Thursday, 26 September 2013

Puppetmasters - Philip Willan

Having recently finished reading Daniele Ganser's book about Gladio , my appetite for additional knowledge and information on this and related subjects was aroused.  I came across Philip Willan's book, Puppetmasters, subtitled "The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy".

This is a riveting but at times chilling exploration of Italian terrorism from the late 1960s through to the early 80s, the period generally referred to as "the years of lead", and how this was directed, influenced and manipulated by sinister conspiratorial forces.

The book features a particularly thorough and intensive look at the kidnapping and murder in 1978 of the former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who at the time was on the verge of securing an agreement for Communists to enter the government in Rome.  These enquiries bring together many of the strands associated with the Gladio phenomenon, and the "strategy of tension".  Many of the deceptions, ambiguities and irregularities arising from the case are probed. The author does not just pose the banal question "who benefited from Moro's demise?". Instead he puts forward evidence that the affair was much more complicated than was portayed at the time, mostly pointing to the behaviour of the Italian security services and police, and the fate of some of those people who may have had knowledge of what went on.

Studying this particular subject requires the reader to take each quote, assertion and allegation with a pinch of salt, as the whole structure seems to have been founded on a game of multiple, mutual blackmail. Everybody seems to have possessed knowledge of where some of the bodies were buried.  It may be possible to construct an organic mental picture of what the true story was, the bricks being those fragments of the tale which appear most plausible, and which make sense in the big picture.

The most pertinent conclusion which I drew from this book was how acutely the boundaries between "goodies" and "baddies" were blurred.  It is strongly alleged and suspected that the so-called "guardians of democracy", and their associates in other organizations, infiltrated left-wing groups and orchestrated some of their blood-soaked actions, as part of their campaign to induce the public to retreat to the secure bosom of the "security" provided by the Right. The thorough and methodical way in which the author sifts through the evidence and the labyrinthine grid of connecting players makes the case compelling and disconcerting. Who in the final analysis had the more honest, noble and selfless aims and values?

A well-structured and unvarnished telling of one of the more sordid and cruel chapters in post-war European history....

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nato's Secret Armies - Daniele Ganser

Despite my interest in political and military history, the "Gladio" phenomenon had largely passed me by until I became a regular internet user, and its wider visibility received an additional boost by the whole conspiracy theory "industry" of the past couple of decades, of which it forms an integral part.

There are innumerable books and documentaries out there, of varying credibility, but one of the most widely publicized documents on the subject is "Nato's Secret Armies", by the Swiss academic Daniele Ganser. Not a vast tome, but it gives a digestible and lucidly argued version of what occurred.

To summarise, the "Gladio" project stemmed from a desire by Western governments and intelligence services to install a network of "stay behind" agents and operatives in European countries in the aftermath of World War 2 , to provide information and engage in subversive activities in the event of a Soviet/Eastern Bloc invasion.  It has been shown that these networks to varying degrees mutated or were co-opted, and turned their belligerence on political opponents, civilians and the fabric of society. "False flag" terrorist attacks were carried out, often by extreme right-wing groups, and were then falsely attributed to the radical left.  It would seem that some of  those in positions of power, in intelligence services for example, perpetrated cover-ups in order to protect the existence of the "Gladio" system, and also to shield acolytes.

There is an academic bent to this book, as might be expected given the author's background, and the text drips with some vehemence, indignation and stridency, which is understandable when one objectively appraises the subject matter.  The translation into English (if indeed it was translated into English) is not 100 percent perfect, but this is not a major drawback.

Much of the material which has been in the mass media about "Gladio" has concentrated on its highly visible and dramatic manifestations in Italy between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, with also some attention given to events in Belgium and Germany. Ganser's work provides a more broad, all-encompassing view of the saga, looking at the less publicized facets of the scheme.  We also gain an idea of the attitudes at national, European and NATO level, and the differing reactions of those kept out of the loop, and those who had been privy to details, and feared exposure and scrutiny.

There is little scope for levity in an expose of Gladio, but there is a certain grim humour to the efforts of the former Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, who after being nudged into publicly disclosing the existence of the networks, then decided to stress the involvement or complicity of other Western governments and officials. We are told of the often comically contradictory and obtuse answers given by officials at Nato and elsewhere, when questioned about Gladio.

This book benefits from using a wide and varied range of sources, from officials, researchers, journalists, participants and so forth. One can argue that this approach limits the prospect of a plague of disinformation and sensationalism. I found myself mentally sifting through the welter of claims and allegations, methodically deciding which were more credible than others.

There is a revealing and detailed explanation of the origins of the secret networks, linking them to projects already initiated during the war, primarily those overseen by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Some effort is made to place the advent of Gladio in its historical and geopolitical contexts. The book format is more conducive to a comprehensive look at the motivations for setting up the structures, and how they developed and evolved. Audio-visual accounts often look and feel disjointed and nebulous, zeroing in on the eye-opening and blatantly insidious aspects, and not necessarily capturing the essence of the big picture. Ganser manages to join some of the dots, also outlining the Nato co-ordination mechanisms with valuable clarity.

A few insinuations are made about the the British and American attitude to Communism, vis-a-vis the Third Reich, which many will find contentious, but they are difficult to ignore. Nato's Secret Armies is quite uncompromising in that respect.

Cutting through everything for me is a hunch that the original Gladio "stay behind" forces would have been ineffectual and inadequate anyway. They only became truly sinister and potent when the emphasis changed from the "resistance" role to that of domestic subversion and manipulation.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that the latter was the main intention all along. The pressure being exerted by the initiative's main sponsors seemed to indicate that this was the case.

Sensibly, the work proceeds to divide itself into chapters addressing the operations and events in each country. It almost doubles as a kind of potted history of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. The shadowy figures, the abuses and malpractice, and the unsavoury regimes allegedly propped up and tolerated by our so-called democracies.  The salutary cases of Chile and Algeria come under the microscope.

As I worked my way through Nato's Secret Armies, it increasingly occurred to me how bankrupt and bereft of moral self-confidence the Western powers must have been, when they felt the need to indulge in such chicanery, even as an adjunct to other propaganda. Clearly the merits of peaceful and honest ideas were not deemed totally sufficient to dissuade people from embracing Communism.

One of the most poignant parts of the account of the early days of Gladio is the extent to which some European statesmen had to compromise their liberal, democratic principles and acquiesce in the project. Their reliance on American economic and military aid presumably ensured this. At that stage, expediency must have overridden almost everything else.  Desperate times, and all that?

Can it be argued that the basic "stay behind" concept in itself was sensible and sound from a strategic and military standpoint, and that the flaw in its implementation was the lack of democratic or parliamentary oversight and control?  Was it realistic to expect that such supervision could have been undertaken, in the paranoid and insecure post-war period?  It is clear that the Americans in particular did not trust everybody to be furnished with details of the covert operations.  Consequently the imperatives of secrecy and Cold War expediency won out.  The ends justify the means?

It must also be asked whether all the terror, subversion and manipulation actually made any difference to public opinion, and the political climate, in the countries concerned.  I suppose that it is almost impossible to quantify this, except to point out that the "status quo" prevailed, but was this in spite of rather than because of these nefarious activities? Some of the motivation must have stemmed from the powerlessness, desperation even, felt by those in the West, and the sense that they needed to "do something", no matter how dubious in moral and strategic terms.  Not that this excuses much of what went on....

The contention that these measures were primarily ideological, rather than based on a cogent assessment of the real strategic situation at the time, is hard to rebut. Many of the organisations which were infiltrated, discredited or marginalised were committed to achieving their practical objectives through peaceful and democratic means. The Italian Communist Party is perhaps the most obvious example.  It makes one wonder who the real "democrats" were...

It may be unwise and unfair to pronounce uniform motivations and reasons for the "mutation" of some of the secret armies across Europe. Much of the disquiet has revolved around the recruitment of assorted unedifying figures from the defeated Axis powers. The stated rationale was that these individuals could accomplish Allied aims quickly and efficiently, when needs were pressing.  Our old friend Expediency again?

In other places, naivete may have been a factor, the misguided view that these people would not do anything seriously untoward. As a counter-argument, a look at the political inclinations of some of the "stakeholders" should surely have raised the alarm?  The need for secrecy, and the web of intrigue spun within the overall network, seems to have ensured that nothing was done.

The worrying thing is that even today a fair percentage of the population would unquestioningly endorse the unethical and murderous measures undertaken during the Gladio years. We should rejoice in the knowledge that we have journalists, authors, researchers and academics who tirelessly strive to extract the truth in such matters.  Of course, the odd honest and courageous politician always helps....

Although not perhaps a definitive account of its subject, Nato's Secret Armies is an absorbing and disturbing read.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Hunt versus Lauda - BBC documentary

Unsurprisingly, the release of Ron Howard's motion picture "Rush" has triggered much media coverage of the rivalry between the 1970s Grand Prix drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.  Last night BBC television rescreened its documentary entitled "Hunt vs Lauda - F1's Greatest Racing Rivals".  Some enthusiasts might dispute the accuracy of the second half of that title, but I thought it was an entertaining documentary, with some rare footage, and cutting and amusing analysis by those who were close to the action.

It was superior I think to the BBC's similar effort of years gone by, which was part of the "Clash of the Titans" series.  Some additional but revealing snippets of footage have naturally come out of the woodwork in the intervening years, and a broader list of contributors was on to hand to offer its memories and observations.

I thought that the producers did a good job of highlighting the differences in personality, without distorting the truth for dramatic effect.  The relationship between the the two men was by all accounts a good deal more complex than is often made out. It seems that they were on good terms even before they reached F1, and remained so thereafter, but the maelstrom of 1976 inevitably gave rise to tensions.

It would have been good to have more of the programme devoted to the lives of the drivers in their formative racing years, but I guess that the remit of the documentary, and time limitations, dictated that the main focus would be on the dramatic season of 1976. In all honesty, there is more than enough interest and intrigue in that year to justify three hours of running time, let alone one hour.

One of the things which continues to come through in all material about him is the web of contradictions which made up James Hunt.  A highly intelligent but unconventional character, who lived life to the full.  I still think that the definitive documentary about Hunt himself has yet to be made, one which fully examines his upbringing, his relatively short but tempestuous racing career, and his later life.  More emphasis on the Hesketh years would be particularly revealing!

I was also impressed by the way in which Niki Lauda's Nurburgring accident, and his recovery from it, were handled. Again, no resorting to sensationalism or mawkishness, but some very useful and penetrating insights. Lauda's honesty and courage shone through both in the 1976 footage, and in his later recollections.

The footage in this documentary amply illustrated the crossroads or watershed which 1976 represented for the sport.  Informality was still very much in evidence, as was diversity in aesthetics and car design. At the same time, commercialism and professionalism were increasingly making their presence felt.  The Hunt/Lauda dynamic became, if quite briefly, central to these processes. The changes being undergone by F1 definitely influenced how their relationship evolved, but by the same token they themselves acted as a catalyst for the further upheavals on the horizon.

Now, I just need to get myself to the cinema to watch the "Rush" movie myself....

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Eastern Front - 1914-1917 - Norman Stone

The First World War continues to hold a grim fascination for many, both because of the perceived futility of the conflict, and due to the watershed in history which it represented. Much of the mainstream material about the war focuses on the Western Front, and the horrific war of attrition in France and Belgium. In English-speaking countries, little is said about the Eastern Front by comparison, even though that arena was pivotal to the origins of the war, and how it unfolded on a wider scale.

I was therefore pleased to come across Norman Stone's study of the Eastern front, originally published in 1975. A relatively short, but highly informative work, which reaches beneath the surface of this theatre of the conflict, which is treated quite sparingly and superficially in many overall accounts of "The Great War".

My own feeling is that some chroniclers of the Eastern Front have their assessments unduly shaped by understandable enmity towards the Tsarist and Habsburg regimes, and therefore give a slanted or distorted interpretation of events and their causes, perhaps seeking out signs of basic inhumanity where in reality ineptitude, confusion and miscalculation are nearer the mark.

In this book, Stone certainly challenges some of the popular theories about why the Russians in particular suffered setbacks at various stages of the campaigns, on the question of the manufacture and supply of munitions for example. Whilst shortages did emerge, often they were not in themselves decisive, but sometimes proved a convenient excuse to conceal or refute other deficiencies.

I was at first surprised by how much space is dedicated to discussion of logistical and industrial matters, but on reflection I can see why this is the case.  By its very nature and geography, the eastern front placed much onus on movement via strategic railways, both in terms of mobilization and swift transportation of reserves. Also, the crises in the war-effort shed some light on trends and faults within Russian society which had major implications later on. It suited some dissenters to distort the truth, in order to exploit the situation for their own political ends.

As for the Austro-Hungarians, the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of the dual monarchy is laid bare.  It is noteworthy that Stone suggests that the various nationalities which made up the empire were not overly disloyal or hostile to begin with.  Indeed, it is pointed out that the Italian campaign inspired some unity, much more so than was evident in the Russian sector, where Slav was expected to fight Slav. It was only when mistakes and misfortune started to encroach that dissent and defiance became serious and widespread. Goodwill was regularly squandered because of callousness and insensitivity.

The paragraphs concerning Austro-German dialogue are quite revealing. From a comparatively early stage, aims and agendas seemed to be diverging, an the relations and dialogue illustrated how flimsy and rotten the alliance was.  It brings to mind the German remark about being "shackled to a corpse".

Another theme running through parts of this book is how, in its own way, the Eastern Front was just as inconclusive and frustrating as its western counterpart, if different in character. Almost throughout, it was more mobile and fluid, but hollow victories abounded for both sides, the "cause" hardly being advanced, and heavy losses incurred.

There is a chapter which largely concerns itself with Romania's very sad and wretched "cameo role" in proceedings. It is a moot point whether they were "bribed"or coerced into entering the war by the Entente powers against their better judgement, but in the final analysis the outcome of the affair arguably served the interests of the Central Powers more, and created some new anxieties for the Russians.

"The Eastern Front" concludes with quite an exhaustive examination of how the economic collapse brought about the misery, turmoil and discontent which triggered the revolution in Russia. A story of growing pains, dislocation, disarray and despair.

All in all, this book was not quite what I anticipated.  I expected a chronological rendering of the military campaign(s), with diplomatic and social context added.  In the event, it went well beyond that, and enhanced my knowledge and understanding not just of events in the east, but in the war overall.

A valuable and very readable book.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Raikkonen returns to Ferrari

After interminable speculation, rumour and counter-rumour, it has at last been confirmed by Ferrari that Kimi Raikkonen has signed a two-year deal to drive for them from the 2014 season. Thus comes to pass one of the more unlikely tales in recent F1 history - Raikkonen's restoration to the very top table, after a period in exile.

This is certainly a signal of some intent by the Scuderia, possibly heralding an uncompromising aim to return to the pinnacle of the sport, but also carrying with it risks and imponderables. The most glaringly obvious is how the drivers will handle the situation. Raikkonen is not renowned for being overtly political, and much of the uncertainty will centre on Fernando Alonso's attitude towards the arrangement.

In my opinion Alonso, such a brilliant all-round driver, should let his performances on the track do the talking, but as we know, human beings (and particularly racing drivers) are complex creatures, and we can expect at least some friction, real or imagined.  It is in the nature of the beast.  If the tensions are positively channeled, they could benefit the team, but this is easier said than done.

Despite getting together the most formidable driver line-up on the Formula 1 grid, Ferrari face other pressing challenges. In the past couple of seasons, the performance of their cars has been uneven, and if they do not adapt successfully to the new turbo regulations, the problems inherent in the "joint number one" set-up may be aggravated . Having said that, both drivers are capable of flattering mediocre cars, and the presence of two bona-fide superstars in the red projectiles will doubtless galvanize the team's personnel.

Raikkonen's return to the Prancing Horse will of course have knock-on effects throughout the grid.  It can be hoped that the Finn's vacated place at Lotus will be occupied by Nico Hulkenberg, so deserving of further advancement, and more consistently competitive machinery.  The reshuffle may yet enable Felipe Massa to continue his F1 career.

Today's announcement certainly adds an intriguing sub-plot to the 2014 season....

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

2013 US Open - Men's Final - Djokovic v Nadal

In the end, Rafael Nadal produced some of his patented tempestuous tennis to slowly overpower Novak Djokovic, and clinch his second US Open title in New York. Before Nadal's surge, however, there was some ebb and flow about the final at Flushing Meadows. At times, the level of play was stunning, even if it did not quite sustain the heights of excellence which we have seen in matches between the "big three" in recent years.

Nadal probably went into yesterday's final at Flushing Meadows as the marginal favourite, based on his and Djokovic's respective form in the build-up. The course and outcome of yesterday's final tended to confirm the view that Djokovic is not quite the well-oiled, chillingly efficient tennis machine of recent times. This is hardly surprising, as it would have been near-impossible to maintain that level for any great length of time. Yesterday there were even stages where his belief seemed to be sagging, but playing Nadal can have that effect on most people!

On the other hand, Nadal continues to astonish with his resilience and capacity to defy the doubters.  In the past couple of years, people have repeatedly asserted that his body will eventually cry enough, in the face of his relentless and vigorous style of play.  Each time, the Spaniard seems to return stronger in both body and spirit. The fire in his eyes, and in his belly, remain undiminished, it would appear.

There were times in the final yesterday when the match threatened to transform itself into a genuine "classic", as implied by the awesome 54-shot rally which saw Djokovic break serve in the second set.  Nadal's dynamism and zest however gradually took the match away from his opponent.  At this exalted level, the Serb only needed to drop marginally in intensity and consistency for it to be decisive.  Too many errors crept in as time went on. Nadal went majestically on in his unyielding, industrious way, and Djokovic struggled to respond in the last one-and-a-half sets.

So as the Grand Slams end for another year, what is the state of play, the pecking order if you will, at the top of men's tennis?  Well, it looks much more fluid these days.  With the travails of Roger Federer, do we even speak in terms of a "big three" or "big four" anymore?  Andy Murray's elevation to the status of Grand Slam winner has complicated such assessments, but I think some have excluded him from the top echelon, not because of any lack of accomplishment, but owing to his style of play.  This perception may soon have to change.

It's unfair to say that the "golden era" is unravelling.  It is just changing. More exciting times in store!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Freddie Mercury

Today would have been the 67th birthday of Freddie Mercury.

Freddie was one of the first rock performers to really catch my attention, and Queen's 1979 single "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was the first record I ever purchased.  Even before then, it was difficult to ignore his charisma and presence when he appeared on television. I was fortunate enough to see the band's performance in Leeds in 1982, when Freddie and the boys were in their absolute pomp as a concert act.

He had a relatively short, but remarkable life.  If anything, the legend continues to grow, although the mystique and aura were already there prior to 24 November 1991.

There was nothing "manufactured" about Freddie.  His artistic and stage persona grew from a number of disparate sources and influences, maybe also conditioned and affected by his upbringing and background. He was also largely "self-taught", and these factors ensured that he offered something genuinely original and compelling. I think he was once quoted as saying that his main influences were Liza Minelli and Jimi Hendrix....

Another of the captivating things about him was the contrast between the grandiose and extrovert performer who could have 80,000 people in the palm of his hand, and the more private, reticent offstage figure.  He subscribed to few of the established conventions of rock stardom, preferring to do things his own way.  Like the other members of Queen in the 70s and 80s, Freddie refrained from joining the self-styled "rock aristocracy", and I always felt that in those days they were outsiders.

Although undoubtedly oozing star quality and power, the celebration of these qualities should not be allowed to obscure Freddie's versatility and range as a vocalist. From delicate ballads to high-tempo rockers, to more pop-orientated material, he could handle it all.  I think that his voice was at its most flexible and potent in the early 1980s.  Just watch any clips from the concerts of that period, such as those in Montreal and Milton Keynes.

An indication of Freddie's vocal prowess can be seen in many of the attempts by people to cover Queen songs, or of the choice of material for Queen-related projects in the post-Freddie era.

The wider public has only grown to fully appreciate Freddie Mercury's uniqueness in the past two decades, but it is touching to see how much he is still loved and remembered. He is sadly missed...