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

 


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dealey Plaza Revisited

Countryconnoisseurs,

Yes, yes, I know.  It has been too long a wait between blogs, my flock is parched for spiritual relief, the worry is universal that the well might have gone dry.  Be not afraid.  More opinions, more shafts of insight are on the way.  In the end even the most ardent are likely to feel thoroughly shafted.

Partly the problem has been the maddening internet, where the infatuated elves can't leave well enough alone. Partly it has been the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination.  I have been doing a fair amount of speaking, for the media and a number of groups, so you have been a little neglected, oh my faithful brethren.

But here we are.  I realize that I have growled and thrown my weight around on this subject before, but what with all the adulation the Kennedy era seems to have pulled in around us this week we are probably overdue for another look, a consideration of what really happened, and when, and why.

In a piece that appeared a week ago, November 17, in The Tampa Bay Times, I attempted to deal with several books that have appeared lately on the subject.  I brushed off Bill O'Reilly's featherweight bestseller Killing Kennedy as an atrociously researched puff piece.  Of more concern is the recently published biography by David Nasaw, The Patriarch.  Apparently sponsored by Jean Smith, Joe's surviving child, the author alleges that Joe had nothing to do with organized crime, that whatever people thought was based on gossip among mobsters.  Apart from my exhaustively footnoted biography, Bobby and J. Edgar, virtually every recent work of substance on the Kennedys has detailed -- and substantiated -- Joe's business, political and recreational involvement with organized crime throughout his fascinating career.  Others have now come forward -- Christopher Buckley, among many -- so this naive whitewash of reality probably won't stand up.

More than this sort of truckling misrepresentation of the family's history, another kind of opportunism threatens to corrupt our reading of our own past.  There is a rash of Kennedy conspiracy books out right now that amount to sand in the eyes of those who have long doubted the conclusions of the Warren Commission and have done courageous and important work to get at the facts.  One author maintains Kennedy's Secret Service driver turned and shot him dead.  Another book pins it all on Lyndon Johnson, with little solid evidence.  What all these works accomplish is to discredit the efforts of several generations of genuine investigative reporters who have tracked down the details over the decades and come up with proof of a comprehensive conspiracy, involving many individuals, in and out of government.  The public understands this. In the e-book edition of Bobby and J. Edgar that just came out with Basic Books I have laid out the many important facts that have surfaced recently.

Our history is what we were.  Our respect for its authenticity will determine what we are becoming.  The truth, as they say, is what sets us free.

A happy Thanksgiving to all of you,

Burton Hersh

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Return of Mother Russia

Countrycontroversialists,

October is coming on, and it is time to overload the long-suffering old Mercedes wagon and hightail it for Florida.  A few words about the latest stages of the jihad.

On September 12, 2013, when it looked as if President Obama had red-lined himself into a corner by pledging to send  a barrage of Tomahawk missiles into Syria no matter what anybody --i.e., most responsible Americans -- wanted, deliverance came from an unexpected quarter.  President Vladimir Putin of Russia published a piece in the op-ed section of The New York Times in which he -- quite reasonably, it seemed to me -- dealt with the quandary into which we had backed ourselves.  He did maintain that Bashar Assad had not deployed those sarin-loaded missiles into the Damascus suburbs, and could not resist a poke at American "exceptionalism."   "When we ask for the Lord's blessing, we must not forget that God created us equal," Putin concluded.

Editorial response here was outraged, with a self-righteous John McCain railing on television about hypocrisy and ex-KGB thugs and by God we were exceptional.  In fact, as things appear to be working out, Syria is already in the process of being delivered of its gas and the shaky Obama presidency might yet survive with its reputation intact.

I haven't visited Russia recently, but in 1997 I was a member of a group of intelligence journalists and retired CIA operatives who were invited to spend a week in Moscow.  At vodka-fueled dinners with KGB veterans every night and days prowling the reaches of  Stalin's covert-warfare establishment, our Cold-War education was deepened.  I well remember the blood-soaked walls and overhead manacles of the Lubyanka basement.  Our hosts made it plain that times were hard, and any money we might find it in our hearts to spare....

Russia under Boris Yeltsin was tumbling into the chaos of the unrestricted free market.  Gangster capitalism was on the loose.  Oligarchs were grabbing off the oil resources.  We stayed at the Radison Hotel that overlooked the Kiev railroad station.  Long lines of old women in babushkas with tin cups were there night and day, begging for rubles from travelers. At the piano bar of the hotel somebody was playing jazz.  A small man sat in a club chair and was overhung by a couple of gorillas in long, black leather coats, both with Kalachnikovs slung from their elbows.  The small man, somebody told me, was the owner.  He had once had an American backer.After the Radison started to do business the American had appeared and demanded his cut.  The gorillas had cornered him and blown him all over the ceiling of the elegant Kiev Metro station.

Everybody was not happy.  My friend Thomas Powers introduced me to the editor of Izvestia, once a foremost journal of Marxist thought.  A reflective fellow, the editor saw nothing good in Russia's fall from Communism.  The whole country was a grab-it-in-the-dark party.  Once the week was over I took an overnight train, the legendary Krasnaya Zemlya -- the Red Arrow -- to St Petersburg. All night my fellow passengers kept banging on my compartment door, demanding in broken English to be allowed to see me, they had something I might like to consider....  Fortunately, I held out.

Everything was for sale.  In Saint Petersburg I was met by a tall, blonde woman in her forties who would cart me around for two days, with a lot of time at the Hermitage.  Afterwards she took me to my plane.  Stepping onto the tarmac, I pressed a fifty-dollar tip into her hand.  She looked astonished.  "And I didn't even have to sleep with you," she muttered, with evident relief.

Russia under Vladimir Putin is certainly no paradise.  But Putin has introduced a measure of shabby stability that appears to be enough for now.  Russia -- and America -- could be confronting worse.

Burton Hersh


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Publishing Has Cratered

Countrycontrarians,

Labor Day weekend, the long summer wanes.  Time, perhaps, to suspend my recent geopolitical rants and let things get personal. 

Of recent months I have been foraging for an agent -- the right agent -- to identify the right editor at the right book house to bring out a pair of sexy, electrifying novels I recently finished.  The response has been predictable.  Why not a proposal for another nonfiction work in the subject area -- politics, the intelligence community -- where my previous books have built my reputation, attracted a stubborn following?  Then, drafting in the wake of such a placement, perhaps a morsel or two of fiction might be slipped in sideways.  "...given the tough climate in general and the tougher climate for fiction in particular, editors look at sales histories" primarily, as one agent wrote me recently.

Demoralized as the survivors in publishing remain, I can't help concluding that they are dealing with the collapsing sales like a demoralized army stampeded into retreat -- by cutting their losses and permitting the slaughter to continue.  I wrote the agent back, pretty much as follows:.  "Nothing is going to rescue publishing," I opened, "from the economic sinkhole into which it is disappearing until everybody involved begins to understand how senseless and slack and self-destuctive the mentality of most people still left in the trade has become.  I've been writing and publishing books with major publishers since the sixtes; until recently they sold reasonably well -- certainly into five figures -- and built a solid following.

"What has obviously happened is that everybody on the commercial side of  publishing -- publishers, editors, agents, publicists -- has come to regard a manuscript as one more low grade commercial product they can process with whatever is left of their desultory staffs.  Few editors in the book houses have the interest or energy these days to read any material they are purportedly considering.  They want synopses, on-line attachments, which they can effortlessly delete before making the commitment of time and attention any serious book by a talented author deserves. It's all about categories -- how many copies did the last book sell, is the book pre-sold because some film star or controversial politician has his name on the cover.  The recent fiasco with Arnold Schwarzenegger's ghosted memoirs -- insiders tell me got a better than eight-million-dollar advance, and sold a handful of copies -- indicates why the editorial budgets of the major houses are vaporizing, and why there is little or nothing left to publish work of real literary promise."

The longstanding presumption that one of the  primary responsibilities of a senior editor is to identify raw talent and convince his bosses to support it through book after book until enough of the reading public catches on and the writer turns into an important asset to the book house seems to have disappeared.  What has replaced it is the impulse to cannibalize another publisher and lure away a "name" writer -- very often somebody on his creative death bed -- or some outside celebrity with a lot of name recognition and very little else. Ghosted books, churned out on minimal advances, bloat the sagging market. Readers are catching on, and sales figures show that.

Everybody involved appears to have forgotten is that publishing is a collaborative venture and a calling of the heart.  It is about a lot more than numbers. Ultimately, when a book by a writer of genuine talent appears, it is up to the publisher, his editor, his staff, the agent, to invest enough time and money and connections in the work to give it a chance to surface, to catch the eye of the public and build up momentum.  The climate is "tough for fiction" because the deadbeats around the surviving publishing houses have no historical memory to suggest  to them what their predecessors did to improve the climate.  What publishers today seem to want exclusively is a sure thing, something prepackaged, no risk or dedication or time or effort expected.  Gutlessness -- and laziness -- sweep the industry.

People in publishing tell me selling books is hard.  It was always hard.  Publishers of talent and imagination equivalent to that of the best of their writers brought it off.  When such people return, and understand what their part of the process requires, literary America will return.  Millions of restless readers wait.

Imagination and hard work create industries.  When the interns and hangers-on along publishers' row start geting paid, perhaps motivations will improve. 

Enough sermonizing.  I feel better, even if you don't.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Before the Jihad VI

Countrycampasinos,

The rains are over, and the blistering heat has lifted from these friendly mountains.  Was climate change yesterday's delusion?  One might hope so, but....

Last week an alert went out to many of our embassies and consulates in the Near East.  Al Qaeda had been overheard on a conference call. The threat is getting worse, Senator McCain assures the Sunday audience.

Sometimes it's a good idea to run back over the history, especially the incidents we've tended to bury like road kill because they looked so unsightly.  Best to start with 1945, when F.D.R. and Ibn Saud agreed to trade the sweet Arabian oil beheath the Saudi sands for Pentagon protection.  American drillers moved in, and whenever the shadow of nationalization fell across business as usual -- Iranian moves by Mossadegh to recover ownership of the country's resources from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, predecessor of B.P. -- Westerners stepped in to turn that around, in this case Kermit Roosevelt of the fledgling CIA operating by British blueprints.  In time the Ayatollahs recovered ownership in 1989.  See my treatment in The Old Boys.

Early in the eighties, when a cataclysmic war broke out between Iran and Iraq, we had not forgotten.  Behind the scenes we backed Saddam Hussein, once a CIA protege, providing intelligence and arms.  Donald Rumsfeld was photographed regularly during his profitable     visits to Baghdad, uninterested, apparently, in Saddam's willingness to gas thousands of Kurds.  Weapons of mass destruction wasn't that important an issue during the Reagan years.

The crunch came during the nineties during the runup to Desert Storm.  Saddam, who maintained that the Kuwaitis were slant-drilling into the vast oil reservoirs beneath the South Iraqui oil fields, sat down with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, and posed the question, between allies, as to whether America would have any objection to a Saudi military action to take out the Kuwaiti drilling sites.  Glaspie didn't see any problem.  Saddam invaded; the first Bush administration brought down Desert Storm and left Iraq with much of its infrastructure destroyed and the Kurdish north of the country essentially autonomous, under CIA protection.

The second Bush administration came into office determined to finish what the first Bush administration had started.  All that oil! The pretext would be the threat to the West of purported weapons of mass destruction.  Saddam -- who had hit Israel with Scud missiles during Desert Storm and seemingly attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush -- was supposedly a threat, despite clear evidence from U.N. inspectors that Iraq had been cleaned out militarily by saturation bombing.  Meanwhile, after 9/11 a few detachments of CIA special operations troops moved into post-Soviet Afghanistan and appeared to take things over.

The Arabs were evidently easy targets.  We had soon captured Baghdad and in the process stirred to life a region-wide religious war that erupted as the Arab Spring and at this moment is convulsing Syria and Egypt. Time to look elsewhere.  Lacking a coherent energy policy, we have started to place our bets on tar-sands technology and fracking, both likely to poison the aquifers and release enough methane into the atmosphere to kill us off before climate change can fry us.  We are an inventive civilization.

Enjoy these last, balmy summer days.

Burton Hersh    
and

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Before the Jihad V

Countrycoordinators,

We exchange again.  Another fortnight of irregularities  -- problems with a vintage computer in The Mother Ship, our sprawling farmhouse built originally on this New Hampshire crossroads by an avowed Abolitionist in 1837 and updated every half-century or so, whether the ancient relic needed it or not.

Further musings about where and how we ought to involve ourselves in the chaos of the Middle East.  No doubt we'd better step back and size up what the Arab Spring has turned itself into.  The shift is becoming tectonic, the enormous subcultural plates -- Shia versus Sunni, traditional versus modern -- are heaving up one country after another, grinding on one another and producing political chaos.

For years a very prominent Pakistani diplomat, Jamsheed Marker, a pal of Musharrev and at one time Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, lived part of every year in St. Petersburg.  He became a friend.  The descendant of an old and wealthy Zoroastrian family, Marker confided to me once that these upheavals in the Muslim world seemed to be endemic.  Fanaticism took hold; from what he could tell it took some time -- seven years was typical -- before the fever passed and what could be regarded as normalcy returned.  The populations throughout the Middle East were not conditioned to anything like democracy, and some form of responsible autocracy appeared to work best.  Himself a deft negotiator -- he worked out the terms that finally ended the bloodbath in East Timor and created the resulting state -- Marker was a gifted and insightful analyst.

The upheavals in Syria and Egypt today certainly tend to bear Marker out.  In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood -- Morsi -- interpreted its victory at the polls as a mandate to bulldoze the judiciary, convulse the economy, force its radical Islamic precepts on the contemporary half of the citizenry.  Millions took to the streets and the country's wary military brought down a coup, a Putsch.  In Egypt the outcome is likely to be the return, without Mubarak, to what Sukarno liked to refer to as a "guided democracy," the sort of government our CIA ushered in to dump King Farouk during the fifties which led to the Nasser takeover.

Syria is more interesting.  Right now we have an open Shiite-Sunni civil war tearing the place apart.  Behind the Assad regime is Iran and Russia,
with effective elements of Hezbollah -- the Shia militants who blew up our Marine barracks in Beirut during the Reagan presidency and threaten Israel now with thousands of rockets -- starting to turn the fighting in Assad's favor.  Most effective on the rebel side are the al Nusra brigades, an arm of al Qaeda, itself the outgrowth of the mujahedin guerilla campaign we sponsored to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan when Bill Casey was CIA director -- Charlie Wilson's War.

Now, the ground having shifted utterly, strategic masterminds like Senator McCain keep pushing Obama to back these freedom-loving rebels, institute a no-fly-zone -- an expensive and difficult feat, requiring saturation bombing of airfields, heavy costs, and a huge commitment of vulnerable Western aircraft -- to back the anti-Assad forces.  For what, to entrench Al Qaeda in Syria?  They will no doubt dominate Afghanistan within a year or so in any case.  Do we want to invite two al Qaeda-controlled states into existence?

One recent development that ought to send up some kind of a flare is the outright public opposition by Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian entity that governs Gaza, to the rebels in Syria.  There are times in any Great Power's strategizing when it becomes apparent that own purposes are best served by permitting elements antagonistic to its own interests to have it out.  Let's you and him fight.  This is a cold-blooded, realist's approach, but it is clearly one that President Obama -- and the Israelis -- appear to understand.  Befuddled by so many decades of American "exceptionalism," too many decrepid, aging Cold Warriors and too many greedy corporate spokesmen in the West are eager to resupply yet another bloodbath.  As throughout our wasting, ill-fated march into Iraq, the facts on the ground speak for themselves.

This is not isolationism.  This is well-informed common sense.

Cheers.  Enjoy August.

Burton Hersh

 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Before the Jihad

Countrycommandos, Again, something of a delay. By spring this year the shingles on the Mother Ship were shearing off with every ice storm. This meant a new roof, with three layers of shingle, down to the ancient green hexagonals, landing for several weeks on the surrounding lawns and fields. Almost under control at this point. Memories of my trip across Turkey in the fifties kept recurring after the last blog. Turkey is a venerable crossroads of civilization; Istanbul itself has nourished thousands of years of civilization, including -- as Constantinople -- an era as the Alternate Papacy. The Turks are traditionally hard-bitten -- their performance with UN Forces during the Korean War left our commanders breathless. Islamic but oriented toward contemporary political thinking, NATO members, the Turks function as a kind of bridge between Europe and the faction-ridden Middle East. Many of the Ben-Gurion generation of Israeli founders picked up their law degrees in Istanbul. Throughout most of Israel's besieged existence Turkey has been a closet ally. Turkey came to mind recently at a small dinner party in Florida with a couple of retired, high-level State Department professionals. Syria came up -- should we get involved in the rebellion? These were seasoned policy-makers; they both came down hard: No! Even among the Cold-War generation, conditioned to alarm bells around the world, enough U.S. Excepionalism is enough. "The Turks are sitting right along the Syrian border, refugees are pouring in, they have some of the best military in the world and even the Islamist general elected president of Turkey is obviously hesitant. Uneasy as his government remains about the Kurds in Turkey, why would he add the Kurds in Syria to his sleepless nights? Why should we?" Perhaps we can learn. For all our claims to sophistication we are still meat-eating primates, easily tricked into picking up our clubs and storming across the river to commit genocide against the next village. If anybody doubts this, review the vote in the Senate in 2003 approving the resolution to invade Iraq. The WMD evidence was clear, and still Senators Kerry, Clinton and Biden went along with this march into quicksand. Even Ted Kennedy -- I had a hand in his decision -- wavered before he cast what he later called the best vote of his life and opposed the invasion. This would become important for his legacy -- see my book Edward Kennedy -- An Intimate Biography. Thoughts in a torrid July. Burton Hersh

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Before the Jihad II

Countrykonjurers,

We are there.  The ancient red Mercedes made the trip -- again.  Time to go after all those cowering hearts and minds it is our mission to awaken.  The following might well leave certain of you queasy, so jump off the dynamite wagon now before we skirt the cliffs.

These reflections grew out of another of those toxic sendalongs my cousin in Chicago makes sure I see.  Pushes the right buttons -- I suspect retirement has aroused his demonic side

This beauty is attrubuted to Don Cherry, a Canadian hockey commentator for CBC television.  Somebody apparently called in and asked what Cherry thought about torture of suspected terrorists.

"If hooking up one terrorist prisoner's testicles to a car battery to get the truth out of the lying "LITTLE =/+&*" will save just one life, then I have only three things to say:  "Red is positive, black is negative, and make sure his nuts are wet."

I took the bait.  "With contacts like yours, who needs shingles?" I wrote my cousin.  "Have you ever had your nuts wired up?  I came very close in western Turkey once, and it is reasonable to believe I wouldn't have appreciated it.  My CIA and FBI friends tell me that torture is the worst way available to elicit good intelligence.  The victim will tell you anything to make it stop, and send you on a wild goose chase while the threatened atrocity comes down.  What works is to win the prisoner over -- the right cell mate is often effective -- and keep him talking.  Hatred chokes off disclosure."

With a book in mind to follow up on my study of the early CIA, The Old Boys, I have been reading my way through contemporary intelligence literature.  Much concerns, inevitably, our conduct during the "War on Terror," which is our government's euphemism for its campaign against Muslim extremism.  President Obama, with his genius for walking gracefully on both sides of the street, often simultaneously, seems to have closed down the worldwide rendition parlors, to which the Bush administration consigned prisoners it intended to charm into disclosures with thumb screws, but pumped up the drone attacks.  The claim is made that every victim is meticulously identified, the moment is selected when a minimum of "collateral damage" might result, and pooh-bahs in the administration as high as Obama himself must sign off.

The fact is, under this president hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of "targeted killings" have been authorized  and executed.  The residual CIA and the burgeoning Joint Special Operations Command vie for assassination privileges.  What is becoming apparent, even to such professional hardasses as Generals McRaven and McCrystal, is that each of these murders is engendering perhaps hundreds of Al Qaeda recruits, given the character of Arab society.

Unlike us, atomized as we have become, the Mohammedan world is still largely organized into tribes, clans.  You kill a favored nephew, you take us all on, and all can number into the thousands.  Such computer-friendly techniques as "signature strikes" -- based sometimes on the presence of a group of young men algorithm programs have suggested might possibly be unfriendly and now known to be gathering in some marketplace in Waziristan -- have resulted in casualties high enough to inflame a village.  We have become radical Islam's best recruiters. Bin Laden's strategy was simple -- stir The Great Satan up, and he will bring on war.

All this is expecially true where many of those fighting are mercenaries, not subject to any nation's laws or the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  In his important book Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill points out that during Desert Storm one in sixty participants were mercenaries.  During the Iraq occupation one in three were "contractors," a frequently lawless, brutal bunch, at home in Abu Ghraib, many roustabouts from death squads from El Salvador and Chile to South Africa.  The population rose against us.

Torture really doesn't work on either a national or a personal level.  Don Cherry should go soak his head -- or his nuts -- and then reexamine his position.

Cheers,

Burton

Monday, May 20, 2013

Before the Jihad

Countryconvivialists,

Again, again.  It has been several weeks, and it will be several weeks, since we are on the brink of our semiannual Drang nach Norden, up to our ancestral fortification in hardcore New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die!").  Packing the elderly Mercedes.

This dispatch was triggered by one of those send-arounds the politically or culturally motivated release on their acquaintanceships, with instructions to forward to ten or twenty like-minded friends.  A cousin of mine, a devoted and very capable fellow, put me on the distribution list.

The title on the circular was:  "CAN MUSLIMS BE GOOD AMERICANS/CANADIANS?"  The answer was, resoundingly, NO!  Because -- I am selecting a number of the source's one-line responses at random -- "Geographically--no...Because his allegiance is to Mecca, to which he turns in prayer five times a day....  Socially-- no.  Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with Christians or Jews....  Politically --no... Because he must submit to the mullahs (spiritual leaders) who teach annihilation of Israel and destruction of America, the great Satan.  Domestically -- no...Because he is instructed to marry four Women and beat his wife when she disobeys him.  Intellectually -- no, Because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based on Biblical principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt."

And on in this vein, ending with the admonition: "THE Armed Forces WANT THIS EMAIL TO ROLL ALL OVER THE U.S. & CANADA.  Please don't delete this until you send it on."

I wrote my cousin immediately:  "I don't know where you picked up this drivel, but it is historically inaccurate and philosophically toxic.  For a thousand years, when Europe was confining Jews in ghettos and worse, the Muslim world, from Cordova to Alexandria, was supporting and encouraging its Jewish and Christian communities and permitting Jews to flourish and survive the Crusaders and the Inquisitors who were attempting to destroy them.  My own personal acquaintance includes a prominent imam and a member of the Saudi royal family; when I was young I hitchhiked all over much of the Arab world, from Istanbul to North Africa, and several times my life was saved by kindly, well disposed natives.  Any responsible reading of the Koran reduces the statements you are propagating to gibberish.  Like Christinaity, Islam is a direct outgrowth of Jewish thought -- take a look at Leviticus if you have any doubt of this.  Both the Jewish and Christian  bibles are holy books within Islam.  All three Abrahamic religions share the same patriarch, the same spiritual roots.

Don't spread this poison.  You are much too civilized to lead people to believe you are an ignorant hate-monger."


The whole exchange jogged some memories.  There was that unforgetable incident in a lamplit alley in the Cahsbah in Tangier, when -- I was in my early twenties, and cheaper and even less likely to show signs of common sense than today -- a big Moorish bouncer with a knife attempted to collect the bar bill for a B-girl I had engaged in casual conversation.  Ugly, almost suicidal

There was the morning, early, when I was sleeping steerage, on the deck of a Greek freighter bound for Crete among a crowd of Muslim peasants crossing from the Piraeus for Ramadan -- I remember how loud the poultry, trussed upside down, was clucking -- and a little Greek sailor decided to pull the plug out of my air mattress.  I never have thought very clearly before breakfast.  Deeply irritated, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and grabbed the sailor by the seat of the pants and heaved him over the rail.  Other members of the crew charged me,  the surrounding Muslim passengers swarmed to my defense, and a brawl broke out.

By then I was waking up.  I didn't like the odds, so I pulled my stuff together and climbed up onto the upper deck and watched the melee below.  After a few minutes I felt something tugging my sleeve.  It was the little Greek sailor, who had climbed the rigging and pulled himself aboard.  Smiling, we watched the mob below fighting over our honor.

It was a different world; Americans throughout the Mid-East were respected, even venerated.  Our wars of overseas empire really hadn't begun.  If we really want to figure out why we are feared and detested in so much of the Arab world these days, perhaps we had better look beyond the Koran, or at least read it intelligently.

Next time from The Granite State,

Burton Hersh

 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Giving It Away III

CountryConfucians,

For lo, another dance around the Maypole.  I'm hoping to round off my commentary on what is changing in our society, too fast and in a highly destructive direction.

The hope and expectation -- Wall Street is huffing and puffing -- is that a conciliatory Fed and traditional economic cycles are pulling us out of what is referred to as "the worst recession since the depression."  I hope so, Lord knows I hope so.  Printing trillions of dollars and pouring them into federal bonds has supposedly raised the water-line enough so we can float back out to sea.  Our huge international corporations are electric with "productivity," which means finding ways to manufacture and distribute goods and services cheaper and without the labor costs heretofore associated with middle-class capitalism.  Profits are way up.

In 1896 William Jennings Bryan grabbed off the Democratic nomination for president by decrying the willingness of the Republicans to nail up the country on a "Cross of Gold." Gold meant the gold standard, the sine qua non to the plutocrats of his day.  This reverence for gold in our time equates to productivity.  The productivity we celebrate has been accomplished by a variety of methods -- off-shoring, automation, the dizzying and frequently dangerous rush into computerization of vital functions from financial bookkeeping to national defense.  Money is being saved.  But employment stays down, union wages are a memory, and millions and millions of competent people here are working for wages below what it takes to pay the bills.

Various remedies present themselves:  In China, where Apple I-phones are assembled, the workers reportedly line up every afternoon once their shift is completed for the oppportunity to climb the ladder at the back of the towering building and throw themselves off, one of the few corporate perks.  Options for the increasingly desperate middle class here are not a lot more attractive. The thousands who slave for minimum wage at McDonalds are routinely dependent on food stamps, which translates nicely onto the corporation's bottom line.  American taxpayers are subsidizing McDonald's worldwide expansion.

In America the arts have always been the canary in the coal mine, to coin a phrase, and surviving writers and painters and actors and film-makers are now wading around ankle-deep in dead canaries.  I hear it everywhere.  One friend, a seasoned director of movies for TV, tells me that the $120,000 he got to take on a film has now been cut back to $10,000.  He can expect to absorb the expenses.  Another friend with a worldwide reputation as a photographer of the great tells me that The New York Times, which once routinely sent him $250 to run one of his photos, now remits $2.50.  I'm told things are no better in the music business.

And writing?  I tried to suggest in a recent blog what sort of contracts writers -- myself included -- are expected to submit to.  When Poland was under the heel of the Soviets I visited a couple of times.  What the Soviets had not looted was given over to conditions that approached slave labor.  I heard the same joke several times.  A Red Army officer approaches a local workman.  "Give me your watch," the officer demands, "and I'll tell you the time."

Surviving publishers -- and, I am told, a number of agents, who seem to get quite upset when their charges hesitate to turn over years of work for next to nothing, forget the residuals -- appear to be reconciled to living off the land.  Work is so hard to sell that whoever is left is out there is cannibalizing the remains.  Books are increasingly being written on a "work for hire" basis -- a small guarantee out front, no secondary rights retained, a year's work pounded out in a couple of months, a rushed literary product that is effectively unreadable, little or no marketing effort, and the result all but disappearing on publication day. 

Here we have "productivity," the soulless exploitation of talent and resources, everything calculated toward the bottom line.   Is this the culture we make so many sacrifices to protect?  Perhaps we should reconsider.

If we still can.

Burton Hersh





Sunday, April 21, 2013

Giving it Away II

Countrycontortionists,

I hope at least one of my recent offerings has left you somewhat bent out of shape.  Flexibility is important for those on the straight and narrow.

Evidence of the extent to which practitioners of any of the arts now find themselves on their own continues to compile.  A page-1 piece in the April 17 New York Times points up how widespread self-publishing is becoming among even celebrity authors.  David Mamet expects to put out his next fiction himself, since "as traditional publishers have cut back on marketing, this route allows well-known figures like Mr. Mamet to look after their own publicity."

I doubt that this is a breakthrough Mr. Mamet sought. For the mid-list -- i.e. "serious" -- writer, the sort of support most publishers currently offer, combined with startling contracts that effectively confiscate many or most established subsidiary rights, has thrown the writing community back a couple of hundred years.  Thoreau and Whitman put out their own masterpieces. Perhaps we are returning to our roots.

Prospects continue to deteriorate.  Many years ago, when our children were young, I took them back to my boyhood neighborhood in Minneapolis to show them the Minnehaha Falls.  It had been a spring and summer of drought; the Minnehaha creek that fed the waterfall had pretty much dried up.  Below the Falls were small, shallow pools in which whatever carp and bluegills had survived were fanning back and forth, listlessly.  Youngsters from the neighborhood, mostly black youngsters from the nearby tenements and a handful of Chippewas, had waded in among the sluggish surviving fish and were stabbing them with glee and flipping them onto the mud of the banks with sharp sticks.  This was a scenario Longfellow missed.

Publishing has devolved into pretty much the same scene.  The banks of American Letters are strewn with what was once the talent of several generations.  Terms -- take it or leave it -- that until recently would have been regarded in the industry as as beneath contempt are thrown out there without apology.  Horrible work-for-hire contracts that leave any writer who hopes to eat regularly sure to go hungry before he grinds out the manuscript he had just taken on. Novels from which the film rights, and the foreign rights, and even the right to introduce the same characters in a subsequent book are scarfed up by the publisher.  Marketing -- publicity budgets, and often enough well-connected publicists themselves -- represent costs the publisher has largely sloughed off, leaving contact with the media to unpaid interns. Advances are token, if they are offered at all.  Any hope of future royalties are eaten alive by legalistic gobbledegook.

Agents, desperate for fifteen percent of something, appear to have gone along.  A few years ago, when a non-fiction book of mine turned out to do some business, two film producers turned up and tried to option the screen rights.  One spelled it out:  three thousand dollars for five years, serious money if and when a studio came forward and committed to the picture.  The producer had nothing more than several cut-rate biker movies to his credit, and my book dealt with politics at the presidential level.  I had thoughts of writing a screen play myself.  The option offer was minimal, but my agent felt this could work out, so I told him to go ahead and put the deal together.

The producer got back:  He had been thinking, and the best he could do was a fifteen-hundred-dollar offer to pick up the option.  I said no.  If this was the way the producer intended to do business, how could we depend on anything he passed along to us if there ever really was a sale?

My agent was upset.  He cut me loose.  The way he sized things up, fifteen percent of something, however token, was better than nothing, and I was acting like a sorehead..  My feeling was, why give something inherently valuable away?  Furthermore, the holder of the option was likely to resell it at a profit, and who could tell what scavenger was next in line?

So people in our trade are selling one another out all up and down the feeding chain.  It may be that the internet, so costly to so many of us, will become our salvation.

Interesting times, at least for the survivors.

More next time around,

Burton Hersh 






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