery losing Abraham Lincoln involved.  No parallels involved here, but as I reread the poem above perhaps I feel the same way.

If Ted Kennedy were alive today I have a hunch the recurring waves of tribal animosity and open religious hatred that are toxifying feelings here as well as abroad would more than sadden him.  Having devoted his entire professional life to providing for the neglected and the oppressed, the savage cross-currents of hatred, recrimination and violence that are destroying the ancient cultures of the Middle East and are starting to convulse us here would have aroused Kennedy's most profound revulsion.

 Floating around in Israel, as I've indicated, I found myself comparing ideas with plain people attempting to keep going somehow.  The driver of our bus, a tall, dignified Palestinian from East Jerusalem, never missed a chance to offer up prayers on his knees whenever we were stopped near enough a Mosque.  He helped us daily, in every way he could.  I would remain astounded at his skill negotiating our big tour bus in and out of the back-switching, overhung streets, jammed every waking minute with vehicles,  Returned to America, I wondered how this patient man would have responded to the provocations of nitwits like Pamela Geller, co-founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, who is making a career out of baiting Muslims by sponsoring competitions among aspiring artists to determine who can draw the most demeaning caricature of the prophet Muhammad.  This in the name of the First Amendment.  When a couple of ISIS hotheads appeared with weapons at one of Pamela's convocations in Garland, Texas they were gunned down by a waiting posse.

As Muhammad himself emphasized, we are all -- Jews, Christians, Muslims --  the children of Abraham.  The merchants of hate seem to be poised these days to take over the planet.  This must be fought by civilized people of every origin until our world comes to its senses.

That's what we can do for spring.

Always,

Burton Hersh

 







                                                                     


Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Holy Land -- III

Fellow Countrycongregants.

Almost six weeks since we returned from Israel, and the place still haunts me.  The New York Times covers Israeli affairs with a thoroughness and realism I sometimes wish the paper took to our own politics.  This morning's edition contains a profile of Ayelet Shaked, a former computer engineer sworn in this week as Israel's Minister of Justice.  Strikingly attractive, demonstrably more than adept with eye liner and lip gloss, the article identifies this thirty-nine-year-old star of the Intractable Right as a hard worker -- " a robot" -- and openly promoting a "'nationality bill' that many see as disenfranchising Israel's Arab minority, about 20 percent of the population." Ecco -- Israel's new "Justice Minister?"

At a time when -- to my observation -- a great many Israeli Arabs are increasingly horrified by the chaos throughout the Muslim Middle East and quietly grateful for the protection and social advantages of residency in the Israeli state, an appointment like this must have horrifying implications.  It has to nourish throughout the Arab community the apprehension that its days in Israel are numbered.  Recent student elections in the universities of the West Bank came down heavily in favor of Hamas rather than the more moderate Fatah.  Selecting a hard-nosed babe like Avelet Shaked doesn't help.

What kept coming through during our days in Israel was how heavily the stresses and costs keep building in this tense garrison state.  Israel has a flourishing industrial life, from pharmaceuticals to armaments, but for the great majority of the citizens who keep the country running day to day the demands are incessant.  Apart from the mandatory years of military service and the annual month of training for both men and women, there are the open-ended call-backs as war follows war.
 
Most memories of these engagements are not especially heroic.  Our guide, Rotem Litov, a tank commander in his other life, remembers weeks on end, quite recently, getting through the days with the other four men in his tank laying ambushes for roving parties from Hamas.  The tank was beyond cramped, and sanitation was such that the men took pills to bind them up until the battle was over, sometimes weeks. Nobody's mood improved a lot.

 My college roommate's son-in-law, nominally a banker, is also a reserve lieutenant colonel and the commander of an artillery battalion whenever the balloon goes up.  His son is an explosive specialist, and inescapably the family was on edge for months even after dad got back as the boy remained out there helping blow up mile after mile of the tunnels that survived the recent unpleasantness in Gaza.  Dangerous work, a lot of unanticipated casualties.

Taxes are high -- close to confiscatory, 50% on the cost of a new car.  Higher education is so expensive that families with roots in the United States are moving back here to educate the next generation.  The prices of apartments in Tel Aviv rival Manhattan.  The hands-on, post-religious, do-it-yourself mentality of the founders seems to be giving way to the priorities of investment bankers.  A great many are expected to sacrifice, but not that many appear to be profiting, and the anxiety about the surrounding Muslims chokes off the populist impulses which would normally inspire a remedial labor vote.

Irreconcilables on the Arab side play into all this.  We had one session with a spokeswoman for the PLO, a svelte lady of Armenian heritage.  Her version of Israeli history was utterly expurgated and completely made up -- she left out things like the invasion of the Arab armies after Israel accepted the United Nations mandate, although she did fess up again and again when confronted with the details.  She threw in comments like an aside to the effect that all the settlers streaming through to occupy the expanding enclaves in the West Bank were shipped in wholesale from the United States.  That sounded highly unlikely: A social scientist I checked with afterwards agreed that such a projection was beyond wild.  Some Americans had moved in, at best no more than twenty percent. And many soon went home.  But propaganda like this may well be stirring up those Palestinian college students.

Despite all the above, there is hope.  But the Middle East will have to move beyond provocation, beyond racism and delusions of group superiority into a larger humanity.  Perhaps Allah will provide.

Stay well,

Burton Hersh

 




Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Holy Land II

Fellow Countrycommandantes,

Still coming down from two weeks battering through Israel.  I spent much of last week under the lights in a sound studio in Washington, D.C., where a crew of zealots interviewed me exhaustively for a ten-hour documentary intended to worm out of my scratchy memory the whole truth about the Kennedy family.  My two full-length treatments of the family, Bobby and J. Edgar and Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography are replete with widely suppressed facts and interpretations of what actually happened throughout the Kennedy years, from Chappaquiddick to Dallas, revelations largely avoided in calculated establishment cover-ups.  We shall see how much of what I divulged will make it into the final cut.

I think I was still processing the implications of what I had run across in Israel during the previous month.  Most surprising, I have to suggest, was the absence of threat, the open and relatively unprotected way we were able to roll around the country, from the border in the Galilee overlooking Syria to the Judean desert below the Dead Sea, almost entirely without guards or security measures or warnings of any kind.  It was far easier to get in and out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv than to process through endless customs hangups coming home through JFK.  I had the chance to exchange ideas with a variety of Muslims, not a few Palestineans, and most were frank enough.  Life in Israel had its problems, plenty needed to be corrected, but compared with existence around the rest of the Middle East...?

In Bethlehem I had a frank conversation with our driver for the afternoon, a squat, cheerful Arab.  How were things going in The Territories?  Pretty good, he said.  Something like 50,000 workers passed over every day into Israel to work.  It would be nice if Jerusalem would let up on the red tape. Overall, couldn't really complain -- it was the leaders on both side who were causing the disruptions.  What was he hoping for? I asked. "Peace," he told me.  Let people live their lives.  Meanwhile, Jewish and Arab families were in abundance in the better restaurants wherever we went, sometimes sharing tables.  I never ran into a scuffle, or even raised voices, from the teeming marketplaces to the hush of the great museums.

At one point a woman in our group, a Jewish retiree from New York, got hit by a serious intestinal problem and our guide Rotem took her the the emergency room of the general hospital in Nazareth.  The staff there is entirely Arab, doctors on down.  Did he feel, I asked Rotem when she returned, feeling better after the right antibiotic, that there was any danger our friend might have been...deliberately misdiagnosed by the people in the hospital.  Or worse.  Rotem was startled.  How could that happen? he demanded.  They're all Israeli citizens.

It may be that Israel presents the greatest threat to radical Islam by presenting opportunities to the Muslim population that no other country in the region is progressive enough -- or prosperous enough -- to match.  More than Israel's reputed 300 atom bombs, genuine progress and social decency may get the country through.   I ran into several refugees from the bloodbath in the Sudan:  not immigrants exactly, but permitted to stay because where else could they go?  Every day victims of Assad's barrel bombs are carted across into the Golan Heights from Syria, where Israeli surgeons do whatever they can.  "We remember rejection," one Israeli told me. "We remember Auschwitz."

 We had a delicious lunch one day in the apartment of a Druze Arab woman.  Her husband was a goat herder.  She had two grown children.  One was in Moscow furthering his education in physics.  The other, a young woman, was doing graduate work in Berkeley.  Perhaps a generation of Arabs is coming along ever more likely to prefer the twenty-first to the fourteenth century and less likely to be conned into blowing themselves up for a corrupted version of supposed Muslim writ.  The tradition of tolerance and openness to other cultures which distinguished Byzantine society and Ottoman intellectual life and kept Aristotle alive in the Arab world throughout the Dark Ages in Europe may now be experiencing a secret rebirth in Israel.

This works both ways.  We spent several nights in a kibbutz, run by a charming Irish-Catholic lady.  I was surprised to discover that in the kibbutzes -- a primary social instrument of Israel's founders -- there are no synagogues.  No rabbis, no prayers.  The founders of Israel -- like the founders of the United States -- were rationalists.  The Jewish homeland they envisioned must not be hidebound, enslaved by the assumptions of the ghetto.

Let's not write Israel off too soon.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh



.  


Monday, April 20, 2015

The Holy Land

Esteemed Concelebrants,

Yes, yes, I know -- almost a month.  Just when you thought Spiritual Guidance was out of your sensitive lives forever -- it's back.  There are, of course, excuses, not least of which is the fact that we were on a two-week trip to Israel, subject to the iron regimen of a travel service designated OAT -- Overseas Adventure Travel.  This blitzkrieg tour of Israel was skillfully if exhaustingly micromanaged, with most days, most meals, all travel accommodations clicking by with Teutonic efficiency.  Tiring, but an amazing engorgement of immediate experience.

Primary to the pitch of OAT is the concept that you will not only view the monuments and historical sites and and sacred landscape but you will also meet the people.  This was arranged through a series of home visits, native dinners, unlikely hospitality from specimens as unlikely as Ultraorthodox Jews, Christian Arabs, and a spokeswoman for the PLO.  Just when you thought you were beginning to understand the place, another take threw a lot into question.

I start with our guide, Rotem.  Rotem Litov, whose forebears fled the prevailing Ukrainian anti-Semitism a couple of generations ago, is a towering extrovert in an Australian bushhunter's hat, by his own admission incurably ADHD, who shepherded the fifteen or so of us -- three couples and the rest adventurous, uncomplaining women-- on and off the bus as we scoured the ancient overlays of civilization.  I came to understand that the ever-attentive Rotem, like his generation of Israelis, lived a double life,  Married, working hard to pay for the cinderblock residence going up beside his olive orchard in one of the villages, Rotem is simultaneously a tank commander in an Israeli armored division, who has taken leave of his civilian life repeatedly during the last ten years to take his tank into battle throughout the prevailing war.  The fierce battle over for the moment, dust settling, Rotem can return to his family and his olive orchard and the next delegation of jumpy Americans for whom he must steel himself.  Like most Israeli men these days a robust, resilient fellow, clearly worried underneath, Rothem incarnates the dream of Israel for his generation.

We made so many scenes, which to elaborate?  We started and ended in Tel Aviv, a bustling, beachside commercial center reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan fifty years ago, a welter of half painted buildings, many daubed with graffiti, and motorcycles and mopeds.  Adjacent Jaffa seems calmer -- we tour a private museum a painter has opened for tourists and were treated to lunch at the home of a very soignee -- and busty -- Christian Arab, a spread of the usual mushy chipped-pea-based hummus followed by superb baklava.  Coffee exporters, the family was clearly doing very well in today's Israel.

The next evening we were the guests in a slum of the wife of an Ultraorthodox rabbi.  This variety of Judaism was utterly startling to me.  Forswearing all material comforts, these throwbacks to the ghetto  devote themselves to the study of the scriptures and the propagation of enormous families.  We ate whatever there was on a blotched paper tablecloth protected by a wrinkled sheet of clear plastic.

The Ultraorthodox comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the Israeli electorate, and can coerce the politicians into policies otherwise anathema in this bustling state,  For instance, since it is forbidden for a female to touch a male, even incidentally, in passing, except in marriage, the chance that such a contact might occur in the military appears to justify the exemption of all Ultraorthodox children of age, male or female, from the prevailing draft.  All the other Israelis resent this -- even the Druze Arabs serve in the Israeli regiments these days --  and a major fight is brewing in the Knessett.

No single blog can begin to incorporate the many impressions this trip has left.  For more -- keep posted .

Peace,

Burton Hersh

Monday, February 23, 2015

On American Exceptionalism

Fellow Conquistadores,

Time passes, snow melts, spring is suddenly possible.  Yet somehow the same old self-destructive reflexes appear to be animating our foreign policy, the extraordinary presumption that ours is the responsibility to meddle worldwide in societies we do not begin to understand, to manipulate outcomes and advance hidden interests wherever that serves our unacknowledged commercial purposes.  I will be getting into aspects of all this as a speaker at the 2015 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida on Friday, February 27 at 9AM.  Subject of our exchange:  Can We Keep Our Rights and Protect Our Country Too?

The public-relations justification we have been putting out lately to explain our maneuvering is time-honored American Exceptionalism.  We know better, we can do more.  The cultures and historical experience of the subjects of our attentions seem beside the point, and are rarely mentioned.  It remains quite enough that we are able to "project power," and we do. It remains impolite and worse to bring up the interests whose profit is almost always out there driving these calamitous decisions.  What seems to be lacking in so many discussions is some sense of how we got historically into the role we now find ourselves assuming and where all this is taking us -- all of us, not merely a few special interests.

Throughout the Middle East we are attempting to impose our own terms, political and commercial, on a culture that as recently as 1917 regarded itself as a great, tolerant center of civilization, an achievement comparable with China at its height, or nineteenth century Europe.  The collapse and utter dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 left it to assorted Western governments to draw the borders of new states in the wreckage and impose self-serving commercial conditions on the entire region. In Iran, for example, as oil became the prize throughout the area, the British moved in and demanded a monopoly of the resources for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor to British Petroleum. When Dr. Mohammed Mossodegh, the country's sickly premier, took steps in 1953 to nationalize Iran's oil fields, the British Secret Service and the CIA sent  in the Agency's top operative in the region, Kermit Roosevelt, with a car trunk full of currency, to pay for a revolution in the streets that brought the corrupt Shah back to run the country as the foremost U.S. military base in the Middle East.   The U.S. oil majors moved in immediately and grabbed important concessions.  When another revolution under the Ayatollahs evicted the Shah in 1979 and nationalized the oil reserves, the grinding enmity between Iran and America began which persists to this day.  Several long afternoons spent with a disheartened Kermit Roosevelt while I was researching my book The Old Boys filled in a lot of the details.

There is an analogous process behind what happened more recently in Iraq.  When Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party came to power in Iraq they nationalized the Iraqi oil fields.  We lived with that and actively assisted Hussein throughout his war with Iran.  Ultimately, we invaded Iraq on the WMD pretext and left the shaky and vulnerable Shiite government  that presides at the moment.  Meanwhile, oil drillers from many places, especially the American majors and Halliburton, are back in Iraq and hard at work.

The notion that we are the disinterested Good Guys around the planet, righting international wrongs and feeding the needy, is overdue for an infusion of reality.  If the exponents of "Radical Islam" are insane and predatory throughout the region, the policies of Western governments and corporations helped  bring a lot of this on.  Highest regards to some of the apologists for our power projections throughout the last several decades, but the fact is we did not go to war over Rwanda, an example of our restraint commonly cited, mostly because there was not enough potential economic profit in an adventure like that to convince our senior policymakers to take their chances and risk paying the price.  Bill Clinton  might have preferred to have intervened retroactively, but at the time the rewards simply did not approach the political risks.

 If we can stop repeating the mistakes of the past, and confront out true motives, perhaps it will not prove necessary to take our beatings in one unproductive and depleting war after another. Or put our constitutional rights in danger by attempting to suppress dissent.  For more, attend our discussion at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida on Friday, February 27.  We will be taking names.

Cheers, always,

Burton Hersh

Monday, February 2, 2015

Other Peoples' Wars

Countryconspirators,

Again, leading with my apologia.  I have not been active on this blog for a while, and don't I know it?  The novel I have been working on, Comanche Country, picked up so much momentum and whipsawed its own plot with so many surprises that it absorbed my days and nights until I finally finished it last week.  All you aficianados can get a running start toward this last book in the Landau saga by ordering a copy of the first book in the trilogy, The Hedge Fund, either from Amazon or by buying it directly -- and inexpensively -- at Haslams in St. Petersburg, FL or Gibsons in Concord, NH.  If you want to understand, grinning all the way, why what happens happens let the misadventures of the Landaus clue you in.

What prompts this outburst today is word in The New York Times this morning that the administration is considering supplying "lethal weaponry" to the Ukraine government in Kiev.  However duplicitous the involvement of Moscow in Ukraine may be, there is a large population in the Eastern section of the country that prefers to rejoin Russia, and what is playing out there is in essence a civil war. Meddling in other peoples' civil wars has cost us heavily and set us back throughout most of the last half century, and before we back ourselves into another disaster we ought to reconsider.

I remember well the heartbreaking background details of our misadventure in Viet Nam.  Pushed through by John Foster Dulles, whose evangelistic imperialism inclined him to want to send troops into the Hungarian revolution and the collapsing French efforts in Viet Nam until Eisenhower stepped on both proposals, a program was developed that led to the dispatch of the U.S. Navy to cart over a million North Vietnamese Catholics down the coast to Saigon once the provisional peace treaty was signed in 1954.  Dulles had agreed to abide by the countrywide vote scheduled for 1956, which installed Ho Chi Minh.  Dulles reneged.  Instead, prodded by Cardinal Spellman, the Diems, strict Catholics, were pushed into office by American planners and replaced the local Buddhist administrators all over South Vietnam with Catholic refugees from the north,  The Buddhists were incensed and began to form the cadre of what became the Viet Cong.  I got a lot of this from my friend Nick Natsios, who was the CIA station chief in Saigon before we began to intervene militarily.

Civil war broke out.  I remember how angry President Kennedy was at David Halberstam, the N.Y. Times upstart in country and a classmate of mine in college, when he began to report on the "Buddhist  barbecues"  -- self-immolations -- and the corruption of the Diems, longtime Kennedy family friends. When another of my classmates and a personal friend, Sam Adams, a CIA analyst, concluded that there were many times as many Viet Cong around as our projections would admit he was bounced from that Agency.  To admit that would have meant hugely augmenting U. S. troops on the ground, politically unacceptable for Lyndon Johnson.  Years later Richard Helms, head of CIA operations at the time, told me that Adams was right, but who wanted to confront LBJ with those numbers?

As it all played out there were millions of Vietnamese killed, 60,000 U.S. dead, hundreds of thousands of GIs permanently ruined, if not with wounds with drugs, and a national debt it took decades to pay down, at the expense of all public services and efforts to rebuild the national infrastructure.  And still, we lost, utterly.  Their little civil war set us back a generation.  And obviously the same can be said of our stumbling around in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Must we do this again?  So soon, so avoidably?  We ought to be very, very careful about electing a warhawk to the presidency if a cold-blooded peacenik like Obama is tempted to intervene in Ukraine.

Think about all that.  Meanwhile, if you live in or are visiting the Tampa Bay Area I would be very pleased to meet any of y'all at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, presented on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of Southern Florida.  University Student Center, 200 Sixth Ave. S.  I will be on a panel on Friday, February 27 at 9 AM on the subject:  Can We Keep Our Rights and Protect  Our Country Too?

Meanwhile, buy The Hedge Fund.  It will be the best $13 you ever spent.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh  

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Before the Jihad XII

Dedicated Faithful.

Yes, I know, it has been a while.  My only excuse -- and it ought to be compelling -- is that I have been ablaze since mid-summer writing the third novel of the Landau Trilogy, on which my expectations of literary immortality will certainly be based.  The publication last spring of the first book, The Hedge Fund, appears to be commanding increasing attention. Early charges of inappropriately salacious material and a clear political bias have largely been overcome and this breakthrough work is commanding a following.  Easy to acquire -- cheap, $13 plus shipping and handling or whatever -- at Amazon or leading bookstores, especially Haslams in St. Petersburg or Gibsons in Concord, NH.  Go ahead, pick it up, turn yourself on.  This is a challenge!

Now to the more serious rant.  Last night I attended the Christmas banquet of the principal Foreign Affairs Committee in Tampa.  Our recent ambassador to Russia was the scheduled speaker, but he apparently picked up a bug and was replaced hours before the dinner by a local academic coming off a wide-ranging career in military intelligence.  Struggling along without Power-point, our speaker threw out there a hodgepodge of observations on the deteriorated position of the United States in the world, attributable mostly to the bewilderment behind the scenes inside the Obama administration.  We needed to get things straight, he stressed again and again, understand the dangers, follow through.  We needed to get -- this was the subtext throughout the presentation -- back into the Middle East in force.  Get those boots back on the ground.

Judging from the comments I heard afterward this had been a disheartening performance even to that upper-middle-class assemblage.  The costs of our seemingly feckless involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, in cash, blood, and thousands of victims of post-traumatic stress disorder are already calculated to run into the trillions of dollars.  Meanwhile, our children cannot afford higher education and the nation's infrastructure is falling apart.  More boots on the ground?

Something our speaker never got close to mentioning was that most dreaded word in establishment circles today:  oil.  Important facts are routinely left out of all purportedly informed discussions of the Middle East.  When the CIA jumped in as a proxy for the British in 1953 and undermined parliamentary democracy in Iran -- a relatively stable society since it was Persia during Biblical days -- our cat's-paw the Shah was propped back up on his throne to run a brutal police state.  British and U.S. oil companies took over the petrochemical industry. The American military turned Iran into our principal base of operations in the Middle East.  When all that fell apart and Iran turned abruptly into a kind of parliamentary theocracy we were hurt and surprised, and have been pounding away ever since.  Paradoxically, any real hope of expelling ISIS from Iraq and Syria may now depend on our de facto cooperation with Iran's military. See today's New York Times. Go figure.

As I have suggested in this blog before, our policies in Iraq make very little more sense.  We backed Saddam Hussein against Iran throughout the eighties, attacked him in Kuwait after he thought he had our permission to throw Kuwait out of the oil-rich borderlands, then cooked up unwarranted excuses to invade Iraq under Bush II.  Oil in Iraq had been a state monopoly, but while we were disentangling ourselves we made sure -- see Ambassador Christopher Hill's account in his memoir, Outpost, in which he describes how "the bidding got underway" in Baghdad on June 30, 2009 among the major international oil companies for the important Iraqi fields -- pp. 379-380.  The organizers of ISIS were no doubt watching.

Much the same appears to have been true in Afghanistan.  The Taliban, the founders of which the CIA trained as the mujahedin, reportedly came into existence to resist plans by a consortium led by Unocal to run a pipeline through the country to bypass Russia with what was getting pumped out of Kazakhstan.  Our destiny is profoundly entangled with the politics of oil

More war?  More sanity is what we need.

As ever,

Burton Hersh.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fellow Commandantes,

Yes, I know, it has been an unconscionably long time since I clued all of you in on the underlying cosmic dilemma.  Mostly it has been a series of minor heath problems -- all annoying, none too serious -- that have plagued this New Hampshire summer.  Then there has been a computer replacement and the attendant learning curve.  Perhaps most vital of all -- I am seven chapters into the third and presumably last novel of the Landau trilogy.  To stay with the process it is incumbent on every one of you to go to Amazon and pick up a copy of that most affordable first book in the series, The Hedge Fund, and exult with the wild plot and compounding sensuous thills this book affords.  Then you will be qualified to leap aboard as its two successors make literary history.  Patrons can find this book in Haslams in St. Petersburg, FL. and at Main Street Bookends in Warner, N.H. and Gibsons in Concord, N.H.

Let us turn to the larger world.  It had been my intention in this blog to try and offer a little perspective to our current political attitudes, especially as they pertain to the prevailing tendency to lambaste Obama. The all-persuasive Republican subliminal propaganda machine has been working this incumbent over since he took the oath of office, and this incessant and too often fallacious assault has been taking its toll, judging from the national approval polls.  As always with what passes for Tea-Party thinking -- talk about oxymorons! -- reality and this toxic barrage are connected at very few points.  John Krugman has dealt recently with the durable achievements already coming out of Obamacare and the bailout and subsequent banking reforms that have distinguished the president's domestic policies in recent magazine and newspaper pieces, and deserves to be listened to.

What strikes me is the extent to which the president's judgements in foreign policy suggest at least as much a historian's instincts as those of a law professor.  He seems to understand intuitively the limits of American power and the dangers of habitually overreaching, as he has all along, certainly since he objected publicly to jumping into war in Iraq.  When troops dug Saddam Hussein ont of some rabbit hole and he went on trial and was eliminated, I remember commenting to a shocked friend that we should have intervened and kept the motheaten dictator around.  Given the treacherous politics of the Near East, the time might be coming up when Saddam and the Baath Party could be reinstated and run his country in our interests, as he had before 1991.  His regime was brutal, but under his leadership a substantial middle class came into existence along with primary elements of a modern society.  Something of the same could be said of Gadaffi and General Sisi in Egypt and -- dare I say it?-- President Assad.

It took us hundreds of years, and several failed tries, before we were able to steam together what passes for a working democracy here, and even that has been stalling out recently.  Projecting power, as the Cold War phrase goes, into unstable, sect-ridden, and fundamentally irrational societies has proven impossible, even for the British, over any extended period.  Our success in the Cold War resulted largely from following effective policies of containment, letting structural instability abroad play out and undermine our opponents.  Whenever we attempted to force the issue, as in Viet Nam, the cost to us has been horrific and purposeless and the result was defeat.  To let our policies in the Third World be driven by unspoken special interests -- I notice that the American oil majors and Halliburton are again quietly ensconced in Iraq in a major way -- is to insure another financial and political disaster guaranteed to sap our troubled republic further.

Barack Obama seems to have understood all this all along, in his bones.  That's how he got elected and reelected.  Let's hope his original perceptions stay the course.

Meanwhile, pick up The Hedge Fund.  It will open out your thinking and reinvigorate your private life.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh

Monday, August 25, 2014

Before the Jihad XI

Fellow Condolores,

August ending, summer winding down.  Working on new book proposal -- travails of today's CIA -- and finding my way into the third of the Landau novels.  The first, The Hedge Fund, appears to be finding its following on Amazon.  Check it out -- go to Amazon Books, then Burton Hersh, then The Hedge Fund itself.  Straight five stars to date from excited reviewers.  The latest from the legendary historian and biographer Joan Mellen, whose incisive biography of New Orleans D.A. Garrison has helped shred what's left of The Warren Report.  Joan finds The Hedge Fund "shrewd, snappingly wise-cracking and just plain fun.  It's the world as it is, with no holds barred.  I enjoyed particularly Burton Hersh's knowing grasp and satire on the concept of property and how property threads, often unexpectedly, through the shoals of everyday life.  This is a rare summer read."  At thirteen bucks, how can any of you justify not buying and luxuriating in this hot-button novel?  We need some sales, and I am depending on all of you.  I know who you all are, and I will be taking names and kicking butt.
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Seriously, give it a try.  And let me know what you think at:  bandehersh@aol.com.

I want to expend a few paragraphs on what appears to be a massive and apparently coordinated effort to rewrite history.  I've had my say about Professor Nasaw's solemn whitewash of the life and times of Joseph P. Kennedy, detailed in my book Bobby and J. Edgar.  To maintain that Old Joe was innocent of mob connections is tantamount to maintaining that Casanova was a virgin.  When I suggested that in newspaper reviews and blogs, the good professor called me directly to chew me out.  I gave it back in kind, as you may imagine.  Nasaw didn't even  recognize the names of gangsters even when  -- the result of staff slipups -- he ran across them in the Kennedy Library.

The folks at the Central Intelligence Agency appear to have the whitewash brush out themselves these days.  The July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, affiliated technically with The Council on Foreign Relations but inevitably something of a spokesman for the State Department and its semi-cloaked kid sister, the CIA, features articles under the rubric "What Really Happened" in Iran 1953, Congo 1961, Pakistan 1971 and Chile 1973.  Responsible historians have long since surfaced and laid out the details of all these operations.  In every one, short-sighted Agency operatives reached into societies struggling to find some political balance and so skewed the outcomes that it would take decades before meaningful progress could resume.  The people involved suffered terribly.

The treatments put forward in Foreign Affairs rewrite the settled history in ways that defy belief.  In the piece on Iran, for example, Ray Takeyh seems to maintain that CIA manipulations didn't affect the outcome.  He refers to Kermit Roosevelt's "self-aggrandizing 1979 book Countercoup:  The Struggle for the Control of Iran."  In my bookThe Old Boys (1992) I dealt at some length with the coup Roosevelt triggered when he appeared in Teheran with the trunk of his car loaded with currency and paid off power groups from military officers to bodybuilders to march on the parliament and overturn the government and reinstall the Shah,  whose brutal tenure brought on the Ayatollahs.  While researching The Old Boys I interviewed Roosevelt several times; by then he was very depressed at what he had done. He refused to engineer the disastrous coup in Guatemala.  Even the medal President Eisenhower gave him for putting together the coup didn't help.  To write Kermit off as "self-aggrandizing"  is beyond  cruel -- callow.  Much the same applies to the ignorant treatment of our operations in the Congo.  At one point a CIA man surfaced who moved Patrice Lumumba's corpse around for several days in the trunk of his car.  As in Iran, the Agency was more than involved.  Chile was without a doubt our most shameless performance, and subjected the helpless populace to the Pinochet regime.
 
Rewriting established history like this can do no good for the reputation of The Council on Foreign Relations.  As a longstanding member of the affiliated Committee on Foreign Relations I am especially embarrassed.

History is history.  We've got to learn to live with it.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Before the Jihad -- X

Countrycoronadistas,

The lull, the silent bottom-scraping low-point of summer -- early August.  Demons rain in from the sky and rise in every direction from the ground.  Otherwise, business as usual.

One hopeful note -- my recent novel, The Hedge Fund, is making its way, mostly on Amazon although it has appeared in a few bookstores.  Five stars, every review, with readers gratified and dumbfounded by its highly charged erotic content and its bareknuckled treatment of money and society.  Cheap at the price:  $13 plus mail costs.  Just go to Amazon Books on Google, then Burton Hersh, then to The Hedge Fund, which is at the top of the list of my many august publications.

But enough promotion.  Mostly on my mind these weeks is the carnage in Gaza, with the Israelis determined to extirpate enough of Hamas to eliminate the challenge and the threat from this inflamed appendage on their coastal flank once and for all.  More than ever, they are likely to win every battle and ultimately lose the war.  The Arab Street is already regrouping.

A piece in The New York Times that seems to have caught everybody's eye appeared last Thursday, July 31, 2014, by David Kirkpatrick.  It identified a "new coalition of Arab states -- including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emerites and Jordan," which along with Egypt are quiely supporting Israel, mostly by stepping back while Hamas gets pulverized.  "The silence," the author quotes Aaron David Miller, "is deafening."

Commentators these days often remark that the traditional Western powers now find themselves implicated -- mostly because of the requirements of Western oil interests -- in a civil war that breaks out every few centuries between the Shiites and the Sunnis.  There is truth to that, but probably at least as relevant is the struggle across the Muslim world between modernist elements in these societies, established power groups, from the Saudi and Jordanian royal families to the business classes from Morocco to Indonesia, which have come to understand the suicidal mistake they made in funding the madrassa movement and fomenting the fundamentalism throughout the region which led to the resurgence of Arab fanaticism.

My exchanges recently with Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, who decades ago helped propagate Muslim awareness beyond the Kingdom, suggest the urgency of some of these second thoughts throughout the Mideast.  The fourteenth century is over, events would suggest, and the speed and conclusiveness with which the Morsi presidency came to an end in Egypt suggests the ruthlessness with which the propertied classes are prepared to act to make sure it stays over.

 I picked up more than an echo of that a couple of winters ago during a dinner-table conversation with Muhamad  Musri, the Imam -- spititual leader -- for Central Florida.  There are an estimated six million Muslims in America right now, about as many as there are Jews, and like the Jews most have made their way into the middle and upper classes.  Most are for the most part no more enthusiastic about the dictates of radical Islam, from the ritual "circumcision" of woman to the beheading of unbelievers, than their fellow Americans.  It is probably worth remembering that throughout much of European history, especially during the ghetto-ridden "Dark Ages," it was the tolerance and openmindedness of  the Muslim caliphates that kept traditional Jewish culture alive.  A student of the Koran, Imam Musri observed, to my astonishment, that the country in which the precepts and directives of true sharia law are most closely followed is the United States.

There is quite clearly a war going on in the Muslim world for -- remember Viet Nam? -- the hearts and minds of the several billion faithful.  The carnage in Gaza this week has started to provide, to the initiated, a number of surprising perspectives.  Let us hope our foreign policy is agile enough to respond in time.

As ever,

Burton Hersh

 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Haves and the Have Nots

Constitutionalists,

A hard transition, this time, Florida to New Hampshire.  Up here a new computer, break-in problems, the residue of a very tough winter.

The issue of wealth distribution in America, the 1/10 of one percent who have so much vs. the rest of us, is coming into focus fast in our troubled politics.  All hail the rise of Elizabeth Warren.  All this is recurrent with us at least since the Gilded Age.  The death last week of the boisterous rentier Richard Mellon Scaife in Pittsburgh reminded me of how much confusion an heir with too much money and very little concern with the truth can stir up whenever he cares to.

A serious alcoholic, Scaife was behind the press campaign to hang the 1993 death of Vince Foster, a long-time Clinton crony, on the president and his wife, who allegedly arranged for Foster's murder.  Scaife had helped fund the Watergate burglars.  As it happens, years earlier I interviewed Scaife at some length while working up the Pittsburgh half of my book The Mellon Family.   Relatives attributed a lot of Scaife's volatility to a fractured skull early in life; drunken hi-jinks got him thrown out of Yale and convulsed his several marriages.  Scaife's public-spirited sister Cordelia had told me that she was convinced that her brother was behind the shooting in her back yard in Ligonier of her husband, Pittsburgh District Attorney Robert Duggan.  Duggan was under investigation for mob connections by Richard Thornburgh, at the time the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, later the Republican governor.  Thornburgh himself filled in a lot of the details for me.

It was a tale worthy of John O'Hara.  When I brought up Duggan, Richard Scaife rocked back in his chair and filled me in on just how crooked Duggan had been.  Sad as hell, Scaife observed; he and Duggan had been friends at the University of Pittsburgh.  He remembered one night when they had both gone out and gotten pie-eyed and Duggan was so far gone that Scaife had carried him up three floors of his rooming house and put him to bed.  Once he was down Duggan had reached up and embraced Scaife and kissed him on the mouth.

Scaife must have thought about that, because once I was back in New Hampshire he telephoned me and warned me not to print that anecdote about Duggan.  If I did, he growled, his people would take care of me.

"I don't think so,"  I said.

"Yeah?  Why?"

"Because I'm recording this call," I told Scaife.  I included the anecdote in The Mellon Family.

A few months later, when The Mellon Family came out, I was in Pittsburgh doing radio and television publicity for the book. The Pittsburgh newspaper Scaife didn't control printed much of the livelier material in my treatment, which turned into a best-seller locally.  After a hectic day of appearances I got back late to my room at The William Penn and attempted to settle down.  The phone rang.  A husky, Italianate voice delivered the message: We saw you come in.  You ain't going to leave this hotel alive.

I really didn't like those prospects.  I waited until perhaps 2 AM, then stole with my bag down the fire stairs and flagged a cab around the corner for the airport, where I slept for a few hours.  I was the first passenger to board the plane.

What this anecdote illustrates is the fecklessness of permitting the exorbitantly rich  to rummage, armed with billions, through the ante-rooms of American politics, buying and selling candidates and resorting to any means they care to to force their control on the rest of us.  They do that here, and they do that around the world.  We pay the price.

One price all of you should consider paying is $12.95 for a copy of The Hedge Fund -- via Amazon -- which pulls open the way power works in America and demonstrates the way the heedless rich sometimes arrange to foul all our nests, especially their own.  The novel is funny, scary, amorous and -- covertly -- political.  If you like this blog, you will definitely grok on this novel, even in the face of all this shameless self-promotion.  More to come.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh

  

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Return of Mother Russia -- IV

Countryconstabularies,

First, an all-important commercial note.  This week a novel of mine, The Hedge Fund, the first of a trilogy, came out as an Amazon/Tree Farm Book.  As I described it on Facebook, this thriller opens as “a social comedy, about a well-fixed academic family in St. Petersburg, FL, one of the daughters of which marries the son of a Cuban financial gangster.  The attempt by the new in-laws to clean out their relatives, who battle back, picks up velocity steadily and turns into a page-turner that ends in Havana.

The book has very heavy literary support – Liz Smith, Thomas Powers, etc. –and remains by turns very funny, very sensual, very moving and exciting.”  Modestly priced at $11.95 as one of my offerings on the Amazon Books section under my name, none of you avid followers will be able to live with yourselves unless you send for this novel immediately, read it with enormous enjoyment, and contribute a comment indicating your joy to the Amazon response page.  I am depending on all of you.  There was a cover of Mad Magazine years ago featuring a solemn mongrel with a giant horse pistol pressed to his forehead.  The subscript ran:  “If you don’t buy this magazine, we will shoot this dog.”  It is in this spirit I urge all of you to acquire The Hedge Fund.

Now -- with the election yesterday of Petro Poroshenko, the Chocolate King, as president of Ukraine the crisis in Kiev appears to be building down.  Vladimir Putin seems to have signed off on the outcome. Poroshenko has manifest pro-European sympathies while maintaining extensive business interests in Russia, an oligarch for all seasons.  How he can negotiate a Russian reconsideration of the status of Crimea, which he asserts he intends to do, should test the Chocolate King’s magical powers.

Much of the global psychodynamics that seem to lie under this situation originate with Putin’s need to establish his status as the leader of an ex-Superpower, the exponent of a nation that was – and intends to become again – a contender.  This is a recurrent impulse within the Russian leadership.  Many years ago, when I was newly rearrived in the States and struggling to build a career as a free-lance writer, I happened to be visiting the Greenwich Village digs of my then-pal the novelist Dan Wakefield.  The phone rang. “It’s for you,” Wakefield whispered.  “William Shawn.”  Shawn was the legendary executive editor of The New Yorker, the hottest literary ticket in Manhattan just then.  “A show of force like this,” Wakefield muttered, “was not necessary.”

Shawn had come across a sketch my agent was circulating just then and wanted me to stop by the magazine’s murky offices.  This led to several afternoons exploring one-on-one my interests and background, what I was into that might interest the magazine.  Shawn was a small, bald, shrewd, musty, probing, excessively earnest fellow.  It happened that a delegation of female Soviet apparachniks were due in New York the next week, and  since I knew some Russian perhaps I should join their party and write up something about that.

I did as requested.  The women were there for business, which I soon surmised was winkling out examples of capitalism in collapse which they could bring back to their colleagues on the Supreme Soviet.  They were increasingly disappointed as the sites we visited – Wall Street, an apartment in Harlem so well appointed , with contemporary jazz on the eight-track – transcended anything around Moscow just then.  I called the piece “In Quest of Squalor” and submitted it to Patricia Nosher, Shawn’s assistant.

It happened that Yuri Gagarin, the first Soviet Cosmonaut – the first human – to circumnavigate the globe in a space capsule was visiting New York.  There was a reception for him at the Soviet consulate to which I was invited.  There was a lot of collective anxiety around Washington just then that the Soviets had overtaken us and now were emerging as the dominant player in space.  Gagarin himself turned out quite friendly and unpretentious, but the Soviet officials around him were strutting their stuff.  The brief post-war dominance of the corrupt , undisciplined, self-indulgent  United States had come and gone, Marxism would dominate the future.  All this not that long before the first American landed on the moon.

Many of these same themes appear to be revisiting the media today.  From Tea Party activists and gun nuts in Idaho to fundamentalist preachers and hard-right Israeli politicians, a distaste for the ecumenical remains of The American Century is palpable.  Individualism is destroying us.  Vladimir Putin agrees. “It is therefore an ideological battle,” a recent article in Der Spiegel asserts – translation mine – “in which Russia according to the vision of its president fights against the superficiality of materialism, against the collapse of values, against the feminization and weakening of society, which results from the loosening of traditional  bounds, in short: against everything unRussian.”

Putin represents a return to reactionary values of the twenties and thirties, the writer asserts – in a word, to fascism, with its emphasis on “hardness,” racial superiority, sacrifice for the nation.  A lot of this, of course, is reasserting itself in the Muslim jihadists roiling up so much of the planet.  Die for some exalted clique of your coreligionists, the virgins are waiting.

Our media are picking this up.  A piece by Andrew Higgins in the May 21 New York Times notes the Western European sympathies on the far right with Putin’s pronouncements.  “Some of Russia’s European fans, particularly those with a religious bent, are attracted by Mr. Putin’s image as a muscular foe of homosexuality and decadent Western ways.  Others…are motivated more by geopolitical calculations that emphasize Russia’s role as a counterweight to American power.”
My generation has attended this blood-soaked opera before.  It culminates in Hiroshima and Auschwitz.

Be ready.

Burton Hersh
www.TreeFarmBooks.com

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Return of Mother Russia -- III

Countryconfederates,

It has been a while, that I will give you.  The constant maddening revision of format that the computer outfits seem to insist on lest one become familiar with the current system along with personnel reorganization at this end of the Empire have slowed things way down for over a month.  Let's hope we are back on track.

While you were waiting, the crisis in Ukraine has been heating up steadily.  In our media, Putin usually gets the blame, and for justifiable reasons.  Winston Churchill, whose talent for characterizing his contemporaries matched his instinct for leadership, once tagged Eisenhower's starchy, hard-right Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, as "A bull who carries his own China shop around with him."  Putin, a nostalgic reactionary lost in yearning for the days of Stalin, seems to have an equal aptitude for breaking up the crockery.

That said, I have to recur to several of the themes in my last blog.  In the April 9 New York Times Thomas L. Friedman, rarely one to question the establishment, challenges the Clinton-era "thinking that we could expand NATO -- when Russia was at its weakest and most democratic -- and Russians wouldn't care." Friedman quotes George Kennan, "the architect of containment," as viewing the expansion of NATO into the Baltic and Eastern European countries so recently under Soviet domination as “..a tragic mistake ...We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way."

NATO itself came into being in the forties to head off the expansion of the Soviet Union into Western Europe.  But the Soviet Union has passed out of existence, the satellites have long since regained their sovereignty, and much of what was western Russia under Stalin, prominently including Ukraine, is fluttering along as a ring of independent republics. 

Part of the paradox is the fact that Russia, just now an oil-driven kleptocracy, finds itself attempting to carry politically its corrupt ex-republics and finds that very heavy lifting. Ukraine owes billions to Russia for the natural gas on which its industry depends.  The fact is, one primary reason the Soviet Union itself fell apart at the end of the nineties was that the very heavy subsidies the Russians were obliged to spread around to keep their conquests going were insupportable.  Empire is expensive, as we are finding out.

In a recent posting on the March 14 liberal outlet Consortium News, Robert Parry points up the efforts by neoconservative activists like the National Endowment for Democracy, promoting the sort of "false narrative" that produced our misbegotten war in Iraq, to "destabilize government," along Russia's western rim, with Ukraine as "the biggest prize."  Parry is an important journalist, whose AP reports on the covert CIA war against Nicaragua during the 1980s won him the prestigious George Polk Award for National Reporting. 

Parry cites Robert Gates' aside in his memoir of the Bush years that "when the Soviet Union was collapsing in late 1991, Dick [Cheney] wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world."

If Putin is a paranoid who wants to revise modern history -- and he is, and he does -- he has more than a few counterparts in Washington.  Their influence is augmenting.  They could lead us to disaster.  We must be more than watchful.

Burton Hersh

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Return of Mother Russia -- II

Countrycollectivists,

Again, a rumble from Putin's Moscow to challenge the American hegemony.  I think it was that far-sighted Prussian historian Karl von Clausewitz who wrote that he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it.  As the diplomatic taffy-pull over the fate of Ukraine begins to threaten the solidarity of the Atlantic Alliance and enrage John McCain, perhaps it is time to go back over the high-points of recent history in the region and grope for some perspective.

One point probably worth making is that Ukraine -- and the Crimea -- have been under Russian control most of the time since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, when modern Europe began to emerge.  Twice during the twentieth century a coalition led by Berlin has invaded the Russian heartland, each time involving the Russians in ghastly, human-wave-style campaigns to defend themselves.  Russian losses during the Second World War have been estimated as high as forty million; the nation has never recovered..  After 1945 Stalin made sure the Red Army would remain in occupation of the so-called satellites -- most of which had signed on without hesitation  for Hitler's invasion and included such units as the Kosovar Skandahar battalions, a more genocidal  collection of fanatics than the SS could muster.  They tore up Kiev.  Joseph Stalin was resolved to head off another catastrophic Aryan eruption through the Fulda Pass.

Throughout the decades prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union I was in and out of Eastern Europe -- East Berlin, Poland, all over Yugoslavia, Dresden, Hungary....  There were several uprisings by the discontented natives, especially in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  In each case the Red Army moved in and put these flareups down, ruthlessly.  While I was a student in Germany in 1956  the Hungarians revolted.  The CIA had been training an estimated million refugees from the East in camps in West Germany, the so-called Vlasov Army -- later on, in the military, I encountered one detachment down the road from my base in Goeppingen.  As I documented carefully in my book The Old Boys, both the Dulles brothers attempted to pressure President Dwight  Eisenhower into infiltrating these homicidal  irregulars into Hungary to fight the Russians.  Eisenhower had brains enough to say No, emphatically.  He understood what would trigger World War III.  

Behind the headlines about Ukraine these days several large considerations are lurking.  One is that, from Moscow's point of view, NATO is closing in.  Formed originally among the Western nations during the middle forties to confront Soviet aggression in Western Europe, NATO survives as a militarized command directed primarily from the Pentagon and available for geopolitical chores like the replacement of Qaddafi.  By 1991 the decision had been made by the Gorbachev government to pull the Russian boundaries back not only from countries independent before 1938 like the Baltics and Poland but also to cut loose a number of the prior Soviet republics.  Several of the stans, Georgia and Ukraine were among the newly constituted independent states.  The thinking in Moscow was apparently that these sister republics would remain a problem to govern and expensive and in every case there was a sizable irredentist faction pushing for independence.  Empire, as we have all discovered, is extremely costly, and Russia was a struggling oil kleptocracy.

Meanwhile, NATO kept moving in.  Poland was signed up,  and agreed along with the Czech Republic to accept U.S. anti-ballistic missile batteries ostensibly to protect Europe from Iran, which had and has no long-range missiles. The Russians protested.  The Baltics were incorporated into NATO, summoning up memories of the Finnish-Soviet war at the end of the thirties.  With Ukraine largely bankrupt the International Monetary Fund appeared; there are apparently conditions requiring NATO involvement before the money could be released.  Eager for Western ties, mobs swarmed the Ukrainian parliament and threw out the elected pro-Soviet president.  Putin roared about fascists and anti-Semites on the borders of Mother Russia.

Faced with the prospect of losing its only warm-water port, the powers in Moscow staged a takeover in the Crimea.  This was standard operating procedure -- in 2008 the Russians had grabbed off control in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia with barely a hiccup from the Bush administration.  Challenged by Republican hotheads, Obama may be backing the administration into the most dangerous confrontation, in the opinion of Princeton Russian scholar Steven Cohen, since the missile crisis.

The time is overdue for enlightened diplomacy, by all hands.  Once we understand the Russians' motivation, perhaps we can condition our own.

Hold your breath, troopers.

Burton Hersh

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Other People's Children

Countrycontemplatives,

Midwinter, always a good time to ponder the vanities and nose into a little trouble.  Now that the Army is about to be cut, and the Warhawks are predictably outraged, let's think for a few paragraphs about what service in the military has turned into.

Last week I finished making my way through Duty, Robert Gates' memoir about his eight years as Secretary of Defense.  Gates' bureaucratic colleagues have been publicly outraged by Gates' frankness about the policy bloodbaths behind closed doors, especially during the Obama tenure.  More consistent -- more moving -- are Gates' accounts of his visits to military hospitals, where the disoriented survivors of too many deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan and sullen quadruple paraplegics and burnt-out veterans praying for the opportunity to kill themselves gazed up from their wheelchairs or festered in their sick beds and demanded of the Secretary some justification for their sacrifices. Why had this happened, what was that all about?  Robert Gates had very few answers; each visit haunted him.

Almost incidentally, Gates mentions that, of the Special Forces personnel who served in Afghanistan, roughly half have been either killed or permanently disabled.  The IEDs were killing and maiming our people wholesale, but Gates can't help getting into the fact that there wasn't really enough money in the budget for long-term aftercare or adequately armored personnel carriers. These were apparently sacrifices the Rumsfeld secretariat was prepared to make.  Our national  interests -- power projection,  access to resources, crushing the jihadists --  had automatically gotten top priority.  They needed to  be defended,  if exclusively by other people's children. Most of our Chief Executives after FDR had logged in time in the military and so had some awareness of what war was all about.. Since 1992 that hasn't been the case -- George W. Bush's absentee months in the National Guard don't really qualify as service.  Perhaps it's no accident that, inside the Obama War Room, the most stubborn holdout against jumping into embroilments around the world was Joe Biden, who has a son on active duty.

As faithful readers of this blog surely remember, I put in a couple of years in the Army in Germany.  My first winter, 1956, I spent as an Acting Sergeant presiding over four other live-wire draftees -- a Puerto Rican numbers runner, a Mexican railroad telegrapher, a seventeen-year-old black professional pickpocket from Detroit, and a very hard-nosed breaking-and-entering expert off a North Dakota farm who had chosen the Army over the penitentiary.  The five of us were in place in the deep woods for over a month at the edge of the Grafenwohr training compound, just over the Czech border, in a mobile communications unit, an "Angry 26."  We were there as part of the "tripwire" system to alert NATO by Morse Code if the nearby Russian troops -- we heard their artillery booming away day and night -- started to move.

My biggest responsibility that winter was keeping my charges from killing each other or me or winding up in the stockade.  There was no room in the communications trailer we trucked along, so we took turns running the radios and reperforating equipment and sleeping in the snow.  A couple of weeks into this hitch I came down with some kind of flu, accompanied by a fever.  One morning around five, while I was sacked out in a snowdrift, I felt the tip of a boot nudging my head and looked up into the disapproving face of Major General Andrew O'Mara, the commanding officer of our Fourth Armored Division. O'Mara styled himself after George Patton, complete to the pearl-handled six-guns on each hip.

"On your feet, Sergeant," O'Mara was barking.  "I want you in that unit, running your radio."

"Can't handle that," I muttered.  "Too sick."

"I don't want to hear any excuses," the general said, and unsnapped one holster.

Fever was making things bleary.  "General, I'm in bad shape," I said.  "If you're going to shoot me, shoot me."

A long moment passed.  During the previous year several friends of mine had died for very little reason -- a black professional boxer who had sneaked off the base without a pass and been gunned down by the officer of the day when he tried to make it back around the guard post, a trainee during basic training who wanted another stripe so badly he kept struggling along until pneumonia killed him.  The military can be unforgiving.

O'Mara's pistol went back in its holster.  There was a pause.  "I'm going to be watching you, young trooper," the general conceded, in a growl, and climbed back into his jeep.  Months later, when I had managed to snag a job as a German translator for the Seventh Army and found myself driving around with O'Mara investigating maneuver damage claims, I wondered if he remembered the incident.  He never brought it up, and I certainly didn't.

All this comes back as the country-club Superpatriots clamor for more war, more involvement, more ignorant youngsters sacrificed.  Perhaps a smaller army will use up its people more carefully.

The past.  It isn't really ever past.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh


 .  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Before the Jihad -- Iran

Countrycompilaters,

Rain, here in Western Florida we have been experiencing weeks of rain.  Midwinter, unmoving, dead center.
In Switzerland, prodded by John Kerry, talks are moving toward what is hoped to be some kind of status-in-place, at least, in devastated Syria.  Another conversation appears to have established at least the first stage of a stand-down between Iran and the West over Iran's production of fissionable materials.  The newly-elected Iranian president Rohani proclaims his countrymen prepared to freeze -- and even in several categories roll back -- Iran's nuclear production.  This appears to be devastating news to the Israelis and the Saudis, who want Iran neutralized.  In fact, diplomatically, this is a moment comparable with Reagan's exchange with Gorbachev during the late eighties that led to the dismantling of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.

Collectively, Americans seem inclined to operate outside their own history.  I was reminded of this last week reading Stephen Kinzer's dual biography The Brothers, a very solid study of the machinations of Allen and John Foster Dulles during the Eisenhower administration.  Kinzer presents the pair as practitioners of "corporate globalism," an unapologetically ruthless promotion of Western commercial interests worldwide.  This translates too often into the interests of Sullivan and Cromwell, the Dulles' law firm -- Kinzer alludes to the ownership by the brothers of large blocs of United Fruit stock prior to the overthrow of Arbenz in Nicaragua and the law firm's involvement with Overseas Consultants, Inc., a consortium of American engineering firms "looking for a country to transform.  They settled on Iran, which the United States viewed as a strategic prize."  Foster separated mankind into "those who are Christians and support free enterprise. and there are the others."  The others were fair game.

Kinzer is kind enough to cite with favor passages from my own book, The Old Boys:  The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA.  Perhaps more than Kinzer, I traced out exactly how the CIA managed in 1953 to convulse the functioning parliamentary system in Iran, drive out the aged prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, who had announced his intention to nationalize Iran's oil fields, and leave Iran's resources in the hands of Anglo-Iranian -- a predecessor of British Petroleum -- and a condominium of U.S. oil majors. The unstable Shah, who had fled, returned and in effect turned Iran over to the Americans as a military base and center of operations throughout the Middle East.  His rule was brutal, abetted by SAVAK, the secret police we trained -- many ex-SS technicians were still in the employ of the CIA -- and assisted by experts from Mossad.

This was the CIA's first five-star exhibition in the political action category.  The star turn throughout was performed by Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's gifted grandson, once a history instructor at Harvard and Cal Tech, who had been roaming the Middle East.  Roosevelt installed Nasser in Egypt and moved on to Iran, where, guided by British planning at MI6,  he slipped in from Baghdad hidden under a blanket in the back seat, picked up $100,000 at the American Embassy, and bribed enough generals and bodybuilders to terrorize the streets and take the country over.

Researching The Old Boys I got to know Kermit Roosevelt well.  By the eighties he had settled into dignified retirement in Georgetown.  By then the Ahatollahs were in charge in Iran.  The hostage crisis and fear of an October Surprise had hardened resentment on both sides. Under Reagan we had been reduced to sending Don  Rumsfeld to Iraq to offer Saddam Hussein -- initially, a CIA asset -- arms and intelligence with which to prosecute his ten-year war of attrition with Iran -- we weren't so skittish about sarin then -- and mistakes at every stage were setting us up for our own series of misbegotten wars.  Roosevelt seemed to anticipate this, and was increasingly depressed.  We talked, a number of times, and mutual friends told me later that once The Old Boys came out, Roosevelt came around, to some extent.  At least the truth was out there.

There is clearly a lot of distrust, on both sides, in Geneva today.  There is obviously opportunity.  Let's hope we take it.

And that the rain lets up.

Cheers,

Burton Hersh

Monday, January 13, 2014

Before the Jihad VIII

Countryconundra,

Again -- winter, deep, dark, and from time to time madness-inducing.  Pray for spring!

As the Middle East pulsates from Iran to Libya with wars barely winding down and wars unmistakably coming into full ferocity I am reminded of the wisdom of my friend Jamsheed Marker, at one point the Pakistani ambassador to the United States.  Himself a Zoroastrian, he viewed the periodic outbreaks of cataclysm in the region as a kind of incurable Arab disease, something to expect that usually took about seven years to burn itself out for the cycle.  Westerners, beware!

I can't help remembering the first inkling I had that things might work this way.  In August of 1956, during one of the long semester breaks that were the glory of the German university system, I was on a ferryboat during a very stormy night crossing of the English Channel.  Beside me on the rail was a sallow youngster on vacation from one of the Swiss boarding schools.  Our common sea-sickness seemed to establish a bond, and at some point the boy invited me to visit him at the cottage in Sussex where his family had settled recently.

I went directly to London to meet a prep-school classmate who had come over from the States to travel with me, and once we settled in called the telephone number my companion at the rail had given me.  He was still enthusiastic; we arranged to spend a couple of days with his family over the upcoming bank holiday.

As things turned out my new friend was the only son of a personage who was at the moment perhaps the most famous man in England:  Sir John Bagot Glubb, known to the tabloids as Glubb Pasha.  Except for Winston Churchill, Glubb was the only living Englishman to have been designated a Knight of the Garter.  Glubb Pasha himself met our commuter train and carted my classmate and me to his surprisingly modest rental in Sussex to spend the holiday with his son.

I had some idea who my host actually was:  both Time and Der Spiegel had recently run articles on Glubb's triumphs and setbacks. Sir John amounted to the last in a long line of British adventurers starting perhaps with Robert Clive who had infiltrated one decayed Eastern culture or another, negotiated with the local warlords, and extended the British Empire into the Third World.  Lawrence of Arabia was Glubb's immediate predecessor.  A professional soldier, Glubb Pasha had organized the Arab Legion in Jordan, without a doubt the most effective fighting force on the Arab side during the Arab-Israeli wars.  His patron, King Hussein, certainly appreciated Glubb's professionalism but was unable to hold off criticism from the other Arab monarchs at depending on an Englishman to crush the Israelis, and had very publicly thrown Glubb out a few months before I turned up.  He was now licking his wounds in Sussex.

A small, wiry fellow, Glubb appeared to have no chin:  the one he was born with had been hacked off during a saber fight on camel-back while Glubb was helping King Hussein consolidate Aman's hold on the tribes.  The irreverent British papers of the time sometimes referred to Glubb as "the chinless wonder of the Arab world."

Glubb was very high-strung, hyper-alert.  At dinner, as he carved the ceremonial goose, he spoke, somewhat indirectly, about returning to the Arab world, about rectifying the situation with the Israelis. Overlays and battle plans were spread across tables throughout the small public rooms, and the great man was obviously watching me carefully.  I was quite young -- barely into my twenties -- but the CIA had been known to recruit some unlikely informants.  Mrs. Glubb -- a cheerful, somewhat heavyset woman in a print dress who had roasted the goose herself while looking after the family's two adopted Arab daughters -- worked hard to make me and my travelling companion comfortable.  But the great man was increasingly uneasy.

We had been invited for the weekend.  But as soon as we finished the desert pudding Sir John ventured that it was time for us the catch the last commuter train back to London.  It happened that the train would pass through the village before we could make it.  That didn't deter Sir John.  He pushed us into his little, rented Humber and we gave chase, powering along the hedgerows at close to a hundred miles an hour and missing the train as it paused at the next village but overtaking it perhaps halfway to London.  We were offloaded with very little ceremony in time to clamber aboard while Glubb stood watching, making sure.

This utterly accidental encounter with the politics of empire suggested the intensity of emotion players at The Great Game brought to their calling.  The Middle East could devour you.  In the end, it devoured Sir John.   That supercharged bank holiday amounted to my introduction to where meddling with Arab politics could leave a Westerner.  More lay ahead.

Good luck and inspiration to all of you during 2014.

Burton Hersh

      

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Before the Jihad VII

Countryconfusionoids,

Again, a poke at the world. I thought it might be time to let you in on one of the projects I have been developing on the side, this with some international implications.  Several winters ago I happened to get into a conversation before a meeting in Tampa with the speaker of the evening, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the brother of the Saudi king and for decades the Saudi chief of intelligence.  A quick, accessible, genuinely urbane gentleman in his sixties -- the prince was educated at Deerfield and Georgetown --, Prince Turki gave me his card and invited me to continue to exchange ideas with him via the internet.  Once he was back in Riyadh I followed that up, and we have since gone back and forth as several issues between our countries have surfaced.

For many years Prince Turki has functioned, mostly behind the scenes, as a principal wirepuller throughout the Middle East.  His attempts to broker and direct U.S. involvement in Afghanistan can easily be tracked in Steve Coll's indispensable volume Ghost Wars. With that in mind I wrote him in March of 2012 to empathize the extent of war-weariness that prevails in the United States at the moment and suggesting that "If indeed you do have a degree of contact with the Taliban leadership, now would be the time to reactivate it."

He wrote back:  "My relationship with the Taliban ended on a sour note.  They refused to hand over Bin Laden to me which let to the Kingdom suspending relations with them...I am fully retired and have no wish to have any contact with the Taliban."

We moved on.  When a New York Times interview with the prince led him to remark that the apparent withdrawal of American commitment to the region raised the possibility of a Saudi atomic bomb, I wrote him urging him to reconsider.  Atomic weapons were "yesterday's nightmare," I stressed, costly at every stage and turning their possessors into targets.  He got back within a day or two, thanking me for my commentary, which he had circulated among his brothers and which he said had had an impact.

On December 18, submitting to an interview with Steven Erlanger of  The New York Times, Prince Turki noted that "We've seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white."  He called the world's failure to stop the conflict in Syria "almost a criminal negligence."  The Saudis were turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council in protest against big-power veto power.

I tried another e-mail.  "There is a profound disconnect here," I wrote the prince.  "As the Kingdom appears to back away, policy-makers in Washington who are already troubled by the increasing presence of the jihadist elements within the Syrian opposition and alert to the profound war weariness of the American public after our expensive and feckless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They see us as increasingly isolated, again at the point of being dragged into another conflict....  There is a general feeling here  -- and one that extends across the political spectrum -- that if it is to come to boots on the ground in Syria, they ought to be Saudi boots, or Turkish boots, or Jordanian boots...we are at the end of the cycle."

I held my breath after that:  pretty direct stuff.  A reply came back.  "Mr. Hersh," the prince wrote, "Thank you.  ...a super power does not always see the others in the room.  Saudi Arabia's concerns are global....  America's unsolicited red line stand is what led not only the Kingdom , but the rest of the world to expect action.  The sudden reversal is what led to anger.  No one has asked for American boots on the ground.  What the Kingdom expects is consistency and consideration.  Raising expectations and then dashing them does not keep or win friends.
Respectfully,"

What the prince's graceful if forceful reply leaves out is that fact that Obama's threat worked:  The danger from Syria's stores of poison gas was eliminated, and without sending in the Tomahawks. The fact is, the ground in Syria is shifting.  "The hope is," I responded to Prince Turki's incisive comments, "that the current negotiations with Iran lead to at least a partial demilitarization of the region, with some diplomatic settlement in Syria.  I suspect that the fear of Al Qaeda elements will entice policymakers here to prop up Assad and stage new elections."

Not long after I wrote that I had the chance to exchange ideas with Christopher Hill, our last ambassador in Iraq.  His expectations paralleled mine.  Perhaps our most experienced diplomat in the Middle East, Hill is extremely skeptical about the consequences of the "Arab Spring" and worried about the price we will have to pay once again trapped in the region-wide Sunni-Shiite civil war. Meanwhile, our own oil and gas production is on the upswing while our consumption falls. Prince Turki no doubt has grounds to be worried.

Best to all of you for 2014.

Burton Hersh  



  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dealey Plaza Revisited II

Countryconstitutionalists,

So we meet again, huddled around the lavapit.  The fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination has come and gone, but vapors continue to rise.  Let us investigate further.

One upshot that this reinvigorated national interest in JFK and the Kennedys appears to have encouraged is a movement to revise and sanitize history, to rub away elements of reality that boosters, or the family, or implicated elements of the power structure continue to find uncomfortable.  In my last blog I alluded to the insistence by Joe Kennedy's latest biographer, Professor David Nasaw, that Joe had nothing to do with the American underworld throughout his long, contentious career.  The fact is, there is a compounding record, from FBI documents to testimony by Joe's co-conspirators in the underworld to relatives of the Ambassador -- one, John Davis, refers without apology to Joe as "a bootlegger" in his important books, while another, Gore Vidal, recounts in his memoirs having walked in on Joe and Frank Costello, the boss of the New York crime families, both bollicky bareass on adjacent tables in Joe's apartment off Central Park South being ministered to by a Teamster masseur.  Gus Russo's solid books document Joe Kennedy's traffic with the Chicago Outfit virtually week to week once JFK was in play.  Hearsay, Professor Nasaw would maintain, not from authenticated documents.

When my book Bobby and J. Edgar came out I got mail from experts of every political persuasion.  Conservative Richard Whalen, whose The Founding Father stands as definitive on Joe, called it "A major contribution to the vast literature of the Kennedys.  I believe that [Hersh's] original research on [Joe Kennedy's] secret mob connections and his bootlegging career among other revelations shed important new light on this mystery-shrouded subject."  Robert Maheu, Howard Hughes' uniquely connected longtime alter ego, who reintroduced the CIA to the principal chiefs of the Mafia, wrote, "This is an amazing book.  It covers the history of the period to a depth I've never run into before."  

Before my last blog even got distributed I got a telephone call from the deeply affronted Professor Nasaw.
What seemed to offend him most was my observation that his biography was "Apparently sponsored by Jean Smith, Joe's surviving child...."  Nasaw would admit that he had been prompted to write the book by Smith, and that arrangements had been finalized by a brief talk with Ted Kennedy.  Then there had been an exchange of lawyers' papers, with the understanding that Nasaw was to receive complete access to Joe's papers in the Kennedy Library but was under no obligation to let the family vet the manuscript.  Webster's defines sponsorship as "person or agency that gives endorsement or vouches for some person or thing."  Let the reader parse the implications. Having myself had total access to Joe Kennedy's papers -- no lawyers, no pre-arrangements -- I discovered even in this well-culled archive a number of letters back and forth with everybody from well connected Mob affiliates to the senior economist on Hermann Goering's staff.  You just had to know who was who.

Another development that should prove alarming to civil libertarians is the takeover by right-wing billionaires of what had previously been comparatively free-wheeling media outlets.  For years The History Channel explored alternative versions as to what happened when JFK was shot, even featuring the recollections of a previously unknown girlfriend of Oswald's from New Orleans, with whom Oswald supposedly conducted cancer research  the summer before the shooting. Some were on target; others would be harder to substantiate.  Then Rupert Murdoch bought the outlet.  From then on -- straight Warren Commission apologia, no investigative reporting whatsoever.

More recent was a Nova segment built around the testimony of a father-son team of purported ballistics experts, Luke and Michael Haag, who claim to base their conclusions as to the validity of The Magic Bullet projection on recently developed laser and Doppler technology.  Their reading presumes that Kennedy was leaning forward when the fatal shots were fired and that he took a bullet at the base of his neck, both presumptions nullified by the Zapruder and other films of the event and the findings of Dr. Charles Cranshaw, the surgeon at Parkland Hospital who examined the stricken president immediately after he was brought in and determined that the first bullet hit him in mid-back.  The back of his head was gone, an exit wound the size of a cantaloupe. Most observers, including Kenny O'Donnell and  Dave Powers, riding in the car behind the president, saw the muzzle flash from the fence above the Grassy Knoll and watched the back of JFK's head fly off, with Jackie scrambling to grab her husband's skull and brains bouncing along the trunk of the convertible.  Both Governor Connally and his wife insisted that there were two shots from the rear, then one from the front -- a conspiracy.  When the U. S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations studied the evidence, it came to the same conclusions.

The Haags would maintain that the bullet from Oswald's old mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle "came out" of JFK and "started tumbling...and that's how it hit Connally...these are not really tough shots."  Oswald. they claim, was a crack shot and could have hit these moving targets several hundred feet away, through heavy foliage.  The fact was, Oswald was a limited shooter -- he barely qualified on the range as a Marine, a "marksman," and hadn't been practicing regularly.  Marine sharpshooters were unable to duplicate these "not really tough shots," and in their laboratories FBI technicians were unable to get Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano to fire.

What is most notable about this "expert testimony" is that it appeared on Nova at all.  Perhaps there is something of an explanation in the fact that David Koch, bankroller of hard-right causes across the board, is now a principal underwriter of the PBS series.  Another -- of three -- is the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation.  In America these days, our history is apparently turning into what Big Money decides it is.

Keep those Christmas lights on!

Burton Hersh