A Bright Shining Lie (Modern Library Nonfiction #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: West with the Night.)

Young scrappy soldiers came to walk the villages and the jungles and the ricepaddies from all hopeful parts of America, itching to step into boots that matched the size and the bravery of their heroic fathers. They hungered to prove their manhood and their patriotism even as their spirits dwindled and their moral core dissipated as it became common knowledge that Vietnam was an unwinnable war. They came home in dishonor and disgrace, losers who had sacrificed their bodies and minds and souls in the name of failed American exceptionalism, and they were left to rot by their government and sometimes by their fellow citizens.

Much as the shellshocked men in World War I returned to their native soil facing similar indifference to their trauma and their pain, as memorably chronicled in Richard Aldington’s brutally mordant novel Death of a Hero, the men who served in Vietnam learned that the best years of their lives had been little more than a cruel joke, even when they defended napalm-soaking sorties that burned vast horrifying holes into villages and hospitals and fields and homes and schools that happened to be situated near a hopped up Huey often manned by a pilot who was losing his mind. Their collective shellshock was as commonplace as heartbreak and many dozen times more devastating. The Vietnam vets, who were all very brave and worthy of the same valor afforded the Greatest Generation (but never received their due), suffered PTSD and traumatic injuries and severe psychological damage. Every day of their lives after the war was a new battle against painful inner turmoil that spread to their families and their friends and their loved ones, stretching well beyond the poisoned polyester of the flapping American flag itself. It seemed that nobody wanted to hear their stories, much less any news about the one million civilians and Viet Cong soldiers who were slaughtered above the 17th parallel or the estimated 741,000 who died below it or the 312,000 people who died by direct order of various governments or the 273,000 Cambodians and the 62,000 Laotians.

They all died, and none of them needed to, because the conflict had escalated through the foggy hubris of war and the dogged jingoism of three U.S. Presidents and the exacting Pentagon number crunchers who believed they could will their analytical acumen into a guaranteed victory even when the truth was fudged and altered and far too frequently ignored and contemned. For all the Pentagon’s professed understanding, the imperious powers that be could not comprehend that the massive influx of American supplies would be plundered and reused by resourceful Viet Cong soldiers with a very long memory of history who learned how to take out Bell UH-1 helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers from the ground. They carried out the strategic hamlet program without providing basic needs to the very villagers who were supposed to be their allies. Most disastrously, the American interventionists severely underestimated the damage that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was doing to South Vietnamese loyalty, culminating in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963, which persecuted religion in a manner shockingly similar to ongoing present-day American indignities against Muslims.

Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people died in the Vietnam War. That’s close to the entire population of Chicago or the total population of Jamaica. It is the entire population of Nebraska. It is the combined population of Wyoming, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Alaska. It is the combined population of Iceland, Fiji, and Cyprus. It is a staggering and heartbreaking sum by any stretch of the imagination that should cause any human being to stop in his tracks and ponder how so much bloodshed could happen. Those who would blithely dismiss the study of all this as a priapic man’s game to keep close tabs on some completely insignificant item of celebrity gossip usually cannot comprehend the full scale of such unfathomable devastation and our duty to closely examine history so that such a bewildering bloodbath never happens again. And yet, even with the strong reception of Ken Burns’s recent documentary, the Vietnam War remains one of those subjects that Americans do not want to talk about, even when it epitomizes the toxic mix of Yankee Doodle Vanity, bureaucratic shortsightedness, savage masculinity, unchecked hypocrisy, credibility gaps, imperialist dishonesty, and cartoonish escalation of resources — all pernicious checkboxes that still mark American policy today.

We wouldn’t know of this American complicity without the invaluable work of reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who were raw and young and brash and sometimes foolhardy in their dispatches. It was undoubtedly their dogged free-wheeling approach, a fierce pursuit of journalistic truth that is unthinkable to such useless and unfathomably gullible New York Times company men like Richard Fausset and Peter Baker today, which caused Americans to ask questions of the war and that eventually led Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers (which Sheehan himself would later acquire for the New York Times in 1971). The quest for understanding, especially in the conflict’s early years, proved just as intoxicating to these sleep-deprived and overworked journos as it did to the soldiers who kept coming back for further tours of duty. All wondered why common sense had been so rashly and cheaply capitulated.

Sheehan and Halberstam followed in the footsteps of such famous war reporters as Francois Sully, Homer Bigart, Malcolm Browne, and Horst Faas. (William Prochnau’s book Once Upon a Distant War is an excellent and vivacious account of this period, although not without its minor liberties. A 1988 Neil Sheehan profile that Prochnau wrote for The Washington Post, offering some useful carryover material for his book, is also available online.) The two men arrived in Vietnam separately in 1962. They had both attended Harvard, but had arrived at the hallowed university through altogether different routes. Sheehan came from a working-class Irish background and lucked out with a scholarship. By the time Sheehan arrived in Saigon, he was a reformed alcoholic and a tortured man who had learned the fine art of carving extra hours out of any day, a talent he had honed while running a dairy farm as a kid. Sheehan worked for the penny-pinching UPI wire service and, much as a contemporary journalist is expected to write, shoot and cut video, and preserve his crisp telegenic form if he wishes to hold onto his job, he was often responsible for logistics extending well beyond the writing and transmission of copy.

Halberstam was a tall and lanky man from a middle-class Jewish background, but decidedly brasher than Sheehan. His trenchant reporting of civil rights struggles in the South attracted the notice of The New York Times‘s James Reston. Halberstam was a formidable if slipshod workhorse, banging out thousands of words per day that often had to be shoehorned into coherent shape by the exasperated Times team. But Halberstam’s reporting in the Congo was strong and gallant enough to land him in Saigon.

Sheehan and Halberstam would become friends and roommates, working very long days and often falling asleep at their typewriters. They chased any source that led them to demystify the war, but they were both seduced by a man named John Paul Vann, who became the subject of Sheehan’s journalistic masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie. Halberstam would write two books from his Vietnam experience: The Making of a Quagmire, a short and useful 1965 volume that faded into obscurity within a decade, and The Best and the Brightest, a juicy and detailed top-down account of bureaucratic blunder that Stephen Bannon even pushed onto every member of the Trump transition team in February 2017 (as reported by the New York Times‘s Marc Tracy). But Neil Sheehan, who carried on with a quieter and more methodical approach than Halberstam’s gigantic and flagrant “us vs. them” style, rightly decided that more time and considerable rumination and careful reporting was the way in. He wisely believed that John Vann was the key to understanding American involvement and the mentality behind it. The book would consume sixteen years of Sheehan’s life. And for all the anguish that Sheehan suffered through that long and painful period, we are incredibly lucky to have it.

John Vann was a wildly energetic colonel from Norfolk, Virginia who could survive on four hours of sleep and sometimes none at all. He had built a military career on the “Vann luck.” He would willfully fly aircraft through a suicidal fusillade of fire and drive down dangerous roads that were known to be mined and patrolled by the Viet Cong. He would miraculously survive. Like Robert McNamara, he was very certain of how to win the war. But unlike McNamara, Vann did not rely on problematic data, but rather the know-how of knowing people and the pragmatic logistics that he picked up from his experience in the battlefield, often talking with and distributing candy to the South Vietnamese citizens suffering under the Diem regime. It was through such gestures that Vann avoided a few attempts on his life. Vann was savvy enough to court the trust and admiration of reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam pining for a few dependable truth bombs, to the point where the reporters pooled in their resources to buy him an engraved cigarette box when Vann left Vietnam the first time. But Vann would find a way back a few years later as an Agency for International Development official. He portrayed himself as a scrappy underdog whose candid bluster had prevented him from advancing to general, whose near twenty years of service and bravery and experience had simply not been heeded. But the truth of his checkered life, carefully concealed from many who knew him, told the real story.

Sheehan is both sensitive and meticulous in telling Vann’s take. We cannot help but admire Vann’s dogged work ethic and charisma in the book’s first section, as we see Vann attempting to bring the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army known to recklessly attack insurgents under Diem) together with the then comparatively diminutive American presence in an attempt to win the war. Vann hoped to train the ARVN to better fight against the guerillas, but faced indifference from Huỳnh Văn Cao, an AVRN colonel to whom Vann was appointed an adviser. Cao often liked to don the bluster of a general. We see Vann being kind to the common soldiers, whether peasants or seasoned regulars, but we also see Vann as an egomaniac willing to overstep his rank to get results. One of Vann’s guides to negotiating the tricky turmoil of Vietnam was a 1958 novel called The Ugly American, which depicted American diplomats in a fictitious nation named Sarkhan that proved incredibly arrogant towards the culture, customs, and language of the people. The book would inspire Kennedy so much that he had sent copies of the book to every American Senator. (The Peace Corps would later become a Kennedy campaign talking point turned into a reality.) Vann would take an altogether different lesson from the book in attempting to turn Cao to his side by appealing to his ego and by flattering him. But in practice, Vann’s benign puppeteering as military command could result in disaster, such as a July 20, 1962 battle in the lower delta, in which Cao resisted Vann’s efforts to load helicopters with a second reserve to prevent Viet Cong soldiers from escaping by flatly declining the request. Such stalling allowed the Viet Cong more opportunities to pluck American ordnance, transforming .50 caliber machine guns into antiaircraft weapons through tireless ingenuity.

This communicative combativeness between the Americans and the ARVN would reach its nadir with the Battle of Ab Pac, which is one of the most gripping sections of Sheehan’s book. Vann would watch helplessly from a L-19 Bird Dog surveiling the battlefield as the AVRN delayed sending troops, not knowing that the Viet Cong had intercepted radio transmissions using stolen American equipment. This allowed the Viet Cong to strike hard and accurately against task forces that were effectively separated and caught adrift, leaving them open to attack. The American Hueys disregarded Vann’s orders and were hit by the Viet Cong. Vann, whose domineering tone could be off-putting, was unable to send M-113 carriers across the canals to save the remaining soldiers and reinforce the territory. Vann, increasingly desperate and flustered by the ARVN’s recalcitrance in advancing, approached Captain Ly Tong Ba, the ARVN man holding up support who said that he refused to take Americans, and ordered Robert Bays to “shoot that rotten, cowardly son of a bitch right now and move out.” The battle became the Viet Cong’s first major victory.

By presenting the facts in this manner, Sheehan leaves us with many lingering questions. Was Vann a somewhat more informed version of American interventionist arrogance? Was American might, in Vann’s obdurate form, needed to atone for serious deficiencies from Diem and the ARVN? Even if the ARVN had permitted the Americans to have more of a commanding hand, would not the Viet Cong have eventually secured a victory comparable to Ab Pac? Even at this stage in the book, Vann remains strangely heroic and we can sympathize with his frustration. But in allowing us to vicaroiusly identify with Vann, Sheehan slyly implicates the reader in the desire to win by any means necessary.

And then Sheehan does something rather amazing in his portrait of Vann. In a section entitled “Taking on the System,” he broadens the scope to the soldiers and the command contending with Vann’s aggressiveness (while likewise exposing the hubris of civilian leadership under McNamara, along with the bomb-happy pacification strategy of Victor Krulak and the foolhardy optimism of MACV commander Paul Harkins). And we begin to see that the Vietnam quagmire, like any intense battle for victory and power, was absolutely influenced by strong and truculent personalities, which young reporters like Halberstam and Sheehan were rightfully challenging. Unable to get the top dogs to understand through meetings and communiques, Vann began to weaponize the press against Harkin’s reality distortion field — this as the Diem regime’s increasing persecution of the Buddhists revealed the vast fissures cracking into South Vietnamese unity. Sheehan begins to insert both Halberstam and himself more into the narrative. With Vann now retired from the Army, we are rightly left to wonder if he was indeed as indispensable as many believed him to be.

But then Sheehan backtracks to Vann’s past. And we begin to see that he had been living a lie. He pulled himself from an impoverished Virginian upbringing, where he was an illegitimate child raised by a wanton alcoholic mother, and married a respectable woman named Mary Jane. But while stationed as an Army officer, he cultivated a taste for underage girls and hushed up both his numerous affairs and the allegations, even persuading Mary Jane to lie for him during a court-martial for statutory rape and adultery while also training himself to pass a lie detector test. While stationed in Vietnam the second time, Vann could not control his sexual appetite. He carried on numerous affairs, devoting his attentions quite ardently with two mistresses who were half his age, one of whom had his child, and keeping the two women largely in the dark about each other for a sustained period. His predatory behavior presents itself as a bigger lie more unsettling than the Harkin-style prevarications that resulted in needless deaths.

In the end, the “Vann luck” could not hold out. His death in 1972, at least as portrayed by Sheehan, is almost anticlimactic: the result of a helicopter crashing into a series of trees. As Vietnam changed and the American presence grew with unmitigated enormity, Vann’s apparent know-how could not penetrate as an AID commander, even though Sheehan depicts Vann having many adventures.

A Bright Shining Lie isn’t just an epic history of Vietnam. It also reveals the type of conflicted and deeply flawed American personality that has traditionally been allowed to rise to the top, influencing key American decisions, for better or worse. I read the book twice in the last year and, particularly in relation to Vann’s obstinacy and his abuse of women, I could not help but see Donald Trump as a more cartoonish version of Vann’s gruff and adamantine bluster. But the present landscape, as I write these words near the end of 2017, a year that has carried on with an endless concatenation of prominent names revealed as creeps and abusers of power, is now shifting to one where a masculine, wanton, and ultimatum-oriented approach to command is no longer being tolerated. And yet, even after war has devastated a nation through such a temperament, it is possible for those who are ravaged by violence to be forgiving. In 1989, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for two profiles published in The New Yorker (these are collected in the volume After the War Was Over). In his trip to North Vietnam, Sheehan is baffled by the farmers and the villagers showing no bad blood to Americans:

I encountered this lack of animosity everywhere we went in the North and kept asking for an explanation. The first offered was that the Vietnamese had never regarded the entire American people as their enemy. The American government — “the imperialists” — had been the enemy; other Americans, particularly the antiwar protesters, had been on the Vietnamese side. This did not seem explanation enough for people like the farmer on the road to Lang Son. He had suffered dearly at the hands of Americans who had not been an abstract “imperialist” entity. One afternoon in a village near Haiphong, when Susan and I were with Tran Le Tien, our other guide-interpreter, we were received with kindness by a family who lost a son in the South. On the way back home onto Hanoi I said to Tien that thee had to be more to this attitude than good Americans versus bad Americans. “It’s the wars with China,” Tien said. I decided he was right.

In other words, the enemy in war is the one that has most recently caused the greatest devastation. While the North Vietnamese’s forgiving character is quite remarkable in light of the casualties, perhaps it’s also incumbent upon all nations to be on the lookout for the character flaws in failed men who lead us into failed wars so that nothing like this ever has to happen again. Men do not have all the answers they often claim to possess, even when they look great on paper.

Next Up: Lawrence Gowing’s Vermeer!

A Mathematician’s Apology (Modern Library Nonfiction #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Six Easy Pieces.)

mlnf87Clocking in at a mere ninety pages in very large type, G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is that rare canapé plucked from a small salver between all the other three-course meals and marathon banquets in the Modern Library series. It is a book so modest that you could probably read it in its entirety while waiting for the latest Windows 10 update to install. And what a bleak and despondent volume it turned out to be! I read the book twice and, each time I finished the book, I wanted to seek out some chalk-scrawling magician and offer a hug.

G.H. Hardy was a robust mathematician just over the age of sixty who had made some serious contributions to number theory and population genetics. He was a cricket-loving man who had brought the Indian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan to academic prominence by personally vouching for and mentoring him. You would think that a highly accomplished dude who went about the world with such bountiful and generous energies would be able to ride out his eccentric enthusiasm into his autumn years. But in 1939, Hardy survived a heart attack and felt that he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle, possessing nothing much in the way of nimble acumen or originality. So he decided to memorialize his depressing thoughts about “useful” contributions to knowledge in A Mathematician’s Apology (in one of the book’s most stupendous understatements, Hardy observed that “my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical”), and asked whether mathematics, the field that he had entered into because he “wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively,” was worthwhile.

You can probably guess how it all turned out:

It is indeed rather astonishing how little practical value scientific knowledge has for ordinary man, how dull and commonplace such of it as has value is, and how its value seems almost to vary inversely to reputed utility….We live either by rule of thumb or other people’s professional knowledge.

If only Hardy could have lived about sixty more years to discover the 21st century thinker’s parasitic relationship to Google and Wikipedia! The question is whether Hardy is right to be this cynical. While snidely observing “It is quite true that most people can do nothing well,” he isn’t a total sourpuss. He writes, “A man’s first duty, a young man’s at any rate, is to be ambitious,” and points out that ambition has been “the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.” What he fails to see, however, is that youthful ambition, whether in a writer or a scientist, often morphs into a set of routines that become second-nature. At a certain point, a person becomes comfortable enough with himself to simply go on with his work, quietly evolving, where the ambition becomes more covert and subconscious and mysterious.

Hardy never quite confronts what it is about youth that frightens him, but he is driven by a need to justify his work and his existence, pointing to two reasons for why people do what they do: (1) they work at something because they know they can do it well and (2) they work at something because a particular vocation or specialty came their way. But this seems too pat and Gladwellian to be a persuasive dichotomy. It doesn’t really account for the journey we all must face over why one does something, which generally includes the vital people you meet at certain places in your life who point you down certain directions. Either they recognize some talent in you and give you a leg up or they are smart and generous enough to recognize that one essential part of human duty is to help others find their way, to seek out your people — ideally a group of eclectic and vastly differing perspectives — and to work with each other to do the best damn work and live the best damn lives you can. Because what’s the point of geeking out about Fermat’s “two squares” theorem, which really is, as Hardy observes, a nifty mathematical axiom of pure beauty, if you can’t share it with others?

But let’s return to Hardy’s fixation on youth. Hardy makes the claim that “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game,” yet this staggering statement is easily debunked by such late bloomers as prime number ninja Zhang Yitang and Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem at the age of 41. Even in Hardy’s own time, Henri Poincaré was making innovations to topology and Lorentz transformations well into middle age. (And Hardy explicitly references Poincaré in § 26 of his Apology. So it’s not like he didn’t know!) Perhaps some of the more recent late life contributions have much to do with forty now being the new thirty (or even the new twenty among a certain Jaguar-buying midlife crisis type) and many men in Hardy’s time believing themselves to be superannuated in body and soul around the age of thirty-five, but it does point to the likelihood that Hardy’s sentiments were less the result of serious thinking and more the result of crippling depression.

Where Richard Feynman saw chess as a happy metaphor for the universe, “a great game played by the gods” in which we humans are mere observers who “do not know what the rules of the game are,” merely allowed to watch the playing (and yet find marvel in this all the same), Hardy believed that any chess problem was “simply an exercise in pure mathematics…and everyone who calls a problem ‘beautiful’ is applauding mathematical beauty, even if is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind.” Hardy was so sour that he compared a chess problem to a newspaper puzzle, claiming that it merely offered an “intellectual kick” for the clueless educated rabble. As someone who enjoys solving the Sunday New York Times crossword in full and a good chess game (it’s the street players I have learned the most from; for they often have the boldest and most original moves), I can’t really argue against Hardy’s claim that such pastimes are “trivial” or “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. But Hardy seems unable to remember the possibly apocryphal tale of Archimedes discovering gradual displacement while in the bathtub or the more reliable story of Otto Loewi’s dream leading the great Nobel-winning physiologist to discover that nervous impulses arose from electrical transmissions. Great minds often need to be restfully thinking or active on other fronts in order to come up with significant innovations. And while Hardy may claim that “no chess problem has ever affected the development of scientific thought,” I feel compelled to note Pythagoras played the lyre (and even inspired a form of tuning), Newton had his meandering apple moment, and Einstein enjoyed hiking and sailing. These were undoubtedly “trivial” practices by Hardy’s austere standards, but would these great men have given us their contributions if they hadn’t had such downtime?

It’s a bit gobsmacking that Hardy never mentions how Loewi was fired up by his dreams. He seems only to see value in Morpheus’s prophecies if they are dark and melancholic:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….

One of an author’s worst nightmares is to have his work rendered instantly obsolescent not long after his death, even though there is a very strong likelihood that, in about 150 years, few people will care about the majority of books published today. (Hell, few people care about anything I have to write today, much less this insane Modern Library project. There is a high probability that I will be dead in five decades and that nobody will read the many millions of words or listen to the countless hours of radio I have put out into the universe. It may seem pessimistic to consider this salient truth, but, if anything, it motivates me to make as much as I can in the time I have, which I suppose is an egotistical and foolishly optimistic approach. But what else can one do? Deposit one’s head in the sand, smoke endless bowls of pot, wolf down giant bags of Cheetos, and binge-watch insipid television that will also not be remembered?) You can either accept this reality and reach the few people you can and find happiness and gratitude in doing so. Or you can deny the clear fact that your ego is getting in the way of your achievements, embracing supererogatory anxieties and forcing you to spend too much time feeling needlessly morose.

I suppose that in articulating this common neurosis, Hardy is performing a service. He seems to relish “mathematical fame,” which he calls “one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.” Yet fame is a piss-poor reason to go about making art or formulating theorems. Most of the contributions to human advancement are rendered invisible. These are often small yet subtly influential rivulets that unknowingly pass into the great river that future generations will wade in. We fight for virtues and rigor and intelligence and truth and justice and fairness and equality because this will be the legacy that our children and grandchildren will latch onto. And we often make unknowing waves. Would we, for example, be enjoying Hamilton today if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s school bus driver had not drilled him with Geto Boys lyrics? And if we capitulate those standards, if we gainsay the “trivial” inspirations that cause others to offer their greatness, then we say to the next generation, who are probably not going to be listening to us, that fat, drunk, and stupid is the absolute way to go through life, son.

A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.

This is Hardy suggesting some church and state-like separation between pure and applied mathematics. He sees physics as fitting into some idealistic philosophy while identifying pure mathematics as “a rock on which all idealism flounders.” But might not one fully inhabit common sense if the chair exists in some continuum beyond this either-or proposition? Is not the chair’s perceptive totality worth pursuing?

It is at this point in the book where Hardy’s argument really heads south and he makes an astonishingly wrongheaded claim, one that he could not have entirely foreseen, noting that “Real mathematics has no effects on war.” This was only a few years before Los Alamos was to prove him wrong. And that’s not all:

It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science; and that the orthodox view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism.

Oh Hardy! Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas massacre in Halabja, the use of Sarin-spreading rockets in Syria. Not merciful. Not humane. And nothing to be sentimental about!

Nevertheless, I was grateful to argue with this book on my second read, which occurred a little more than two weeks after the shocking 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself largely divested of hope and optimism, with the barrage of headlines and frightening appointments (and even Trump’s most recent Taiwan call) doing nothing to summon my natural spirits. But Hardy did force me to engage with his points. And his book, while possessing many flawed arguments, is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a man who gave up: a worthwhile and emotionally true Rorschach test you may wish to try if you need to remind yourself why you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Next Up: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life!

Amanda Vaill (The Bat Segundo Show #549)

Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.

Author: Amanda Vaill

Play

Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.

Vaill: Except for my broken finger.

Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?

Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.

Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.

Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.

Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.

Vaill: I hope so.

fallingsoldier

Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.

Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…

Correspondent: Staged.

Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.

Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.

Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.

Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?

Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.

Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.

Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”

Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.

Vaill: (laughs)

Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?

Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.

Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.

Vaill: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?

Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.

Correspondent: And he was.

Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.

Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.

Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.

Correspondent: Skepticism.

Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.

Correspodnent: Questioning.

Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.

Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.

Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.

The Bat Segundo Show #549: Amanda Vaill (Download MP3)

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Eric Schlosser (The Bat Segundo Show #515)

Eric Schlosser is most recently the author of Command and Control.

Play

Author: Eric Schlosser

Subject Discussed: The 1980 nuclear missile accident in Damascus, Arkansas, drug use among the military after the Vietnam War, the Titan II’s continuous deployment even after it was unsafe, Fred Iklé, efforts to point out safety shortfalls in the military, the lack of locks on nuclear weapons, Permissive Action Links, Robert Peurifoy, Curtis LeMay, the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay’s bellicose attitude, 1960s defense culture, alternative perceptions of LeMay, LeMay’s attention to detail, checklists and operating procedures, a giant nuclear arsenal intended as a deterrent, limited vs. total war, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the influence of male attitude on deterrents, what we needed from LeMay during the Cold War, the risks taken by Strategic Air Command officers, recent safety mishaps with U.S. nuclear missile units, responding to speculation that LeMay wanted to start World War III, the history of the the Strategic Air Command, why the Command and Control system couldn’t factor in human exhaustion, how the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union caused unreasonable labor for servicemen, the difficulties of accounting for all nuclear weapons, Robert McNamara’s belief that mad decisions were logical at the time, the 1978 Titan II accident in Rock, Kansas, why there were so many mishaps with Titan II oxidizer, the RFHCO suits (and the astonishing wear-and-tear on this protection, which wasn’t replaced in many cases), blame directed at the workers, how systemic problems contributed to an unrealistic and bureaucratic view of Air Force servicemen, putting men into dangerous systems with defective gear, black electrical tape used to “secure” suits in missile silos, loose arming wires that permitted bombs to drop, an atomic bomb that nearly went off in North Carolina in 1961, the missing atomic bomb still entombed in Nahunta Swamp, the H-bomb accidentally dropped on Spain in 1966, why America’s military infrastructure still relies on aging B-52 bombers, the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, the importance of morale within workers who are tending to the most dangerous machines in the world, Kissinger’s efforts to get rid of the Titan II, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, Eisenhower’s deadly arbitration between the Air Force and the Navy, how the Strategic Air Command kept SIOP details away from Kissinger, bureaucratic rivalries, William Odom’s briefing on the SIOP, the interplay between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the lack of a direct line between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the effect of nuclear policy on diplomacy, miscommunication and unreliable back channels, the present nuclear risk in South Asia, the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the Peshawar church attack, Edward Snowden’s findings about the United States’s lack of information about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, conflict between India and Pakistan, why deterrence theory doesn’t apply to religious fanatics, how storage facilities are prime targets for adversaries and how this is a serious problem in Pakistan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Much of the missile culture that you describe in this book is, to say the least, remarkably unsafe. You have this Arkansas Titan II mishap at Launch Complex 374-7 — the so-called Damascus accident — that forms the backbone of this book. It all hinges on a socket wrench that is dropped down a silo and pierces this fuel tank. And if that isn’t enough, you have oxidizer that permeates around the station, causes 22-year-old David Livingston to die and several men to be severely wounded. You have procedures that aren’t followed. You have the Propellant Transfer System team violating this careful two man policy, where you have two keys turning at the same time. We often see that in the movies, but this was, in fact, the policy during the mid-20th century and onward to activate the missile. So this leads me to ask. How did the Launch Complex adopt such a far from cautious approach to daily maintenance duties? How much of this was systematic? And how much of this was human error?

Schlosser: You know, our military was in pretty rough shape after the Vietnam War. And it’s a forgotten fact now because we have our precision-guided munitions and we go to war with one country after another. And we seem so completely dominant. But after the Vietnam War, there was major underinvestment in the military. There were terrible morale problems. Huge percentages of our troops in the Army came back addicted to heroin. And there were remarkably high levels of illegal drug use even in the Air Force. So in the book, I write about guys smoking pot on the missile site. Launch officers who have responsibility for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles smoking pot. In the book, I go into guys who are busted with LSD and cocaine who had nuclear weapons responsibilities. And that was part of the bigger culture of the ’70s. There was really poor morale. The Titan II missile that’s at the heart of this story was obsolete. It was supposed to be taken out of service in the late 1960s. In 1980, it was still on alert. It was leaking all the time. They didn’t have spare parts. So the accident I write about is precipitated by somebody dropping a socket in a missile silo and the socket pierces the skin of the missile. But in many ways, this weapons system was an accident waiting to happen. And in my criticism of some of the procedures in the 1970s and early 1980s, I really don’t imply a criticism of the ordinary servicemen who worked on these weapons systems. On the contrary. The book is about the incredible heroism of ordinary guys put in custody of nuclear weapons at a remarkably young age. I’m getting old enough now. So when I think of a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old person having custody of a thermonuclear weapon, it takes me aback. And those guys again and again in the Cold War had this responsibility. Maybe some of them were smoking pot. But most of them were quite serious about not wanting these weapons to go off and about making sure that we were safe from attack from the Soviet Union.

Correspondent: What’s fascinating is why so many young and inexperienced greenhorns would be given such responsibility for these missiles. I mean, that’s what boggles the mind. Especially since there were several other accidents. The B-52s that you have dropping bombs that thankfully didn’t have charged warheads. I mean, this is very serious. This isn’t asking regular people to go ahead and mop up the floor of a hangar. This is our system. And I’m wondering what conditions allowed this to perpetuate for so long, notwithstanding the heroism that you depict in your book.

Schlosser: The accident that is the central narrative of the book — the Titan II accident in Damascus, Arkansas — was unquestionably linked to understaffing, to poorly trained personnel, shortage of spare parts, an obsolete weapons system. But I write about many other accidents in the book. And in those accidents, they had extremely well-trained personnel. They had the most modern weapons imaginable. The best systems in place imaginable. But one of the big themes of the book is that we’re a lot better at creating complex technologies than we are at controlling them or managing them. And it’s hard to think of a machine that doesn’t mess up. From your toaster oven to your laptop to commercial airliners to commercial nuclear power plants, no matter how sophisticated the people and no matter how well-trained, it’s just beyond fallible, imperfect human beings to create something that’s infallible and perfect. And when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, you’re talking about the most dangerous machines ever invented. So it makes sense that those machines and the complex technological systems that manage them would mess up occasionally. But the consequences of one of those things screwing up is a lot more than if your toaster oven freezes up and catches on fire in the kitchen. And one of the reasons I wrote the book was, firstly, I thought the story of this missile accident was just unbelievable. And I thought the heroism of the guys who tried to save the missile was unbelievable. But I’m just trying to remind people that these things are out there. There are thousands of nuclear weapons right now that are ready to go. And people my age — I’m 54; I grew up in the Cold War — remember what it was like to live with this dread that there might be an all-out nuclear war any day. But half the people who live in the United States either weren’t born yet or were small children when the Soviet Union vanished. And there’s a historical amnesia. And most people just don’t realize these weapons are there. Now I’m not trying to create an existential dread in anybody. I’m not trying to create late night anxiety. But this is really important information. And people need to know it.

Correspondent: Well, even in the 1950s, you have this guy named Fred Iklé. He disseminates this RAND report on nuclear weapon safety and he outlines all the motivations that would cause someone to disobey orders and set off a nuclear weapon. His reports were disseminated, as you point out in the book, to the highest levels of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. You’ve got this guy Bob Peurifoy. He points to numerous safety problems as well. Your book, as we have established, documents several incidents in which safety is sacrificed for ease of intercontinental ballistic missile use in retaliation. Why was the top brass so recalcitrant against safety? Why were they so interested in taking shortcuts? I mean, it seems to me that it goes beyond a cultural problem or an institutional problem and into just pure recklessness.

Schlosser: Yeah. And that top secret report by Iklé was really cool to read. I mean, it was looking into the ways that not only mechanically these weapons could go wrong, but I think in one section of the report there’s a catalog of derangement, which is looking at what sort of psychological problems airmen might have that would lead them to deliberately set off a weapon, deliberately steal a weapon. And at the time that Iklé was writing, literally there were no locks on our nuclear weapons. There were no coded switches. So a pilot who wanted to take a weapon could just fly to the target in the Soviet Union, in the Eastern Bloc, or even in the United States and just drop it, if he or she wanted to do that. And Iklé’s report was important in one respect. It really encouraged what you’d think would be a no brainer, but nobody had thought of doing. Putting locks on the weapons. The locks that were eventually put on them — these coded switches called Permissive Action Links — they were effective. But to someone who really understood the innards of the weapon, in a few hours, they could just disable it. Robert Peurifoy is one of the heroes of the book. He’s a weapons designer at one of the weapons labs: the Sandia National Laboratories. He realized in the late 1960s that our nuclear weapons just weren’t safe enough and that during what is called an “abnormal environment” — I mean, you could argue that the whole history that I write about in the book is an abnormal environment. But at the weapons labs, they refer to abnormal environments as a fire, a subversion of a weapon, a plane crash, a lightning strike.

Correspondent: Amazingly, no acronym.

Schlosser: Right. He realized that our weapons were not safe enough in these abnormal environments. But it took him like a twenty year bureaucratic battle to get modern safety devices put in the weapons, which we now have today. But you would never build a nuclear weapon today in the United States without these sorts of safety devices. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem, firstly is a sort of bureaucratic mentality. Someone said recently to me, “If you want to understand how bureaucracies work, it’s better to be wrong than be alone.” So it takes somebody with some personal courage to stand up, willing to buck the bureaucracy, and be alienated from everyone else as a result. And there also has been since the very first nuclear weapon was deployed an internal contradiction, a tension between wanting the weapons to be as safe as possible and wanting them to be as reliable as possible and available for immediate use. If you wanted the weapons to be totally safe, you would never fully assemble them until you’re about to use them. But if you want to use them within 45 seconds or a minute, you need to have them fully assembled on top of the missile or inside the bomber and ready to go. So in the book, I talk about this internal tension between always wanting to be able to use the weapon and never wanting it to go out by accident. And again and again, throughout our nuclear history, the military preferred always to never. And some of it I can understand. These bomber pilots knew that if they got the order to go bomb the Soviet Union, they would be flying into an environment that no pilot had ever flown into before. Missiles would probably have already hit the Soviet Union. They would be flying into this atomic wasteland, in many ways, to drop their bombs and they were probably on one-way suicide missions to do so. And yet they were willing to do it. And it would be a bummer for them if they risked everything to take out a Soviet Union airfield and that weapon turned out to be a dud because there were too many safety devices on it. Having said that, I would have voted for greater safety. Robert Peurifoy, the Sandia engineer, felt like we could make the weapons reliable enough and still make them much safer. And eventually his view prevailed. But it took…

Correspondent: Decades.

Schlosser: Almost two decades. And I think it really hurt his career. He wound up being a vice president at this weapons lab. But he was ostracized. It hurt his career. And I think it was enormously stressful for him to live with this constant knowledge that one of our weapons might detonate and be trying to fight the system to make them safe. And he prevailed. But it was a pretty stressful job.

(Loops for this program provided by 40A, petitcrabe, Nebraskaboy12, chefboydee, danke, and mejiam, .)

The Bat Segundo Show #515: Eric Schlosser (Download MP3)

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While the Rest of You Dwell on the Olympics and John Edwards…

Times: “More than a thousand civilians were reported to have been killed and large parts of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, were reduced to ruins as a conflict with potentially global repercussions erupted after months of rising tension. Georgia announced last night that it was withdrawing half of its 2,000 troops from Iraq as it ordered an all-out military mobilisation.”