From Hampton Sides to Erik Larson to Gwyn Griffin: An Operational Necessity

Full disclosure: I have yet to read Erik Larson's new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I have only read Hampton Sides' review published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. 

In his review, Sides describes Larson's mastery as he places readers in the U-20 submarine that would sink the Lusitania with a single torpedo. Writes Sides, "The passages concerning the U-20 knife along with a clean and wicked élan."

But it was this revelation by Sides that caught my attention: "Maybe it’s a perverse thing to admit, but for much of the book I found myself rooting for the German submariners, sympathizing with their loneliness and claustrophobia, their mad dives and other maneuvers as they groped through the murk, the perils squeezing in from all sides." 

Americans have something of a fetish when it comes to WWI and WWII stories. Often little interested in nonfiction that dips into other geographies, we seem incapable to satiating a ravenous appetite for stories involving "The Greatest Generation" or our battles against the Germans. Maybe it is because, as the narratives tend to go, the sides were so clear cut. Good vs. Evil, the Allied Powers vs. the Axis Powers. fascism vs. democracy. New vs. Old. Things were simpler then... (I am often dubious of this claim.) 

Given all this, Sides' moment of ambivalence, his willingness to admit to briefly "rooting for the German submariners" jumped out at me and brought to mind a masterful war novel that I recently rediscovered on my bookshelf: An Operation Necessity by Gwyn Griffin.  My copy of Griffin's 1967 book means something to me. It was a Christmas gift from a family friend who participated in -- and barely survived -- WWII. 

While I haven't looked at Larson's bibliography and though his book discusses and earlier war, I would be surprised if he didn't read Griffin's novel as background. Much of Griffin's novel also takes place on a German submarine and his descriptions of life below the surface could hardly be etched with a tool less sharp than Larson's blade. Griffin's submarine destroys a merchant ship. Unlike the passenger ship, Lusitania, however, the freighter in An Operational Necessity carried no weapons and played no role in the outcome of the war. Its destruction, and that of (most -- don't want to give away the plot!) of its crew seemed gratuitous and had mostly to do with the Germans' attempt to save their own skins as the final days of the war played out.

As a study in moral ambiguity, of showing all sides of a conflict we think we understand, of allowing each character -- male and female -- to represent the good and bad in each of us, An Operational Necessity is hard to beat. 

The novel is based on the real-life Peleus Incident, which is the only recorded case of a U boat captain shooting the survivors of a sinking ship. As it did in real life, the novel leads to a war crimes trial where the truth is difficult to discern and the ethical (and ethnic) lines begin to blur. If you are interested in reading an absorbing war novel that eschews heroics in its search for truth, pick up a used copy of An Operational Necessity. Highly recommended!


March 4, 1960: The Explosion that Ended US-Cuban Relations for 55 Years


Then a ship blew up in Havana harbor, destroying the last chance for an accommodation between Fidel Castro and the Americans. -- Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait, 1986

When people think about beginning of the Cold War between the United States and Cuba, the first events that usually come to mind are the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the critical moment came a year before the Bay of Pigs and more than two years prior to the discovery of Soviet warheads in Cuba.

A cloud of smoke rises over Havana Harbor as the La Coubre freighter explodes on March 4, 1960.

On March 4 1960, the French freighter La Coubre arrived in Havana Harbor to deliver a load of Belgian arms to Cuba’s revolutionary government. Only fifteen months earlier, Fidel Castro and his rebel army had chased the dictator Fulgencio Batista out of the country and into exile.

Increasingly concerned by Castro’s ever-more radical policies, the US government exhausted diplomatic channels in Europe, trying – and failing – to prevent the ship and its cargo from leaving Europe. Meanwhile, Castro rallied the Cuban people, warning them that the arms were essential to protect the island’s sovereignty from threats originating from the United States.

Then, just hours after it docked in Havana, the ship blew up, destroying its controversial cargo, scattering the limbs of ship's crew and Cuban stevedores over the docks, killing as many as a hundred people, and injuring three times that number. The casualty numbers were enormous, especially considering that Cuba’s population barely made six million.

News of the explosion ripped through the divided Cold War world. Fidel Castro accused the American government of committing a terrorist act. Soviet and Chinese officials broadcast news of US sponsored “sabotage”. US State Department officials publicly recoiled at the accusation. If Castro, who had yet to declare his Marxist intentions, had intended to walk a fine line of neutrality, allying himself with neither the US nor the Communist powers, it now appeared that choosing sides would be inevitable.

Two weeks after the tragedy, on March 17, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower responded to Castro’s La Coubre accusations by secretly and definitively approving plans to overthrow Cuba’s leader. 

Cuba increased the pace at which it was nationalizing US and Cuban businesses. The US ended its commitment to buy Cuban sugar. By October, the last US ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsal, left the country on a ferry, never to return. In January of 1961, diplomatic ties were severed officially. And in April, a CIA-directed brigade of (mostly) exiled-Cubans were quickly overcome and captured by Fidel Castro's forces in what became known as the Bay of Pigs, an event that would ripple through American history and politics for generations. 

So was La Coubre an accident? Or sabotage? And if it was sabotage, who was responsible?  The CIA? Cuban counterrevolutionaries attempting to topple Castro? Agents of J. Edgar Hoover or the Dominican Republic's dictator, Rafael Trujillo? Some combination of the above forces and interests? There were many possibilities.

Of course, this explosion echoes the USS Maine disaster in 1898, which became the justification -- "Remember the Maine!" --  for the Spanish-American war and what many scholars  the dawn of US international imperialism. (It wasn't long ago, that the US Navy decided (admitted?) that the USS Maine explosion was probably an accident.)

Stay tuned for more posts! I have been researching the La Coubre disaster for more than a year and will start sharing some of what I have found. 

One Powerful Mexican's Reaction to a Recent NYT Story

On March 2, 2015, the Financial Times published an interview with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. In it, President Peña observed that Mexico's progress was limited by "incredulity and distrust." His comment brought to mind a recent experience.

 It was the usual Thursday night crowd down that the 111 Bar and Restaurant in Valle de Bravo, a mix of Americans and Mexicans, a Canadian, a Frenchman and one or two whose sinuous family origins prove too difficult to name in just a word. The evening’s conversation stuck close to the adventures of a new arrival to town, a vivacious Spanish-Mexican woman who was taking some time away from her job as a make-up artist with Cirque du Soleil. 

Later in the evening a well groomed, wolf-faced, seventy-something man joined our table together with his girlfriend whose tinted hair glinted in the low light, striking the intended balance between expensive casual and easy elegance. Some at the table knew this man, others did not. He listened to the organic burble of conversation for a time, participating occasionally. We learned that he lived part of his time in France. His girlfriend had been born in Barcelona.  

During a lull, he raised a topic of his own. “Did any of you read the article in The New York Times about José Murat Casab?” he asked. Most hadn’t. I had. We quickly described the contents of the article, which revealed the (highly probable) deep corruption of a former governor of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. 

But “Wolf”, as I shall call him, was prepared with a surprising follow-up question. “What,” he asked, “is Carlos Slim’s interest in publishing this article?” We all looked at him. “We all know,” he continued, “that Slim is the majority owner of The New York Times.” Indeed, just a month before the article came out on February 12th — an article that the reporters had spent a year or more researching — Mexico’s richest man had exercised options that gave him a 16.8% stake in the world’s most prestigious newspaper. Wolf drew a short, straight line between Slim’s ownership stake and the Molotov cocktail of a story. 

We beat around a few ideas about Slim’s interests in the paper(ego?, a desire to influence Mexican politics from abroad?), and the degree to which he could influence editorial policy (not much? quite a bit?).

“What about you?” we asked Wolf. “What do you think?”

“I am a PRI-ista (referring to his membership in the political organization that ruled Mexico for 70 years before losing consecutive elections and in 2000 and 2006. In 2012, they retook the Mexico’s presidential office.) He is trying to hurt the PRI,” he said, his voice rising. “He is going against us.”  

“Why?” we asked. 

“That is what I want to know,” he complained. “Why is Slim singling us out?” 

The New York Times article had shaken him and, he suggested, his whole set of Mexican, power-broker friends. He acknowledged that he and his cronies were adept at silencing any embarrassing story the Mexican press dared to publish. The American media, however, was beyond their reach, especially when backed by someone as powerful as their former ally, Carlos Slim. The Mexican people, he suggested, would take a Times story far more seriously than anything published in El Universal or Reforma

If I had to describe the expression on his face during this conversation I would say that it contained three elements: entitlement, rage, and fear. His entitlement came through in the expectation that we would share his thinking and, if we didn't, well, we could go to hell. Clearly, this betrayal by Slim of the power that had helped to make him one of the world’s richest men made Wolf seethe. And you could see that the uncertainty of Slim’s intentions and of the implications of the NYT story frightened him.

Describing the fear felt by many in the PRI at the publication of the article he made a joke. “Do you know the difference between miedo and pavor?” he asked. Many of us shook our heads, no. “Miedo (fear) is when your wife tells you she is pregnant. Pavor (dread) is when your secretary tells you she is pregnant.” We laughed. “There are a lot of people in Mexico right now who, because of that article, are feeling pavor.” 

Then he said something that seemed to me extraordinary. “This country is headed for civil war,” he said. “There is no way to avoid it.”

A long-time, Canadian resident of Mexico resisted. “I don’t agree. Too many people remember the pain of the revolution one-hundred years ago. They don’t want to go through that again.” The Canadian was thinking of Mexico’s poor and their already too-precarious lives. What would more suffering achieve?

“No,” said Wolf. “There will be another revolution.” He paused as he gathered his thoughts to explain why he was right. I anticipated that he would talk about class hatred, perhaps saying that for too long Mexico’s rich had failed to help Mexico’s poor rise a few inches above their destitution, or describe the failures of the education system. Instead he said, “When the teachers took over Reforma (Mexico City’s primary boulevard became a tent camp recently, not an unusual occurrence) I wanted to go with one hundred of my friends, block off their escape routes, and kill them all.” 

Those around the table looked at him a bit stunned, perhaps as rabbits might consider a four-legged wolf in the wild. In his telling, it wasn't the poor who would instigate a hot revolution, but the rich, sick and tired of having their entitlements inconvenienced. 

After a moment, I asked a last question of the man, whose candor seemed to offer a fascinating glimpse into the ruthless rationale of power, completely detached from the people whose lives, sweat, and suffering built his wealth and privilege. “People of all parties seemed to think that when the PRI won back the Presidency in 2012, that they would establish order. That it might be corrupt, but that business would flourish, money would flow, and the drug cartels would stay in line. It seems that none of this has happened. The cartels are rampant, business is floundering, the peso is at 15 to the dollar. How does this make you feel?”

I wasn't sure if he would answer my question. But he did. “It makes me very worried. And very sad. Imagine,” he said, “there are still four years left of this presidency. These are not going to be good years.”