February 2008

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
I've always been amused by those overwrought conspiracy theories which paint the CIA as the spider at the centre of a web of intrigue, subversion, skullduggery, and ungentlemanly conduct stretching from infringements of the rights of U.S. citizens at home to covert intrusion into internal affairs in capitals around the globe. What this outlook, however entertaining, seemed to overlook in my opinion is that the CIA is a government agency, and millennia of experience demonstrate that long-established instruments of government (the CIA having begun operations in 1947) rapidly converge upon the intimidating, machine-like, and ruthless efficiency of the Post Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles. How probable was it that a massive bureaucracy, especially one which operated with little Congressional oversight and able to bury its blunders by classifying documents for decades, was actually able to implement its cloak and dagger agenda, as opposed to the usual choke and stagger one expects from other government agencies of similar staffing and budget? Defenders of the CIA and those who feared its menacing, malign competence would argue that while we find out about the CIA's blunders when operations are blown, stings end up getting stung, and moles and double agents are discovered, we never know about the successes, because they remain secret forever, lest the CIA's sources and methods be disclosed.

This book sets the record straight. The Pulitzer prize-winning author has covered U.S. intelligence for twenty years, most recently for the New York Times. Drawing on a wealth of material declassified since the end of the Cold War, most from the latter half of the 1990s and afterward, and extensive interviews with every living Director of Central Intelligence and numerous other agency figures, this is the first comprehensive history of the CIA based on the near-complete historical record. It is not a pretty picture.

Chartered to collect and integrate information, both from its own sources and those of other intelligence agencies, thence to present senior decision-makers with the data they need to formulate policy, from inception the CIA neglected its primary mission in favour of ill-conceived and mostly disastrous paramilitary and psychological warfare operations deemed “covert”, but which all too often became painfully overt when they blew up in the faces of those who ordered them. The OSS heritage of many of the founders of the CIA combined with the proclivity of U.S. presidents to order covert operations which stretched the CIA's charter to its limits and occasionally beyond combined to create a litany of blunders and catastrophe which would be funny were it not so tragic for those involved, and did it not in many cases cast long shadows upon the present-day world.

While the clandestine service was tripping over its cloaks and impaling itself upon its daggers, the primary intelligence gathering mission was neglected and bungled to such an extent that the agency provided no warning whatsoever of Stalin's atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into that conflict, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and more. The spider at the centre of the web appears to have been wearing a blindfold and earplugs. (Oh, they did predict both the outbreak and outcome of the Six Day War—well, that's one!)

Not only have the recently-declassified documents shone a light onto the operations of the CIA, they provide a new perspective on the information from which decision-makers were proceeding in many of the pivotal events of the latter half of the twentieth century including Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the past and present conflicts in Iraq. This book completely obsoletes everything written about the CIA before 1995; the source material which has become available since then provides the first clear look into what was previously shrouded in secrecy. There are 154 pages of end notes in smaller type—almost a book in itself—which expand, often at great length, upon topics in the main text; don't pass them up. Given the nature of the notes, I found it more convenient to read them as an appendix rather than as annotations.


[Audiobook] Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Cęsars. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004. ISBN 978-1-929718-39-9.
Anybody who thinks the classics are dull, or that the cult of celebrity is a recent innovation, evidently must never have encountered this book. Suetonius was a member of the Roman equestrian order who became director of the Imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then personal secretary to his successor, Hadrian. He took advantage of his access to the palace archives and other records to recount the history of Julius Cæsar and the 11 emperors who succeeded him, through Domitian, who was assassinated in A.D. 96, by which time Suetonius was an adult.

Not far into this book, I exclaimed to myself, “Good grief—this is like People magazine!” A bit further on, it became apparent that this Roman bureaucrat had penned an account of his employer's predecessors which was way too racy even for that down-market venue. Suetonius was a prolific writer (most of his work has not survived), and his style and target audience may be inferred from the titles of some of his other books: Lives of Famous Whores, Greek Terms of Abuse, and Physical Defects of Mankind.

Each of the twelve Cæsars is sketched in a quintessentially Roman systematic fashion: according to a template as consistent as a PowerPoint presentation (abbreviated for those whose reigns were short and inconsequential). Unlike his friend and fellow historian of the epoch Tacitus, whose style is, well, taciturn, Suetonius dives right into the juicy gossip and describes it in the most explicit and sensational language imaginable. If you thought the portrayal of Julius and Augustus Cæsar in the television series “Rome” was over the top, if Suetonius is to be believed, it was, if anything, airbrushed.

Whether Suetonius can be believed is a matter of some dispute. From his choice of topics and style, he clearly savoured scandal and intrigue, and may have embroidered upon the historical record in the interest of titillation. He certainly took omens, portents, prophecies, and dreams as seriously as battles and relates them, even those as dubious as marble statues speaking, as if they were documented historical events. (Well, maybe they were—perhaps back then the people running the simulation we're living in intervened more often, before they became bored and left it to run unattended. But I'm not going there, at least here and now….) Since this is the only extant complete history of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, the books of Tacitus covering that period having been lost, some historians have argued that the picture of the decadence of those emperors may have been exaggerated due to Suetonius's proclivity for purple prose.

This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 13 hours and 16 minutes. The 1957 Robert Graves translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin, whose narration of Julius Cæsar's Commentaries (August 2007) I so enjoyed. The Graves translation gives dates in B.C. and A.D. along with the dates by consulships used in the original Latin text. Audio CD and print editions of the same translation are available. The Latin text and a public domain English translation dating from 1913–1914 are available online.


Rutler, George William. Coincidentally. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8245-2440-1.
This curious little book is a collection of the author's essays on historical coincidences originally published in Crisis Magazine. Each explores coincidences around a general theme. “Coincidence” is defined rather loosely and generously. Consider (p. 160), “Two years later in Missouri, the St. Louis Municipal Bridge was dedicated concurrently with the appointment of England's poet laureate, Robert Bridges. The numerical sum of the year of his birth, 1844, multiplied by 10, is identical to the length in feet of the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware River.”

Here is paragraph from p. 138 which illustrates what's in store for you in these essays.

Odd and tragic coincidences in maritime history render a little more plausible the breathless meters of James Elroy Flecker (1884–1915): “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea.” That sea haunts me too, especially with the realization that Flecker died in the year of the loss of 1,154 lives on the Lusitania. More odd than tragic is this: the United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (in H. L. Mencken's estimation “The National Tear-Duct”) officially protested the ship's sinking on May 13, 1915 which was the 400th anniversary, to the day, of the marriage of the Duke of Suffolk to Mary, the widow of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, after she had spurned the hand of the Archduke Charles. There is something ominous even in the name of the great hydrologist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set the standards for water purification: Thomas Drown (1842–1904). Swinburne capitalized on the pathos: “… the place of the slaying of Itylus / The feast of Daulis, the Thracian sea.” And a singularly melancholy fact about the sea is that Swinburne did not end up in it.
I noted several factual errors. For example, on p. 169, Chuck Yeager is said to have flown a “B-51 Mustang” in World War II (the correct designation is P-51). Such lapses make you wonder about the reliability of other details, which are far more arcane and difficult to verify.

The author is opinionated and not at all hesitant to share his acerbic perspective: on p. 94 he calls Richard Wagner a “master of Nazi elevator music”. The vocabulary will send almost all readers other than William F. Buckley (who contributed a cover blurb to the book) to the dictionary from time to time. This is not a book you'll want to read straight through—your head will end up spinning with all the details and everything will dissolve into a blur. I found a chapter or two a day about right. I'd sum it up with Abraham Lincoln's observation “Well, for those who like that sort of thing, I should think it is just about the sort of thing they would like.”