Wednesday, 31 December 2014

HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS

It somehow seems appropriate that 2014 should end with the internet connection down at my house, and after four days of steady calling, testing, arguing, cajoling, and silently cursing, nothing appears to have been done about it.

Ithas been that kind of slow year for Irresistible Targets, and a difficult year for me on a personal level. The two circumstances are not unrelated. Partly because IT has to be relegated to a lower priority than writing (or other work) that might generate some income, but more because my attention and concentration on this writing, which usually gives me such pleasure, and generates some feedback which gives me even more, has been directed elsewhere, and not always in a positive sense, I have let the blogging slide.

So I find myself formulating essays and reviews, sending queries to the shrinking marketplace, and then never sitting down to write them up for you. I hope to get back on schedule, because if nothing else I need to keep the faculties and the typing fingers sharp,nbut the first month of 2015 looks to be very difficult indeed--including a move to a house at a location not yet determined--but I do hope that after that is done I can settle back into a writing mode that will allow me to share more things with you here. We shall see.

In the meantime, I wish you all a very Happy New Year, with the sincere hope that 2015 is a better year for all of us.


TORTURE, SPIES, LIES & THE WAR ON TERROR

A slightly revised version of the essay I wrote here on 10 December about the US Senate's CIA Torture Report has been published at Lobster; you can link to that version here. Lobster, edited by Robin Ramsey, is a site well worth following. 

Thinking about it reminded me of a book review I did for Lobster five years ago, which seems even more relevant now, not just in light of that report but also the steady progression of just the problems the book, and my essay, were talking about then. I posted that review here back in 2009, but re-reading at it today I added a couple of things to update it, so I'll to reprint it here, as a sort of year-end warning:

SPIES, LIES AND THE WAR ON TERROR 

This book is published as the debate rages in America about whether or not the activities of the Bush regime, specifically the torture of various combat detainees and suspects rendered from various parts of the world, should be subject to some sort of investigation, if not a truth and reconciliation commission. The larger issues, involving the systematic bending of the tasks of the intelligence community from analysis of facts to manufacture of an excuse for war, but also concerning both the morality and legality of such a war of aggression, lie dormant behind the sexier images of torture and Abu Ghraib. But the odd thing is that, in America's public debate, 'the facts' of the past eight years remain contentious and debatable, whereas, as this book clearly illustrates, they are part of a policy continuum, whose boundaries had been set out clearly in the decades before 9/11, and, on a broader scale, whose basic premises continue to threaten civil liberties in the West.

The strength of this book is the way it considers a spectrum of issues, and draws the lines which connect them. It starts by examining the threat of 'Islamism', not in the wake of 9/11 but tracing it back to its roots in the Carter administration's support for Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion. The simple point, that the US and Britain now find themselves just as mired in that country as the Russians did three decades ago, barely needs to be stated. That the architects of an earlier alliance of 'creative destruction' (in the brilliant terminology of neo-con apparatchick Michael Ledeen), the makers of Iran Contra, should be setting the agenda for the second President Bush came as no surprise, but that there was such a continuum through the Clinton years perhaps should. Depending now on a Sunni 'arc of moderation' has simply inflamed the area further, with Pakistan, rapidly destablising, at the fulcrum of this divide.

Having set out broadly the strategies responsible for creating this mess, and made clear that those responsible remain determined to make it worse in the interests of their concept of American (and British) ascendancy, the book sets out briefly but comprehensively the nature of the alternative intelligence (and media) structures created to massage the facts into justifications for enacting those plans. Bush, Chaney, and Rumsfeld devised their own intelligence apparatus, not only to produce the desired results, but also to wage a propaganda war on their own population.

Of course, this material that has been out there for years, but what is interesting in this new look at it is the way it is put into the context of an overall approach to the 'threat of Islamism'. Besides revealing the smoke and mirrors behind this essential charade, the book's examination of other key long-term links, such as those between the Project for the New American Century and Benjamin Netanyahu's first Israeli government, whose focus continues into the second Natanyahu era, indicate the absurdity of believing the present policies of the West have any desire, much less possibility, of actually achieving a 'solution' in the Middle East.

That Richard Perle was, in the early 1970s, passing classified information to the Israelis from Senator 'Scoop' Jackson's office, where Paul Wolfowitz also worked, simply reinforces the idea that we are seeing a 'long war' whose modus operandi, as the authors make clear, we've seen before. The phony intelligence estimates of the Soviet threat, produced in the 1970s by the so-called Team B, were drafted largely by Wolfowitz. The neo-con movement was experienced at phony excuses for military chest-thumping thirty years ago; they simply got better at it with practice.

After a discussion of the eroding of civil liberties during this 'war on terror', the authors move to a specific discussion of Europe. The US used the 9/11 'attack' to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, and create a platform from which to launch many of its covert operations. One question the authors do not address is the parallel between the way the Pentagon sought to control intelligence, and thus create a policy-making platform for itself, and the way NATO has itself become an autonomous policy-making body, rather than an alliance treaty-bound for mutual defense. They do trace another parallel, in the way the European Union has morphed from a trade and travel agreement into a vast non-elected form of government. They trace in great detail the growing and most worrying aspect of control acquired by unelected bodies, bureaucrats, and indeed failed or disgraced politicians from member countries. Though in Britain we look to Europe to protect human rights through its courts, the amount of intelligence currently shared automatically by its members is staggering, and puts projects like the introduction of ID cards in this country into an even more-worrying perspective.

In the light of Jeb Bush recently (in 2014) declaring an interest in becoming President, it's tempting to look at the Bush family as a brand-name in the service of the intelligence community, and Shrub Bush as an unelected bureaucrat.It was Jeb who engineered the most crucial bit of fraud in the 2000 Presidential election; it was Jeb who pardoned the Cuban-exile terrorist Orlando Bosch.

Early in the days of 'axis of evil' and 'war on terror' those of us who alluded to George Orwell and his notion of perpetual war were derided, while the David Frums of the world inhabited the BBC's analysis programmes. If one were to further draw connections to the paranoid work of Philip K Dick in today's electro-magnetic world, one would be similarly marginalised. Yet, as this book concludes, 'calls are monitored, travel circumscribed, and torture is again being routinized (sic). All this is done in the name of security in the War on Terror.' That this has increased exponentially during the administration of a man elected in large part because of his apparent opposition to it remains a source of great shame and frustration for American voters.

What was most worrying about the recent (ie, 2009) G20 protests in London was the way the police have been encouraged to distance themselves from the citizenry, whether protestors or passersby, and consider them uniformly as threats. This is the enduring legacy of the war on terror, and it begins, and ends, with the twisting of intelligence to suit the purposes of bureaucrats with power. This is the chilling warning this book provides.

Spies, Lies, and the War On Terror
by Paul Todd, Jonathan Bloch, and Patrick Fitzgerald
Zedbooks, £14.99, ISBN 9781842778319

Sunday, 14 December 2014

THOMAS H. COOK'S DANCER IN THE DUST

Ray Campbell runs a risk assessment business in New York City, where he lives a life of quiet loneliness. But twenty years before, Ray had been an aid worker in the African country of Lubanda, where he fell in love with Martine Aubert, the child of Belgian colonists, but a woman who considered herself a native Lubandan, with all the contradictions and risks that entailed.

Ray lost Martine, his only love. Two decades later, his old boss in Lubanda, Bill Hammond, who now runs a major aid fund that distributes millions of dollars of largesse, gets in touch with Ray. There has been a murder in New York, and the victim is Seso, the man Bill had assigned to Ray as his assistant when he'd first arrived in Africa. Lubanda has had its second change of government since Ray arrived; in the first Martine was lost, and an Amin-like dictator too over the country. There's a new government back in Lubanda now, but in New York Seso has been tortured before he was killed, and was supposedly bringing a message to Bill, and Bill wants Ray to look into it, because the police are not very interested. For Ray it means opening up a locked box of memories, and, more importantly, feelings.

If you're familiar with Thomas Cook's writing, you will know that emotions are the dangerous fulcrum on which lives rest. Small decisions reverberate, and the echoes of those decisions, their influences, stay with his characters forever. It is immensely fitting that Ray works in risk assessment, the perfect metaphor for Cook's characters' view of life, as risk to be assessed. Typically they are thoughtful, and self-examining if not always self-aware, and Ray is like that. He is a classicist, and his reflections are full of aphorisms, as when Ray reflects on “that elusive, perhaps unknowable but always painful line that in every life divides what we should have done from what we did.”

In order to examine that line, Cook tells this story with multiple flashbacks: to Lubanda twenty years earlier, and ten years earlier, when Ray made a solitary trip back to visit the spot where Martine had lived, and the one where she had died. Within those three time frames multiple flashbacks occur, as Ray's thoughts drift into memory, his and Cook's way of reminding us that the past is still very much part of the present. It's a brilliant piece of structure held together by Cook's perfectly crystalline prose, a prose that's able to convey both the beauty and brutality of the land, the people, and of life.  Along its way it also dissects the crucial and difficult issue of aid to the 'third world', cutting through our assumptions about its efficacy and intentions, without ever being didactic. 

As Ray reminds us, "some things, once lost--innocence, for example, and sometimes hope--are irrecoverable." This is what plays out before our eyes, and the denouement carries the modest disappointment of slight anti-climax; little changes except perhaps Ray himself. But its ending is a scene of such touching beauty A Dancer In The Dust might be one of the very best of Cook's remarkable career. Compelling, engrossing, and beautiful.


A Dancer In The Dust by Thomas H Cook
Head Of Zeus £18.99 ISBN 9781784081652

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

THE CIA, TORTURE, HISTORY AND AMERICAN EXCEPTIONIALISM

This morning, discussing the report on American torture, my friend Michael Goldfarb quoted Senator Frank Church, when his Senate committee's report was issued, in the wake of the Rockefeller and Pike reports, the latter not released but leaked by Daniel Schorr in the Village Voice.  Lest we forget, Church was marginalized, lost his Senate seat to a well-funded campaign, and as we know the domestic surveillance by the CIA and NSA and whoever else continued unchecked, at least until the Snowden revelations. Church's committee was regularly lied to by its witnesses and obstructed by the Ford administration; this was a committee that included such radicals as Barry Goldwater, Richard Schweiker, John Tower, and Howard Baker.  

At the time Church said: 'I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over ...'

Remember, the US was coming out of Vietnam, and the protests of the Sixties, and Nixon and Watergate. It was headed into the Tehran Embassy crisis, a revolution the trillions of dollars of US intelligence never saw coming, and the fall of our buddy in democracy, the Shah. Jimmy Carter took the blame for that, and America launched itself into twenty years of living in a fairy-tale world, followed by ten years of fear happily stoked by the very people who'd sold America the fairy tale Kool-Aid.

When people talk about the legacy of the 'Vietnam Syndrome' which is supposedly a fear of using American power to pursue American ideals (sic), they continue to ignore reality, which is that the US has fought an almost continuous series of undeclared wars, but unlike Vietnam, it no longer asks its citizens to send their sons to do the fighting. Instead, professionals and mercenaries go to war. We stage more and more elaborate ceremonies of fealty to the military during our circuses, designed to entice the jobless young as much as comfort the affluent who will never get near combat, then we retreat into the placidity of entertainment while our heroes kill and torture and steal to enrich their masters on our behalf.

This Orwellian (and to an extent Heinleinian) reality was obvious from the first moments 911 turned into an invasion of Iraq, but it has been in the cards constantly in my lifetime: the Congressional oversight in the 70s led only to an October Surprise in 1980 and then the Iran-Contra abuses. Our current permanent War Of Terror has led to our losing the last shreds of our moral standing, pissed away when we had most of the world standing with us after 911.

Senator Feinstein may have got the report out into the public, but Senator Feinstein refuses to even call torture by its name. Senator Feinstein has fought for additional powers of surveillance for the intelligence establishment over us, and has fought to protect those already caught with the fingers in the digital cookie jar. 

This report may seem shocking if your head has been in the sand for the past 13, or 35 years, but it carefully avoids passing the blame upward where it belongs, to those who planned these wars, who sought or prepared the legal briefs for torture, for rendering, for imprisoning without charge. It leaves large swathes of the military and the intelligence establishment outside the CIA untouched: it's like this entire planet-sized sack of shit is finally going to land on the slick skull of George Tenet. It may not quite do its job fully, but its impact will pass, and just as they did after the reports of the 1970s, the intelligence establishment will continue to do as it damn well pleases. The torture report may absolve those who should carry the blame, but it can't absolve the rest of us.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S BURNING ROOM

As usual, Harry Bosch is at odds with the management of the LAPD. He's still working the Open-Unsolved Unit as part of his DROP (deferred retirement) plan, but the department wants to save money and phase out the DROP cops, so Harry needs to watch his step. Especially when his latest case starts moving into treacherous waters.

Orlando Merced, playing in a mariachi band, was the victim of a stray bullet ten years earlier. It didn't kill him, but lodged against his spine. A decade later, the lead has seeped out, and Merced has died from blood-poisoning; finally the bullet can be extracted and the case re-opened for Harry and his new partner, Lucia Soto, a young Latina who got her detective badge after a gun battle with gang-bangers in which her partner was killed.

This is Harry Bosch back at his roots: for his seventeenth Bosch novel Michael Connelly has written a straight-forward police procedural, in which Bosch's dogged pursuit of truth leads him to open unlocked doors (and, crucially locked ones as well), regardless of the consequences. There are few distractions—his relationship with Hannah Stone is gone, and his daughter, if anything, seems to be going the Wallander route; her shooting ability becomes a small part of the story.

What makes this work is that Connelly has always been able to make character a part of the action; Harry's nature helps determine the way the story moves as much as any mechanics of plot. It means the story is never flashy, the twists never spotlighted, and the flow becomes so organic that when mistakes happen, we understand why. Their consequences are the result of the grounding in reality, which is where Harry Bosch's character has always been grounded.

And you know, as the plot delves deeper and deeper into the politics of Los Angeles and the LAPD, that reality is going to come and bite Harry. In the end, it does: the connected do what the connected do, and justice isn't necessarily done, but Harry once again feels the weight of the department for stepping over the line. But not before Connelly has laid the groundwork for potentially a new relationship for Harry, and maybe a new way forward too. And not before he ends the book with a brilliant last scene that tells you everything you need to know about Harry Bosch, and closes with a bit of quiet business that might have been cliched, but in this context, and in Michael Connelly's hands, is movingly affecting. Like Bosch, Connelly delivers, and The Burning Room shows you how.



The Burning Room by Michael Connelly
Orion £19.99 ISBN 9781409145516
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

IN MEMORIAM JEAN BELIVEAU: LE GROS BILL ET MOÉ

There aren't many sportsmen I actually idolized growing up, making judgements about character at an age when we're supposed to be too young to do that. Especially in the days before 'role model' had entered our vocabulary. One of the few was Jean Beliveau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a man who brought a level of grace and elegance to the speed and violence of hockey which I hadn't imagined possible before.

My dad was a hockey player, and as a youngster I probably loved the game more than he did. I got him to take me to see the New Haven Blades of the old Eastern League; his high-school team had practiced on the ice at the New Haven Arena, sometimes with the low-level pros in attendance. I watched the New York Rangers, the most southerly of the National Hockey League's six teams, on local TV from New York, and it was watching the Canadiens give a lesson in hockey to the Rangers, with Professor Beliveau the primary instructor, that made me a Montreal fan.

In fact, Jean Beliveau changed my life. Because I became a Canadiens fan, I wanted to live in Montreal, and  eventually moved there in 1975. I met my first wife, who forced me to choose between Montreal and her, or more specifically her desire to return to England. I chose her. Were it not for Jean Beliveau, I'd likely still be living in Montreal. Or at least Connecticut. 

That team I first saw included Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, Bernie 'Boum Boum' Geoffrion, the defenseman Doug Harvey, with all of Beliveau's control but somewhat less elegance, and goaltender Jacques Plante. We thought of French-Canadians as volatile, and Richard, Geoffrion, and Plante certainly reinforced that image (not long after this, Canadiens' coach Toe Blake would grow exasperated with Plante and trade him to the Rangers for Gump Worsley). Look at the pictures: Richard's fire and Beliveau's ice; Beliveau looks like a smooth white collar criminal and Richard his hit man. Beliveau was anything but volatile; he was usually the biggest man on the ice, but he skated effortlessly (like my dad), while controlling his stick and the puck the way only much smaller skaters were expected to--and players with such skills were often thought soft (the Blades' Raymond Carpentier was called 'FiFi' by the harsh fans at the Arena). Beliveau was anything but soft, without being aggressive. He seemed to absorb checks, and punish the aggressor by beating him with a goal. They played without helmets, and you rarely saw strain on Beliveau's face. As Charles Pierce pointed out today, 'Jean Beliveau actually is everything people in New York thought Joe DiMaggio was'.

I didn't know at the time what a legend Beliveau already was in Quebec. He'd starred in junior hockey in Victoriaville and then for the Quebec City Citadelle. He got a two game tryout with the Canadiens, but rather than sign he moved to the Quebec Senior League, to play for the Aces, in what was nominally an amateur league. Quebec City built a new Le Colisee to accommodate the crowds, and Beliveau earned $20,000 a year, more than Richard or Gordie Howe got in the NHL. After a 50 goal second season in Quebec,he had another three game trial with the Canadiens, scoring five goals. Montreal GM Frank Selke was so frustrated he bought the entire QSHL, so he would be able to get Beliveau to Montreal. In his third season the Canadiens began a run of five straight Stanley Cups between 1956-60. In '61 Beliveau became captain after Richard's retirement, and a fallow period began, but with new GM Sam Pollock retooling they won another five Cups in the seven years between 1964-71. That gave him ten as a player; only Henri Richard, with 11, has more.

The 1971 Cup was the greatest. Beliveau, 39, had been persuaded by Pollack to play one last season. He responded by going over the 500 goal mark for his career, finishing as the team's leading scorer. The Habs finished third in their division, but late in the season the arrival of rookie goalie Ken Dryden propelled them past the Big Bad Bruins in the playoffs, with Dryden repeatedly robbing Phil Esposito, and then past the Chicago Black Hawks in the final. I had found a fellow Canadiens' fan on campus at Wesleyan, Rob Ingraham, and following the games in whatever ways we could cemented my devotion.

Beliveau retired, his place taken by Guy LaFleur, the latest junior sensation centre out of Quebec City. Again, getting LaFleur wasn't straightforward. There was now a draft of amateur players. Pollock held the first draft pick of the California Golden Seals. He traded Ralph Backstrom to the Kings to help them finish ahead of the Seals, insuring the pick would be first overall. LaFleur couldn't become another Beliveau, sadly, but he eventually moved to right wing, where he became another of the all-time greats.

Under Coach Scotty Bowman, the LaFleur-led Canadiens would win five more cups, in 1973 (I came home early from Europe just to watch those finals) and four years in a row from 1976-79. They played hockey the way Canadiens teams were supposed to play, skating past Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies the same way Beliveau had skated past thugs before them. On New Year's Eve 1975 I watched on television as they played one of the greatest games of hockey I've ever seen, maybe the greatest, a 3-3 tie with the Central Red Army Sports Club (CSKA Moscow). It was New Year's Eve and maybe that's why my English girlfriend wanted to get out Montreal toute suite.

After he retired, Beliveau got his name on seven more Stanley Cup Trophies, as an executive with the Canadiens. That's 17 in all, which no one can match. The NHL is unrecognizable from the days of the 'original' six, who aren't original at all. Hockey has changed just as much. The league has players from all over the world, the teams stretch from Tampa to Los Angeles to Nashville to Columbus Ohio. The change didn't affect the way Jean Beliveau represented the Canadiens, hockey, Montreal, Quebec, and Canada all his life. He founded a charity, was offered the position of Governor General of Canada by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, saw his face on a Canadian postage stamp. When the Canadiens celebrated their centennial year, and they brought back their living greats, the biggest applause was reserved for Beliveau, as well as the most touching introduction, from 'Mr. Hockey', Gordie Howe, already showing signs of decline but insisting on presenting his old rival himself. When Beliveau retired, he stood second on the NHL's all-time scoring lists, second only to Howe.

By strange synchronicity, I wrote Howe's obit for a paper last week; he had looked about to die after suffering a stroke. I couldn't get anyone to take one of Beliveau; Howe was the greater figure in the game's history, and I have heard other people, including my friend Steve Berman, not a hockey fan, speak of meeting in Howe in terms of awe. I'm sure I would too. But he can't occupy that space Beliveau does for me. In a way, it's better I didn't write his obit; it would have been hard work leaving out much of what I've written here.

There's now a statue of Le Gros Bill outside the new Bell Centre, alongside Maurice Richard, Howie Morentz, and Guy LaFleur. The Canadiens could have easily included a dozen more players. I never saw him in the old Forum, not even when I worked there during the '76 Olympics, when I did meet another of those few idols of my childhood, basketball's Bill Russell. I would have loved to see the two of them together. But this way, my image of Jean Beliveau can remain intact from when I watched that first game against the Rangers, somewhere around 1960. And he never gave me any reason to reduce him from the stature of the idol he was to me then.

Not long after I was born, someone put a couple of lines of poetry up by the exit of  the Canadiens' locker room. The poem is called 'Flanders Fields', written in English in 1915 by John McCrae, a colonel in the Canadian army. Those lines have reminded players for Les Habitants how important it was, and is, to wear Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. They say:

To you from failing hands we throw the torch,
be yours to hold it high.”


No one ever held it higher than Jean Beliveau.