Posted: December 19th, 2013
Posted: December 19th, 2013
This review was first published in The eXile on September 4, 2004
We must remember the millions who died in the Soviet camps. Why? That nasty, nagging “why?” kept dogging me as I made my way through Anne Applebaum’s long (600 pp.) and well-researched history of the GULAG. If I hadn’t lived in Moscow from 2002 to 2004, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to challenge Applebaum’s mission, commemorating the victims of Stalinism. But one thing you learn in Russia, whether you want to or not, is that the Russians are not interested in this subject at all. And their lack of interest is strangely contagious, infecting even formerly avid fans of Zek literature like myself.
Before living in Russia, I used to wonder why none of the sons or grandsons of GULAG prisoners hunted down the thugs who tortured and killed their relatives. It happened in China, where descendants of those persecuted by the Red Guard tracked down and beat or even killed ex-Guards. And there’s an army of well-funded pursuers tracking down the few living ex-Nazis. Why didn’t Russians go after Stalin’s surviving executioners?
The simple, disturbing answer is that they’re not interested. And that bothers us. It’s not that the West cares very much about the Russians — either the millions who died, or the 140 million struggling to live in contemporary Russia. We’ve made our indifference to them pretty clear, over the past fifteen years.
Rather we need to believe that everyone shares our alleged dedication to the Christian-derived notion that we have to love everyone. And that means mourning, or at least going through the motions of mourning, every mass death.
So we wait for the Russians to start moaning and gnashing their teeth over the GULAG, as we would wait for a bereaved family to start keening over their loss. We’ve been standing nervously outside the Russians’ hut for over a decade now, waiting for those banshee wails to trigger our public tears.
And there’s been this silence — at first puzzling, then offensive. And at last, realizing that these shameless Russians aren’t going to start their own rites, we decided to do the job ourselves.
Thus Applebaum’s book was born. And it has the feeling of a belated, awkward funeral oration by one who didn’t know the deceased very well, but is driven by a deep sense of moral righteousness to perform the proper rites. To her credit, Applebaum knows and admits that the Russians themselves aren’t interested in commemorating the victims of the camps. She mentions that the only monument they have in Moscow is a single stone from the Solovetsky Islands. We lived a block from that stone, and for two years we walked past it nearly every day. I don’t recall seeing anyone take notice of it, even once. It sat there, splattered with birdshit, facing Lubyanka — completely forgotten. By contrast, the statue of Dzerzhinsky, though exiled to the Statue Garden by the river, is covered with curses and homage, just biding its time.
Anne Applebaum bears the sufferings of Stalin’s GULAG victims
In her final chapter, “Memory,” Applebaum attempts to account for the Russians’ indifference. She’s quite intelligent for a conservative, and surprisingly fair-minded for someone associated with a Tory rag like the Spectator. She even acknowledges that anti-Soviet rhetoric is soiled, in the minds of most contemporary Russians, by its association with the Gaidar kleptocracy, and offers a cogent summary of other possible factors:
“There are some good, or at least forgivable, explanations for this public silence. Most Russians… spend all of their time coping with the complete transformation of their economy and society. The Stalinist era was a long time ago, and a great deal has happened since it ended. Post-Communist Russia is not postwar Germany, where the memories of the worst atrocities were still fresh in people’s minds.”
The comparison to post-1945 Germany is the crucial one, the one by which contemporary Russia keeps disappointing and annoying righteous Westerners like Applebaum. This is yet another case of the “Hitler Standard,” by which the Nazis are the gold standard of evil, and the painful rehabilitation of Germany after 1945 the gold standard of recovery.
And of course this version of what happened in Germany in 1945 requires a suppression of memory at least as great as that involved in Russia’s apathy towards Stalin’s crimes. In the first place, it’s not the case that Germany’s crimes, in general, made much of an impression on “people’s minds.” Germany’s crimes against Russians, in particular, were little noticed nor long remembered in the West — despite the fact that the majority of the Wehrmacht’s victims were Slavs.
Most massacre victims are the sort of people not likely to be remembered. This is one of those almost-tautologies that’s still worth saying, like the old evolutionary biologists’ joke that most of us are descended from people who didn’t die before puberty.
And as another cynical French wit put it, we are all very good at bearing the sufferings of others.
Only when a massacre is unusually dramatic and interesting, and/or involves people to whom we feel particularly close, do most of us feel anything. In other words, the Christian-derived premise that there is some Enlightenment moral sense in each of us, which reacts with instinctive horror at any mass suffering, is simply nonsense. There is no such sense — and a quick look at the archives of a Tory magazine like the Spectator, for which Applebaum proudly toiled, would reveal that fact a million times over. Ever hear of the “Black Hole of Calcutta”? Of course you did. That terrible overheated room in which some English prisoners were kept during the Indian Mutiny, so stifling that some of them actually died! Now, let’s do the math: what is the ratio of Indians killed during the British occupation to British prisoners stifled in the Black Hole? Few of you will have any idea, because those millions of dead never registered with us.
Applebaum would not have been capable of accepting a position with a vile publication like the Spectator unless her own consciousness contained at least one huge, highly adaptive amnesiac blob where all the crimes of the Empire should have been filed. So vast and horrific were these crimes, so long did they continue, that you could pretty much spin a globe, jab a finger at it blindfolded, and land on a spot where some Imperial force committed some sort of atrocity. (Unless, of course, you landed on ocean — though the Royal Navy would do its best to provide you with material even there.)
The crimes of history are optional. We mix, match and discard according to taste and convenience. It’s useful for Applebaum’s Tory backers to remember Stalin’s crimes because they can still use them to bash anyone who might want to beef up the National Health system with higher taxes. “Today an extra 1% VAT on my Jag convertible, tomorrow Kolyma!” is a very familiar war cry from these crusaders for human rights. Other massacres are dim stats, to be dredged up when necessary. Take, for example, all the tens of millions of dead in the Japanese occupation of China. They are rarely invoked in the West, because we don’t need them. The Japanese are thoroughly spent, neither a threat nor a bad example of anything we worry about at the moment. The Chinese are more of a worry, making the invocation of their dead a dangerous concession. And in the Tory mind, those dead are connected with ignominy: the surrender of Singapore without a fight, the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales…and so it goes, with a huge number of tangential mental associations determining which of the billions of corpses clogging the earth will be dug up and flung at one’s opponents at any particular moment.
In this context, the Russians’ lack of interest in Stalin’s victims seems quite natural and healthy. It’s Applebaum’s arduous disinterment of them that ends up seeming forced, disingenuous and surprisingly dull.
Don’t be a dick! Buy John Dolan’s comic memoir “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press):
Posted: December 19th, 2013
This article was first published in The eXile on October 21, 2005
|A few days ago Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president and the hero of the Orange Revolution, received the Chatham House Prize for International Relations from the hands of the Queen of England. Some feted him for the Nobel Peace Prize, but after a series of political crises culminating in the resignation of his prime-minister — the “Glamour girl of the Orange Revolution” Yulia Tymoshenko — the notion soon became fairly ridiculous. It was quite appropriate in some sense — the consolation prize from the old musty monarchy, whose royal family became the laughingstock of the world in the last two decades, to the government of the “new East European democracy” which has already turned its country into a circus in just eight months.
Ukraine suddenly became popular, even genuinely fashionable, last year. Even before the “Orange Revolution,” you could see this coming. For example, the Ukrainian pop-singer Ruslana won the Eurovision song contest in 2004, allowing the freshly “orange” Ukraine to host this contest in February 2005. (That time, its entry for the contest, a “revolutionary” song cheering Yushchenko, flopped — as usual, fashion changes fast.) When Yushchenko prevailed in last year’s election marathon, with passionate demonstrations, a sea of waving flags, and a tent city of half a million supporters, the Western media ecstatically declared that Ukraine had “finally” placed itself in the Western camp and “liberated” itself from perfidious Russian influence.
Posted: December 14th, 2013
This article was published in The eXile on December 10, 2004
DONETSK — Donetsk is a fascist city. I’m not using this term in the cheap way that it gets bandied around at a dinner table discussion between Republicans and Democrats. Donetsk actually is fascist. There is one party, people get beaten for opposition views, information is controlled, nationalist sentiment is enflamed with insane rhetoric about America/NATO plots to enslave Ukraine, and fear is the main motivating factor. It’s no coincidence that this is the side which Putin and the Russians are supporting. The “objective” Western press reports from there hide this fact by trying to “present both sides,” but I was just there, and there is no “other side.”
Just look at some examples of the fascist haze descending on Donetsk. Cable TV operators have actually stopped broadcasting opposition Channel 5. Media suppression of opposing views is so intense that it’s been driven literally underground — like the paper Ostrov that is being produced secretly. One local Yushchenko supporter told me about how her 9-year-old’s gym teacher asked the class who their parents voted for. “When the teacher found out that we were Yushchenko supporters, he made my son kneel in a corner for the entire class,” she told me.
When Salon, a Donetsk paper, reported two Sundays ago that a pro-Yushchenko rally was broken up before it even started, readers called to accuse them of printing lies — everyone here believes that it’s the Yushchenko protesters who have violent tendencies, even though there’s been a 30 percent drop in crime in Kiev since the protests started. What happened at that rally was that a well-organized group of men in track suits beat several people, including a Reuters photographer, and stole film and cameras — but officially, that simply didn’t happen. According to a spokesman from the Yushchenko headquarters, even an SBU operative (Ukraine’s FSB) recording the event for his own nefarious purposes was roughed up and had his video camera stolen.
This is part of a broader thug culture of Donetsk, part of a movement with Brown Shirts/Idushchii v Meste overtones. After a large rally last Monday, a group of 100 drunken thugs stood for hours shouting themselves hoarse and by 11pm, with no Yuschenko supporters to beat, several of them turned to fighting each other. While plenty of drunken people can be found among the protesters in Kiev (perhaps the most ecstatic participants in the revolution are the train station’s bomzhi, gorging themselves on free food and feeling safe now that the militsia has virtually disappeared), they aren’t aggressive or intimidating.
In Donetsk, they are frightening, unpredictable and above the law. Of course, that might just be Donetsk people acting normally. For example, there was a rumor that FT correspondent Tom Warner was beaten up by political thugs. As it turned out, he was simply robbed of his computer, phone and several hundred bucks by some common thieves. Another day, another crime.
* * *
Much has been made of eastern Ukraine’s support for Yanukovych, the pro-Russian prime minister who tried to steal the election. The Western and the Russian press both play up the issue, albeit for different reasons. Others, like my good friend Olya, who is an editor at a respected Ukrainian magazine, claimed everyone in Donetsk was just brainwashed.
What’s happening in Donetsk is the real key to figuring out what’s going to happen in Ukraine. The general situation in Ukraine has gotten plenty of coverage, but a brief outline of the facts is in order. Basically, Ukraine has always been divided into east and west, with the east Russian-speaking, heavily industrialized, and Russia-friendly; and the west Ukrainian-speaking, agrarian, and nationalist. Yanukovych is the east’s candidate, Yushchenko the west’s.
Almost all of Ukraine’s oligarchs are from the east or Kiev, and they almost exclusively lined up in support of Yanukovych, a Donetsk native. There are a few exceptions, notably Petro Poroshenko, the owner of car and candy factories and a ship-building yard. He also owns Channel 5, which was an invaluable tool in helping Yushchenko compete. In recent weeks, Channel 5 is the only Ukrainian channel to show news and propaganda 24 hours a day. A large part of the programming consists of watching Yanukovych’s team make asses of themselves. They often repeat a speech Yanukovych gave where he was gesturing with his fingers in the air, “paltsami,” a classic bandit gesture. Another favorite clip of theirs is of Yanukovych ally and Kharkov governor Kushnyarov gesticulating wildly and declaring, “I’m not for Lviv power, not for Donetsk power, I’m for Kharkov power!” Still, the biggest and most powerful clans are still behind Yanukovych, who is their man.
Yanukovych is a truly loathsome character. Most Ukrainians agree that if a more palatable candidate had been given the nearly unlimited access to “administrative resources” that Yanukovych had, he would have won handily. But Yanukovych twice served jail time in the Soviet Union, he has no charisma, and is obviously a tool of powerful Russian and Ukrainian interests. Yushchenko, on the other hand, is considered by most western Ukrainians to be something between Gandhi and Christ, while many people in the east worry he has it in for everyone who speaks Russian. Many people who voted for Yanukovych did so out of suspicion of Yushchenko, not because they like Yanukovych (except perhaps in his home turf, Donetsk).
While the country is relatively evenly divided, it’s a fact that Yushchenko would have won the election if it had been violation-free. Anyone who claims otherwise is either a fool or getting paid by the Russians. Even Putin, who called Yanukovych to congratulate him before all the votes were counted, recently said he’d be willing to work with any elected leader and seemed to acknowledge that there’d be a re-vote. Thanks to ballot-stuffing, Donetsk and the neighboring Lugansk oblast had by far the highest voter turnout in Ukraine (Donetsk had 97 percent turnout, of whom 97 percent voted for Yanukovych, and Yushchenko actually lost votes in between the first and second rounds of voting) and it’s on the basis of thousands of violations that the Supreme Court recently ordered a new round of voting. Channel 5 has plenty of footage of election observers getting the shit beaten out of them, and Yushchenko observers weren’t allowed anywhere near the polls in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.
The blatant falsifications, combined with an extremely well-funded and coordinated protest movement, have brought us where we are today, gearing for another round. The protests have come under fire as an American-funded coup, particularly in the Russian media. And there’s some truth to it — the US has been bringing in Serbs and Georgians experienced in non-violent revolution to train Ukrainians for at least a year. One exit poll — the one finding most heavily in favor of Yushchenko — was funded by the US. The smoothness and professionalism of the protest, from the instant availability of giant blocks of Styrofoam to pitch the tents on to the network of food distribution and medical points, is probably a result of American logistical planning. It’s certainly hard to imagine Ukrainians having their act together that well. The whole orange theme and all those ready-made flags also smack of American marketing concepts, particularly Burson-Marstellar.
But the crowds in Kiev, which can swell up to a million on a good day and are always in the hundreds of thousands, are there out of their own homegrown sense of outrage, not because some State Department bureaucrats willed them there. The meetings that happen every day in virtually every city in Ukraine (and in literally every western Ukraine village) are not the result of American propaganda. Rather, they are the result of the democratic awakening of a trampled-on people who refuse to be screwed by corrupt politicians again.
While you wouldn’t know it by watching Russian TV, maybe the only two cities in Ukraine where there are not Yushchenko rallies that outnumber the Yanukovych rallies are Lugansk and Donetsk. According to my friends in the heavily Russian Kharkov, for example, active Yushchenko supporters outnumber active Yanukovych supporters four to one. One reason why Lugansk and Donetsk are an exception is because every time Yushchenko’s people try to organize a rally there, they get beaten. Another is because the vast majority of those two regions really do support Yanukovych. So what gives?
* * *
For hours after the pro-Yanukovych rally ended on Monday, November 29, a parade of some twenty cars raced up and down Ulitsa Artyoma noisily demonstrating which candidate they preferred. Judging by many of the cars in the procession — a couple of new Mercedes, a novel Smart Car, other inomarki, and a custom-painted Lada souped up for drag-racing — the drivers were members of the Donetsk elite. Judging by the whoops and screams of the passengers, many of whom hung outside the sunroofs and windows waving blue flags, the paraders were quite young and totally wasted.
Unfortunately I’d just arrived in Donetsk that evening and only caught the tail end of the rally, so I didn’t know what’d gotten them so riled up. I later saw an excerpt of it on Channel 5, where Yanukovych’s wife Ludmilla said that everyone involved in Kiev’s protests was in a drug-induced haze. “On Maidan [where Kiev’s protests are centered*, they’re distributing oranges injected with narcotics that people eat, and everybody wants more, and nobody can leave the square.” Perhaps more shocking, no one in Donetsk even blinked at what she said. (And on Kremlin-controlled Russian TV, they repeat the same lies about the protestors either being “psychologically unhealthy” or drug addicts.) Calling the hundreds of thousands of protesters that come out daily in Kiev the product of oranges pumped with drugs is not just absurd, it’s stupid. And yet in Donetsk, they were buying it.
But the hoods with nice cars cruised, horns blaring until well after 11, alternately driving slowly to build up a column of traffic behind them and then accelerating, speeding over the limit, disregarding such niceties as red lights and traffic laws. The GAI were absent because presumably the action was approved from up high, and the punks no doubt had powerful parents. One of the newest Mercedes — an S Series — was equipped with a loud speaker, used by some young thug to startle unsuspecting pedestrians: “Are you for Yanukovych?” Everyone said yes, myself included.
Of course, horns these days are a popular means of expression in Kiev as well. But it’s not the same group of cars, driving in circles and intimidating people. Instead, drivers honk to express solidarity with the “orange” protesters and drive on to their destination. It’s spontaneous, an outburst of a new sense of freedom and empowerment. There’s even the occasional blue-bedecked car that is allowed to pass unmolested, although God save anyone dumb enough to wear orange in Donetsk.
In Donetsk, there are blue ribbons and flags, “Ya-Nu-Ko-Vych” chants and honking horns, daily meetings and concerts, all mimicking the protests in Kiev. But it is the opposition tactics that Yanukovych’s hacks have not mimicked that are more striking: no tent city, no out-of-towners (except the press-corps), no information distribution, no sense of debate, no tolerance, no grassroots organization. The Donetsk demonstrations are just displays of top-down managed “democracy,” and the population there is passive enough to swallow it.
* * *
The Tuesday rally, which I witnessed in full, was like watching a farce of a Nazi rally. This time they introduced Ludmila Yanukovych but made sure not to give her the mike, lest she say something as ridiculous as her spiked-orange theory. However, the other speakers weren’t much more sane. One speaker after another spewed venomous anti-Kiev, anti-western Ukrainian, and anti-American rhetoric at the crowd of several thousand. One of the more famous, Natalya Vitrenko, is sort of a Zhirinovsky without the slapstick element. Vitrenko argued that the US planned to colonize and enslave eastern Ukraine and would use NATO as its muscle. Another speaker warned that east Ukraine would beat back the Americans like they had the Germans, and reminded the audience that western Ukraine welcomed the Nazis with bread and salt, keeping in the theme that Yushchenko’s the fascist here. Some of the other arguments were just silly; one doctor said that Yushchenko was destroying the nation’s health by forcing students to spend long hours in the cold, thereby causing a public health crisis (a line echoed on Russian state television). Another said under Yushchenko people would be jailed for speaking Russian and that the “orange plague” was a terrorist organization. Another popular theory was that western Ukraine was planning on raping the riches of the east and only regional autonomy could save them. Every speaker was fear-mongering and totally detached from reality.
Everyone in Donetsk repeats the same figures and statements obsessively. 15 million voted for Yanukovych, he is the legitimate president, and Yushchenko is an unchecked fascist. People in Kiev are brainwashed and undemocratic; Russian-speaking centers Odessa, Kharkov, Dneipropetrovsk and the Crimea will leap at the chance to form a breakaway republic with them; American money is behind everything. Funny they never mention a word about Russian funds used by Yanukovych, although estimates of Russian contributions reach up to $300 million.
One of the great things about “orange” Kiev is that everyone everywhere is engaging in political dialog, arguing about what’s happening, what it means, and predicting how things will turn out. In Donetsk, everybody uses the exact same descriptions and expressions, because they’ve all been brainwashed. And they’re defensive about their beliefs, even on their home turf.
People here freely admit that Yanukovych is a dishonest politician with unsavory connections, saying “Yes, he’s a crook, but he’s our crook.” One guy I asked how he felt about Yanukovych’s jail past replied, “So what? I’ve been in jail, too.” The guy who said that had a valid point — Donetsk has always been a bandit city since the time the Soviets populated the region’s rich mines with ex-cons. There’s nothing exceptional here about having done time.
It’s clear by the overwhelming number of expensive boutiques, restaurants and casinos that Donetsk has a larger bandit class than most places. It certainly isn’t miners spending their pay in these places. Ukraine’s wealthiest man, Rinat Akhmetov, is from Donetsk and took over his empire from his relative, Oleg Grek (Oleg the Greek), who was shot dead in the city’s stadium during the bloody gang wars of the mid-90s. Akhmetov’s behavior mirrors the city’s values; when he wanted a new house, he simply seized a well-loved playground in the center and built a fortified castle-like compound, a la Tony Montana. Actually, it’s not that dissimilar to how they planned on installing Yanukovych.
Everyone in Donetsk, repeating the propaganda, will also tell you that they’d never use political beliefs as an excuse to do nothing, like the lazy people of Kiev, and that people here continue to work through the crisis. It’s well-known that Yushchenko’s people pay 400 hr. (over $70) a day to hire Donetsk protesters, but officially, no-one would ever sell out. For the record, the average monthly salary in Donetsk is 784 hr. People absolutely refuse to believe that there was vote fraud. Actually, they simultaneously argue that there was none and that it was no worse than the fraud in western Ukraine, as if that unsubstantiated claim is justification for vote-rigging. One of their favorite points is that coal miners started receiving their pay and factories started working when Yanukovych was governor. In fact, wage arrears in the Donetsk oblast are by far the largest in Ukraine, making up 28.6 percent of the country’s total. In second place, with 13.2 percent of the total, is Lugansk oblast.
Revisionism is rife here. Donetsk governor Anatoly Bliznyuk’s denied that there had been talk of separatism at a congress in Severodonetsk two days earlier, yet the congress’s words and actions had already been reported. Politicians like Bliznyuk only started backpedaling when Yushchenko threatened separatists with arrest.
The people in Donetsk simply parrot what they are told. On Monday, November 29th, the day after the Severodonetsk conference, several people told me that there were two options: separation or war. On Tuesday, when Kuchma and Yanukovych seemed to come out in favor of a revote in Donetsk and Lugansk, people here were for the revote.
Meanwhile, back in Kiev, it’s hard to imagine a more positive vibe. Seeing the process of nation-building develop in front of my eyes was an amazing experience. Ukrainians have always had a more mellow character than the Russians, and it shows through in their revolution. The stuff you read about protesters eye-to-eye with storm troopers is lies — there’s actually four lines of massive pro-Yushchenko miner- and peasant-types standing on shipping crates to keep protesters from direct contact with the militsia. The feeling on the street is festive.
Babes are everywhere, and it’s the only place I’ve ever been where a pickup line is totally unnecessary. If she’s wearing orange, you’ve got a common language. While some people have wild delusions of EU membership in five years or the end of corruption that will never happen, on the ground in Kiev it does seem like democracy and free press is achievable.
Back in Donetsk, there is no trace of irony when they describe Kiev’s demonstrators as fascists, zombies, censors and separatists, words they ought to self-apply. But it’s exactly this passivity that makes the threat of separatism so hard to take seriously.
* * *
So what is really going on in eastern Ukraine? Is it dangerous?
All that’s really happening is that the authorities in Donetsk are cynically manipulating the people out of fear for their own positions. While the meetings attract old and young, all of who come at their own accord, they can hardly be called grassroots.
People in Kiev have made it clear that they’ll stay put until they win, and they certainly would be out in force even if there weren’t speeches and music. But would people here come out in Donetsk the authorities didn’t organize meetings? From what I saw, no way.
What’s happening in Donetsk is simply the panic and hysteria of a corrupt regime desperate to cling to power. They’ve proved that they are able to mobilize large groups of people to defend their interests, but those crowds have no life of their own. Create a situation which the local authorities find acceptable and the protests will melt away. Give the local authorities a guarantee of immunity from prosecution and continued control of their fiefdom and they’ll abandon the separatist rhetoric.
The people of Donetsk might not be happy with that development, but then, they’re used to being betrayed and cheated by their leaders. In time-honored tradition, they’ll grumble about corruption and do nothing about it. Unlike the rest of Ukraine, they haven’t experienced the euphoria of living free, and until they do, they’ll have no way to vent their outrage.
This article was published in The eXile on December 10, 2004
Posted: December 2nd, 2013
This article was published in The eXile on June 28, 2002
by Michael Herr , Vintage 1977
Everything We Had
ed. by Al Santoli , Random House 1981
Once A Warrior King
by David Donovan , Ballantine 1986
by Robert Mason , Penguin 1983
We Were Soldiers Once…And Young
by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway , Harper Perennial 1992
Mel Gibson’s Vietnam movie We Were Soldiers just hit New Zealand, so I’ve had to deal with endless commercials of that sagging beagle-face of his, carefully smeared with artificial dirt and smoke, rallying the troops in a laughable attempt at a Southern accent. Having seen The Patriot, featuring Mel doing a similarly rotten Carolina accent as he ran around chopping up Redcoats with a teeny little tomahawk, I think I’ll skip his remake of Vietnam.
But it did send me back to reread the book Mel bought to use as the basis of the film: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. It seemed like a good occasion to review some of the innumerable Vietnam memoirs I’ve bought over the years.
Yes, chillun, I am old enough to remember that once upon a time, nice people didn’t even want to talk about Vietnam, let alone read about it. Now how did it git so’s they don’t hardly wanna talk ’bout nuthin’ else? Gather ’round the fire and I’ll tell you all about it.
Avoiding Nam was pretty much a fulltime job for sensible Americans of the 70s. It didn’t look like fun yet — not when it was actually happening. That took several years and about a thousand war memoirs. At the time, it looked like a remarkably uninteresting war, with wretched losers from inland America standing around the paddies twitching nervously, wondering whether the water buffalo in the next field was going to whip out a Kalashnikov and start shooting.
That changed very slowly. The first book to make Nam seem cool was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. This was the first Nam book taught at universities (I encountered it in a course at Berkeley). Herr wrote as one of the college boys who didn’t fight. He was there to watch, write, and make a name for himself. He wrote guilty erotica, and spoke for the smart guys who got themselves deferments but always wondered what they would’ve done if they’d gone: “You know how it is, you want to look and you don’t want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had as a kid looking at the war photographs in Life…”
Since the deferred guys were the core of the teaching pool at most American universities, they tended to assign Herr’s book, and it became one of those “instant classics” which make it more for demographic than artistic insights. Herr’s book was a first draft of Apocalypse Now, with Hendrix soundtrack and quick cuts between cool gore and Saigon lies. It doesn’t read particularly well now; there’s too much caution there, like someone trying to do Hunter S. Thompson after halfheartedly inhaling one tiny line of speed. But then that’s always the way to crack the upscale porn market: just a little whiff of the really hard stuff, enough to grab the safe people. After all, the safe, guilty males of the Nam era had two advantages over the ones who went: they had graduated to teaching jobs and could force large numbers of students to buy the book — and they were alive.
Herr’s book came out in ’77, two years after the fall of Saigon. It was a while before anybody wanted to hear from the losers who’d actually gone and fought in Nam. It took a lot of concerted lying, in films like Deer Hunter, to erase all those images and persuade the home folks that the enterprise had been a noble one.
In strictly literary terms, this great lie was of some benefit, because there are few genres as rich as the war memoir. Virtually anyone who saw combat and has a decent memory can write a decent book about it — and Vietnam, a war characterized by thousands of small skirmishes, was richer in incident and gore than an inner-city basketball tournament. When next you hear that rough voice asking, “War — what is it good for?”, you tell it: “First-person memoirs, that’s what!”
By 1981, the memoirs were coming fast. The first and in some ways still the best was Everything We Had, a collection of oral reminiscences by 33 vets who’d done everything from nursing the wounded to slitting throats with Bob Kerrey and his pals. I’d still recommend this book as a starter-kit for the prospective Nam fan, because the 33 voices offer something for virtually everyone. Parts of the book are very funny, as when Gayle, the cute li’l nurse, recalls her answer when asked if she’d serve on a ward for Vietnamese casualties: “And I said, ‘No, I would probably kill them.’ and she said, ‘Well, maybe we won’t transfer you there.'” And they say the Army has no heart!
By the early 80s, it was not just cool to’ve served in Nam; it was glorious. It was, in fact, the only sort of martial glory available (Grenada didn’t quite carry the same “cachet,” as they said in the Reagan era.) Every Vet still alive and compos mentis — and some who weren’t — headed for that early-model KayPro or Northstar keyboard to turn his ranting into cash. They were a little confused at first, having been shunned and pitied as they dragged their way from halfway house to detox to medium-security institution…but slowly a canny ambition shouted down the voices babbling in their addled heads with the news that the war stories which had driven the wife and kids to move out with no forwarding address were now box-office boffo.
And damned if many of them, fingers trembling on the keyboard, one hand on the Jack Daniels or rolled-up twenty, didn’t hunt-and-peck out some quite good books.
This high literary output was a delayed gift of the utter lack of strategy which doomed the American enterprise in Vietnam: a war which consisted largely of sending small contingents of infantry out into the jungle to find the enemy, usually by getting ambushed, is bound to be a military disaster — but equally bound to produce an extraordinary number of fantastic combat tales. As Walter puts it in Big Lebowski: “Me and Charlie, eyeball to eyeball.” Throw in the treachery of the South Vietnamese, the social and racial bombs going off non-stop back home, the feeling of abandonment, the music — greatest soundtrack of any war ever — and you had the elements of better stories than more intelligently-conducted wars could ever yield. (If there were any true aesthetes worthy of Oscar Wilde’s mantle, they’d’ve agitated for the continuation of the war at all costs. Alas, dreary Utilitarian ethics have conquered us so thoroughly that not a single voice urged the continuation of the war as the greatest performance art of the century.)
I’ve read a dozen of these memoirs, and enjoyed almost all of them. They come in all flavors. There’s the raunchy defeatism of F. N. G., which describes a “fuckin’ new guy” entering an infantry squad after Tet, when the Americans had pretty much given up trying to win and were fighting a strange, highly mobile but essentially defensive war. Then there’s Once A Warrior King, describing one very conservative Virginian’s relatively straightforward war, working with a fiercely anti-VC village in the Delta. This is Greene’s Quiet American told by the quiet A. himself, as it were — and he tells a good story. It’s the food I remember best, in that one: the long descriptions of roasted rat with fish-sauce. That’s one of the delights of war and prison memoirs: you can count, in these solidly grounded stories, on some excellent descriptions of meals good and bad. (The POW memoir, combining the genres, often yields the most mouth-watering descriptions of all; if you want a book full of the delight of eating, read Brendan Behan’s one good book, Borstal Boy.)
The best of all these might be Chickenhawk, the story of a helicopter pilot who was, as Martin Sheen says of “Chef” in Apocalypse Now, “…wound up a little too tight for Vietnam.” Robert Mason, the pilot-narrator, takes the reader in and out of so many LZs, hot, cold and medium, that you develop a veteran’s wince everytime his slick starts descending toward the purple smoke.
One of the many delights of Mason’s book is that it describes the battles for the Ia Drang — the same campaign glamorized in We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the book Gibson filmed. The campaign, which is depicted as a noble, though doomed, strike for freedom in We Were Soldiers…. doesn’t come off so well in Mason’s memoir. In fact, he and his fellow pilots seem to have done something the generals in charge of the operation didn’t do: read the books about earlier French campaigns against the Viet Minh in that same valley. Mason and his drunken buddies end up predicting the failure of the campaign while their superiors are still sending home the sort of communiques which did so much to cement the American Army’s reputation for…er, “emphasizing the positive,” let’s say.
But Mason’s topper, his most brilliant passage, comes at the very end, in the epilogue summarizing his messed-up return to civilian life. Here’s the superb two-paragraph conclusion, describing his next move after the early drafts of his Nam memoir had been rejected and he’d failed in everything he tried since getting back to The World:
“What did the desperate man do? I can tell you that I was arrested in January, 1981, charged with smuggling marijuana into the country. In August 1981, I was found guilty of possession and sentence to five years at a minimum-security prison. I am currently free as of February 1983, appealing the conviction.
“No one is more shocked than I.”
Just roll that last sentence over on your tongue. “No one is more shocked than I.” Now there is a meal. Even the fussily correct grammar, that annoying “…than I” rather than the colloquial “than me” or “…than I am”; so perfectly droll, such a change from the Nam dialogue in which every other word is “fuckin'”. And the grand historical irony, that the junked helicopter jock should become desperate enough to sell his one skill to the only people who wanted it, the drug dealers, designated New Enemy of the Reaganites. And the timing! Mason’s manuscript got four rejections in the years leading up to 1981, when the memoirs started appearing. A little later, and he’d’ve been cool. But that would have been disastrous. To go to prison for piloting a helicopter full of drugs, albeit unworthy boring drugs like marijuana, even as that great war-dodging hypocrite Reagan shoved his leathery grin in front of the flag — ah, It’s a fate better than death.
This article was published in The eXile on June 28, 2002
Posted: November 30th, 2013
On Friday morning, 23-year-old Paul Ciancia walked into Terminal 3 of the Los Angeles LAX airport, pulled a Smith & Wesson AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a duffel bag and started shooting his way through a security checkpoint. He specifically targeted TSA agents, killing one screener and wounding three other people before an airport cop took him down with a shot to the face. (more…)
Posted: November 5th, 2013
Ever since Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” came out in early October, he’s been on a non-stop promotional tour. He’s appeared on the BBC and the Daily Show, he’s done Twitter group chats and Ted Talk Q&As, and has had negative and positive reviews published in dozens of media outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian. But despite all this PR attention, as far as I can tell, no one’s really described in plain English what the book is about. And that’s just weird…
So let me be the first: The book is about pitying the rich. Its central thesis: being poor, crippled and/or discriminated against helps you succeed in life. (more…)
Posted: October 26th, 2013
Posted: October 16th, 2013
The recent death of Andrea Dworkin didn’t even make the small print news in Russia. Feminism, at least the feminism of the kind Westerners take for granted, never caught on. Patronizing Westerners often see that as a sign that Russians are culturally too primitive. Russians, particularly Russian women — and particularly the Russian female intelligentsia — literally laugh and roll their eyes when you mention feminism of the American or West European brand. The reason is fairly simple: Russians haven’t quite learned the Western art of sloganeering for radical philosophy without meaning a word of what they say. A Russian woman would assume that if you’re a feminist, you’d actually have to live out the philosophy. In that sense, Andrea Dworkin was, in her own way, the only “Russian” feminist in America — and that is why she was so hated.
Posted: September 14th, 2013
FRESNO, CA — Name a country that lost at least two thirds of its male population fighting three countries at once, and nearly managed to beat all three before being ground down and damn near wiped out. Second clue: this happened during the second-bloodiest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.
Whatever country you nominated, I bet it wasn’t Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-1870. To most war buffs the War of the Triple Alliance rates a big shrug, and Paraguay is more like a punchline than a country, a tiny landlocked South American sweatbox full of Nazi escapees creaking around cursing arthritis and the T-34. Paraguay is like a country by Mel Brooks.
But Paraguay is the correct answer, and I’m here to give the place its long overdue due. By the way, if you’re wondering what the first-bloodiest war in the Americas was, shame on you! Blue and Gray ring any bells? Gettysburg? America’s still got #1 all locked up, thanks to the Civil War, just possibly the greatest war ever. More than 600,000 dead, and most of them soldiers who died honorably, in open battle. Until you’ve been studying real war for a few years, you don’t realize how rare that kind of high, clean body count is. Like I’ve said before, most conflict is massacre and counter-massacre. Battles are rare.
And that reminds me, I have to quibble with these rankings, even though I feel dirty saying anything that could lower the ranking of our Civil War. What worries me is nobody seems to count the Spanish-vs-Aztec or Spanish-vs-Inca wars in the rankings. Nobody’s very sure how many people died in Mexico, but the simplest answer is “Most of ’em,” and since the Inca have been fighting the Spanish for 500 years at last count, they deserve an entry in the numbers game too.
But let’s say we rule out those conquistador wars, and stick to more standard nation-vs-nation fights; you still have to wonder why this amazing War of the Triple Alliance doesn’t get any publicity. Basically the answer is because the whole thing is a downer. The countries that fought it are downers: Who wants to think about Argentina if they don’t have to? And Uruguay, I had to do a report on Uruguay in fifth grade, picked it because nobody else was going to, started out rooting for it as El Underdog, but by the end I decided it deserved to be just Uruguay. I mean, being a suburb of Argentina, the East St. Louis to Buenos Aires—what could be more pathetic? If only I’d picked the other Guay! Then I’d have changed my whole take on the continent a lot sooner.
Then there’s the fact that it was a real stupid war. One of the best accounts of the whole thing is titled “El Guerro el Mas Stupido.” Which is why I’m not going to waste much time on how it got started. The official reason is that Brazil and Argentina were messing with Uruguayan politics and when the Uruguayan minority party, the Blancos, asked their Paraguay comrades upriver for help, and Paraguay was too macho to say no. The real reason it got started is a lot simpler: because 19th-century nations pumped more testosterone than all the steroid casualties at your gym put together, and when dudes like that spent money on cute Zouave uniforms and horses (cavalry was incredibly expensive) and flags, they wanted their money’s worth. 19th-century war junkies—and that was every man who could read in those better days—weren’t as lame as us 21st-century. taxpayers who don’t even demand that SAC vaporize Tehran just so we can see that those H-bombs we paid for actually work. Your average Victorian newspaper junkie wanted flowery detailed battle reports about their friends and relatives getting filled full of glorious grapeshot. And plenty of illustrations of hussars being shot out of the saddle. It’s the same answer as the old joke about why dogs lick their own balls: “Because they can.”
Then there’s the crummy timing. It’s hard for any American to focus on some foreign war that started in 1864. We have our own war, maybe the best ever, to study up on.
But credit where it’s due, boys: Paraguay, of all people, took on Brazil and Uruguay, then Argentina, and kicked all their asses until it lost a big naval battle—which you can forgive pretty easily when you consider that Paraguay has no coastline. That’s the one thing it has in common with my other favorite South American country, Bolivia. Losing its coast broke Bolivia’s big oxygen-rich high-altitude heart, but Paraguay had it worse: never had a coastline to begin with. Bolivia moans “Queremos nuestro mar”; Paraguay goes, “Cual mar?” It’s jammed like a fat tampon way up the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, and all it has to float around on is a big dirty jungle river, the Parana.
The one good thing about not having a coast is you can keep to yourself, get all weird, and from the start Paraguay rolled with the isolation, went with it big-time. To reach the place you had to cross disgusting malaria swamps or deserts or jungles with spiders the size of laptops, or all of the above. So it was a unique breed of Spaniard who came calling on the Guarani, the big Indian tribe in those parts. They were Jesuits, genuine religious fanatics, and right from the start they decided their little commune was going to be different from the get-rich-quick strip mines their conquistador pals had set up in the rest of Latin America.
For generations these Jesuits ran Paraguay like one of Oprah’s charity schools, only bigger and without the horny dyke teachers buying sex from the pupils. No whips, no mass burnings, none of what your average conquistador considered good healthy fun. The Jesuits in those days were a hardcore outfit, like commissars in the 1930s, and they tried like hell to turn the Guarani into a country of pious, obedient little nation-state builders: gave them universal education, everything owned in common (some kind of Catholic communism, an idea I don’t get at all) and all that “respect for local customs” business that got popular a couple hundred years later. By the time the Jesuits got booted out of Paraguay by the Spaniards around the time of the American Revolution, they’d done some weird transformation of the locals. Naturally, after the Spanish retook control, Paraguay got a lot more like your typical Spanish colony—you know, rape, forced labor, some nice looking-churches built out of Indian bones—but the Guarani were different.
There was a 19th-c. dictator of Paraguay who was so honest he wouldn’t even accept his salary, returned every penny to the treasury. You get a lot of dictators south of the border, but not the kind that hand back money. That was Paraguay: crazy, but in a pretty impressive way. Even the local Indians, the Guarnai, had been warped in a good way by their time in the Jesuits’ commune; they had pride and they mixed with the whites on something kind of close to equal terms. That made them natural recruits for an effective army, and more than a match for the average Latin conscript, the kind of cannon fodder Santa Ana spent at the Alamo. The Paraguayans believed in their country, fought by choice, and even had a bigger army than their three opponents’ armies put together: at the start of the war in1864, Paraguay had 50,000 men in uniform, whereas Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay combined only had about half that.
Paraguay was ruled by the Lopez family, and they ran the place like a small business, keeping the money but investing most of it back into growing the place. And the kind of growth that mostly interested the Lopezes was military. Like Japan, another 19th-century up-and-comer, Paraguay spent a lot of foreign exchange on hiring the best military technicians and advisers Europe had to sell. And they did it smart, too, putting money into basic infrastructure like telephone lines and rail track, not just chrome bayonets.
If you’re good with numbers, you may be wondering how a war fought between fairly small forces like these could come close to the US Civil War in total death toll. The answer’s simple: the war started out semi-clean, but it didn’t stay that way, and most of the dead were Paraguayan civvies.
Paraguay’s men fought like jaguars while they lasted, and when they were all dead, Paraguay’s women and children fought on. Until they were dead, too. Total war doesn’t always start out no-mercy, kill-em-all; but when you’re fighting a small, tough country that just won’t give up, sooner or later you’re either going to either give up or resort to massacre.
That’s what Sherman was saying with that “War is Hell” comment that’s always being misquoted. He meant it SHOULD be, and he proceeded to show Georgia and the Carolinas how it’s done. He figured it was the only way to slap a country as tough and crazy as the Confederacy into surrender. You may remember we had a similar problem with a little place called Imperial Japan, and had to slap them around a little rough, too. Of course the official story with Sherman is that he burned houses and crops but didn’t actually take it to mass rape and murder. Me, I’ve always had my doubts about that. You take a bunch of young male chimps, put ’em in uniform, and tell them it’s open season on the enemy, I can’t really see them settling for the livestock when the lady of the house is so durn cute with that s’uthin drawl an’ awl. And once they’re done with her, it’s standard practice to quiet her up, her and anybody else in the house, with bayonets.
But then that’s me and people are always telling me I’m “cynical,” whatever that means. (I mean, either you’re right or you’re wrong; and if you’re right, how is that “cynical”?) So let’s say for the moment that Sherman’s boys didn’t massacre. Well, they were the exception, because that’s how total war is done, and that’s sure as hell how it was done in the later stages of the war against Paraguay.
Before we get down to the details, I want a moment of respect, or maybe “cynical” chuckles, at how hard it must be to be a Paraguayan. All that suffering and heroic exploits and slaughtered ancestors and nobody except a few nationalist fanatics in Brazil and Argentina even know about it. Paraguay has to win as the Rodrigo Dangerfield of heroic countries: no respecto.
Well, I’m here to fix that. Paraguay struck first, declaring war on Brazil in December 1864—countries used to do that, you know, “declare war”—one of those quaint old customs like high collars—and to prove they meant it, Lopez himself led the Paraguayan Army north into the Mato Grosso. This was a nasty tract of Brazil even by Brazilian standards, a low-rent jungle northeast of Paraguay. You don’t have to be a genius on the Subotai or Belisarius level to figure that isolation is an advantage on defense but a huge liability on offense, so the Paraguayans were more brave than smart to start with an invasion. But that’s them all over: as brave and stupid as a pitbull on the freeway.
They were lucky to be invading Brazil, because Brazil had nothing whatsoever in the area. This was one of the most remote parts of the country, and it took months to get troops down from the populated parts of Brazil to face the Paraguayans. And when the Brazilians did drag their sorry asses into battle, they made fools of themselves. Brazil has always been one of those places that specialize in internal security rather than nation-vs-nation fighting. If you want some annoying shoeshine kid or street urchin shot and dumped in a swamp, hire a Brazilian cop. Job’s as good as done. But actual fighting, against people who are armed and expecting trouble? That ain’t the Brazilian way.
Unlike the Confederacy, the other biggest slave-based economy in the Americas, the Brazilian elite didn’t like to fight. And unlike the Confederates, they sent their black slaves to do it for them. Anybody who could afford it just sent a few black slaves. And funny thing, the slaves weren’t that great troops. Slaves fight pretty well sometimes, which is one of the depressing features of history most people don’t like to think about—the way so many slaves are eager to die for Massa—but these must’ve been your smarter slaves, because they weren’t into it at all. The Paraguayans rolled over them every time they met, and that was usually by accident if the Brazilian rank-and-file had anything to say about it.
The Brazilian Army was the real Mel Brooks character in this screenplay: they didn’t manage to march to the Paraguayan frontier until 1867, and by the time they got there, their grand expeditionary force had been hacked away by malaria and other bug-borne killers to about 1500 men. They fought one battle against the first Paraguayan force they met—I mean, a shame to come all that way and not come back with even one decent war story—despite the fact that the Paraguayans had gotten bored waiting in the jungle for their Brazilian opponents to show. When the grand Brazilian expedition finally met a small force of Paraguayan cavalry at Laguna, they instantly fled back to the plantation, to resume the wonderful life of being slaves in the sugarcane fields in dear old Brazil.
So far Paraguay was winning and looking good doing it. But the trouble with being one of these undersized super-countries is that early victories go to your head and you start thinking you can take on a whole army, like Uma Thurmann with her Ginzu knife in Tokyo. Paraguay was as high on victory as Germany in 1941, so tweaked on war that in March 1865 the Lopez family decided to take on another country: Argentina. And here again it was like a midget version of the European War of 1939-1945: at first the Paraguayans scored miraculous, against-the-odds victories, one after the other. They took the Argentine province of Corrientes. This wasn’t an outback like Mato Grosso, but important and basic Argentine land. Except now it was Paraguay’s land, and Lopez was determined to keep marching toward blue water, and win his homeland a piece of the coastal pie he’d call “Greater Paraguay.”
Man, there’s nothing more deadly than these “Greater Whatever” plans. If your country starts talking like that, you better start putting your assets into offshore havens, because church is about out. The Paraguayans were about to learn that modern war puts logistical strength and flexibility above sheer guts. The same lesson the Confederacy and the Reich and the Imperial Japanese learned, and in the same hard way.
See, Brazil’s army might be useless but they had a navy, and a pretty decent one. In that part of South America 140 years ago, there were no roads to speak of; you got around by river. The Brazilian navy was twice the size of Paraguay’s and unlike the army was considered a respectably place to work if you were part of the white Brazilian elite. So it had decent training, funding, and morale, unlike the army.
In 1865, the same year Grant finally ground down Lee, the Brazilian navy beat the Paraguayan navy in the river battle of Riachuelo. The Paraguayan navy fought as well as you’d expect, but it was outgunned twice over, and numbers do tell when both sides have decent morale.
That battle was a lot like the Union victory at Vicksburg (but a lot faster); it meant that the enemy heartland was opened up to grinding, a war of attrition, where money, industrial base and coast control can be sure of beating sheer courage over time. In that way, this war was a lot like our Civil War: key river naval battle leads to Phase Two, Total War to destroy enemy civilian morale.
Like the Army of Northern Virginia, the Paraguayans held the invaders at bay longer than any sane military man could have predicted. For two years, from 1866-1868, the Paraguayan forts at the junction of the Paraguay and Parana, the two big rivers, kept the foreigners out. But like Lee or, say, Phyrrus, the Paraguayans, with a total population of maybe 1.5 million, couldn’t afford this kind of bravery. It was national suicide: at the battle of Tuyuti in 1866, they not only lost control of the field but lost more men in a few hours than they’ve been able to replace in a century.
There was plenty of room for Paraguay to show how heroic it was, in brave last stands nobody has ever heard of, like—let’s see if I can even spell this right—Curupaity, where a small garrison held off a force of 25,000 Argentines and Brazilians, killing an incredible 5000 attackers in one day.
But like the Union, the Brazilians were slowly learning to dump their incompetent commanders and develop a decent health service and supply corps. Over time, that made sure they’d win, especially with naval control of the rivers. The Paraguayans still fought smart, but sometimes the new breed of Brazilian commanders fought smart now too. Like the way the new Brazilian general Caxias, who’d been ordered to attack 18,000 Paraguayans who’d fortified Piquissiri, bypassed the strong point, mopped up the territory it was meant to block off from the enemy, then took it from the rear.
By 1869 it was as hard to find an able-bodied Paraguayan male as it was to find a white Virginian who could walk without crutches. The Brazilian/Argentine/Uruguayan army occupied the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, and in a real smart, 20th-c. style move, set up a puppet local government. Lopez, the Paraguayan leader, fled to the hills. He still had the support of the people, and tried to start a guerrilla war…but the Brazilians showed they understood Maoist theory before Mao was even born. Mao said the people are the water, and the guerrillas are the fish who swim in it. The Brazilians just drained the pond the old-fashioned way: by killing every Paraguayan they came across. This is the phase of war where even lousy troops can look good: bayoneting kids and burning houses. And this is when Paraguay’s children proved themselves in a useless cause, like those Hitlerjugend junior high kids who actually held off the Red Army outside Berlin for a few weeks. At the battle—if you can call it that—of Acosta Nu, a force of 3500 Paraguayan children and a few women fought against 20,000– yes, twenty thousand!—invaders… until they were overwhelmed.
But here again, war doesn’t necessarily reward bravery, especially bravery in a lost cause. Paraguay ended the war a total ruin, destroyed more thoroughly than the Confederacy, post-Hitler Germany, or Japan. If you try to give an estimate of the death toll among Paraguayans, you just wind up starting another war—an online war. But the estimates start at about half the population. Half. Paraguay went from a contender, a little crazy brave Spanish-speaking Prussia, to a punchline. Worse yet, the country that benefited the most was… Argentina. I mean, damn.
This article first appeared in The eXile on December 26, 2007
Click the cover, buy the book!
Posted: August 14th, 2013
This article was first published in Radar magazine in March, 2008
Backed by an army of punked-out teens, cult Russian novelist Eduard Limonov dedicated himself to taking on Vladimir Putin. Will death threats and nutty supermodels derail his democratic revolution?
It’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning in June when I arrive at the home of Russian opposition leader Eduard Limonov. It’s shaping up to be another grimy, humid summer day in Moscow. We need to get an early start if we’re going to make our flight to St. Petersburg, where Garry Kasparov, the chess legend who recently joined the political fray, and Limonov, Russia’s most infamous literary celebrity, are planning to lead a protest against the country’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin. Together the two head up a ragtag coalition of anti-Kremlin parties known as Other Russia. (more…)
Posted: June 6th, 2013
Posted: June 3rd, 2013
Posted: May 18th, 2013
Our story begins late last week when I got a tweet from @AlphaInvictus telling me to go check “who’s sponsoring BuzzFeed today.”
I wasn’t expecting much… After all, BuzzFeed’s known for creating custom posts for advertisers, like the “15 Delicious Things You Can Stuff In A Crescent Roll” post it created for Pillsbury. Weird, yes. Possibly even shady, given how BuzzFeed’s sponsored content looks almost exactly the same as its regular posts. But given the scandal over the Atlantic’s advertorial for Scientology, most sites have become ultra-cautious about allowing controversial sponsors to brand their “content.” How bad could BuzzFeed’s latest sponsor be? (more…)
Posted: May 15th, 2013
Posted: May 9th, 2013
This article was originally published in The eXile on September 17, 2004
Exile editor Mark Ames exposes a rare fawning side while interviewing his lyrical hero, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, while Smith, who is notorious for abusing journalists (even reportedly putting a cigarette out in the eyeball of one Brit journo), reveals a charming, disarming side. Particularly in the number of times he addresses Ames by his first name, giving the interview a kind of Paintwork/Dale Carnegie sensibility. (more…)
Posted: May 4th, 2013
This article was first published in The eXile on November 5, 2007
FRESNO, CA — By the time you finish this column you will be able to destroy huge buildings, kill hundreds of people in a few minutes, and strike terror into your enemies. And all you need is stuff that I guarantee you already have around the house.
Sound too good to be true? Well, hold on to your hard-ons, because there’s more! This weapon is so impossible to trace that well-trained terrorists all over the world use it to clean up evidence after an operation.
When you realize its potential, you’ll wonder why more irregular armies aren’t using it already. If you’re me, you’ll wonder why you haven’t done it yourself.
You’ve probably figured out what I’m talking about by now. It’s our oldest weapon: fire.
Beavis’ dream come true
I got the idea watching Malibu burn. Oh, man, that was the best day off I’ve had in years. Regular porn doesn’t do much for me, but those clips of “heartbroken house owners” sobbing—man, I was just about creaming in my expand-o-waist black slacks. And talk about guilt-free porn! There’s no downside to watching movie producers’ mansions turn into toxic smoke. Don’t tell me I’m the only Inland Californian who laughed his head off at those follow-up pictures of the Prez hugging teary-eyed billionaires. They all looked like my bank manager. I can’t think of anybody whose houses I’d like to see burned up more, and I wouldn’t mind if their precious purse dogs happened to get forgotten in the big BMW bug-out once the flames made it past those “This Property Protected by….oooh owww hot!” signs. Those properties were protected by zip, nada, a whole lotta nuthin’. You can’t scare a fire, you can’t shoot it. The Mongols and Wehrmacht combined would have to run from a good ol’ SoCal brushfire. That’s a weapon, baby.
And there’s Bush streaking cross-continent on Air Force One to hug the “victims,” with his aides hissing into the ear unit: “Psst! Do ‘compassion’! Squirt some tears, dammit!”
Some websites are already saying what went through my head the second I saw those flames: somebody got smart and stopped playing with bombs and went back to basics, back to what works. Mighta been al Quaeda, but might just as well have been some nut who got fired for not showering because God told him not to. Lotta what they call “agendas” out there. Lotta Bic lighters too. Which means about half the population of this nuthouse qualifies as a suspect.
That’s the beauty of fire: anybody can do it. Actually that’s just one of about a dozen advantages that arson has over bombs. Let’s run ’em down, info-mercial style, Bomb vs. Arson:
Bomb: very tricky to make; easy to score an “own goal” (blow yourself up learning the trade); requires a detonator, very tightly controlled—”not sold at any store” as they say on those sad Oldies Compilation ads; requires electrical expertise, the one thing even most handyman types can’t handle; leaves traces on bomber’s hands, clothes and car; often fails to work; takes a truckload of fertilizer to bring down big buildings; can’t spread beyond immediate target area.
In an infomercial, this is where Christie Brinkley pops up to say, “Gosh Chuck, that sounds way too complicated for me! Isn’t there an easier way for me to lay waste to an enemy city with no risk or obligation?”
And the MC, some unemployed alkie who used to be on Days of Our Lives, says, “There sure is, Christie! Just look at all the advantages you get with our Arson package:
Fire: so easy a caveman, or Douglas Feith, can start one
*So easy to make a little kid can do it. In fact, they do, all the time. Mommy’s Bic plus Daddy’s La-Z-boy equals no more house and BBQ baby. Oldest story in the world. Ever see a toddler make an effective pipe bomb? (Pipe bombs are the worst weapons in the world anyway. The only thing they’re good for is quick amputation of the pipe bomber’s hands and eyes—Nature’s way of saying, “thy genes ye shall not pass on!”)
*Unless you’re one of those toddlers, you won’t get killed by your own arson. Not that hard to walk away from a brushfire—when it’s just getting started. Later, not so easy. But that’s the whole point. In other words, very safe for the arsonist.
*No detonator needed. In fact, no tricky electronics whatsoever. So easy a caveman could do it, and did.
*No traceable chemicals. What are they gonna say if they ever get lucky enough to identify you, “Hey, the suspect has handled gasoline! And a lighter!” Until they start taking smokers off jury lists, and they might in this fucked-up state, no jury on the planet’s going to convict you for handling a 98 cent Bic lighter. And as for gasoline, imagine the interrogation: “We found gas all over your hands, firebug!” “Uh, I used the self-serve and it spilled.” Long awkward silence, ending with you walking out into the daylight, smiling in quiet pride at that big black smoke column over Malibu.
*Unlike bombs, a fire can’t fail to go off. It doesn’t take an Edison to make sure your fire is working. You could send the dumbest guy on the planet to carry out the mission—and according to Tommy Franks, the dumbest guy on the planet is ex-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith—and he’d get it right.
“Mr. Undersecretary, do you have ignition?”
“Mr. Undersecretary, is the brush now burning?”
Feith: “Oh yeah, hee hee… Pretty fire!”
“Excellent, Mr. Undersecretary, now please vacate the area.”
“Get in the car and go, ya moron!”
It would in fact be Feith’s first successful mission. That’s fire for ya: a real morale-builder, a real resume-packer.*And I’ve saved the best for last: fire is what the pros call a “force multiplier.” Meaning it goes on and on an on, long after that Energizer bunny is fricasee’d in the ashes, a gourmet treat for any coyote willing to get its paws burnt.
Unlike bombs, the size of the fire you set has no relation to its effect. You take a Bic and apply it to some dry weeds upwind of Malibu at the end of the dry season, and that two-inch flame ends up forcing some producer to reschedule his next pool party and restock his cocaine stash. (I bet that “toxic smoke” they warned about in LA was more than toxic, bet it was a real freebase reek.)
A fire that takes one second to start can burn a city five miles away, down to the ground. That makes fire way more effective than most nukes. And a lot easier to make.
Irregular warfare’s Agent Orange
The real question is why it isn’t used more often. Of course we have fire weapons like napalm, flamethrowers, and incendiary bombs, but all of them require hi-tech conventional weapons. And for the foreseeable future, conventional warfare ain’t shit. Until otherwise notified, we’re talking irregular warfare, the only kind that matters.
The Japanese tried sending fire balloons over the Western US in WW II, but that was sheer stupidity. The vector for fire is humans. You use people to start fires. And people, like I keep telling you over and over, are the only essential weapon for an irregular force. In this case, that means one clean-cut Al Qaeda sympathizer who’s learned to smile all the time, keep a job, avoid talking about politics and drive a neutral-looking car (my pick would be a Honda, nothing more boring or invisible than an Accord). There he is standing on a hill inland of Malibu. He’s been mowing his lawn, watching the NBA, blending in like a fanatic, and now that the Santa Ana’s blowing toward the prime real estate on the ocean, he’s ready. He takes a casual glance up and down the road, tosses a little sterno stove into the brush, drives on. Three days later Tori Spelling collects ten million for her beachfront mansion.
Now, in the interests of disclosure and transparency and all that good shit, I should mention that I’m sort of an accused arsonist myself. You may remember that my old friend Victor “-y” Davis Hanson took a few minutes off from his usual dayjob—sucking Cheney’s dick—in order to accuse me of trying to burn down his vineyards. As if. As if I’d work up a sweat lugging gascans into some dusty farm. I’m more the morale-building, inspirational type. I encourage people to find the inner arsonist trapped inside themselves; I don’t go out and wobble my flab doing torch jobs personally.
But Vic must be in love with me or something, because he won’t drop the grape-torching business. He’s written about it at least twice since he first dropped that dime on me in the pages of National Review. And there’s a lesson in that. What it shows is how the neocon mind works. First, they never ever admit they’re wrong–but we all knew that already. The more interesting lesson is how, even though they talk big, they think so small. So lame.
Because if I was going to do a burn on my pal Vic—which I’m not planning to, but if I was—it wouldn’t be some ridiculous, pointless try at burning his grape vines, especially when the poor fool wrote a whole book proving vines don’t burn too well.
No, Vic, I don’t think like that. I think like a real irregular. If I wanted to introduce you to the possibilities of fire as a weapon I’d just attend one of those lectures you give to tell nervous old GOPers that Iraq is going swell, just swell. (Can’t believe the bastard gets paid to do that. Most of the people I know spend their lives lying for nothing.)
I wouldn’t even need a ticket in. Just a 55-gallon drum, a dolly to wheel it up to the entrance, an air conditioner repair guy’s overalls (size XXL, but then most air conditioner repair guys are XXL) and a couple of bike locks, with chains. I’d wait till all those gullible hicks had filed in to the hall, and I’d wait for the applause when VD took the podium. Then I’d tilt up the dolly and get to work, singing something in character—maybe “Ring of Fire”—you can’t go wrong with the Man in Black. First I’d padlock all the emergency exits, then I’d pour all 55 gallons into the lecture hall. The drum would be labeled “cleaning solution” and it’d be truth in advertising, because nothing cleans out a crowded lecture hall faster than burning gasoline. No sprinkler system in the world can handle that volume, and if the gas don’t kill ’em, the stampede when they see the first flames will.
What I like to imagine is Victor up there passing the optimistic word to the very end. As the flames try to get his attention, he’ll be using all that mental discipline he used since the invasion to deny there’s even a problem, “…aside from some lingering embers in a few provinces of the lecture hall, this fire is completely contained.” By this time the hall will be totally black with smoke, but Vic is a gamer and he’ll drop his favorite history bomb on anybody still alive: “Things looked black in 1864, too, you know! And what about the Battle of the—cough, ack!—Bulge? Iwo Jima? The Pusan…the Pusan…” Just about that time Vic’s mighty voice would be silenced for good because his larynx would be even blacker than 1864 and Pusan put together, blacker than a forgotten In-N-Out burger that’s sat all day on the flame broiler while the rookie cooks got high in the employee toilet…
And please don’t tell me this kind of atrocity would “backfire” on the firebug. Hiroshima, Dresden, Tokyo—some pretty big BBQs, and they didn’t backfire on anyone. We’re just talking about the lo-tech irregular-warfare versions of that, and to a serious guerrilla, there are no illegitimate targets. Everything is up for burning. And don’t tell me this kind of “brutality” doesn’t work, either. Let me tell you about the Cinema Rex. Ever see a movie there? I bet you didn’t, because for one thing it was in Abadan, the big oil-refining island off Iran. And for another thing, some of Khomeini’s holy warriors burned down the Cinema Rex just before the Old Man himself came back to Iran and booted the Shah.
See, the Rex had a special feature for kiddies: every Friday after school was out, all the foreign oil-workers’ children would pile into the Rex to watch cartoons. Even a Muslim couldn’t object to that, right?
Wrong. There is very little that a real Khomeini-ite can’t object to, and for them the idea of kids watching movies on a Friday was so horrible that it just naturally called for one of the Faithful to walk around the Rex that Friday afternoon padlocking all the doors, then pouring a couple five-gallon cans of gasoline under the doors and in the windows, and then setting it on fire. Hundreds of children dead.
I’ve never forgotten that story. Made me so sick, as if Carter’s disgusting puss-out wasn’t already nearly killing me, young as I was.
But nobody else remembers it. Did you? Betcha didn’t. Betcha never heard of it. And the Iranians weren’t bothered at all. A few weeks later, hordes of the stupid fucks swarmed over Tehran to welcome the glorious Imam Khomeini. And a few years after that, hordes of kids not much older than the ones that got crisped in Abadan ran through machine gun fire or volunteered to be human mine detonators for Iranian human-wave attacks across the Shatt al-Arab a few miles from Abadan.
Don’t tell me terror doesn’t work. Only amateurs think that. And if the Cinema Rex didn’t hurt Khomeini’s popularity, if Dresden didn’t stop London putting up a statue to Bomber Harris, you honestly expect me to even pretend I’m not giggling, damn near jerking off, watching producers’ houses burn?
Wake up and smell the ashes.
This article was first published in The eXile on November 5, 2007
Posted: May 3rd, 2013
Last week, I wrote about the nation’s first successful “parent trigger” privatization of a public school, in a isolated town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. In that piece, I mentioned how parents and teachers had become disillusioned by the biased reporting of parent trigger in the media.
“No matter what article I read, it seemed to me that the common perspective that was shared was pro-Parent Revolution,” said La Nita M. Dominique, the local Adelanto president of the state teachers union, referring to the outside pro-charter front group that descended on their community and used harassment, deception and thinly veiled threats of deportation to push parents into signing a petition that handed over their kids’ school to a private contractor. (more…)
Posted: April 24th, 2013
This article was first published in The eXile on August 10, 2007.
I am one of 100,000 Chechens in Moscow. There are another 30,000 Ingush living here. Together, we belong to the “Vainakh” ethnolinguistic group and make up roughly one per cent of Moscow’s population. (more…)
Posted: April 19th, 2013
This article was first published in The eXile on January 22, 2003
Dima’s eyes lit up when he first saw the Solnyshko orphanage’s toy collection two months ago. He had never seen anything like it. It took me a few moments of staring at the same collection last week for it to register that the pile of ratty animals with ears worn from having been sucked on by untold numbers of orphans could cause such joy.
But then, I’m not a three-year-old who used to survive by rooting around trash heaps looking for something to eat. Dima is. (more…)
Posted: April 16th, 2013