Books postsWednesday April 07, 2010
Saigon Signing Off
"Three hours after President Ford issued the evacuation order, the first American helicopters arrived from 80 miles offshore. The marine pilots performed with skill and daring, shuttling out about a thousand Americans and close to six thousand Vietnamese. A famous photograph shows one of the last helicopters leaving Saigon, perched on a rooftop as a trail of people climb a ladder to safety.* That photo, for many years, was mislabeled as a shot of the embassy. But in fact it was a CIA safe house, and those were [CIA station chief Tom] Polgar's friends clambering aboard.
"Polgar burned all the CIA's files, cables and codebooks that evening. Not long after midnight, he composed his farewell: THIS WILL BE FINAL MESSAGE FROM SAIGON STATION. ... IT HAS BEEN A LONG FIGHT AND WE HAVE LOST. ... THOSE WHO FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY ARE FORCED TO REPEAT IT. LET US HOPE THAT WE WILL NOT HAVE ANOTHER VIETNAM EXPERIENCE AND THAT WE HAVE LEARNED OUR LESSON. SAIGON SIGNING OFF."
—from Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," pg. 397.
* from the Boston Globe obituary of Hugh Van Es, the Dutch photojournalist who took the shot below:
From his vantage point on a balcony at the UPI bureau several blocks away, Mr. Van Es recorded the scene with a 300-mm lens - the longest one he had. It was clear, Mr. Van Es said later, that not all the approximately 30 people on the roof would be able to escape, and the UH-1 Huey took off overloaded with about a dozen.
The Wisdom of Buck O'Neil
“Buck [O'Neil, age 94] was wearier than usual. He had been sucker-punched by the Star [radio] interview and then pounded relentlessly by so many interviews and requests. His head spun. He was hungry. He was surrounded by a Friday evening in New York—the construction sounds, the blaring horns, the fast walkers, the street hustlers, the Broadway lights, the hole in the sky. Buck loved New York. He was ready to get home.
”'I'm going to sleep,' he announced when the car pulled up to the Marriott. As we stepped out of the car, I notcied a woman standing outside, near a concrete bench. She was wearing a red dress. It's not quite right to say I noticed her, as if this took some doing. She was noticeable. Her dressed blazed candy-apple red. You could see it from Brooklyn. The woman who wore it looked nothing at all like Marilyn Monroe and yet that was the name that came to mind. Marilyn. It was that kind of dress. We walked into the hotel, and I turned back to mention something to Buck about the woman and her red dress. He was gone. I looked back to see if he had stayed in the car but the car was gone, too. I looked down the hall. Empty. Bathroom? Empty.
Then I looked outside. There was Buck talking to the woman in the red dress. Buck talked and she laughed. She talked and he laughed. They hugged. She kissed him. A young man walked over, and Buck talked to him, they hugged, they all laughed. The three of them stayed together for a long time, Buck and the woman and the young man. Finally Buck hugged both of them and walked in looking fresh as the morning. Star was a long way back in his memory. Buck said, 'Let's go get something to eat.'
“As we walked to the restaurant, he asked: 'Did you see the woman in the red dress?'
“Buck shook his head and looked me in the eyes. And very slowly, with a teacher's edge in his voice, Buck said this: 'Son, in this life, you don't ever walk by a red dress.'”
—from Joe Posnanski's “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America,” which I read in its entirety during our plane trip from Seattle to Seoul and then Seoul to Hanoi, enjoying every minute I spent with Buck and Joe. Much recommended. Rest in Peace, Buck. Keep going, Joe.
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