by Daniel N. White
Aug. 4, 2009
Tracked down and read a book that I’d heard of all my life, mostly, and had never gotten around to reading. Book is Report from Iron Mountain, by Leonard Lewin. I as a kid remember my dad talking about the book when it came out–he bought into its authenticity at the time like everyone else did, and was particularly concerned with its arguments and conclusions, being a career USAF jet jock at the time. Am not sure when he got wise to its being a parody–he may not have ever, as the amount of egg left on the faces of official and literary America from their believing in this book’s authenticity when it came out no doubt greatly interfered with word of its being a prank getting out too much too fast. If the old man were still around, and still believed in the book’s authentic provenance, well he probably wouldn’t lack for company. Rightwingers reprinted the book in the late ’80’s, and used it as evidence of the Giant Conspiracy that they and they alone were hep to. They did this without the author’s permission, and argued in court that seeing as the book was a USG publication, it was not subject to copyright restrictions and could be reprinted freely without permission, like any other government publication. They lost, and wound up having to give all the copies that they had back to L. Lewin. How droll. And hell if people still aren’t buying into it today–Wikipedia’s entry on the book allows the possibility still of it being an authentic USG study, and Oliver Stone used it as evidence in his movie JFK as evidence for The Giant Conspiracy that only he and that useless drunk Jim Garrison were hep to. Gadzooks.
Book is allegedly a secret study done by an anonymous group of heavy-duty academics at the request of the USG on the possibility and desirability of peace. Book came out in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, and is written in think-tank-ese, a dense and unrewarding and dishonest prose style that still afflicts us in think-tank and other official reports to this day. Book is basically every idiot argument any barroom moron ever floated about war’s benefits repackaged in think-tank-ese, with some additional howlers–slavery and inquisitions and arena blood sports as good things–tossed in as well. Conclusion is then that we can’t have peace, but we should do things–things requiring additional study groups’ efforts of course–to make war as efficient as we can to where it can perform its necessary social/political/economic/environmental/etc functions as efficiently as possible. Somehow the book being written in think-tank-ese allowed these ridiculous assertions to be swallowed whole at the time. Book has a number of footnotes, at least two of which, according to Lewin, are complete fabrications that the print world never caught on to. That I certainly believe. And of course, massive computer calculations, using immense amounts of the most advanced machine time, applying the most advanced algorithms, proved every single assertion the authors argued. Oww Oww Oww.
Nearest analogue to this book is Frankenheimer’s (original) The Manchurian Candidate. I recall as a kid hearing that movie described to me by my high-school classmates who’d seen it on TV as a real-life thriller–fiction but everything in it was real and possible, you know. Kids in high school can be forgiven for not seeing the movie as it really is–a truly whacked romp and a farce satirizing American society–but I strongly suspicion that my classmates’ parents missed that as well when they saw it in its theatrical release in 1962. As to why Iron Mountain, which quite deliberately targeted the US’ intelligentsia, escaped immediate detection as a parody and fabrication is quite a mystery to me. It is obvious reading it that the author was having more fun than the law generally allows putting out the most outrageous propositions as fact he could think of to see what he could get away with. Obvious to me at any rate–maybe back in 1967 people did actually believe that the US DOD was stockpiling birds to eat the post-nuclear war radioactivized bugs that would then be immune to pesticides. Stockpiling birds. (P. 51) Jesus.
Back in ’62 most people believed in communist brainwashing mind control–lots of propaganda for same had been put out to explain away how badly American POW’s in Korea behaved, and why 50 or so turnedcoat and stayed behind in China once the war was over. Most of us now know that brainwashing and mind control is all bullshit, but then all that propaganda was swallowed whole enough to where Manchurian Candidate got seen as a thriller, not as a farce. Understandable side-effect of propaganda, people believing it.
What was swallowed whole enough by the intelligentsia, and by American society at large in Iron Mountain were moronic arguments about war as the necessary driving force in human society that were dressed up in official-expert-sources-say raiments. If reams of propaganda were produced from 1953 onwards to hide the failures in American society the Korean War turncoats showed, then oceans of propaganda about war were produced from around 1948 (See Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948) onwards to justify the Cold War and the wasteful misallocation of scarce economic resources our military expenditures were. The propaganda about and for war was intensified naturally enough for the Vietnam activities then ongoing. The natural enough upshot of all this propaganda justifying our permanent cold war state and economy was an across the board credulous acceptance of Iron Mountain’s inanities, because, fundamentally, they weren’t all that much different than the rest of the ocean of official propaganda for the Cold War that we’d been swimming in for two decades by then.
But before we pat ourselves on the back about how much smarter we are now than then, you have to look at the runup to our two wars now ongoing. Neither the American public nor the US intelligentsia ever questioned much the preposterous war rationales the Bush (and Blair) administrations fronted. The Bush administration very successfully presented as big a farrago of preposterous assertions as Iron Mountain’s as the truth. Most everyone in the print trades bought into them then, and haven’t any more retracted their support for them and the war that followed than they a generation ago ever made any apologies for their swallowing Iron Mountain whole. Lewin stated his intentions with Iron Mountain were to satirize the process and culture of think tank reports, and thereby maybe to get us to regard the whole academic-industrial process with a good deal more skepticism than had been the case prior. I am not sure how well he succeeded with that. I suspect, judging from how he wrote in 1972 that the Pentagon Papers and other Nixon administration reports like those about Chile were reality trumping his art for dishonest bureaucratic amoral doublethink, that he would have doubted his work’s success.
The painful legacy of Iron Mountain is that things haven’t changed since Lewin wrote it. Frauds worse than Iron Mountain are easily committed and as readily escape detection. The intelligentsia is just as credulous now as they were then, and are just as unwilling to fess up to their mistakes and their being fooled as they were then. And what’s worse is that we have had an additional ocean of war propaganda since produced, which we obviously have swallowed plenty of from our still swimming in it. I don’t know that Iron Mountain deserves reading, but we must not forget it as we have, for it tells us hard truths about us we are wise to heed.
The trouble with satire is that so many people miss it!