Thursday, December 4, 2014

Before the Jihad XII

Dedicated Faithful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More war?  More sanity is what we need.

As ever,

Burton Hersh.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fellow Commandantes,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.
Seriously, give it a try.  And let me know what you think at:

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.


Burton Hersh

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Before the Jihad -- X


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


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.


Burton Hersh


Friday, May 30, 2014

The Return of Mother Russia -- IV


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

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Return of Mother Russia -- III


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


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


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.


Burton Hersh


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Before the Jihad -- Iran


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.


Burton Hersh

Monday, January 13, 2014

Before the Jihad VIII


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