Books that deserve some comment, for good or bad. First is Colby Buzzell’s new book, Lost in America. Buzzell wrote his first book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, which told his experiences as an 11-M* in Iraq in 2003-4. That book, based on or started from at any rate from his blog postings from Iraq, got rave reviews in the US press. I seem to recall reading it and I can’t recall any much of it at all now, sorry. That book’s rave reviews–the US press has done such a terrible job of covering the war, has from the git-go and every day since, and has entirely shitcanned its critical thinking faculties about any facet of the war. US press war coverage is all either re-hashed government press releases in news article form or asskiss navel-scratching pundit-natter, mixed with a good sized dose of the regular infantile journalist human-interest sentimental garbage about schoolchildren and dogs in those far parts. From this remove, I think that the US press’ rave about the earlier Buzzell book was similarly probably less than professional or honest, but I’m not now inclined to dig into it and see for myself. Other readers are encouraged to and report back to me if so inclined; almost every one of the Iraq and Afghanistan ‘thar I wuz’ books are bad and I’m bored with them now.
This new book is about a Kerouac-esque road trip he takes from his home grounds in the Bay Area across the United States. Buzzell bought some grandpa car–a ’65 Mercury Comet** museum piece–and embarked on a trip across the US that apparently never made it further than Detroit. Allegedly this trip is an account of a veteran’s readjustment to civilian life in the face of post-combat post-traumatic stress syndrome. Reviewers saying this I think are wrong. What we have instead is Buzzell showing by word and deed that he is a jerk, a drunk, and an asshole, mostly. Somehow I suspect that these conditions preexisted his Army service. That’s generally the case with people. Army service may well have aggravated these conditions; it often does. It doesn’t make for very interesting reading.
Buzzell might turn into a writer if he manages to outgrow his personality defects and gain some human empathy. Less solopcism would help, too.
The biggest point this book makes is one it makes by accident, about something I’ve wondered about for all of my adult life. The biggest discovery I made in the adolescent transition to adulthood wasn’t how difficult it was to make a living but instead was just how poor and sorry bar life, the bar scene, is. The fact that this is the main adult entertainment our society offers us, and that it’s been that way for centuries I guess, has always bewildered me. We can’t, haven’t ever been able to, do better? How is that? Why hasn’t the US ever developed any cafe or coffeeshop scene like Europe has? Bars to me always were horrible places of dark indoors places full of conversation-murdering deafening noise and clouds of horrible cigarette smoke. Buzzell’s book, a large portion of which is his telling his bar/drinking tales, makes the point well, unintentionally I’m sure, that so much of the US has so little social and recreational opportunities for adults other than wasting time in shitty bars. Our affluent society is so poor in so many important ways, and we mostly all are blind to it.
I couldn’t pass up a book with a title like The Accidental Anarchist, and I’m glad I didn’t. The book is a reprinting of the diaries of a Jacob Marateck, a Polish Jew who lived in turn of the century Poland, when it was a province of the Imperial Russian Empire. Mr. Marateck died in 1950, in his adopted America, and two generations of his descendants have, over the years, finally gotten his diaries translated, edited, and published in a book form. I am glad they did; the book is a ripping yarn and a thoroughly entertaining read. I am not sure that I believe everything in it; Hollywood would be taken to task for impossible events and coincidences if this was a movie. Hell it probably all is true; someone has to live a ridiculously impossible life of poverty and political oppression, war, multiple death sentences evaded and averted, armed revolutionary activism, romance with princesses, prison in and escape from Siberia, the true love of your life a woman who you only saw once in a crowd when she saved your life from an imminent execution and who you tracked down and married years later after you escaped from a lifetime sentence of Siberian exile. The only thing missing I guess is an encounter with UFO’s and space aliens.
The book is a great yarn and an engrossing read. What may be its highest and best use is for parents with kids who aren’t interested in history, or reading for that matter. Sneak this book past them, get them started reading it, and they’ll be hooked. For that matter, anybody picking it up will be hooked, and will be well entertained for a fine stretch, and a small part of the human past–life in the late Imperial Russian Empire and its fatal corruptions–will be well brought back to life, illuminated again, for a spell of entertainment and enlightenment, and life enrichment, as the best books do for us all.
I’ve been struggling for over a year now with writing a piece on the late Sam Adams, the CIA analyst who struggled mightily with the US military and CIA bureaucracy for a truthful accounting of the Viet Cong military force strength during the Vietnam war. Adams struggled and lost; it didn’t matter that he was right, and had the facts to back it–orders came from on high, some at least from William C. Westmoreland, MACV commander in Vietnam, to cook the numbers to about half of what they should have been. Adams’ bosses in the CIA finally got tired of the fight and signed off on the fraud and told Sam to shut up and get on with it, which he refused to do either of. Sam Adams lost that war, but the Tet Offensive proved him right in a way beyond refutation. VC casualties in the 1968 Tet offensive, at least according to MACV’s estimates of them (which were largely right) exceeded MACV’s total claimed VC troop strength. This fact led to the embarrassing question that MACV couldn’t answer–if we’ve killed or wounded all the VC you in MACV say you did, then you’ve killed or wounded all the VC you say there are in the whole country. So why hasn’t the war ended? Hell it hasn’t even slowed down any. What gives? A very large part of the American disillusionment about the Vietnam War that came from Tet, particularly in the more astute elite supporters of the war, was caused by this glaring disconnect between official US PR and the war’s reality that Tet showed.
Sam Adams quit the CIA in disgust in ’73, and struggled to write his account, but didn’t succeed in his lifetime. He did, however, succeed in interesting CBS in producing a documentary of the intelligence wars, which they ran in 1983. The documentary, CBS Reports: The Uncounted Enemy, made the case that Westmoreland ordered the enemy numbers cooked. Westmoreland wasn’t pleased, nor were large sections of rightwing America, and Westmoreland filed a libel lawsuit against CBS and Sam Adams. This lawsuit was the biggest libel case in US legal history, and CBS, with its reputation on the line in a way that had probably never happened before, fought it out in court. Partways through the trial, Westmoreland, losing embarrassingly badly in court, folded and quit, his honor and reputation badly damaged.
I get accused all the time of putting too much information in the front of my questions I ask the powerful and influential, and hell if I am not doing the same thing here, with two paragraphs of leadin information before mentioning the book in question. Facts of life are that most Americans are historical illiterates and don’t know enough to understand most of the questions I ask and nobody much is going to understand what I’m writing about in the following three books I’m discussing here briefly unless I put two paragraphs of background up front. Sad facts of life, that. But Sam Adams’ book, A War of Numbers, An Intelligence Memoir, was published posthumously by his wife in 1994. The book is incomplete; Sam Adams never finished it and it has severe problems because of that. Nevertheless, the book is a great gripping read–Adams was a talented writer and his story is full of knaves, villains, and a few heroes even, struggling mightily for and against truth in the service of King Lyndon in a time of war. It is a good account of the intelligence struggles and you can’t read the book without coming away with a great appreciation and admiration for Sam Adams, his patriotism, integrity, and bravery.
Sam Adams’ boss in the Southeast Asia department of the CIA was an intelligence lifer named George W. Allen, and in 2001 he put out his book, None so Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam. Allen was a good bit higher up the bureaucratic food chain than Adams was, and, to his profound regret, good-soldierly signed off on the fake VC numbers before Tet. He was if not a good friend of Adams certainly a great admirer of him and his struggle. His book covers more territory than Adams over a longer time period, both before and after Adams’ years in the CIA. Like Adams, he is an astute observer and a very skilled writer, maybe not stylistically in an English teacher approved manner but a good storyteller nevertheless and a most outstanding explainer of things technical to a general audience. Allen has written the best book to date about intelligence and foreign policy and anyone with any interest in foreign policy and how intelligence intersects and interacts in its making needs to read this book promptly. It is also one of the better books about the US effort in Vietnam, not just on the intelligence front but on the war’s executive branch front too. This book is also an essential read to understand, at least some, how we managed to repeat the exact same intelligence stupidities in our two current ongoing rounds of glorious military adventures in the Middle East. More than just the intelligence stupidities–most of the lengthy laundry list of institutional failures of American government and society that the Vietnam War showed have been and remain being rerun in our present goddamned fool worthless ongoing wars, and Allen’s book details a fair section of them.
The final of the trio of good to excellent books on Sam Adams and the intelligence wars is the Sam Adams biography, Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars, by C. Michael Hiam. This book is Hiams’ first, and it is an excellent out of the gate effort on his part. Of all the three books on Sam Adams and the intelligence wars, this one is the first I’d steer the general reader to. Hiam’s book benefits from the information that the Westmoreland trial turned up, and Hiam’s distance from the story, his not being a participant, helps matters too. Hiam casts the widest net of all three books in explaining the events, and that not only helps the newcomers to this story but also perhaps gets closest to answering the profound and disturbing question of how much intelligence really matters to policymakers. Which leads to the great and disturbing story below.
Sam Adams filed Inspector General charges of dereliction of duty against CIA Director Richard Helms in 1968 over the intelligence fakery and the CIA’s senior management’s assent to what Adams charged as MACV deliberate fraud and fakery. Helms brought Adams into his office for a talk about this (Things were so much more civilized then; nowadays Adams would have gotten a quick kick to the curb instead of an invite to the boss’ office to talk things over) and Adams explains to Helms about why standing up to MACV on the numbers matters. From p. 168 of Numbers:
Hereto Helms had listened without expression. Now he leaned toward me and said intently: ‘Sam, this may sound strange from where you’re sitting. But the CIA is only one voice among many in DC. And it’s not a very big one, either, particularly compared to the Pentagon’s. What would you have me do, take on the entire military?’
I replied ‘Under the circumstances, that was the only alternative. The military’s numbers were faked.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like in this town. I could have told the White House that there were a million more VC out there, and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference in our policy.’
Adams, I think like me, got stuck in his book the same way I got stuck in my piece by this terrible piece of the truth that Dick Helms let drop to Sam Adams that day. Helms is absolutely right about the CIA’s influence in DC, and that’s as true today as then, no matter how much more money and manpower the CIA nowadays gets. The CIA isn’t the heavy hitting player the Pentagon is. And Helms is equally right about how giving the factual truth to policymakers, to people in general, is no panacea against policymakers and people in general from ignoring it and acting against it and their own interests if they are sufficiently so inclined to do so. It is a great myth amongst the book educated that the production of the facts, sufficient numbers of sufficiently powerful facts, is what matters, is what makes things happen, is what makes people decide and act. That isn’t the case, events and human nature don’t work that way and they never have. The human instinct to believe what you want to believe, what is convenient and easy to believe, that’s the real obstacle and it isn’t one that there is any solution looming on the horizon for. That issue–changing people’s minds in a real way, as opposed to the manipulative sales bullshit way of business and politics–is an issue that we should look more at because we really should try and get better at doing it to speed up the process to solve our pressing problems quicker. We might, after all, not have the luxury of time with our most pressing environmental issues.
*11-M: the military occupational specialty (MOS) for mechanized infantry. Rifleman in an armored personnel carrier, mostly.
**Speaking as a certified sprockethead first-class, Buzzell’s purchase of this car for making some sort of hipster fashion statement on a road trip is revolting. Grandpa cars–cars owned by grandpa or grandma that spent their lives in a garage, with pristine interiors, low miles, original paint–are rare, and should be owned by sprocketheads who understand and appreciate them and will take care of them. Even though they have very low miles, they inevitably need a great deal of mechanical work on them, because, as anyone who really knows machines knows, important things deteriorate over time whether the machine is used or not. In a car that old, I wouldn’t think of taking it out on the road until I replaced every single rubber part in the brake system, and all the rubber suspension parts, the motor mounts, and maybe the ball joints and tie rod ends while I was at it. Buzzell is clueless about all this, and, like most every American kid growing up in the suburbs the last three decades never learned how to do anything useful like twist wrenches. Buzzell had all sorts of minor breakdown problems with the car and he wouldn’t have had them if he knew anything about cars, which he doesn’t. To him the car is a fashion statement of some fundamentally bimbo sort and he’ll trash the vehicle from carelessness and dumbass and not have the slightest clue about why his doing so was wrong.