Monday, June 30, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt two)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

A parent’s view of what’s wrong or right with his kid is probably less accurate than even the next-door neighbor’s, who sees the child’s life perfectly through a gap in the curtain. I, of course, would like to tell him how to live life and do better in a hundred engaging ways, just as I tell myself: that nothing ever neatly “fits,” that mistakes must be made, bad things forgotten. But in our short exposures I seem only able to talk glancingly, skittishly before shying away, cautious not to be wrong, not to quiz or fight him, not to be his therapist but his Dad. So that in all likelihood I will never provide good cure for his disease, will never even imagine correctly what his disease is, but will only suffer it with him for a time and then depart.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt one)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are, you worry like hell about them, you make provisions, take precautions, fashion adjustments; you tell yourself you’ll have to change your way of doing things. Only you don’t. You can’t. Somehow it’s already too late. And maybe it’s even worse than that: maybe the thing you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath. And what you’ve feared will happen has already taken place. This is similar in spirit to the realization that all the great new advances of medical science will have no benefit for us at all, though we cheer them on, hope a vaccine might be ready in time, think things could still get better. Only it’s too late there too. And in that very way our life gets over before we know it. We miss it. And like the poet said: “The ways we miss our lives are life.”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt thirteen)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Certainly, it was not the first time the legend was twisted to preposterous ends; nor were Chávez, Guzmán, and Páez the only strongmen to try it. Countless dictators who came after independence tried to manipulate Bolívar’s image in some way in the process of burnishing their own. Bolívar purported to hate dictatorships—he claimed he had taken them on only for limited periods and as necessary expedients—but there is little doubt that he created the mythic creature that the Latin American dictator became.

In centuries to come, dictators came in a multitude of varieties. But the trajectory was always the same. Indeed, many of the most tyrannical and barbaric started out as liberals. South American history is replete with such men. As the Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato once said: “The most stubborn conservatism is that which is born of a triumphant revolution.” Bolívar had feared it would be so. He died convinced that a bloody-minded era would follow, and follow him it did. In Bolivia, a famously debauched dictator, fleeing retribution, was tracked down and killed by his mistress’s brother; in Ecuador, a deeply religious despot who had installed himself for a third term was butchered on the Cathedral steps in the full light of morning; in Quito, a liberal caudillo who tried to seize power too many times was thrown in prison, murdered, and dragged through the cobbled streets. There is a reason why blood trickles down roads and heads roll out from under bushes in Latin American literature: this is not magical realism. It is history. It is true.

Friday, June 27, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt twelve)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Everything happened quickly after that. The American diplomat William Henry Harrison was booted unceremoniously from Colombia for his scandalous attempts to meddle with internal affairs. The French delegation left in a huff, as did its English counterpart. When the Liberator entered the capital for the last time on January 15, 1830, hardly a voice was raised in welcome. The streets were hung in festive bunting and four thousand soldiers lined the way, but the people were eerily silent, as if something calamitous was afoot. There were rounds of cannon, choruses of music, and yet the air rang with anything but merriment. When Bolívar finally came into view, he was tiny, skeletal—a wasted specter with lackluster eyes whose voice was barely audible. It was apparent to everyone that the Liberator was not long for this earth. His grief was palpable. Lost in thought, reduced by fatigue, he made one last ride to the presidential palace.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt eleven)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

A hastily gathered assembly of representatives, “elected” by laws that were clearly arbitrary and racist, met in Chuquisaca on July 10 to formally deliberate the founding. It was hardly a democratic exercise. The Aymara Indians—an overwhelming majority of the population, forty thousand of whom had risen up against their masters forty years before—were given no say, and the pecking order that once had prevailed under Spanish rule was put in place again: the whites would lord over the half-breeds, and the half-breeds would lord over the brown.

On August 6 the members of the assembly officially declared the independence of Upper Peru, changed its name to the Republic of Bolívar, changed it again to Bolivia, and voted to make the Liberator their president. To give him absolute power, they invited the new president to draft their constitution Bolívar, who was rounding the shimmering, cold waters of Lake Titicaca when he heard of it, was delighted with the news. In the course of one day, his America had acquired a million souls. As maximum leader of three vast republics, Bolívar now ruled over an area that, taken together, exceeded the size of modern Europe. He hurried to accept the honors.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt ten)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

By August, he was traveling the vertiginous route to La Paz, the capital of Upper Peru. The ride was grueling, but conspicuously free of enemies. The last of the Spanish generals, the renegade Olañeta, stubbornly prowling those mountains for two years, had died months before, mortally wounded in battle. Word had it that he had met his end at the hands of his own men; indeed, he had been the only victim in a fleeting skirmish against Sucre’s army. Seeing Olañeta fall from his horse, his soldiers—a fraction of his original force—rushed to surrender. It was hardly surprising, as royalist defections after the Battle of Ayacucho had been epidemic; everyone wanted to be on Sucre’s side. The grand marshal proceeded to carry out his assignment in Upper Peru admirably.

Sucre met Bolívar on the shores of Lake Titicaca not far from where the old viceroyalty of Peru ended and the old viceroyalty of Buenos Aires began. There, at long last, Bolívar embraced Sucre and thanked him for his many momentous achievements: the victory at Ayacucho, the suppression of Olañeta, the successful occupation of La Paz and Potosí. It had been almost a year since they had seen each other.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt nine)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Fortune itself seemed to have abandoned the army of the republic. Its greatest patron, Alexandre Pétion, had died of a raging case of typhoid fever in Port-au-Prince on March 29. In May, Páez was defeated on the plains of Cojedes. Bolívar was forced to retire from the front lines, suffering from a painful case of anthrax pustules he had probably contracted from infected horses or mules. “My lesions are getting better,” he wrote one of his generals wistfully. “One has already burst and soon I’ll be able to get on my horse again, although I doubt I’ll be rid of these wounds in three, even four days. That said, if there’s the slightest need, I’m ready to march, even if they have to carry me in a litter.”

Monday, June 23, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt eight)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

“And how do you propose to do that?” Bolívar asked.

“With my cavalry.”

Bolívar was irritated. “With a sea cavalry, you mean? Because one that operates on land can’t possibly perform such a miracle.”

Páez called down a company of fifty men, who rode nimbly to the riverbank, their saddles uncinched. When he yelled, “Bring me those boats!” the men slid their saddles to the ground, clenched their lances between their teeth, then, with loud whoops, charged bareback into the river. The Spanish sentinels, brought to life, responded with a volley or two. But they were so panicked at the sight of that fierce horde plowing the water, startling the crocodiles, clambering onto their boats willy-nilly, that they dove into the river and made for the other shore. To Bolívar’s amazement—for he had thought his men would be blown to bits—Páez’s riders succeeded in taking all four craft. After that, their armies had no trouble sweeping into the encampment. By the time they were through, they had captured fourteen boats and a store of munitions. “It may appear inconceivable,” a witness later reported, “that a body of cavalry with no other arms than their lances, and no other mode of conveyance across a rapid river than their horses, should attack and take a fleet of gun-boats amidst shoals of alligators; but there are many officers now in England who can testify to the truth of it.”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt seven)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Nature had indeed opposed Caracas. Within minutes, the city was reduced to a grave site. More than ten thousand were buried by the rubble. Another six thousand, it was said, were swallowed by yawning ravines. Some, laboring in the open fields, died of shock. Half an hour didn’t pass before another quake shook the city. Survivors, caked with dust and blood, staggered through streets littered with cadavers, looking for their relatives. By nightfall, it was clear that the accumulations of dead would have to be incinerated in pyres. There were far too many to bury in mass graves.

The looting began almost instantly. The poor rushed in to carry off what they could, rob gold from corpses, rip jewelry from the ears of trapped women who implored for help. Crimes went unseen, unchecked, as smoke from the fires coiled into the sky and the thick, yellow dust yielded to darkness.

Bolívar’s house had been seriously damaged, its floors so buckled that doors had been ripped from jambs, windows from casings, but he was more concerned about the devastation around him. He organized what slaves and friends he could and, with makeshift stretchers, went about exhuming the living and carrying off the dead. There were no tools for digging or clearing away the foul heaps, and so they dug with their bare hands. It was as he engaged in this work, hurrying across the main plaza, that he saw a red-faced priest shout at a cowering crowd, exhorting them to repent, blaming them for the destruction. “On your knees, sinners!” the priest told them. “Now is your hour to atone. The arm of divine justice has descended on you for your insult to his Highest Majesty, that most virtuous of monarchs, King Ferdinand VII!”

If Bolívar threatened that priest with his sword—as legend has it he did—he would soon find that it was impossible to defy the entire clergy. He combed the ruins, working hard to disabuse his fellow survivors of their superstitions, but it didn’t take long for the ministry of the Church to convince Caracas that the earthquake was God’s angry hand, punishing them for the perfidy of insurrection. Hadn’t the declaration of independence two years before been on a Maundy Thursday, too? The revolution was a sacrilege, and all its adherents, blasphemers. The people would need to atone for the sin of betraying the madre patria. Fearing the fate of a Sodom and Gomorrah, Venezuelans now rushed to make right with the Lord. As days and weeks went by, men of means married slaves with whom they had had sexual relations. Chastened revolutionaries fashioned colossal wooden crosses and dragged them, Christlike, through the ruined city.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt six)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Even here, in these first glimmers of liberty, we begin to see the character of a continent. The American-born were hungry for liberties, yet unaccustomed to freedom; resourceful, yet unacquainted with self-rule; racially mixed, yet mistrustful of whatever race they were not. For three hundred years of authoritarian reign, Spain had carefully instilled these qualities. “Divide and subjugate” had been the rule. Education had been discouraged, in many cases outlawed, and so ignorance was endemic. Colonies were forbidden from communicating with each other, and so—like spokes of a wheel—they were capable only of reporting directly to a king. There was no collaborative spirit, no model for organization, no notion of hierarchy. It was why the people of Coro or Maracaibo or Guayana refused to obey their newly independent brothers in Caracas; given the choice, they preferred the crown. And even though Americans had been inclined to mix across racial lines from the beginning, Spain had worked hard to keep the races apart, feed their suspicions. Add to this a church that was thoroughly opposed to independence, and a picture emerges unlike any other in that age of revolutions. If Spanish America now found itself strong enough to rise up against Spain, it would never quite rid itself of the divisions that the Council of the Indies had carefully installed in the first place. Bolívar was particularly aware of this deepest flaws, predicting a fragmentation that remains prevalent to this day. It was why he was so adamantly against federation—a concept he thought far more workable in the United States, where the population was largely homogeneous and, so, inherently more governable.

Friday, June 20, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt five)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Bolívar also managed to navigate the city on his own. Many years later, he told of a “singular adventure” at a London brothel that both amused and amazed him. In the course of negotiating his desires with one of the prostitutes, he made a request that infuriated her, and she accused him of being a homosexual. She raised such a ruckus that the entire house came running, and when he tried to calm her with a few banknotes, she threw them scornfully into the fire. She didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English, so there was no hope of correcting her misapprehension. As he later related to friends, he ended up exiting the house of pleasure “with far greater urgency” than he had entered it. Little could he have known that the woman probably feared for her life. Only weeks before, on July 8, the London police had raided the White Swan, a Vere Street “molly” house, as transgender clubs were then called, and arrested a group of suspects. An angry mob followed the accused homosexuals to Bow Street Station, knocking them down, pelting them with mud, and threatening far worse. The men were charged with attempted sodomy; a number of them were hanged. The prostitute clearly had England’s harsh laws in mind when she voiced her objections. For Bolívar, however, that incident became a striking metaphor for the vast cultural distance that separated London from Paris. Two years before his death, he still had a vivid memory of it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

my interview with former swimmer Jancy Thompson

"It was very painful. It’s like a death. Because that person, Jancy Thompson the swimmer, pretty much died the day that I quit and was no longer Jancy Thompson the swimmer. And that’s a really intense feeling, but that’s the only way I can explain it is that it’s like a death. Because I am not that person anymore. That person died. "

Ok, so we're final - for now.

Today we posted the fifth interview, with former Arizona State swimmer Jancy Thompson, in the Vice Sports series with some of the women behind the petition to remove USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus from International Swimming Hall of Fame consideration.

I thank David Matthews and Tim Ryan at Vice Sports for the opportunity, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Debra Denithorne-Grodensky, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, Katie Kelly, and Jancy Thompson for sharing their stories.

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt four)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

The invasion of the Iberian Peninsula began simply enough, and, some might say, in response to a bald invitation. It started in October, when King Carlos IV chanced upon some papers written in his son’s hand that made it clear that the crown prince was planning to dethrone his father and, very possibly, poison his mother. Horrified, the king wrote to Napoleon, reporting the whole affair, denouncing his son, and suggesting that a brother of Napoleon should succeed him. Not twenty-four hours later, Prince Ferdinand, too, dashed off a letter to Napoleon, inviting the emperor to choose a bride for him from among his family and so unite the empires. It was a naked lunge for power, fresh evidence of the prince’s treason. For years, Ferdinand had brooded about Godoy’s sexual hold on his mother and the craven way his father had handed the cuckolder all the power. But Carlos IV proved more of a match than his son had anticipated. Goaded by the queen and prime minister, the king now began serious negotiations with France.

Napoleon took rank advantage of the family squabble by flattering the king and offering him an opportunity to expand his empire. The Treaty of Fontainebleau, put forth by Napoleon and signed by Godoy on October 27, 1807, promised Spain half of Portugal in a joint invasion—a truly perfidious arrangement, given that the king’s eldest daughter, Charlotte, was Portugal’s queen. Napoleon was given permission to march 25,000 troops through Spanish territory to Lisbon. When time for the invasion came, however, Napoleon sent quadruple that number, overwhelming Lisbon in a bloodless coup and securing a firm foothold in Spain. By the end of 1807, Queen Charlotte and the royal Braganza family had fled Portugal and, with ten thousand of their most loyal subjects, filled a convoy of fifty ships headed for Brazil. Four months later, in the spring of 1808, the French army slipped into Spain’s most strategic fortresses and took control. King Carlos IV finally understood his predicament. Spain was under occupation. He began to consider a secret plan to escape to Mexico.

The Spanish people were outraged. They blamed Godoy for all their misfortunes and sacked his palace in a riot. In the course of that uprising, Carlos IV was forced to relinquish the crown to his son, who was now King Ferdinand VII. Napoleon managed to lure the whole royal family—mother, father, and son—to Bayonne for a conference. After a sumptuous dinner, the newly crowned King Ferdinand VII was told that Spain’s Bourbon era was over. He was king no more. In response, Carlos IV tried to nullify his own abdication, but eventually agreed to cede Spain and its colonies to Napoleon for an annual salary of 1.5 million pesos. By the end of April, the Bourbons were virtual prisoners on French soil. Joseph Bonaparte—the emperor’s brother—was crowned the new king of Spain, making America, from Texas to Tierra del Fuego, a cog in Napoleon’s empire.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

my interview with former swimmer Debra Denithorne-Grodensky for Vice Sports

"There’s always time where the coach is alone talking with the swimmer. And if they are behind closed doors . . . In my case, sadly, it was more than talking."

Today Vice Sports published my interview with Debra Denithorne-Grodensky, one in a series with swimmers who suffered sexual abuse and/or harassment by their respective coaches.

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt three)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

In the end, the royalist armies crushed the rebellion, costing the Indians some 100,000 lives. Túpac Amaru II was captured and brought to the main square of Cuzco, where the Spanish visitador asked him for the names of his accomplices. “I only know of two,” the prisoner replied, “and they are you and I: You as the oppressor of my country, and I because I wish to rescue it from your tyrannies.” Infuriated by the impudence, the Spaniard ordered his men to cut out the Indian’s tongue and draw and quarter him on the spot. But the four horses to which they tied his wrists and ankles would not comply. The soldiers slit Túpac Amaru’s throat instead; cut off his head, hands, and feet; and displayed these on stakes at various crossroads in the city. The torture and execution were repeated throughout the day until all members of his family were killed. Seeing his mother’s tongue ripped from her head, Túpac Amaru’s youngest child issued a piercing shriek. Legend has it that the sound of that cry was so heartrending, so unforgettable, that it signaled the end of Spanish dominion in America.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt two)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

For all of Spain’s attempts to retain absolute control of its colonies, it could not prevent the interracial mixing that was inevitable in a world forged by male conquistadors. The crown quickly—and by necessity—took the attitude that marriage between races was acceptable, as long as Spanish men could persuade non-Spanish women to be baptized Christians. In truth, the Spaniards were hardly racially “pure” Europeans. After centuries of tumultuous history, the bloodline contained traces of Arab, Phoenician, African, Roman, Basque, Greek, Ligurian, Celt, German, Balkan, and Jew. But once they began mixing with Indians and blacks in the Americas, a cosmic race representative of all continents began to emerge. When Simón de Bolívar, the Spanish overlord, arrived in Venezuela in the late 1500s, the population counted 5,000 Spaniards, 10,000 Africans, and 350,000 native Indians in the country. Two hundred years later, when the Liberator was born, according to anthropologist Alexander von Humboldt, Venezuela had 800,000 inhabitants, of whom more than half were mestizo or mulatto. Today, more than two thirds of all Latin Americans are mixed-race. Nowhere else on earth has a civilization of such ethnic complexity been wrought in such a short span of time.

Monday, June 16, 2014

the last book I ever read (Marie Arana's Bolívar: American Liberator, excerpt one)

from Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana:

Alongside this march of history, however, was the steady hardening of a racial hierarchy that would define South America into the modern age. It had begun when Christopher Columbus’s men had landed on Hispaniola, and imposed their will over the Taíno people. At first, Queen Isabel and the Church roundly censured the capture and massacre of Indians. Columbus’s men had committed harrowing atrocities, burning and destroying whole tribal villages, abducting natives as slaves, unleashing murderous plagues of syphilis and smallpox on the population. The priests who accompanied the crown’s “civilizing missions” made a point of recording it all. As a result, the state tried to take a strong stance against any kind of institutionalized violence. It introduced a system of encomiendas, in which Spanish soldiers were assigned allotments of Indians and, in exchange for the task of instructing them in the Christian faith, were given the right to put them to work on the land on in the mines. The soldiers were often harsh and corrupt, killing natives who did not comply with their brutal demands, and, eventually, the system of encomiendas had to be abolished. But the notion of encouraging soldiers to work the land rather than live from plunder opened the way for a new era of plantation life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt sixteen)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

I suppose I should have known better going in, but I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department for being inefficient and wasteful but would fight tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district no matter how inefficient or wasteful. However, behavior that was simply frustrating to me in 2009-10 will seriously impair our national security in the years ahead as the defense budget shrinks: failure to cut or close unneeded programs and facilities will drain precious dollars from the troops and our war-fighting capabilities.

A second source of frustration, as you might suspect, was the failure of Congress to do its most basic job: appropriate money. I prepared five budgets for Congress from 2007 to 2011, and not once was a defense appropriations bill enacted before the start of the new fiscal year. The impact of this, and the associated “continuing resolutions”—which kept the funding level at the previous year’s appropriations and did not allow for starting any new program—was dramatically disruptive of sensible and efficient management of the department. This was an outrageous dereliction of duty.

I was exceptionally offended by the constant adversarial, inquisitionlike treatment of executive branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when the press and television cameras were present. Sharp questioning of witnesses should be expected and is entirely appropriate. But rude, insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior as they postured and acted as judge, jury, and executioner. It was as though most members were in a permanent state of outrage or suffered from some sort of mental duress that warranted confinement or at least treatment for anger management. I had to put up with less of this Queeg-like behavior than almost anyone, but I was infuriated by the harsh treatment of my subordinates, both civilian and military. The temptation to stand up, slam the briefing book shut, and quit on the spot recurred often. All too frequently, sitting at that witness table, the exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. I was, I am confident, a widely shared fantasy throughout the executive branch. And it was always enjoyable to listen to three former senators—Obama, Biden, and Clinton—trash-talking Congress.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt fifteen)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

I was also reminded that no country is fully prepared for the next war. Secretary Rumsfeld said you go to war with the army you have. But the Defense Department was unconscionably slow in identifying and providing the equipment to make the Army and Marine Corps into the force we needed in Afghanistan and Iraq. That slowness, that business-as-usual peacetime mentality, cost lives.

Usually we don’t get to choose and almost never accurately predict the kind of war we will fight next. I am always amused when I hear a senior military officer or a politician declare that we will never fight certain kinds of wars again. After Vietnam, our defense “experts” avowed we would never again try to fight an insurgency, yet we have done so in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are hearing the same claim now. Those who assert we will fight only certain kinds of wars in the future forget history and the reality that our enemies, as I’ve said, always have a vote, as do future presidents. In the forty years since Vietnam, our record in predicting where we will be militarily engaged next, even six months out, is perfect: we have never once gotten it right, not in Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Libya (twice), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, the Balkans, or Somalia. When it comes to predicting future conflicts, what kind of fights they will be, and what will be needed, we need a lot more humility.

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of, a point I hope I have made clear. Those who ask about exit strategies or what happens if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers argue we must act militarily—as they did when advocating an invasion of Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iranian nuclear sites. The argument against military action is almost never about capabilities but whether it is wise. As Petraeus said earl oon in Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” Too often the question is not even asked, much less answered.

My time as secretary of defense reinforced my belief that in recent decades, American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been too quick to reach for a gun—to use military force, despite all the realities I have been describing. They could have done worse than to follow the example of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his presidency, the Soviet Union became a thermonuclear power, China became a nuclear power, and there were calls for preventive nuclear war against both; the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommended that he use nuclear weapons to help the French in Vietnam; there were several crises with China related to Taiwan; a war in the Middle East; a revolution in Cuba; and uprisings in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. And yet after Eisenhower agreed to the armistice in Korea in the summer of 1953, not one American soldier was killed in action during his presidency.

Friday, June 13, 2014

my interview with swimmer Katie Kelly for Vice Sports

"It’s not for me. I’m not seeking retribution. I don’t need payback. I have a good life, but I want to protect the next kid."

Over the past couple weeks I've conducted a series of interviews with some very courageous women, all of whom have spent significant time in chlorinated water, for the newly launched Vice Sports. Today we posted my interview with northern California swimmer Katie Kelly.

I thank David Matthews and Tim Ryan at Vice Sports for the opportunity, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Debra Denithorne-Grodensky, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, Katie Kelly, and Jancy Thompson for sharing their stories.

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt fourteen)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

In a place as big as the Defense Department, something is always going wrong. Most of the time, it’s just a bureaucratic screwup. But when our nuclear forces are involved, it can quicken your pulse. The first two such incidents on my watch, as I’ve described, had led to my firing of the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force in 2008. In October 2010, at F. E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyoming, all communications were lost with a squadron of fifty Minutemen III nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. While alternative communications were soon reestablished, no one had informed the secretary of defense or the president when we lost contact with a launch control capsule and fifty ICBMs. And of course, when the communications went down, no one at the base, or at its higher headquarters at Strategic Command, knew at that moment how long they might be down or whether they had been lost due to a technical malfunction, terrorist act, sabotage, or some other scary scenario—or even whether one or more of the missiles might somehow be at risk. In a masterpiece of understatement, Obama allowed as how he would have liked to have known about it. It was a sentiment I shared.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

my interview with Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt for Vice Sports

"What he held over me was the coaching. And in my case, in this case, I didn’t know. I was so young, I didn’t know if I owned my swimming or if he owned my swimming."

Over the past couple weeks I've conducted a series of interviews with some very courageous women, all of whom have spent significant time in chlorinated water, for the newly launched Vice Sports. Today we posted my interview with Olympic gold medalist and former San Diego State University swim coach Deena Deardurff Schmidt

I thank David Matthews and Tim Ryan at Vice Sports for the opportunity, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Debra Denithorne-Grodensky, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, Katie Kelly, and Jancy Thompson for sharing their stories.

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt thirteen)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

And then, after publication of Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars in September 2010, Jim Jones left as national security adviser. He had never been a good fit in the Obama White House, as I said, and frankly, I was surprised he lasted as long as he did. I believe the timing of his departure was influenced significantly by Woodward’s book. Jones appeared to be a major source; there were many disparaging comments about the rest of the White House staff and even his own staff that could only have come from Jim. Based in no small part on what he had been telling me all along about Donilon, I was quoted as saying that Donilon would be a “complete disaster” as national security adviser. That quote could only have come from Jones. There were a number of other comments I felt had come from Doug Lute, particularly many of the negative references to Mullen and me and to the military’s purported efforts to box in the president on Afghanistan. After an auspicious beginning in the Bush administration and although I felt indebted to him for taking on the NSC war coordinator role, Doug had turned out to be a real disappointment in the Obama administration. In both the Bush and Obama administrations, the NSC/NSS seemed to be a rich lode of information for Woodward, a level of cooperation I never understood.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

my interview with three-time gold medalist and Women's Sports Foundation Senior Director of Advocacy Nancy Hogshead-Makar for Vice Sports

"But it's not just swimming. It's an issue with club and Olympic sports. If an abusing coach gets fired from a school, they will walk right across the street to a club program and get hired immediately."

Over the past couple weeks I've conducted a series of interviews with some very courageous women, all of whom have spent significant time in chlorinated water, for the newly launched Vice Sports.

I thank David Matthews and Tim Ryan at Vice Sports for the opportunity, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Debra Denithorne-Grodensky, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, Katie Kelly, and Jancy Thompson for sharing their stories.

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt twelve)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

All through 2010, at the bottom of the huge funnel pouring problems from Pandora’s global trove into Washington, sat just eight of us who, even though served by vast bureaucracies, had to deal with every one of the problems. The challenge for historians and journalists—and memoirists—is how to convey the crushing effect of dealing daily with multiple problems, pivoting on a dime every few minutes from one issue to another, having to quickly absorb reporting from many sources on each problem, and then making decisions, always with too little time and too much ambiguous information. Ideally, I suppose there should be a way to structure our national security apparatus so that day-to-day matters can be delegated to lower levels of responsibility while the president and his senior advisers focus on the big picture and thoughtfully make grand strategy. But that’s not how it works in the real world of politics and policy. And as the world becomes more complex and more turbulent, that is a problem in its own right: exhausted people do not make the best decisions.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt eleven)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

I was determined to increase our capability as quickly as possible to protect our deployed forces and our allies. We briefed Congress on these changes on several occasions between May and July, and the response was generally favorable. The only opposition was focused on my cancellation of several of the big—and failing—development programs.

Those who would later charge that Obama walked away from the third site in Europe to please the Russians seemed oblivious to growing Polish and Czech opposition to the site and, more important, to the reality that the Defense Department was already reordering its missile defense priorities to focus on the immediate short- to medium-range-missile threat. While there certainly were some in the State Department and the White House who believed the third site in Europe was incompatible with the Russian “reset,” we in Defense did not. Making the Russians happy wasn’t exactly on my to-do list.

Monday, June 9, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt ten)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

Three days later I went through many of those concerns in the Oval Office with the president. Biden, Mullen, Jones, Donilon, Brennan, and Tony Blinken, the vice president’s national security adviser, were there. I told Obama he needed to consider the ramifications of a no-warning Israeli attack or Iranian provocation, either of which likely would require a U.S. military response within minutes or hours. I said that the principals had not “chewed” on these issues, and they should. To be better prepared for any eventuality in the Gulf, I told Obama I wanted to take several military steps by November 1, including deploying a second aircraft carrier there, adding better missile defense and radar capabilities, sending a third Aegis destroyer, and forward-positioning other equipment. I asked that the policy issues and added deployments I recommended be addressed urgently, in particular because the military moves required significant lead time. Obama said we should look at options, but he would make no concrete decisions now.

I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his very closest advisers, he said, “For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran. Joe, you be my witness.” I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt nine)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

As for the senior members of the team, I had met Vice President Biden a few times on the Hill but don’t recall ever testifying in front of him or having any dealings with him. Biden is a year older than I am and went to Washington about six years after I did, when he was elected to the Senate in 1972. Joe is simply impossible not to like. He’s down to earth, funny, profane, and humorously self-aware of his motormouth. Not too many meetings had occurred in the Situation Room before the president started impatiently cutting Biden off. Joe is a man of integrity, incapable of hiding what he really thinks, and one of those rare people you know you could turn to for help in a personal crisis. Still, I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades. After one meeting at the White House, Mullen and I were riding back to the Pentagon together, and Mike turned to me and said, “You know you agreed with the vice president today?” I said I realized that and was therefore rethinking my position. Joe and I would disagree on many issues over two and a half years, especially Afghanistan, but the personal relationship always remained cordial. While Biden had been in Congress a lot longer than Vice President Cheney, both were very experienced politicians, and I found it odd that they both so often misread what Congress would or would not do. More about that later.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt eight)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

Biden asked to meet with me privately after the meeting. We met in a small conference room, and he asked me for my thoughts on how he should define his role in the national security arena. I said there were two very different models—George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Bush’s staff had attended all interagency national security meetings, including the Principals Committee, thereby keeping him well informed, but almost always he shared his views only with the president. Cheney, by contrast, not only had his staff attend all lower-level interagency meetings, he routinely attended Principals Committee meetings and meetings of principals with the national security advisor. He was open about his views and argued them forcefully. His staff did likewise at other meetings. I told Biden I would recommend the Bush model because it more befitted the dignity of the vice president as the second-highest elected official in the country; and more practically in Washington, if no one know what he was advising the president, no one could ever know whether he was winning or losing arguments. If he were to participate in all meetings below those chaired by the president, then he was just another player whose scorecard was public knowledge. He listened closely, thanked me, and then did precisely the opposite of what I recommended, following the Cheney model to a T.

Friday, June 6, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt seven)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

During the Bush administration, the Air Force, the branch of the military in which I had served briefly as a junior officer, was one of my biggest headaches. I thought the service did a superb job in Iraq and Afghanistan providing close air support, medevac, and transport as well as ordnance (IED) disposal and performing other important and often dangerous tasks on the ground. Earlier, I described my frustration in trying to get the Air Force leadership to provide more drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance use in the wars. But there were other problems as well.

The most significant related to the Air Force’s responsibility for our nuclear-armed bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. On August 30, 2007, a B-52 bomber took off from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota at 8:40 a.m. carrying six air-launched cruise missiles, each armed with a nuclear weapon capable of explosive power more than ten times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The plane landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana at 11:23 a.m. It was parked there without any of the stringent security measures required for such weapons. At ten that evening, a member of the munitions crew at Barksdale discovered that the warheads were not mock training rounds but actual nuclear weapons that had been loaded in error. Only then was the incident reported to the National Military Command Center (NMCC) as a “Bent Spear” event—“an incident involving nuclear weapons, warheads, components or vehicles transporting nuclear material of significant interest.” Air Force chief of staff General Mike Moseley reported the incident to me on August 31. I was incredulous at such a monumental screw-up. I immediately called Hadley and the president to inform them. With a justified edge to his voice, Bush told me to get to the bottom of this mistake and to keep him informed. The initial incident report from the NMCC stated, “No press interest anticipated.” Wrong.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt six)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

I didn’t socialize in Washington. Every day I had a fight of one kind or another—usually several—and every evening I could not wait to get home, get my office homework out of the way, write condolence letters to the families of the fallen, pour a stiff drink, wolf down a frozen dinner or carry-out (when Becky was in the Northwest), read something totally unrelated to my work life, and turn out the light.

I got up at five every morning to run two miles around the Mall in Washington, past the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials, and in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And every morning before dawn, I would ritually look up at that stunning white statue of Lincoln, say good morning, and sadly ask him, How did you do it?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt five)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

The Russians used Kosovo’s declaration of independence (it had been a part of Yugoslavia and had long historical ties to Serbia) in February 2008, which the United States and Europeans supported and a pro-Serb Russia opposed, as a pretext to turn up the temperature on Georgia. The West’s logic in supporting Kosovo’s independence, said the Russians, ought to apply as well to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin in April said Russia might possibly recognize the independence of the two provinces. On April 21, Saakashvili telephoned Putin to demand that Russia reverse course on recognition and cited statements by Western governments opposing it. Putin had used highly colloquial Russian in telling Saakashvili where he could put the Western statements. Soon thereafter Georgia mobilized its troops, and in response, Russia sent 400 paratroopers and a howitzer battery to staging areas near the cease-fire line. Acts of violence in both provinces increased during the summer. On August 7, Georgia launched a massive artillery barrage and incursion to retake the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

The next day Russian forces poured into South Ossetia, routed the Georgians, and drove deep into Georgian territory, a punitive attack aimed at the destruction of the Georgian military infrastructure. They attacked military facilities—especially those that had been certified by NATO—and destroyed coastal patrol boats, military equipment, communications, and a number of villages. The deputy chief of the Russian general staff said at the time that the Russian mission was to weaken Georgia’s military, but plainly the Russians were also sending a warning to other governments in Central Asia (and Ukraine) about the risks of trying to integrate with NATO.

The Russians had baited a trap, and the impetuous Saakashvili walked right into it. The Russians, Putin in particular, wanted to reassert Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, including in the Caucasus. I was asked by a reporter if I trusted Vladimir Putin “anymore”? I responded, “’Anymore’ is an interesting word. I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.” After meeting with Putin in 2001, President Bush had said he looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul.” I said to some of my colleagues privately that I’d looked into Putin’s eyes and, just as I expected, had seen a stone-cold killer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt four)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

I was convinced the Russians would never embrace any kind of missile defense in Europe because they could see it only as a potential threat to themselves. What I hadn’t counted on was the political opposition to the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. As early as January 2008, the new Polish center-right government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk made clear they would not consider hosting the interceptors unless the United States agreed to an accompanying defense package of shorter-range missile defenses for Poland and made a greater commitment to come to Poland’s aid than provided under the NATO charter. In June 2008, Polish defense minister Bogdan Klich told me that to bring the negotiations to closure, it would be “important for President Bush to make a political declaration and commitment of assistance to Poland similar to those the United States provided to Jordan and Pakistan.” For their part, the Czechs were making demands about bidding on our contracts associated with site construction and also letting us know that U.S. companies and citizens working on the project would be subject to Czech taxes. Our presumptive partners for missile defense in Europe were stiff-arming us.

Monday, June 2, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt three)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

The world had changed dramatically since 1993, when I retired as a CIA director. At that time, the United States had routed Saddam Hussein’s army—then the fourth largest in the world—in less that one hundred hours during the Gulf War. Eastern Europe had been liberated, Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union had recently collapsed, and China was quiescent, its leaders focused on economic growth and developing trade. As victor in the Cold War, the United States stood supreme, the only surviving superpower—a political, military, and economic colossus.

What we did not realize then was that the seeds of future trouble were already sprouting. There were early stirrings of future great power rivalry and friction. In Russia, resentment and bitterness were taking root as a result of the economic chaos and corruption that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as the incorporation of much of the old Warsaw Pact into NATO by 2000. No Russian was more angered by this turn of events than Vladimir Putin, who would later say that the end of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical event of the twentieth century. China, seeing the USSR’s collapse, as well as America’s military prowess in the Gulf War, resolved to expand its own military power. Al Qaeda’s first attack on the World Trade Center in New York was launched in February 1993, and other attacks would follow throughout the 1990s. Meanwhile other nations increasingly resented our singular dominance and our growing penchant for telling others how to behave, at home and abroad. The end of the Soviet threat also ended the compelling reason for many countries to automatically align with the United States or do our bidding for their own protection. Other nations looked for opportunities to inhibit our seeming complete freedom and determination to shape the world as we saw fit. In short, our moment alone in the sun, and the arrogance with which we conducted ourselves in the 1990s and beyond as the sole surviving superpower, caused widespread resentment. And so when the World Trade Center came down on September 11, 2001, many governments and peoples—some publicly, many more privately—welcomed the calamity that had befallen the United States. In their eyes, an arrogant, all-powerful giant had been deservedly humbled.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

the last book I ever read (Duty by Robert M. Gates, excerpt two)

from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:

I met Dick Cheney in the mid-1980s when he was a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. I had been a junior National Security Council staffer during the Ford administration, when he was deputy White House chief of staff and then chief; I was far too much of an underling to have any contact with him. In my opinion, one cannot understand Cheney without having been in the White House during the Ford years. It was the nadir of the modern American presidency, the president reaping the whirlwind of both Vietnam and Watergate. The War Powers Act, the denial of promised weapons to South Vietnam, cutting off help to the anti-Soviet, anti-Cuban resistance in Angola—Congress took one action after another to whittle down the power of the presidency. Cheney saw it all from the Oval Office. I believe his broad assertion of the powers of the presidency after 9/11 was attributable, in no small part, to his experience during the Ford years and a determination to recapture from Congress powers lost fifteen years before and more.

Because Dick is a calm, fairly quiet-spoken man, I think a lot of people never fully appreciated how conservative he always was. In 1990, in the run-up to the Gulf War, the question arose as to whether to seek both congressional and UN Security Council approval for going to war with Saddam Hussein. Cheney, then secretary of defense, argued that neither was necessary but went along with the president’s contrary decisions. And when the Soviet Union was collapsing in late 1991, Dick wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world.