Showing posts with label USAF. Show all posts
Showing posts with label USAF. Show all posts

27 July 2016

Giving Up The Ghost


by David Edgerley Gates
I happened on a thriller writer named Chris Morgan Jones, who has three books under his belt, all of them about a private security outfit that takes on corporate espionage - which generally means Follow The Money. I liked what I read, and checked out his website, where he lists a few of his influences, along with how and why. This then prompted me to send him a letter, as follows:

Dear Chris,

   I'm very much in agreement with your listed influences - although I might have chosen OUR MUTUAL FRIEND over BLEAK HOUSE - but I was brought up a little short by HARLOT'S GHOST. I have to say, with all due respect, that I think the novel strikes a false note from beginning to end.  It's only fair that I explain.

   This is awhile back, mind, but I lived in Provincetown at the same time as Norman Mailer, and we knew each other very slightly, friends of friends. The guy I knew better was Peter Manso, who was working on a Mailer biography, and had Mailer's confidence. (They had a bitter falling-out later on, but this was then.) Mailer asked Peter if he knew anybody who could recommend some reliable source material on CIA, and Peter said he did, meaning me. I suggested Thomas Powers' THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS, which is still the best go-to, and somewhat mischievously, Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, a speculation about whether Lee Oswald was ever under KGB discipline. As it happens, the Epstein book is fascinating, but you have to be pretty drenched in the literature to benefit, and it ain't for the fevered brow.

   The eventual result was HARLOT'S GHOST. There was a later Oswald book, but the point here is that Mailer simply didn't absorb the basics of what Powers and Epstein had to say, particularly about the character of the intelligence community. Mailer went off on his usual belligerent conceits, the voices in his head drowning out anything he might have learned from listening to someone else. I'm not pissed off that he didn't take my advice - strictly speaking, I didn't give him any - but it's aggravating that he paid no attention at all. His notions were too firmly fixed. CIA people, the received wisdom has it, can only be hollow men, without inner gravity. Spare me.

All the best,
DEG

*

A few years ago (and a few years later than the events above), I went to a reunion in San Antonio. It was personnel who'd been stationed in Berlin at the 6912th, my former outfit, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it was a grab-bag. Different ages, although mostly in their fifties and sixties. Probably a hundred or so people. By and large, they'd gone career military, a twenty-year hitch, and then quite a few of them had transitioned over to NSA, as intelligence analysts or instructors, for another twenty, so we're talking about a lifetime in the spook trade. Which got me thinking. Why a book about the morally exhausted, cynical and world-weary? Done to death. Why not a story about commitment, a duty to something larger than ourselves, pride of ownership?

During the reunion, we took a field trip out to Lackland AFB to watch a graduation ceremony, new recruits trooping the colors after completing Basic, and then we went to a less publicly-traveled part of the base, where ISR is housed - Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is what they call the USAF Security Service nowadays. The event was a memorial. The commanding officer read a list of names - going back to the beginning, in 1948 - the officers and enlisted killed in the line of duty. There are more than you might think, but most of them flight status, killed in aircraft shoot-downs, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, off Vladivostok or Sakhalin Island, the coast of Viet Nam. Their families wouldn't have been told about the classified missions they were flying, or that they'd come under attack by Russian pilots. Too sensitive, at the time.

It was sunny and hot, noonish, but early October, so it isn't stifling. The air was still. Quiet corner of the base, not a lot of ambient noise. You can hear a couple of jets taking off from Kelly, the runways a mile or so away. The names are read, we have a moment of silence. The bagpipes start up, "Amazing Grace." And then, right overhead and coming in low, a formation of four fighters in a diamond pattern, the same planes we'd heard taking off. Just as they go over, the plane in the tail position does a flip-up, pulling sudden G's, out of the formation. This maneuver is called The Missing Man, signifying a flyer lost in action, and I'm not the only one starting to get weepy.

The experience reinforced something I already knew, which is that choosing to go career military is like it or not about duty, pride in the mission, accepting a larger responsibility. It's a concept that may have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, and of course it always smacked of self-aggrandizement or suspect sentimentality, if you happened to voice it aloud. I've never know a single lifer who'd own up to this, at least not without a knowing half-smile, and a degree of irony. That said, when I wrote THE BONE HARVEST, it turned out to be very much about the lifer community. Not in the same way as a novel like Sarah Bird's YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, but maybe its second cousin.

THE BONE HARVEST takes place in the early months of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, beginning on Christmas Day 1979, and the book is about mounting an intelligence operation in hostile territory. It's an educated guess that such an operation was in fact mounted on the ground in Pakistan, but I'd be very surprised if I'd guessed wrong. more than this, the book might be considered kind of a course correction to all the egregious eyewash that gets written about the spy biz. Not the James Bond stuff - there's nothing wrong with derring-do, even if it borders on the fantastical, and Bond after all isn't a spy, he's a hit man - but the tired drivel that keeps being trotted out as received wisdom, the opportunistic cubicle rats with no moral compass, or misguided zealots bent on jihad, field agents burned or corrupted or gone rogue, assets abandoned, the whole a Darwinian lottery, predator and prey.

It makes for good theater, no argument, but it's lazy. I wanted to come up with something more original, or maybe more retro - John Buchan, say - but with contemporary hardware, state-of-the-art for that period in the Cold War. On the other hand, you can't be a total gear freak. How much is enough, giving it the right feel, and how much is too much, when people's eyes start to glaze over? That one telling detail is often all you need.

I've quoted le CarrĂ© before, to the effect that it doesn'd have to be authentic, it has to be convincing. My point here isn't to disrespect anybody, my point is that far too often I'm left unconvinced. For me that's the kiss of death, getting something wrong that's easy to get right, or simply being wrong-headed. I could care less about your politics, or whether you set the table with the salad fork on the outside, but there's one inflexible rule. Don't play fast and loose with the reader's confidence. Once you lose it, you'll never win it back.



I began with Chris Morgan Jones, and took the long way around to get where I was going, so let me wrap this up by saying I enjoyed THE SEARCHER enormously, and have now gone back to read the first of his three novels, THE SILENT OLIGARCH, which came out in 2012. It's always a pleasure to happen on a new writer - or at least somebody new to us. This guy delivers. 
http://www.chrismorganjones.com/

23 March 2016

Nomads


David Edgerley Gates

War novels and war movies are a genre, and military settings in peacetime, as well - SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, or REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, for example - but there's a special subset, stories about dependentsmilitary families and their dynamics, their tensions and dislocations.

The gold standard, most military brats seem to think, is Pat Conroy's THE GREAT SANTINI. I have to say, though, that I've never warmed up to Conroy as a writer. The one book I like is THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, and that itself is another genre subset, the military academy book, Calder Willingham's END AS A MAN, Lucian Truscott's DRESS GRAY (my personal gold standard in this category). And meanwhile, Conroy's also among the fallen, having died only this past week, so it feels mean-spirited, or anyway inappropriate, to damn him with faint praise. In any case, people who grew up on the inside, with career military families, will tell you THE GREAT SANTINI sets the bar pretty high. Sarah Bird, who's an Air Force brat, calls it the Rosetta Stone.

Sarah Bird's sixth novel, THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, came out in 2001, so I'm a little late to the party. Her dad, a flyer, was stationed at Yokota AFB, outside Tokyo, and later at Kadena, on Okinawa. He flew recon missions, which I take to mean RF-101 Voodoos and RF-4C's. The target was North Viet Nam. Nine out of ten crews in his squadron were eventually lost, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Sarah says it was years before she realized his DFC wasn't just given for perfect attendance.

As an aside, I was once penciled in for flight status out of Yokota, an assignment that never materialized, but it would have meant flying ELINT missions out over the South China Sea and down along the coast of North Viet Nam, lighting up the SAM sites as we came into range. Which leads me to suspect that Maj. Bird flew what were known as Ferret Flights. He never explained to his daughter exactly what he did, it was classified, and she filled in the blanks after the fact. My point, here, is that I've got some inside dope, but it's actually not entirely pertinent. As a matter of fact, in the novel, the mysteries of the dad's duty rotation, and sometime absences, is part of the fabric of uncertainty his family lives with.

However. What the guy does is both central, and secondary. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is mostly about the oldest kid, Bernie, for Bernadette, and her relationships with the other kids, and with her mom. The military environment is a constant presence, but it's a gravitational influence, like a planet in unstable orbit. Even if you don't see it, you feel its tidal pull.

This is the thing I liked best about the book, the sense of immersion, and at the same time, apartness, or isolation. Bernie's center of gravity is her immediate family, but although she's in this larger institution, the military and the airbase where they're stationed, she's not entirely of it. She says to her sister Kit, at one point, You know it's all transitory, you have to detach, how can you take it seriously? Meaning, the next assignment takes you to a new installation - a new school, a new set of people, a new kind of landscape to navigate, and yet the same constraints of behavior, and how you present yourself. And the rules are all the more restrictive because they're unspoken, half the time. You absorb it by osmosis.

This is a life experience I'm guessing you can't really inhabit unless you've been there. You can come close, you can approximate it, and Sarah Bird does a pretty amazing job of making it enormously vivid and convincing, with never a false note, but all the same, no matter how well you describe it, or reimagine it, breathe it in and breathe it out, some part of it will elude the rest of us.

She says, Sarah, that she's perhaps paying back an obligation. She calls the novel a Valentine. In an interview, she remarks that "All of this made us [her family] something of our own little tribe of nomadic recluses, outsiders within this greater tribe of outsiders permanently passing through America." I find it a very telling observation that she pictures the serving military as outsiders, and I think she's right. Permanently passing through. In, but not of.

Don't mistake me, though. THE YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB is anything but a niche novel. I'm obviously relating to it on some kind of metabolic level, simply because it rings so true to me - and that's not to suggest you have to see it through my eyes. It opens a window on an unfamiliar world, and makes it seem utterly intimate and organic. Partly this is Bernie, who's a wonderfully engaging narrator, but also the choice of exact detail, although coming at you from an odd angle, and not quite what you expected. Then again, the book as a whole works against your expectations. That's its charm. And there's the word I've been looking for all along. Charm. In either sense, too. Both the goofy, flirty, adolescent voice, and the sense of casting a spell. It holds you captive.