by Lang Reid
couple of weeks ago I reviewed Air America, an expose of the workings of
the CIA through the Air America airline. However, that was during and
after the Vietnam War, which is so long ago it is but history for the
younger members of our society.
This new book, Ghost Wars (ISBN 978-0-140102080-8, Penguin Books, 2004)
is about the CIA involvement in recent times, and in particular the
Pakistan/Afghanistan conflicts, and with Osama bin Laden having been
killed this year, it is highly topical.
The author is Steve Coll, an American journalist and this book won the
Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 2005. Coll’s attention to
the fine details is exemplary, and the reader is continually left
wondering just ‘how’ he managed to get the details, and following that
then get everything in chronological order. Julian Assange, Mr.
Wikileaks, may publish confidential reports, but Steve Coll weaves such
reports into a very credible story.
Modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan would not be high in my list of
places to visit, as after years of conflict with Russia, America,
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other ‘donor’ countries, the inherent lack of
cohesion in warring tribes continues. And this is the background to this
In actual fact, I found the book could be rather depressing, showing the
total sham that we as human beings can make of the so-called democratic
political system. Money is God. Money is the source spring of eternal
life. Money will fix everything. Fix everything other than the duplicity
of our societies. The money that the CIA could and has thrown around has
amounted to many billions of dollars - and all this is clandestine
‘largesse’, while at the same time people in the world are starving,
including Americans. Where is the morality? Indeed where, but it is
certain it is not in Langley at the CIA headquarters.
In one chapter author Coll quotes a CIA operative who says, “Can it
possibly be any better than buying bullets from the Chinese to use to
shoot Russians?” Morality? The Egyptians were selling arms and munitions
to the Americans that had been given to them by the Russians, while
Turkey sold the CIA 60,000 rifles of 1940-42 vintage. The fast buck no
matter what the hidden cost. As long as it remains hidden.
At B. 585 this is a weighty book, with more factual accounts than you
could ever imagine. It opens your eyes as to the sheer hypocrisy of
modern lifestyle. Corruption is not something Thailand developed.
Corruption is all the way through the first world as well as the third.
At the end of the almost 600 page book, there are around another 100
pages of Notes and Bibliography. It is not a weekend’s read unless you
get up early on Saturday, miss all meals and go to bed late on Sunday
night. It is riveting in its detail, and amazingly, author Coll has
managed to produce this book without being judgmental. He just lays out
the facts, and you will make the judgments yourself. Modern society will
be found guilty as charged, Your Honor.
book which has endured everything from denials, to blatant attacks on
the veracity of the book and the author, is Air America. On the
Bookazine shelves again is the sixth reprint of Christopher Robbins
original 1979 expose of Air America, the CIA’s secret airline and
published by Asia Books in Bangkok (ISBN 9-7897-4830-3).
In the introduction Robbins freely admits that after publication of the
original book he met with quite some resistance and opposition by some
Air America personnel, but over the years, their attitude towards him
had changed and the current edition has much added to it by some of his
Robbins should also be remembered for his book “The Ravens”, which was
reviewed some years ago, and this tome is in a similar vein. That the
CIA-owned Air America was at one stage the largest airline in the world,
will probably come as a shock for some people. That the CIA itself
didn’t even know how many planes it had would also come as a surprise to
many people - but not to those who flew for Air America - the world’s
most clandestine airline!
The airline’s motto was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime - Professionally”,
and the “anything” ranged from opium, guns, ammunition, spies and even
pet gibbons. The pilots themselves were drawn from many sections of
America, not just the armed forces, but to a man they all appeared to
share the same sense of bravado and devil take the hindermost attitude.
They were well paid, but the money was certainly not the motivation. As
Robbins writes, “For old combat fighters there is no psychic income
whatsoever sitting at the controls of a modern jet.”
The gradual involvement of the CIA in aviation was via the “back door”
through the Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration -
Air Transport (known colloquially as “CAT”) airline of General
Chennault, ostensibly to deny its assets to the Communist Chinese and
then became “legal” in 1949 when they formed the Civil Air Transport,
thus keeping the same initials.
Author Robbins additionally unearthed the amazing network of airlines
also owned in whole or in part by the CIA, with the planes able to be
loaned out to the other “wings” of the Agency. An interesting vignette
occurs when Air America began to make too much money, and in theory
would have to return the profits to the Federal Treasury, all of which
could produce some embarrassing questions in the house. The answer to
this was for the airlines to reinvest their profits back into
themselves, rather than declare it - which in turn led to the rapid
enlargement of the undercover fleet. And when we say “profit” we are
talking about 30 million dollars in the mid 60’s.
It is a weighty paperback and the review copy is B. 530, obtained from
the Royal Garden Plaza Bookazine outlet. In the center are some black
and white prints of some of the planes and pilots.
Like Robbins’ other book, this one gallops along at a great pace. I
followed it to the end with total absorption, and even the addendum
regarding the film of the same name.
The Missing Years
With constant conflicts and wars all around us, I remembered reading The
Missing Years (ISBN 9-7818-770-5877-6, Rosenberg Publishing, 2009) written
by Chiang Mai expat Stu Lloyd. A timeless book of times I wish we could
forget, but cannot. This book details the experiences of Captain Pilkington,
a POW in WWII from Changi prison in Singapore to Hellfire Pass in Thailand.
His period as a POW was four years - the “missing years” which author Stu
Lloyd has meticulously researched and documented to produce this book.
The book begins on February 14, 1942 with the memoirs of Captain Pilkington
who was in the Alexandra Military Hospital in Singapore, recuperating from
having been shot in the shoulder. He writes that he was living in a world of
fever and pain, but little did he know, as he wrote in his diary, that
worse, much worse, was to come.
What stands out from reading this book, is that no matter the privations and
cruelty, the POWs still managed to put on a brave face. As well as cholera
and dysentery, the POWs also suffered with beri-beri, lice, scabies and bed
bugs, tropical ulcers, diphtheria and malaria. “No more gallant action was
fought in the war than that of our desperately sick men, against death. Day
after day they willed themselves to live, knowing their chances were almost
Captain Pilkington was an avid book-keeper as he has the prices of all items
noted, right down to the final cent. It also was interesting that the POWs
were actually paid a “wage” and from that had to buy their own food. I must
admit, I had never thought of their existence in that way. However, they
were very skilled at growing crops wherever they were stationed.
I have never been a war buff. My father was also a POW, but I do not hold
grudges. It is the Geneva Convention that has me flummoxed. The “It is OK to
kill someone today, but because of some circumstances, not tomorrow,”
concept, is a situation that cannot morally be defended.
The final chapter is emotionally heart-rending, and it should be taken
slowly, there is so much emotion between the lines.
Writing and researching this book was obviously a watershed for author Stu
Lloyd who admitted at the end of it all, “…after years of vacillating
ambiguity - I am now firmly, undeniably, resolutely anti-war.” He went
further, writing, “Every gravestone is not just a casualty or statistic: it
is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s flesh and blood, a bundle of hopes
and dreams cruelly and prematurely dashed.”
This book will also make you look at yourself and your own attitudes. It
should be made compulsory reading for all teenagers, of all nationalities
and religious persuasions. We are all capable of atrocities, but surely we
can keep that side of our characters under control? However, when I read
about Iraq and Afghanistan I have to say we cannot. This grieves me.
Stu Lloyd’s book records a major milestone in the history of WW II. Asia
Books is handling distribution, so it may also appear in Bookazine.