War Stories by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
June 10, 2012

Reading more than I should lately–now that the weather has turned good I ought to be out hustling on getting more work and starting a business and instead I’m reading books about the middle east and our wars therein, both present and future. First book that has taken up time that it shouldn’t have, or more accurately, more time now than it should have is The Oil Kings, by Andrew Scott Cooper. Book is of late 2011 vintage and it seems to have not attracted critical attention, which is wrong, as it is an excellent piece of history of recent times.

The Oil Kings claims to tell the story of how the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia changed the balance of power in the Middle East–that’s the book’s subtitle, at any rate. I don’t think that is quite accurate. The Saudi Arabian side of the story is skimmed over without much depth, unfortunately. Instead, the book is a recounting of US foreign policy towards Iran and the Shah from the late 1960’s on, and how our government’s regional security/weapons sales driven policy led to the US biggest post WW II foreign policy debacle after Vietnam.(1) One that still haunts and hamstrings us, and one whose aftereffects seem to be driving us on to yet another pointless war of aggression in the middle east.

Better make that “security” policy. The US’ main intention in the Persian Gulf in this time frame was to make sure of the physical security of the oil production facilities and ensure its safe transit in those waters to the rest of the world. Once Britain announced in the mid-1960’s that it was withdrawing its (very modest) military forces from the region, the United States decided that the resulting power vacuum(2) needed filling in order to prevent chaos and disorder from interrupting the oil flows. How and why there was this universal consensus in all of US official circles that that region required some sizeable military presence to keep the oil flowing is a question that isn’t asked in this book, unfortunately, and someone really ought to ask it sometime. One of the better emperor’s clothes questions yet unasked, that. The United States, politically and militarily tied up in the Vietnam War, decided that the solution to the power vacuum problem and the perceived need for a sizeable military force in the region was to build up the military powers of Iran under the Shah and make him and Iran the regional power capable of military force projection in the region. The thinking was also that unless there was some sizeable regional military forces present there that the Soviet Union would be tempted to take advantage of the weakness and invade or subvert the region and thereby choke the West to death at its leisure.

The Johnson and Kennedy administrations had kept the Shah on a diet, and had kept him from gorging as he would have otherwise at the US military equipment trough. The Shah–his credulous amateurish belief in military power coming from the latest advanced weaponry, mixed with his personal megalomania and the courtier culture around him in Tehran made him an arms salesman’s perfect mark. Nixon and Kissinger changed the JFK/Johnson policy of arms sales limits to the Shah, and did so in a typical behind the scenes secretive manner that excluded the US military, the State Department, and Congress from input into, and even knowledge of, this policy change. The Shah went on a spending spree, ruined his economy from this gross misuse of capital and skilled human talent resources in his mad project, the almost universal popular discontent from the failed economy led to his overthrow by popular revolt in 1978, and we’ve had a hostile Iran ruled by the reactionary mullahs ever since.

But that brief outline does not do justice to the excellence of Cooper’s archival research and his fine fieldwork with the surviving participants to these events. Much new is brought out from them. And Cooper’s writing is stylish and skilled. Most writings on diplomacy and international affairs are dull, particularly that written by academics. Cooper has damned near written a page-turner here, and that’s no small feat.

Why it reads so well has to do with the fine tales of human folly told here. Nixon and Kissinger are superbly described here, and the inside account here of their policymaking is probably the best yet written. Nixon and Kissinger both come off very badly–very flawed persons, more than even I’d realized, neither really interested in understanding their decisions’ longterm consequences to Iran or even us ourselves. Both lacked willpower and force of personality at critical moments and were regularly beaten on the world stage by opponents who had both, like the Shah. Both lacked a decent grasp of economics or the energy world, and chose continued ignorance rather than use USG in-house expertise in the appropriate governmental agencies. Why? Because of an unfounded contempt for the experts and the expertise they themselves lacked, and a great wrong desire to exclusively own and control decisionmaking power. And there’s the Shah, as outsized a megalomaniac as ever walked the earth, who nevertheless succeeded in everything he tried to accomplish until he was kicked out of Iran by the revolution to die an ignominious death in a world that no longer anywhere had any use for him.

This story is told via first-rate archive research into newly opened archival materials combined with excellent cross-checking and fleshing out from author interviews. Archives are never complete and interviewees rarely have the whole story; the real task of a historian is to use each properly in their proper turn. Cooper’s efforts demolish all the conspiracy theories about events in those days that run rampant about masterplans executed by evil geniuses for their benefit at our expense. Instead we see flawed persons with limited vision handicapped by the circumstances around them making questionable decisions whilst engaged in continual feuds and power struggles with other similar persons in their own administrations. If it isn’t a pretty picture, it is an accurate, and honest, one.

What makes this book so tasty for me is the fact that I lived through all of these events, and followed them as closely as I could through newspapers and magazines. Reading this book, you realize how badly we were served by the newsmedia, and how badly informed we most all are still about these events. It wasn’t just the US government that was uninterested in the Iranian people and how our actions were affecting them–the US newsmedia was at least as bad in that regard. The US press unquestioningly accepted policy rationales and wrote all their coverage to fit. The same continues today. This book is an outstanding antidote to that historical ignorance, one we all ought to consider taking. Particularly with the US’ current actions against Iran. Iran’s distrust of us and our intentions is perfectly understandable and well-founded on the historical record presented here.

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan is worth a couple of lines. The author, Kim Barker, was a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in the region for five or six years, 2004-2009. Book is a reasonably entertaining read about the life of a single American female overseas reporter. I think the book has some real value, but probably not for what the author intended it to.

The biggest part of why the US war coverage is so bad isn’t because reporters are embedded in US military units nowadays and hence are muzzled officially by military orders or muzzle themselves by sympathies caused by propinquity. No, it’s that the talent in journalism, both reportorial and editorial, is so bad nowadays. The common explanation is that the costcutting in newspapers and networks is responsible for all the profession’s talent leaving, and the second-raters are all who are left. Could be. Myself I’d look for the lack of talent being caused by the professionalization of the profession. A university education doesn’t do a lot of people any good and I think that unfortunately has stood true for most journalists who went to J-school.(3) Professionalization has replaced/taken away street smarts and news coverage is the worse for it. It shows here. Ms. Barker is smarter than your average reporter, yet her book lacks insight, clever/astute observation, or historical/cultural/sociological understanding of the peoples and countries and events she covers. Nothing really is learned about the war she covers from reading her book. Ms. Barker’s book, with its failure to explain anything about the wars or the peoples in the region, inadvertently shows that we need better talent than her working on the war and the middle east. This aint what she intended when she wrote this book of hers, no doubt.

In fairness to Ms. Barker, there’s some insight into Pakistani upper crust society, which is where Ms. Barker spent much of her research efforts, and some useful insights into being a western woman in those societies. But mostly you get chick-lit storytelling about Ms. Barker’s struggles with her dateability, which stories are entertaining enough for the chick lit genre.

Reporters and editors have internalized the unwritten restrictions of reportage on the wars, and are if not happy to are always willing to give us a regular diet of feel-good stories of schoolkids and dogs and our boys being just boys no matter where they are. Ms. Barker in her book shows that she understands that fact about her job, which self-understanding probably puts her miles ahead of most of her colleagues. Ms Barker has the great personal decency to be ashamed in print a time or two in the book for the stupid dog and kiddy stories she wrote, and that is to her great credit. I don’t know if she’s astute enough to realize what an obscenity it is to write a chick lit autobiography about a war, however. Such writing is dishonesty about war, and is fundamentally just more propaganda for the war, really, in the final balance of things.(4) Since quitting the Trib Ms Barker has now gone off to work for ProPublica, doing real reportage on real stories of real importance that can be written up at reasonable length to explain things adequately to the rest of us. Which is I trust what she really always wanted to do as a journalist in the first place. I hope she succeeds at it.

Richard Bonin’s Arrows of the Night is an account of Ahmad Chalabi’s life and rise and fall, rise and fall times 3 or so. Ahmad Chalabi is an extraordinarily bright and talented individual with more than a touch of scoundrel in his makeup. He succeeded in a huge and great endeavor of his, the overthrow and destruction of his mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein. Chalabi cooperated with the author, and granted him something like 40 hours of interview time. Insofar as anyone like Chalabi is capable of being honest in an interview, this fact alone will likely make this the best book on the subject for quite some time to come. Chalabi, more than that dolt Bush or that snake Rumsfeld, is arguably the single person most responsible for our war in Iraq, and it behooves us all to read about him and how he did it.

The book is well written and tells a good story of an ambitious and talented man who generally was not only the smartest man in any room he ever walked into but someone who also would have always likely been the most capable, too. A very rare combination, that. Chalabi would have succeeded at anything he chose to do in life; he chose an unfathomably big task, of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and succeeded at it. It hasn’t turned out for him like he planned–these days he remains in the political wilderness in Iraq and likely will remain there for the rest of his life. Someone more brutal and bloodthirsty than him, and perhaps even more ruthless, will take power in Iraq and likely as not will kick Chalabi out of the country out of general principles and Chalabi will spend the rest of his days as an exile. There’s more than a great irony there, there’s some great justice in that. His great success in life will leave him, in the end, where he started–exiled from an Iraq he never really knew or understood but loved and missed deeply. The sordid war he brought into being in order to end his exile from his native land has made a tenth of his countrymen refugees abroad nowadays and he will most likely share their fate for the remainder of his life. It is more than appropriate.

This book is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand how the US came to invade Iraq. Chalabi successfully gamed the US political system–seduced all the neocons, most of the mainstream conservatives, and a fair percentage of liberal Democrats–into making Saddam Hussein a sufficient bogeyman to where a war against Iraq became not only a political possibility but even a political desirability. The account of how Chalabi gamed the system tells us well, if we have guts enough to face up to it, about the great weaknesses of the current US system of government. Chalabi is not great and clever and able enough to wangle the US into his war singlehandedly except that across the board his counterparts in the US government most all were so second-rate and the governing institutions here are all so broken that he could so, and did.

We should all think about doing better. And then do it.

Rodric Braithwaite, a British Foreign Service lifer, a former UK Ambassador to Moscow, has written by far the best account to date of the Soviet entanglement in Afghanistan, 1978-89, with his Afghantsy. It is a remarkably informed, literate, wise, book with more than a touch of human decency and kindness in it as well. I suspect these adjectives apply to the author personally as well–books do, have to, reflect their author. Part may also be the ring of swan song/valedictory I get from this book. Braithwaite is quite up in years and this is apt to be his last book, sadly.

The Soviet invasion and war in Afghanistan still suffers from the residues of the contemporaneous US/western propaganda/demonization, noble Afghans/dirty Russkis, oceans of which were produced. A fair amount written since is worse–Crile’s, and Hollywood’s, dogvomit about Charlie Wilson, for example. One would think that our current glorious military adventures would have resulted in more academic/poly sci/USG research and writing about the Soviet war, but that hasn’t been the case much, near as I can tell. Part of that is the US’ longstanding unwillingness to use its rearview mirror,(5) and its uninterest in the rest of the outside world on account of our exceptionalism, etc.(6)

And part of it is the ugly fact that the Soviets did better in a lot of ways in their war than we did or are doing in ours. The Soviets had a clear political and military objective, both for Afghanistan and for the USSR, in its war and we still don’t. The Soviets managed to get Afghans to fight in significant numbers for them, and we can’t. They actually did a fair amount of useful development work in the country while they were there, and our development efforts are mostly an excuse for beltway bandits to steal from the public trough.

Braithwaite does us all here the useful favor of comparing the Soviet war in Afghanistan to ours in Vietnam. We’d be wise to pay attention. Braithwaite is very fair and judicious in his comparisons. It’s worth quoting him, from p.333:

“This kind of moral calculus is not very fruitful. There is little to choose between the way either war (Vietnam/Afghanistan) was fought. But there was one essential difference between the two wars–the distinction that Zbigniew Brzezinski drew in his advice to President Carter the day after the Soviet invasion began. …The mujahedin never achieved anything like that (Vietnamese) coherence and discipline, and their entry into Kabul was only the prelude to more decades of war and foreign intervention, which made it almost impossible to repair the physical, social, moral, and political damage… The Vietnamese were able to enjoy the fruits of their victory. The Afghans were not.”

Same is of course going to happen soon again once we leave and our alien bolus Karzai is expelled, too.

And Braithwaite has travelled in Afghanistan recently, and his remarks on what he saw and heard the locals say are worth a listen. From p.335:

“…When I visited Afghanistan in September 2008–a national of one of the foreign countries now fighting there–I was told by almost every Afghan I met that things were better under the Russians. The Russians were not so stand-offish as the Americans, who had no interest in Afghanistan itself, and who looked like Martians with their elaborate equipment, their menacing body armour, and their impenetrable Ray-Bans when they briefly emerged from the high walls behind which they barricaded themselves. …Sher Ahmad Maladani, a mujhadeen commander who fought the Communists and the Russians for a decade and the Taliban after them, told me…he too preferred the Russians. The Russians were strong and brave, he said. They fought man to man on the ground, and they used their weapons only when their enemy was armed. They never killed women and children. But the Americans were afraid to fight on the ground and their bombing was indiscriminate. As history much of this was travesty. But it did seem to indicate that the latest attempt to help the Afghans to help themselves was having little more success than its predecessor.”

A good, important, wise, well-written book. Braithwaite deserves our thanks for it; he certainly has mine.


(1) Umm, the jury is still out as to just exactly how disastrous our current rounds of glorious military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to wind up being. My bet is that they will wind up being worse than Vietnam, either of them separately.

(2) It needs noting how little military forces the British put into the region versus how much we decided were needed. Any of the major US military bases in the region dwarf the entire of the British effort. Any US aircraft carrier group has more air power than the entire east of Suez British air commitment. Why the British thought so little was needed and we thought/still think so much is is a question that Cooper doesn’t ask. For that matter, I bet I’m the first person to ask it, forty years on.

(3) And then there are the underlying cultural roles/blinders reporters all have about war. Male war reporters have traditionally stunk up the sheets with macho Hemingwayesque posings. Ms. Barker seems to be shoehorning war reportage into a chick lit framework. I don’t think that’s an improvement.

(4) I seem to recall Bob Rogers, long-ago working journalist who graduated to the Dean of Texas A&M’s Journalism School in the ’70’s, saying that he thought that a journalist ought to get a degree in anything else than journalism so that they knew at least something about something in the outside world. Another good observation of his was that his recollection of any event he attended never matched what he read about it in the newspaper.

(5) For example, the US, government or academia, has never made a single study of why its efforts in creating the ARVN failed so badly. George Allen, senior CIA VN analyst, in his 2002 None So Blind.

(6) As Ambrose Bierce said, foreign wars are God’s way of teaching Americans geography


It Isn’t Just the War, It’s Us – Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well by Daniel N. White

Sam Adams and the Intelligence Wars by Daniel N. White