My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a tattered thing. The cover, already coming apart in brittle pieces, fell off entirely as I read. It was appropriate to the fate of narrator Paul Baumer to see that cover come away.
It is the father of all modern war writing (though it disdains fathers).
It gives us the Lost Generation in its rawest form. It came out about the same time as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Remarque seems to have tapped the same narrative vein as Hemingway. Is it the standard voice of those who witnessed firsthand the horrors of WWI; or is it the standard voice of all warrior-writers? Mailer, Heller, Tim O’Brien, Kevin Powers write with the same wry tension when they write of the Second World War, Vietnam, the most recent war in Iraq.
Heller is far windier than the others, so it surprises me to think that so much of Catch-22‘s invective can be found in Remarque. It is invective born of rage at the military as an institution, at institutional blindness writ-large.
I just bought a dozen Cadbury Creme Eggs at nine cents apiece. $0.09!
Now, to Malta!
“I don’t buy eggs from Malta,” he confessed… “I buy them in Sicily at one cent apiece and transfer them to Malta secretly at four and a half cents apiece in order to get the price of eggs up to seven cents when people come to Malta looking for them…”
“Then you do make a profit for yourself,” Yossarian declared.
“Of course I do. But it all goes to the syndicate. And everybody has a share. Don’t you understand? It’s exactly what happens with those plum tomatoes I sell to Colonel Cathcart.”
“Buy,” Yossarian corrected him. “You don’t sell plum tomatoes to Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn. You buy plum tomatoes from them.”
“No, sell,” Milo corrected Yossarian. “I distribute my plum tomatoes in markets all over Pianosa under an assumed name so that Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn can buy them up from me under their assumed names at four cents apiece and sell them back to me the next day at five cents apiece. They make a profit of one cent apiece, I make a profit of three and a half cents apiece, and everybody comes out ahead.”
The Marine Security Guard program this week celebrated 70 years protecting U.S. diplomatic missions around the world. Happy Fourth of July to the Ambassadors in Blue.
Two books covering their service, one non-fiction, the other fiction:
Greg Matos’ Shattered Glass—The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard… recounts the December 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. How did it feel to be the Marine standing Post when five heavily armed terrorists stormed the compound, killing and wounding colleagues in the course of an hours-long siege? How did it feel to be responsible for protecting scores of U.S. and foreign diplomatic personnel serving the United States at a time when anti-American sentiment had reached new heights, thanks to the invasion of Iraq and protracted insurgency that followed?
And this: The 2nd World War had Catch-22. The War on Terror has 2 Pumps
In Two Pumps for the Body ManJeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again. Part soft-boiled noir, part literary satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man is an unserious look at a serious situation, a grim reminder that no matter how high the barricade, how sharp the razor wire, there is no front line to the War on Terror. And the enemy is everywhere, even within.
Anyone who thinks diplomacy is about choosing the right fork at the right time should think again and read James O’Callaghan’s clever satire No Circuses (Tacchino Press, 2015).
Forget preconceived notions of dinner-party diplomacy: keeping one’s elbows off the table, tangoing the rival into submission, and writing it up the next day in communiqués to DC. What diplomacy’s really about, in O’Callaghan’s world, is stopping that counter-productive visit by a lackluster VIP, infiltrating explosives via circus caravan past a military brigade, and joining a secessionist movement to secure the most coveted rank of all: Ambassador.
Diplomacy, here, is accepting the maxim that “Absurdity is demeaning only if one refuses to incorporate it.” Absurdity exists in abundance in O’Callaghan’s world, and by its sheer abundance O’Callaghan honors rather than mocks the men and women of the Foreign Service and the State Department.*
Views expressed here are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer
To wit: if our diplomatic corps can succeed despite such mountains of farce as are heaped upon them, imagine how much more they could do in its absence. I’m talking about a cadre of professionals charged with the most delicate, complex, and pressing issues of the day (negotiate for peace in Syria; stem the tide of global climate change; stamp out Ebola one day and pivot to Zika the next; establish trade agreements abroad to help businessmen pay workers a decent salary at home; etc ad infinitum.) yet made to do so on miserly budgets, subjected to petty oversights, and beset on all sides by quagmires of bureaucratic dos and don’ts.
In other words, our diplomats’ obstacles can amount to the absurd in the face of the urgent, and this absurdity is revealed in all its glory through the adventures of Max Lacey, O’Callaghan’s well-intentioned but eternally undermined Foreign Service Officer. Lacey serves in Alcalá, a provincial capital in the made-up but all-too-real Latin American country of Engañada (so named because “the Spanish explorers had been deceived by local guides, or something like that…”). It’s the 1970’s and the jungle is full of communists, protestors, hippies, back-stabbers, coup-makers, and scoundrels, with Lacey on his own there as director of the American cultural center. But he does have one asset at his fingertips: “His personnel officer had sent him the Foreign Service Guide to the Bi-National Center. Max found it pompous, bureaucratic, exhaustive, and reassuring… If they understand us, the Guide seemed confident, they will approve of our policies. To know us is to love us.”
*I’m the first to admit this line of reasoning departs from standard review practice, taking liberties with the writer’s intended purpose in using the absurd. Well, I’m compelled to digress on a professional point rather than an artistic one.
A lot of excuses have been made on behalf of Brian Williams since his fabrications went public last week. None of them are good. None of them can buy back the credibility every journalist requires as their professional stock in trade. But I was surprised to find one of the worst excuses in The New Yorker on Sunday, a piece titled Brian Williams and the God Complex.
I take exception to more than one point Ken Auletta makes along the way, but here’s his worst:
While the spotlight is on Williams’ transgressions, a word about the complicity of NBC and the other networks’ marketing machines. The networks have a stake in promoting their anchors as God-like figures… On his helicopter in Iraq, Williams was accompanied by an NBC crew. Did they not speak up to correct the record for fear of undermining the powerful anchor?
First, nobody is to blame for Williams’ transgressions other than Williams himself. He made these falsified claims on numerous occasions over several years, statements made with bloated self-importance and the intent to convince a viewership of his heartiness and bravery. But now we find in him the opposite: cowardice… he remains afraid of the truth. His performance last Wednesday, far from heartfelt apology, was just more spin, insincerity, and excuse making.
Second, in what hierarchical structure does “the crew” have latitude to “correct the record”? Does Auletta suggest that a cameraman should come forward publicly on his own, putting his livelihood in jeopardy? Another crew—the military crew flying Williams’ Chinook—had already been howling publicly for years about the falsehoods, to no avail. It might be fair to ask if a crewmember approached the NBC brass about the issue, but we’ve already learned from Auletta’s own argument that the network would have no interest in such claims. After all, he says, they have a stake in Williams’ God-like status.
Another excuse Auletta offers is that “The anchor is treated as the citizen’s trusted guide to the news. As a result, they can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God. It’s a short distance from there to telling fantastic stories—and maybe actually believing them.”
Maybe this pop psychology is true. But believing one’s own lies through repetition does not excuse mendacity. And in the case of an anchor—a journalist—it flies in the face of a core professional value. Rather than excuse Williams, this line of reasoning should serve to shame him further. A “trusted guide” is a position of humility, not omnipotence. It is a position of responsibility, not power.
None of this should have surprised me given the thin gruel with which the article began. At the outset Auletta compares Williams’ situation with that of former Miami Dolphins Quarterback Dan Marino: “I’m reminded of Marino because he just appeared on my TV screen as a pitchman for Nutrisystem”. So, this piece is driven by whimsy? By the chance appearance on TV of a disgraced celebrity? There is barely the thinnest of connections between an NFL star’s off-field philandering, and subsequent cover-up, and a trusted journalist’s blatant, repeated disregard for his professional code of ethics while on the job.
No, Williams’ case is less like Dan Marino’s, and more like that of Milli Vanilli, the 80’s pop stars who hopped around in black tights while pretending to sing, “Girl you know it’s true…” All performance, all show, all sizzle and no bacon. And now, we know, it just isn’t true.