Looking Back From Ninety

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You know about a camel, right -- a horse designed by a committee? Lost in the Cold War was designed by the committee responsible for the "Bernkopf Tucker and Warren I. Cohen Books on American-East Asian Relations" at Columbia University Press. What a mouthful, and what a shame! Its heart is a compelling memoir by the 22-year-old CIA operative who in November 1952 set out to retrieve an "asset" in Manchuria, while dropping supplies to a guerrilla band made up of volunteers from the prison camps in Korea. The pickup was a "Jerk for Jesus" system that required the C-47 transport to drop a snatch kit, fly off, and return after 45 minutes. It then approached the snatch line at 90 knots, 30 feet off the ground. Predictably, the Chinese volunteers had been turned or betrayed, and the C-47 was shot down. The pilots died in the crash, but Jack Downey and Robert Fecteau were captured, to begin an imprisonment that would last nearly 20 years. Jack's recollection of those years, with a brief introduction, some footnotes, and an "afterword" would have made a fine book. Alas, the camel drivers at Columbia UP spoiled it with endless inter-chapters by Thomas Christensen, the "Interim Dean and James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs", and isn't there a clue right there? There's also a final chapter by Downey's son, which is okay but should have been cut by half. You can of course skip the dull stuff, but a better book will be coming along in October.

A fascinating book but a difficult read, Zelensky: A Biography was written for a local audience, so many of its references will baffle Western readers. ("The famous actress Natalyia Kudrya," for example, isn't well known on Broadway or the West End.) A a constitutent part of Bolshevik Russia and the Soviet Union since 1917, Ukraine didn't find it as easy as the post-1944 captives to escape Moscow's domination, but it did achieve independence in 1991, though with many of its citizens speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian. And like all Soviet "republics" it was cursed by high-ranking communists who stole the companies supposedly owned by the people. These oligarchs then used their riches to dominate the new country, notably Viktor Yanukovych and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's fourth and fifth presidents. Thrown out by a popular rebellion, Yanukovych fled to exile in Russia; the billionaire Poroshenko replaced him. Meanwhile the actor Volodymyr Zelensky starred in a television comedy call "Servant of the People," about a highschool teacher who fulminates against the government's lies and corruption; one of his students videos his ranting; and it goes viral on social media, to the point where the teacher is elected president. Well, why not? In what may have been a joke or a publicity stunt, the Servant of the People Party is duly founded, one thing leads to another, and to the country's astonishment Zelensky beats Poroshenko to become sixth president of Ukraine. Again, who knows? He might have turned out as bad as the others, but that butcher in the Kremlin made the mistake of sending the Russian army to capture Kyiv and return Ukraine to Russia's greedy bosom. Instead, he managed to turn Zelensky into the Winston Churchill of the 21st century, rallying Europe and North America with his oratory and his courage. Some day we'll get a good biography of Zelensky, but this one must serve for the present.

Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great is both binge-worthy and a useful background to the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is how it all came about! She was born a minor German princess but related somehow (exactly how is never made clear) to Peter the Great of Russia. Peter's grandson was also a German princeling, so they were second cousins and indeed had met when she was ten and he was a year older. (They didn't get along.) In 1742, one of Peter the Great's daughters became Empress. She fetched the young German princess to Russia with the intention of marrying her to her nephew, destined to become Peter III. Their job was to produce an heir to the throne. The youngsters may or may not have managed to produce a son, for his paternity is debated. In any event, Peter III's reign lasted only six months before he was overthrown and apparently murdered by troops loyal to his wife, who then became Catherine II of Russia and in time Catherine the Great. This saga occupies most of season one of Ekaterina, and we need it all to get the full flavor of Russian cruelty and double-dealing, and to learn how the country came to rule much of Eastern Europe in the 18th century -- territory that Putin would like to reclaim today. Not only Ukraine, but Poland, the Baltic nations, and even Germany are ripe for the picking. The first season streams free if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber or 99 cents an episode if not. Watch it! It's history, more or less, and it's current affairs to boot.

Daniel Ford's books:

Looking Back From Ninety: Depression, War, the Good Life That Followed
Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw)
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

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