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Book Review: by Lang Reid

Ghost Wars

A 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 book.

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.

Air America

One 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 earlier detractors.

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 non-existent.”

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.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Ghost Wars

Air America

The Missing Years