Books postsFriday March 26, 2010
Legacy of Something
I've been reading Tim Weiner's book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA while on vacation in Vietnam (I know) and the big takeaway, for me, 100 pages in, reflecting the first 10 years of the agency's history, is this:
We were never as weak as we feared. Our enemies were never as strong as we feared. Our big mistake was our fear. It made us adopt a policy, chosen mostly in secret by a handful of men, that runs counter to an open democracy and that played to the strengths of our enemies: covert operations. They were better at this than we were because they lived in a closed, controlled society. We didn't fight from our strength but from our weakness. We tried to beat our enemy by becoming like our enemy, and in the process we weakened ourselves and strengthened them. And the only thing worse than our countless, bumbling failures was our few successes--not least because of the long-term consequences. Guatemala in 1954 became the blueprint for the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Iran in 1953 led to the Ayatollah in 1979... which led... which led...
And the press, in the golden age of journalism, was nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, today, the argument that we are weak, and that we need to become like our enemy to defeat our enemy, continues.
And Thus was the Taliban Created
"Smuggling narcotics [in Afghanistan in the spring of 1994] was just one among many criminal endeavors pursued by the warlords, whose entrepreneurial instincts had them constantly looking for ways to expand their sources of revenue. So-called checkpoints, for instance, sprouted like noxious weeds along every road in Afghanistan. The major thoroughfares—especially Highway A1, which formed a giant loop around the entire nation to link its principal cities—were plagued by hundreds if not thousands of such checkpoints, typically consisting of a chain or a log pulled across the road, attended by three or four bearded men brandishing AK-47s. Every time a trucker, farmer, or other traveler encountered one of these roadblocks, he would be asked at gunpoint to pay a 'road tax.' Refusal was not an option. Women were sometimes raped.
"Sanghisar is linked to Highway A1 via a two-mile maze of crude dirt lanes. After the junction with the paved highway, 23 additional miles of potholed macadam lead east to Kandahar City—the provincial capital and second-largest city in Afghanistan. In 1994, during a routine trip to Kandahar, Mullah Omar was stopped and shaken down for cash at five different checkpoints on this one short stretch of highway, which made him so angry that he organized a tribal council—a jirga—of more than 50 mullahs to eradicate the roadblocks and halt the extortion.
"The religious leaders decided to start small by pooling their weapons, forming a militia of their own, and forcefully removing a single checkpoint—the one nearest to Sanghisar. It was taken for granted that blood would be spilled, but they believed their cause was righteous and saw no other option, in any case. On the appointed day they approached the checkpoint warily with their rifles locked and loaded, prepared for a firefight, but as they drew near, a surprising thing happened: the hooligans manning the checkpoint fled without firing a shot. Encouraged, the mullahs turned their attention to the next checkpoint several miles down the road, and the outcome was similar. Before the week was out, they succeeded in removing every roadblock between Sanghisar and Kandahar. And thus was the Taliban created. The name—a Pashto word meanign "students of Islam"—was bestowed by Omar."
—from Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pp. 48-49
Quote of the Day: “City of God”
“If Albert is right, there is consolation to be derived from the planets. For example, that they're all spheroid, that none of them are shaped like dice or the cardboards laundered shirts come folded on. And thinking about their formation—how, from amorphous furious swirls of cosmic dust and gas, everything spins out and cools and organizes itself into a gravitationally operating solar system... And that this has apparently happened elsewhere, that there are bilions of galaxies with stars beyond number, so that even if a fraction of stars have orbitting planets with moons in orbit around them...a few planets, at least, may have the water necessary for the intelligent life that could be suffering the same metaphysical crisis that deranges us. So we have that to feel good about.”
—E.L. Doctorow, “City of God,” pp. 61-62
The Problem with The Shadow
“[Lamont] Cranston himself I thought a little slow-moving; he was fairly sedentary, as compared, say, with the Green Hornet, who could probably lick him in a fight if they went at it visibly. I didn’t think of the Shadow as being able to jump rooftops or climb ropes or run very fast. On the other hand, why should he have to? Also, I wondered about his restraint when he could become invisible anytime he chose. I wondered if he ever took advantage of women, as I surely would. Did he ever watch Margo Lane go to the bathroom? I knew that if I had the power to be invisible I would go into the girls’ bathroom at P.S. 70 and watch them pulling their drawers down. I would watch women take their clothes off in their homes and they wouldn’t even know I was there. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking up or making a sound, they would never even know I had been there. But I would forever after know what they looked like. The thought of having this power made my ears hot. Yes, I would spy on naked girls but I would also do good. I would invisibly board a ship, or, better still, a China Clipper, and I would fly to Germany and find out where Adolf Hitler lived. I would in absolute safety, and with no chance of being caught, go to Hitler’s palace, or whatever it was, and kill him. Then I would kill all of his generals and ministers. The Germans would be going crazy trying to find the invisible avenger. I would whisper in their ears to be good and kind, and they would thereafter be thinking God had been speaking. The Shadow had no imagination. He never looked at naked women nor thought of ridding he world of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. If his program hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, I would probably not have listened to it.”
—from E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, which I recently re-read for the first time in 20 years. It’s a beautiful book, and reminds me of Willa Cather’s lyrical My Antonia. Both are coming-of-age stories. This one's about coming into consciousness and perception in the Bronx in the 1930s. Funny, but I never thought about the double meaning of the title before: Not only a destination—the 1939/40 version in Flushing Meadows, New York—but a declaration of the way things are, which, given the circumstances of the story, not to mention our own perceptions, can only be viewed as ironic. Was Doctorow ever going to call it the title of the World's Fair essay contest our protagonist enters? “The Typical American Boy”? And how much of the book grew out of writing The Book of Daniel?
Herman Roth Gets Mugged
Yesterday's reference to Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes ever; it’s on pages 125-26 of the memoir. Philip, dutiful son, is having a late-night talk with his friend Joanna, originally from Poland, about his 86-year-old father, whose body is beginning to break down:
“Did I ever tell you what happened when he was mugged a couple of years ago? He could have got himself killed.”
“No. Tell me.”
“A black kid about fourteen approached him with a gun on a side street leading to their little temple. It was the middle of the afternoon. My father had been at the temple office helping them with mailing or something and he was coming home. The black kids prey on the elderly Jews in his neighborhood even in broad daylight. They bicycle in from Newark, he tells me, take their money, laugh, and go home.
"‘Get in the bushes,’ he tells my father. ‘I’m not getting in any bushes,’ my father says. ‘You can have whatever you want, and you don’t need that piece to get it. You can put that piece away.’ The kid lowers the gun and my father gives him his wallet. ‘Take all the money,’ my father says, ‘ but if the wallet’s of no value to you, I wouldn’t mind it back.’ The kid takes the money, gives back the wallet, and he runs. And you know what my father does? He calls across the street. ‘How much did you get?’ And the kid is obedient—he counts it for him. ‘Twenty-three dollars,’ the kid says. ‘Good,’ my father tells him—‘now don’t go out and spend it on crap.’”