Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Life During Wartime

(In a case of independent invention—you will have to trust me on this—Gaw and I were writing about roughly the same thing, and using the same vignette approach, at the same time. However, since my lag between conception and production is typically best measured using continental drift, this is coming in a very distant second. And not just in terms of the calendar.)

The last couple weeks have brought an avalanche of books and articles (scroll down a fair bit) about the collapse of first the Warsaw Pact, then the Soviet Union. Twenty-one years ago, the ugly, unshaven head of monolithic, hegemonic communism looked like going on forever, crushing souls every step of the way.

Twenty years ago, gone.

My children are 16 and 15. Despite the interval of a mere couple decades, that world, the one that had revolved around two diametrically opposed organizing principles, and under the ever present specter of nuclear war, is to them terra incognita, no more real, and perhaps more perplexing, than a badly plotted vampire novel. Indeed, for anyone on the sunny side of 45, that whole era scarcely registers.

For me, awareness started early, at age 5, in 1960. I was a preternatural reader. Some years afterwards, my dad told me of a time when we had gone to someone else's house for burger-burn. One of the moms there told my dad "Isn't he cute, he acts just like he is reading the newspaper." To which my dad said "Oh, but he is."

From nearly the outset, then, I didn't have the parental filter between me and the daily news. Even to an otherwise garden variety five year old, there was obviously something implacably awful about Communism.

Which put me one up on those who awarded the Pulitzer prize to Duranty, and a largish heap of liberal arts professors.

Throughout my tenure in grade school, we had air raid drills. The local civil defense alert siren would go off on the first Monday of the month at 10:00 am. We were to stop whatever we were doing, and crouch under our desks.

Having just read about the Cuban missile crisis, and nuclear weapons, I knew two things: it was going to happen and nothing, least of all those desks, was going to help.

Ten years later, I was alone at home when there was a sudden, earth splitting, ear shattering, roar. Knowing the war had started, I ran outside, looking in the direction of downtown LA for the mushroom cloud, knowing full well that death was only moments away.

Nothing. And no sign whatsoever of what had caused all that commotion.

Until the newspaper showed up the next day. For reasons I can't remember, some F-4 pilot did some flathatting, which included going right over my house at treetop level.

As an F-111 pilot, I played a walk-on part in the Cold War. It was a dangerous airplane, more inclined than any I have heard of to rip your head off and ram it down your throat. Handing that thing over to competitive young men in the throes of testosterone poisoning didn't help matters. With regularity that would now be appalling, but then routine, the machines and their crews got splattered across the landscape.

I am not proud to admit this, but their deaths accorded to the rest of us unearned glory.

But then, I suppose that is the fuel on which armies run.

My first tour in England started just after Maggie Thatcher became PM. England was then plagued by strikes and the likes of Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, and Michael Foote, all determined to nationalize the means of production.

I don't recall that troika apologizing for having less of a clue than a five year old.

A couple times a year, the base went on a week long exercise. The scenario was always the same, and mirrored NATO planning: The USSR invented some pretext, which led to the Warsaw Pact coming through the Fulda Gap, and then the rest of the inner German border, in overwhelming force. In short order, NATO's inferiority in men and materiel proved progressively inadequate to holding off the red horde, and as the exercise reached its end, the only alternative to abject surrender was total war.

Whereupon we would stop flying and do a load-out: two very real nuclear weapons on each airplane, destined for pre-planned targets in the the northwestern USSR.

Some guys joked that they would fly to the Azores instead, and be in charge of the world's only remaining nuclear power.

Me, I figured to roll inverted and take it nose first into the Baltic at 1000 mph.

In 1983, President Reagan was intent on putting nuclear armed Pershing missiles in Europe to counter the USSR's deployment of SS-20 IRBMs. This aroused no small amount of opposition from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for whom no amount of moral equivalence was too much.

At one point, they decided they were going to ring RAF Upper Heyford with protestors. They chose carefully: one of the Queen's roads went right through the center of the base, which meant the perimeter they needed to surround was much smaller than other American bases.

Our wing commander had other ideas. We were to report on Sunday evening with enough stuff to get us through a week. The CND might be able to close off the base, but they weren't going to stop us flying.

Our flying orders changed, too. Ordinarily, it was something like free play: takeoff, do stuff, and bring it back in a couple hours in a re-usable condition, and without phone calls. Instead, we were to be gone for just long enough to fill the minimum amount of currency squares, the spend rest of the fuel beating up the pattern.

Good Lord there were a lot of planes; more, really, than approach control, tower and some pilots were prepared to handle. I was flying an instrument approach, and had just been handed off to tower when I heard "Gambler 12, base, gear down, touch and go", which meant some guy had just come off the "perch", and was making a steep descending 180 degree turn towards the runway.

In theory, I had the right of way, and he should have come off the perch so as to roll out on final with sufficient distance behind me.

No harm in looking, though. Whereupon I saw the bottom of a 'vark that was going to hit me if I didn't do something about it. In truth, cleaning up, stroking a little afterburner and taking it around would have sufficed. Somehow, though, merely sufficing just wasn't enough. After all, getting more spacing by altering course to the right and using every bit of afterburner Pratt & Whitney put in the engines could be plausibly explained as, umm, a prudent response to a near mid-air.

As to the low altitude high speed pass right over the Queen's highway, well, that just couldn't be helped. And I insist I was saluting the protestors as I went by.

The CND packed it in on Tuesday. Coincidence? I think not.

Behind the Irony Curtain

In the summer of 1988 I visited East Berlin, the first time I had come into direct contact with communism. So, in a very real sense, until then I had been employed to oppose something read about, but not seen: a phantasm.

Going through Checkpoint Charlie really was like passing through the looking glass, getting a day pass to mingle with the prisoners. Everything was gray and shabby, including the people. Some buildings still showed the spray of machine gun fire from WWII. There was a big department store that had thousands of great deals on items not in stock. I went to the Soviet WWII memorial, and saw about the war from their point of view in the theatre there. The screen looked like it had once been a bed sheet, only grayer. Almost all the seats were broken, and the film had been repaired many times, probably with scotch tape. It needed one more time during my viewing, when the projector jammed. Among many things my kids will never have any direct experience with—slide rules and dial phones being two examples—is what a movie looks like when it stops: a frozen frame, then a slow darkening, then a brown circle becoming a white hole as the film melts.

After the movie, I went to Alexander Platz (in more shameless ripping off, scroll down for the picture). The most prominent feature there is the television tower. The ball at the top is reflective.

When the sun is out, its reflection looks just like the Christian cross.

The most overwhelming impression from my visit, even more than the pervasive shabbiness, was the sinking feeling that the Cold War would go on for decades.

Fifteen months later, it was essentially game over.

What should have been, in retrospect, extremely obvious was that if the Germans couldn't make communism work, no one could.

In mid-1989, before the wall fell, there was a clear sign the gig was up. Shortly after takeoff from an airbase in Poland, a Soviet MiG-23 suffered a compressor stall. Being a single engine fighter, the pilot punched out.

Whereupon the engine recovered, and the now pilotless airplane, apparently freedom loving, headed west. NATO's air defense radars spotted the plane while it was still over East Germany, and scrambled a pair of F-15s to intercept while trying to find out through the Berlin Joint Air Control Center (where Russians and Americans worked in the same room) what the heck was going on.

The Soviets had no clue; they thought the thing had crashed into the Baltic.

The Eagles followed the Flogger until it reached France. Ultimately, it ran out of gas and plunged into a French farm house, killing an 18 year old Belgian.

Coincidentally, the following week we got an in-depth intelligence briefing about the Warsaw Pact air defense system that had been months in the making.

The briefing's conclusion? Their air defenses were rated "excellent".

Where I become an international man of mystery.

Our intel briefings were duly warning us about two new and very dangerous Soviet surface-to-air missile systems, the SA-10 and the SA-12. The briefings included artist conceptions, labeled Top Secret, of the missiles and their launchers, which were roughly as detailed as a five year old might manage with crayons.

Which also happened to be around when I visited Prague. It was a warm late spring day, and all the strolling got me thirsty. I stepped into a 7-11sky for a Coke, and noticed on the magazine rack a military enthusiast magazine. On the cover was an up close color picture of an SA-12 on its launcher; inside were photos of the SA-10. I snapped it up for 275 persuaders (about 38 US cents), and proudly gave it to the intel folks when I got home.

The intel briefing the following week still had the top secret crayola drawings.

Then in August 1991 I visited Moscow and Leningrad. The most awful places I have ever been. I had read Hedrick Smith's book The Russians. Words failed him; they will fail me even more thoroughly.

In Moscow, the hotel for foreigners was the Космос, cryllic for Cosmos. Pronouncing Космос the way it looks like it is spelled gets closer to reality. The lobby, the size of a football field, had dustballs the size of rich ladies' poodles, and more prostitutes per square foot than anyplace else on Earth, including even Congress during the State of the Union address. I changed $20 US for rubles; thank goodness I didn't swap more, as those rubles were no more spendable than broken shoelaces. I noticed all the cars, crappy as they were, had no windshield wipers: to avoid theft, because there were none to be had, they were kept in the gloveboxes unless it was actually raining.

The hotel food was execrable. I soon found that having hard currency was a passport through the looking glass. On one side the Soviet Union: dingy, decrepit, aggressively ugly. On the other, the West, in the form of an Irish Pub, or Pizza Hut. The largest McDonalds in the world at the time was in Moscow: the line to get in the place was 300 yards long.

I wasn't prepared for how beautiful young Russian women are, and appalled by how quickly the workers' paradise ground them down. The human body is not built for standing in endless lines. I saw women in their thirties with varicose veins and open sores on their lower legs.

The coup was the day after I left. Even now I wonder if it was something I said.

Somewhere in my pile of photos awaiting the scanner is one of the last photographs of Dzerzhinsky's statue in front of the Lubyanka.

Shortly after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, a particularly good editorialist at the Times of London, whose name I wish I could remember, wrote a long piece, which I wish I could find, listing by name, twenty or so prominent intellectuals who were apologists for, and sympathizers with, the soul crushing awfulness of communism.

I don't think one of them apologized for having less sense than a five year old, either.


Blogger Brit said...

Fantastic post, Skip.

December 15, 2009 4:29 AM  
Blogger erp said...

What Brit said.

December 15, 2009 5:59 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

You were apparently quite a sophisticated 5 year old. I was always naturally skeptical of most things, and I assumed that the media stories of how bad things were in the USSR and east bloc were just propaganda. I was also somewhat skeptical of all the young leftists around me who insisted it was paradise.

In 1984 I had the opportunity to travel to Hungary and Czechoslovakia (still one country then) to see for myself. Yes, it was terrible there. As Hey Skipper says, there were still bullet holes everywhere, everything was dark, dirty, and in a state of disrepair. But the worst thing was that the people were all despondent, deep in despair. Nobody ever smiled. It was like they were all living in a nightmare.

Which they were.

Socialism sucks. If you haven't seen it with your own eyes, you'll never grasp how deeply it sucks.

December 15, 2009 9:31 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...


Two points:

1. I keep hearing about those duck and cover drills. By golly, I was in school for 14 years, and except once, during the Cuban missile crisis, we never had them.

2. I am also puzzled about people who were told about the workers' paradise. Who told them? What I recall was that a Polish miner worked all day with only a piece of bread smeared with lard for lunch.

December 15, 2009 10:32 AM  
Blogger erp said...

... media stories of how bad things were in the USSR and east bloc were just propaganda.

Bret, what media was this? I never read anything but glorious workers' paradise stuff, but like Skipper, I was a precocious and voracious reader and figured it out for myself.

I was an adult before I heard first-hand how bad it was from relatives who left Albania during the 80's. Many of them had studied in Moscow and other eastern bloc cities and theirs was the same story as others have told, they suffered the most from a dreary lack of hope, laughter, brightness ...

Harry, I remember routine air raid drills and getting under our desks too. That was during the 40's. I'm surprised Skipper experienced them since he's decades younger than I.

December 15, 2009 10:51 AM  
Blogger Gaw said...

Absolutely fascinating Skip. Insights of real historical value in my view. A memoir perhaps?

Have you read JG Ballard's 'Kindness of Women'? Some of your sketches reminded me of scenes in this autobiographical novel where the hero spends some time as a nuclear bomber pilot.

I was in East Berlin in 1988 too, Alexanderplatz in fact. It was a like caricature of how awful communism was supposed to be. The CIA couldn't have set it up in any more illustrative fashion. And this was the showcase!

There's an excellent book of essays on communism that provides a good overview of the trahison des clercs you refer to at the end:


BTW I think you must have been a scary kid.

December 15, 2009 1:39 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I assumed that the media stories of how bad things were in the USSR and east bloc were just propaganda.

Back in the day, we got a weekly publication called something along the lines of "Soviet Press Review". It was full of the most scurrilous lies and distortions. Never mind writing so stilted and dull that it would deaden a mortuary.

That immediately raised the question: Is everything I read about the Soviet Union just as false? I didn't think it likely, since the writing wasn't as awful.

Despite having read "The Russians", I was completely unprepared for the completely pervasive decay; moral and physical. I could have gone on for another 10,000 words on a post already too long, but without hope of conveying even a small portion of the reality.

Gaw's post, the one I linked to at the top, includes a link to a post-Soviet photo site. Don't miss it.


We (in Southern California) did duck & cover at least through third grade, which for me was in 1963.

December 15, 2009 1:43 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Eagar;

Here's a book that answers your question.

December 15, 2009 1:54 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Have you read JG Ballard's 'Kindness of Women'?

No. However, putting on my clairvoyance hat, I get this warm tingly feeling that a Kindle is going to be under the Christmas tree. So I will read it soon, as well as TLS Companion.


I think perhaps the most difficult thing to convey to my kids is the pervading sense of dread that simply disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I clearly remember the relief that increased with every news broadcast starting in the summer of 1989. But the relief makes no sense without knowing what went before. Good for them.

December 15, 2009 2:15 PM  
Blogger Bret said...


We were still doing air raid drills in 1966 in upstate New York.

December 15, 2009 2:39 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

erp asks: "...what media was this? I never read anything but glorious workers' paradise stuff"

Good question, especially since I didn't read the papers much as a child or even teen. So I'm not sure what media. However, given that we were doing air raid drills in case the Russians nuked us, how could I have come to any conclusion except that the Russians were evil? It's no fun being nuked after all. Also, though I was very young, I seem to remember the TV news coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis being anti-Soviet. Maybe not, though.

December 15, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

This is what I remember being said: Obsession.

Possibly I hung out with the wrong crowd, but in my whole life I can remember only one person who claimed that Russia was an admirable place, but I didn't pay too much attention to him because he thought he was the son of God.

December 15, 2009 2:59 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Eagar;

Look here for some quotes on the subject by Paul Samuelson. Or is he too obscure to count?

Here's the best one —

"[T]he Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and thrive." [1989]

Note carefully the date on that.

December 16, 2009 7:27 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It was certainly stupid to say that the people of eastern Europe are not miserable, although they were miserable before communism, too.

However, since the thrust of that article is that Samuelson was well past his sell-by date in '89, I'm not sure you are making your point.

The '81 quote is, to my mind, far more damning. But Samuelson is a city boy. I will not fault you for not keeping in mind my longstanding (since I first studied agricultural economics in the '60s) criticism of the Soviet system, which is that it never created a workable agricultural policy, but in general, economists do not get farming.

December 16, 2009 10:09 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I think I am. Samuelson was a major public figure who wrote text books for large sections of American public education with this very thing embedded in it. So it was hardly an obscure point of view.

I am not sure why I should keep your personal objections to the Soviet system in mind — how does that affect what public figures like Samuelson were saying about it?

December 16, 2009 12:18 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I think I am. Samuelson was a major public figure who wrote text books for large sections of American public education with this very thing embedded in it. So it was hardly an obscure point of view.

I minored in economics. I remember Samuelson well.

AOG is exactly, precisely, hitting-the-nail-on-the-head right.

Amazing, for a kid.

December 16, 2009 8:01 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Most of the Econ 101 teachers at Cow College used Samuelson, but the one I had used some off-brand text. I cannot recall what it was.

At any rate, it was innocent of admiration for marxism of any sort.

I will take your word for it that Samuelson was a closet commie, but will be surprised. Cow College was a rightwing place. (One reason I am so amused when people claim that the academy is uniformly leftist. Cow College was a low prestige place, but it harbored the co-editor of Journal of Economic History, which is where I got most of my econ background.)

December 16, 2009 8:18 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

We're not claiming Samuelson was a closet communist. We're claiming he was one of many public figures who touted the economic success of Soviet Communism. This is all in answer to your question

"2) I am also puzzled about people who were told about the workers' paradise. Who told them?"

Your view seems to be that since you, personally, didn't notice, it didn't happen. I am providing a specific very high profile counter-example, along with a book full of other counter-examples.

December 16, 2009 10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best post ever, Skipper. Many thanks.

We all know the long, sordid story of leftist fellow travellers praising the Soviet Union, Mao, etc., but it can still be jarring to witness it first hand. In the eighties I spent a couple of years with the foreign ministry and visited the old Soviet Union about half a dozen times times--awful place. The first was to accompany a group of M.P.'s to a meeting in Moscow of international parliamentarians on the Arctic. The Russians pulled out all the stops and we were were given royal treatment. One evening, we decided to take the fabled subway to the Bolshoi and it was a grim ride indeed-- crowded, smelly and gray. Everyone was dressed shabbily and staring at the floor, not daring to talk or look at anyone else, certainly not at foreigners. One of my charges was a pompous, big-mouthed, European-born leftist "intellectual" M.P., probably the stupidest educated man I have ever met. At the end of the ride, he looked at a thoroughly depressed me and said "You can tell these people are very deep", as if they had all been contemplating Pushkin instead of trying to appear invisible. On another trip escorting a group of leftist NGO's to a "peace conference", I watched them slam the U.S. and the West all day long and then seek out the hard currency shops for beer and booze for the evening party.

Just recently, a perfectly decent colleague at my office went to Cuba for a week's holiday. I was hassling him fairly lightly about supporting totalitarianism, but he thought it was a great place and had been several times. He told me he found the place safe (I'll bet!) and the people very nice and friendly. He appeared never to have connected this to the police or the pathetic need to curry favour with rich tourists. His best line that that, althought it was true they were poor, they were "equitably poor", and that made all the difference. I was so stunned the only thing I could say is that I preferred visiting Florida because it was inequitably wealthy.

There is a very deep moral corruption behind this blindness.

December 17, 2009 1:22 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

"...they were "equitably poor"..."

Fidel is worth how many billions? Exactly how is that equitable? Did your perfectly decent colleague have an answer for that?

December 17, 2009 8:00 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I guess I have led a sheltered life. With the exception of the sister of a woman I worked with, who went with the Venceramos Brigade to chop cane in the '70s (once), I never encountered such people. I don't dispute that they exist, but like the Lovestoneites and tree frogs, I believe they make more noise than their actual numbers would lead one to expect.

'He told me he found the place safe (I'll bet!)'

I recall Time reporting that in Franco's Spain a tourist whose wallet was lost or stolen could pick it up at the nearest police post.

December 17, 2009 12:22 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Best post ever, Skipper. Many thanks.

Thank you, that is very kind, but I disagree. Peter's World is far better.

There is a very deep moral corruption behind this blindness.

The truly mystifying thing is how apparently intelligent people (for just one example) fell for that deep moral corruption in the first place.

December 17, 2009 12:37 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'The truly mystifying thing is how apparently intelligent people (for just one example) fell for that deep moral corruption in the first place.'

Not so mysterious to me. Or, at least, no more mysterious than why 75 million American Catholics are still Catholic.

And while this next doesn't apply to fellow travelers, comsymps and the occasional actual commie in the west, it does to Polish professors: You guys measure badness as the difference between Stalinism (or, in Skipper's case, Brezhnevism) and Americanism, because you know Americanism.

Polish professors measure the difference between communism and Polish non-communism, and the difference is not so obvious to them.

December 18, 2009 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which may prove that Polish professors are no better grounded in realty than their American counterparts.

Harry, why does the left continue to hang on to these untenable comparisons born of historical exaggeration? Do you really believe that access to crappy medical care and and state indoctrination of the young mitigates mass murder, political terror, souless regimentation in everything, forced labour, decrepit living conditions, the destruction/outlawing of the spiritual, the stifling of all dissent and chronic material want? Do you seriously doubt that 20th century Russia and Poland would have provided much better medical care and education had they never gone communist? Everybody else did.

December 20, 2009 1:54 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't think it justifies anything. You are not thinking historically.

The ancien regime in eastern Europe or China, or the colonial regime in Vietnam, offered the people so little that they were willing to suffer unbelievably to be rid of them.

Sure, any of them would have been better as modern democracies, but that doesn't seem to have been an option.

'Everybody else did.' Not true.

There's not much anybody wants to say in favor of Ghadafi, but he did eradicate malaria in Libya, which neither the Italians nor America's client Idris thought worthwhile.

You don't overestimate how bad the bolsheviks were, but you underestimate how bad the antibolsheviks were.

December 20, 2009 11:12 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

That overlooks the minor point that South Vietnam was overcome by external conquest, not internal dissent. The massive post-conquest exodus might have been a clue for those paying attention.

December 20, 2009 4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's not much anybody wants to say in favor of Ghadafi, but he did eradicate malaria in Libya


C'mon, Harry.

December 20, 2009 5:32 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Malaria world-wide could have been eradicated fifty plus years ago had we not caved in to an earlier scam/scare.

December 20, 2009 5:43 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Unlikely, erp. But it sure could have been better controlled.

External conquest and internal dissent. It was a massive exodus, all right, but not of democrats. If that had been the case, there might have been some hope for a South Vietnamese democracy after the original massive exodus to the south.

Peter, do you have something against eradicating malaria? I believe it is good Juddian doctrine that people will swap all sorts of intangible goods for something like freedom from a horrible disease, if that's the tradeoff they are offered.

I could go further. Revolutionary Iran is among the countries that have eradicated guinea worm, something America's client the shah found not worthwhile.

The choice has never been between bolshevism and Canada, but between bolshevism and something else. The something else frequently had few attractions.

December 20, 2009 10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Harry, eradicating malaria and making the trains run on time are good stuff.

December 21, 2009 2:49 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not everybody agrees with you about malaria, it seems.

Look at this map and think in terms of income and see if you accept that:

'Where malaria is found depends mainly on climatic factors such as temperature, humidity, and rainfalls'

December 22, 2009 12:35 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry the areas showing malaria on your map are the very ones that needed DDT the most. Millions die needlessly to make a bunch of mostly wealthy envirowhackoes feel good about themselves.

December 22, 2009 1:15 PM  

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