In this engaging real-life spy story, Macintyre (Double Cross) pulls back the curtain on the life and exploits of Kim Philby, who served for decades in Britain's intelligence community while secretly working as a Soviet double agent. Macintyre covers the full range of Philby's career, from his work during WWII and the early years of the Cold War to his downfall and defection to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Macintyre widens his scope to look at Philby's closest allies and friends, including fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliot and CIA operative James Jesus Angleton—the men who stood by him when all others were convinced of his as-yet-unproven guilt. Working with colorful characters and an anything-can-happen attitude, Macintyre builds up a picture of an intelligence community chock-full of intrigue and betrayal, in which Philby was the undisputed king of lies. There's a measure of admiration in the text for Philby's run of luck and audacious accomplishments, as when he was actually placed in charge of anti-Soviet intelligence: "The fox was not merely guarding the henhouse but building it, running it, assessing its strengths and frailties, and planning its future construction." Entertaining and lively, Macintyre's account makes the best fictional thrillers seem tame. Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Ltd. (Aug.)
For anyone who's unfamiliar with the terrain of pop music, critic Stanley's survey offers a solid introduction to many facets of popular music. While fans of musicians mentioned will not find much new, the author nevertheless provides an intriguing view of the shifting ground of pop music. Of the Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, for example, he writes: Buckingham's guitar "felt like a continuation of the Macs that had gone before... they still felt like a walk beside a seashore on a windy day, collar pulled up against the spray." Paul Revere and the Raiders' "noise was the most commercially successful variant of garage punk." Stanley covers every musical style that makes up pop music, including country and western, new wave, hip hop, and grunge, and he devotes individual chapters to groups and individuals—the Monkees, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna—that changed the shape of pop music. In the end, he observes, that "pop music doesn't have the desirability it once had; it's not as wantable." (July)
American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant By Ann Scott Tyson William Morrow, 384 pages
Nearly 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced many stories of heroism and selfless service among American troops. There have also been a few stories of stupidity and even criminality. No stranger story has emerged from the past decade, however, than that of Major James K. Gant, an Army Special Forces officer whose exploits in Afghanistan have been compared to those of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Colonel Kurtz, the renegade Special Forces officer played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (derived from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).
Repeatedly decorated for heroism and congratulated by his superiors on his pathbreaking work reaching out to the tribes of eastern Afghanistan, Gant was ultimately stripped of his coveted Special Forces tab and kicked out of the Army at a reduced rank after being found guilty of a bevy of offenses. Those included having his reporter-girlfriend, Ann Scott Tyson, of the Washington Post, living with him and his team in a small Afghan village.
In American Spartan, Tyson, who has since left the Post and married Gant, tries to rehabilitate her husband’s reputation and indict his superiors for “betraying” him (as the subtitle has it). It is a fascinating and improbable story that she has to tell, and it is to her credit that she does not stint on recounting Gant’s many woes and foibles along with his bravery and dedication. If this book were to be made into a movie, Gant should be played by Matthew McConaughey, because he recalls no one as much as “Rust” Cohle, the troubled but brilliant police officer that McConaughey played in HBO’sTrueDetective.
Jim Gant first enlisted in the Army as a private in 1986 and soon became a Green Beret, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces. He served in the 1991 Gulf War but did not see real combat until the 2003 Iraq War, by which time he had gone to college and become a Special Forces officer. Influenced by Steven Pressfield’s popular novel Gates of Fireabout the Battle of Thermopylae, he had become a devotee of Sparta’s warrior ethos. “It spoke to me like the Bible,” he said of Gates of Fire. As a sign of his newfound enthusiasm, he had the Greek letter lambda, standing for the Spartan homeland of Laconia, tattooed on his left forearm.
His philosophy, as expressed to his men, was this: “I believe war is a gift from God…I am not a patriot or a mercenary. I fight to fight…I believe if you want to kill, you must be willing to die. I am willing to do both, whatever the situation calls for.” This was a far cry from the more politically acceptable mantra favored by the modern U.S. Armed Forces—that, as Douglas MacArthur put it, “the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds of war.” Gant loved war with reckless and self-destructive abandon.
In 2007, leading a team (call sign: Spartan) advising an Iraqi National Police battalion, Gant proved himself as stout a warrior as any of his ancient heroes. One day, his Humvee hit an IED, flipped over twice, and burst into flames. He was knocked unconscious and barely saved from certain death by the Iraqi police he was mentoring. Yet 11 days later, after being released from the hospital, he returned to the scene of the attack and taunted the insurgents via loudspeaker, telling them to bring out “your whore daughters and your whore mother” so he could make love to them properly because “I’m sure you guys really don’t know how.”
As this episode shows, Gant is the type to go looking for trouble. He would rather clear IEDs by hand than wait for explosive-ordnance disposal teams to arrive, and he would sometimes ride on the hood of his Humvee, where he was completely exposed to attack, so that he could better spot hidden bombs.
By the time Gant got home in July 2007 after 13 months in Iraq, he had a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest decoration for “gallantry in action”—and a massive case of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He drank all day and barely ate. He became addicted to Percocet and used cocaine. He cut himself and had trouble sleeping because “nightmares made him cry out and sit up in bed.” He was even hearing voices in his head.
“Jim scared a lot of people,” Tyson admits. Not she; a veteran war correspondent and mother of four, Tyson had become as used to combat as Gant had. Separated from her then-husband, she fell for Gant, who was in the process of getting divorced from his own wife. In a disturbing show of devotion, he wrote “I love you Meena” (his pet name for her) in his own blood on an Afghan scarf.
In October 2009, Gant wrote a 45-page paper called “One Tribe at a Time” advocating tribal engagement as a cornerstone of American strategy in Afghanistan. The paper caught the attention of such senior commanders as General David Petraeus, and before long Gant was put in charge of a tribal-engagement team tasked with testing his ideas in the field. (Why he was allowed to deploy despite suffering from myriad mental problems is a question that goes unaddressed in Tyson’s book, but it should be examined by the appropriate authorities.)
After some bureaucratic back and forth, Gant and his small team were eventually sent to the village of Mangwel in insurgent-infested Konar Province, near the border with Pakistan, an area where he had previously served in 2003–2004. Gant and his men lived without the sort of amenities that U.S. troops have become accustomed to on large Forward Operating Bases where gigantic gyms, post exchanges, and chow halls are the norm. They had crude outhouses and no running water, they slept on cots inside canvas tents, and they ate beans, rice, and flatbread. Instead of complaining about such conditions, Gant embraced them. They enabled his men to live closer to the people they were seeking to recruit as Afghan local police. Upon first arriving in Mangwel, he told his team: “We need security…Your top priority is to set up a heated tent for the arbakai(militia) so they can rest as comfortably as you did last night.” He believed that true security lay not in putting up blast walls (the approach favored by most U.S. commanders) but in tearing down the cultural barriers that separated him from the Afghans.
Gant embraced the local Pashtuns and their unsparing code of honor—Pushtanwali, similar to the code of ancient Sparta. He became so close to village elder Noor Afzhal of the Mohmand tribe (whom he called “Sitting Bull”) that he was inducted as an elder of the tribe. Thanks to this relationship, Gant was able to mobilize dozens and then hundreds of Afghan local police to take back the area from the Taliban. Starting with the Mohmands, he gradually worked his way out to recruit neighboring tribes. Few if any other Special Forces officers had as much success recruiting Afghan local police or setting up so-called village-stability operations—and Gant did it with a team composed largely of regular soldiers not Green Berets.
And then Gant’s world came crashing down. In March 2012, his Special Forces superiors relieved him from command and lodged a variety of charges against him. Many claims, among them that he had misused government funds, turned out to be entirely unfounded. Like other hard-charging officers, Gant had used the money at his disposal to get the job done without waiting for bureaucratic permission, which would never have come in time; but neither he nor his men pocketed any funds. Other charges were true. Gant regularly drank alcohol in violation of General Order Number 1, although Tyson argues that such practices are commonplace among Special Forces in the field. One element of Gant’s rap sheet was unique: Tyson’s living with him for part of his time in Afghanistan.
Tyson claims that her presence was beneficial because it showed the tribes that Gant trusted them enough to bring his “wife” (as he called her, even though they were not yet married) to live with them. She was also able to communicate with local women, which Gant and other male soldiers were strictly forbidden to do. But there is no doubt that Tyson’s presence was a violation of all regulations and common sense. Gant assumed an insane amount of risk by secretly living with his girlfriend, especially since the Taliban got wind of her presence. One can only imagine what a nightmare it would have been if she had been captured or killed. Tyson herself crossed journalistic lines by sleeping with a source and becoming part of the story she was covering.
Perhaps the biggest cost of their unusual living arrangement was that, as Tyson herself acknowledges, Gant “bore the overwhelming responsibility of having the woman he loved in a war zone.” This was yet another burden added to his already fragile psyche. Tyson writes that after Gant had spent nearly two years in Afghanistan, his “nerves were frayed.” He could sleep only “with the heavy use of sleeping pills, usually mixed with a little liquor.” One night he wandered into his team’s operations center, picked up a rifle, stuck the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Luckily for him, the rifle was unloaded, but this incident suggests that, contra Tyson, Gant should have been relieved of command earlier than was the case.
Unfortunately, the more conventionally minded advisers who replaced him effectively destroyed the tribal militia Gant had mobilized. They insisted on wearing full body armor to eat with the Afghans and generally showed they did not trust them as Gant had. Sensing the lack of faith, the Afghan militiamen went home and a promising initiative was squandered.
Tyson’s recounting of her husband’s story is a bit disjointed, especially in the beginning, when she hopscotches between Gant’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, his early years, and her own experiences. The narrative picks up steam as the book goes along. By the end it makes for gripping reading. You are often left wondering: “What crazy thing will Gant do next?”
Jim Gant had much the same strengths and weaknesses as such unorthodox British officers as Lawrence and Orde Wingate: They were geniuses at unconventional warfare in no small part because they were so unconventional themselves, to the point that their sanity was sometimes in question. The challenge for the U.S. military is to cultivate such eccentrics while at the same time reining in their excesses. That is a difficult balancing act, but essential so long as the United States needs to harness local proxies, including tribal fighters, to oppose al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and other enemies in unstable and chaotic lands where we have no desire to place our own troops in large numbers.
About the Author
Max Boot, a regular contributor to Commentary’s blog, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.
Tom Rachman’sfirst novel, The Imperfectionists, chronicled the demise of an English-language newspaper in Rome from the points of view of 11 of the paper’s employees. In loosely linked, expertly wrought chapters, Rachman spun a series of sinister vignettes about the dark side of human ambition, each one garnished with a twist in the tale. The Imperfectionists was an international bestseller in 2010 and justly celebrated by reviewers. “I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high,” wrote Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review. Buckley needn’t have worried. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Rachman’s second novel, is no sophomore slump. It is so accomplished, so original, and so different from The Imperfectionists that it elevates its author into the first rank.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers doesn’t need 11 protagonists; its heroine, Tooly (née Matilda) Zylberberg, contains multitudes. In an opening sequence of rapid-fire flashbacks, Rachman divides her into three. We are introduced to Tooly at 32, as the contented owner of an impossibly quaint bookshop in Wales. We meet Tooly at 20, a charming grifter adrift in Manhattan). And we come upon sweet, vivacious Tooly at nine, acting cute on a plane as she emigrates to Bangkok. In every scene, our heroine is quirky and adorable, a cheerful, sunny soul. Yet at all three locations and points in time, there’s an undercurrent of wrongness, a faint whiff of murk.
Nine-year-old Tooly lives with a nervous, reticent man named Paul, who treats her with terrified caution. (“He shook her hand, as was his morning custom…Even passing the salt, Paul avoided her fingers, placing the shaker close to, rather than in, Tooly’s hands.”) Her mother is out of the picture—Tooly and Paul have a trumped up story for any “outsiders” who ask—and Paul moves the two of them to a different country every year, which seems awfully fishy. Though nothing Paul does is inappropriate, and Tooly herself seems unconcerned, it’s impossible for the reader not to feel anxious. Is Paul her legitimate guardian, or is he some kind of kidnapper, grooming his unsuspecting nine-year-old charge (in Bangkok, no less) for sinister pursuits?
Twenty-year-old New York-based Tooly is equally worrisome. She’s still adorable, with mismatched sneakers and madcap ways, but she misuses her feminine wiles to seduce a perfectly nice young man named Duncan and weasel her way into his circle of grad-school friends. Duncan is in love with her, but she’s indifferent. Even worse, she plans to trick him out of his inheritance once she gets the chance.
Thanks to Rachman’s trifurcated plot, we already know that everything turns out okay. After all, we’ve met Tooly at 32, so we know she makes it out of both Thailand and New York, and grows up to be the proprietress of a Welsh bookstore, not a prostitute or criminal. Still, for most of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the reader frets. Big Tooly is suspiciously incurious about her about her past, which suggests she’s repressing something foul.
We’ve already determined Little Tooly is a blank slate: so feckless, so innocent, and completely at the mercy of various confusing and unpredictable adults. First is Paul; then there’s a terrifyingly glamorous woman named Sarah, who plucks Tooly out of school one day and takes her on a mad adventure in Bangkok. They eat mangos and rice from a stall, ride motorbikes, and set a cage full of kingfishers free in the wild animal market. “I’m stealing you,” Sarah says, to Tooly’s baffled glee.
Sarah introduces Tooly to an old Russian bibliophile named Humphrey, who teaches her to play chess and praises her intellect. (“You know who you are reminding me of?” he says. “John Stuart Mill. He was child prodigy like you, always eating watermelon.”) Then she installs Tooly in a warehouse filled with call girls, drug addicts, and shady characters of all stripes. Tooly follows them around, as placid and obedient as a puppy. Finally, Sarah presents Tooly to Venn, a mysterious petty con-man who’s the ringleader of them all.
Under Venn’s aegis, Sarah, Humphrey and Tooly travel all over the world; there’s some bizarre symbiotic relationship between the four of them, but the reader can’t figure it out. All we know is that Tooly worships Venn, who pops into and out of her life at random, acting like a first-class jerk before vanishing forever. Good riddance, we think, but grown-up Tooly, safely ensconced in her bookshop in Wales, is still completely in his thrall: “For years, she had awaited Venn’s return. She had moved from one country to another, taken on lovers, changed jobs, yet retained the expectation of another life—a wormhole through which she’d one day slip, rescued by his company.”
When an email comes one day from Duncan, promising news of Tooly’s “father,” Tooly ditches the bookstore and sets off on a transatlantic wild goose chase. On the way, she’ll revisit old haunts and reconnect with everyone she once knew: Sarah, Paul, Humphrey, Duncan, and even, eventually, Venn. No longer will her past resemble one of Humphrey’s ragged books: “histories with half the pages and half the centuries missing, causing the Ming Dynasty to contest the Wars of German Unification with one swish of the page.” But a funny thing happens on the way to Tooly’s childhood. The more we learn about her upbringing, the less interested we are in her.
It’s not that the book turns dull, or even that we stop rooting for (or worrying about) Tooly. It’s just that the riddle of her character starts to seem less compelling than the people and places we encounter on the way to solve it. As we follow Tooly through New York and Europe and Bangkok, the novel’s setting overwhelms its subject; what’s more, whenever secondary characters like Sarah and Humphrey and Venn come on stage, they steal the show.
This isn’t necessarily bad—as the plot unfurls, we keep reading avidly. It’s just a bit puzzling. Why are we still entranced by Rachman’s novel as our fascination with his heroine wanes? Rachman feeds us a clue in the form of a quote from Tooly’s favorite book, which she’s carried around like a talisman since she was nine years old:
“May I—may I go with you?” asked Smike, timidly. “I will be your faithful hard-working servant, I will, indeed. I want no clothes,” added the poor creature, drawing his rags together; “these will do very well. I only want to be near you.”
“And you shall,” cried Nicholas. “And the world shall deal by you as it does by me, till one or both of us shall quit it for a better. Come!”
Nicholas Nickleby, like Tooly herself, suffers from the curse of the Dickensian hero; his sidekicks and enemies are forever more interesting than he. And yet Tooly, like Nicholas, expertly escorts her readers along the twists and turns of a captivating plot.
It’s not her job to be personally compelling so much as it is to serve as plucky girl guide; in her company, we wander through Manhattan and Bangkok, dodging danger as we go. We encounter evil, true love, love unrequited, and villains who crackle with malice. We meet bad parents who mean well, and worse parents who don’t, and we travel from the back alleys of Bangkok to the seedy streets of Brooklyn.
With such richness around us, why would it matter if our heroine comes to seem a wee bit bland? It would be terribly unfair to disclose the particulars of Rachman’s spectacular ending: Suffice it to say that by the time the novel finishes, we are utterly fulfilled. We are also reluctant to leave Rachman’s book behind. It begs, like the best of Dickens, to be carried around and reread.
Much was made, last year, of the supposedly “Dickensian” attributes of Donna Tartt’s 700-plus page colossus The Goldfinch. But Tartt’s touch was much too heavy for Dickens; she strained too hard to imitate, and by the end of the book (whose action creaked noisily throughout) her tiresome hero Theo Decker got thoroughly on our nerves. Rachman, on the other hand, engineers his wonderfully complex plot with the lightest of touches; by the end of his book, the reader is utterly enchanted by his delicate homage. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers would have been at home in the 19th century; it also succeeds marvelously in ours. It’s the book The Goldfinch wanted to be.
About the Author
Fernanda Moore writes about fiction monthly in this space. Her short fiction has appeared in Commentary as well.