Friday, May 20, 2022

My CIA Instructor Dutch: The Life Behind The Legend

If you’ve read my book The Chaos Kind, you might remember a certain CIA SOG (Special Operations Group) character named Dutch. And while I don’t write characters based on real people, that doesnt mean none of my characters were inspired by them...

So yes, there is a real Dutch, who a long time ago I was extremely lucky to train under—and now you can read the story of the life behind the legend.



The other instructors I trained with at the time, who knew Dutch better and in a different context, treated their colleague with reverence and even awe—but also with great affection because Dutch inspires all those reactions, and more. But for me, Dutch was primarily a teacher, and one of the best I’ve ever had.

What makes Dutch so special?

I would say: his combination of deep knowledge based on extremely hard-won experience; his ability to translate that experience to make it comprehensible to people like me who had never been through anything remotely similar; and his patience with, and compassion and affection for, his students. All driven by his determination to impart to his students skills that would make them more capable in their roles, and on which if things went badly they would be relying on to save their lives.

My fellow trainees and I spent barely two months under Dutch’s tutelage, and yet thirty years later we still talk about him and our memories of our time with him—he makes that much of an impression. Thank you Dutch, and thank you Kim for writing this book!

Monday, March 28, 2022

Will Smith, Chris Rock, and "Violence Is Never The Answer"

Not taking a position on last night’s Smith/Rock incident. But for anyone piously intoning some version of “Violence never solves anything, violence is never the answer, violence has no place in XYZ, etc,” have you considered what discourse would be like with zero possibility of offense to words leading to violence?


Actually, you don’t have to consider it; just log on to Twitter, or spend some time on Facebook, or check out the comments section of any blog dealing with an even remotely controversial topic. This is how humans devolve into talking to each other when they know it’s impossible their words could entail physical consequences. Are you sure you want that kind of discourse in the real world, too?

Or ask any woman you know about being harassed while walking down the street or riding the subway, and again you’ll have some idea of what discourse is like when the people talking are certain there can be no physical ramifications for what they say.

Violence is a big topic. It involves more than just the physical—more even than the threat of the physical. It also involves the mere possibility of the physical. Violence and all its elements have been with humankind forever. Anyone calling for the banishment of violence should have a clear idea of what they want banished, and the roles (often hidden) violence or any other thing serves in the vast system they’re certain banishment would improve.

Cue the outrage claiming that I love violence, that I think Will Smith was justified or even that he didn’t go far enough, that I don’t think violence carries any negative consequences whether for the individuals involved or for society, that I’m saying violent offense to words is the same as self-defense to actual violence, etc. It’s social media, after all, and indulging spurious outrage is the quintessence of the medium.

But I’m really not saying any of those things. I’m just suggesting that bromides will probably deliver results less helpful than an open mind and careful thought.

Violence is a language. Before opining about how it’s good for nothing or exclusively counterproductive, it might be helpful to learn a few words.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Where's the Outrage?

 Someone asked me in another thread why I’m not outraged about Ukraine.


Of course the question assumes that if a person isn’t obviously displaying an emotion, it follows that he isn’t experiencing it. But that’s trivia. What’s important is the underlying notion that outrage is desirable. My response:

"I don’t parade my outrage and in fact distrust outrage because of its inherent pleasures. I wish more people would do the same—the Internet, at least, would be improved by it.

"Here, I’m trying to approach as rationally as I can the problem of “How can we avoid having Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become the destruction of all humanity?” There’s more than enough war fever all over the west right now. If we get through this crisis without blowing up the world, it’ll be despite outrage, not because of it. And that in a nutshell is why I work hard not to join the outrage party but instead try to stand outside it."

The person also said, "But just once, I’d like to see you say: 'Goddamnit, this must not stand.'”

My response to that:

"I’m going to have to disappoint you. I find talk like that suspiciously onanistic. Worse, if it gets loud and contagious enough, it becomes dangerous. And regardless, it does nothing to solve problems.

Numerous voices in the west have been warning for years if not decades that NATO’s relentless expansion risked provoking a war with Russia. I’ll link to just one such article below; there are countless others, coming from left, right, former US ambassadors to the USSR and Russia and other Russia experts, even from Tom Friedman. My view is those voices have been proven right. Your view, I think, is that Russia was always going to invade Ukraine no matter what because Putin is at least as inherently evil as those countless Economist covers have depicted. For the moment, what matters more to me is getting through this without a nuclear war that would turn the entire planet into something that would make what’s happening in Ukraine seem like trivia. Again, if we get that lucky, the luck will have been influenced by reason, which is a struggle, not by outrage, which is a reflex.”

A few more thoughts:

If you want to see what war fever outrage leads to, it’s interesting to consider that at the outbreak of WWI, dachshunds were slaughtered in America because of their association with the Kaiser. That was a bit before my time, but I remember so much outrage in America at France’s reluctance to become part of what turned out to be America’s disastrous second invasion of Iraq (100,000 innocent Iraqis killed; 4,000,000 refugees created) that calling French Fries Freedom Fries was all the rage (you can’t spell outrage without rage).

(I didn't have a blog at the time so I don't think there's a record of it, but I was part of that outrage. I'm not proud of it, but I have tried to learn from it.)

I think that as a species we have a better chance of survival if we keep this kind of mentality as far as possible from questions involving nuclear weapons.

More recently, innocent Russians are being punished because…they’re Russian (or at least might be).

Reason takes work. Outrage is as easy as any other reflex, and feels good, too. Which is why reason is always scarce and outrage always abundant.

Of course, this time it's different. It always is.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

What America Should do About Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

From a comment I left in a Facebook thread asking me what America should do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:


I try to look at all countries, including America, the way a Martian would. If a Martian were trying to identify the most peace-loving and the most war-loving countries on this planet, where would the Martian rank America?

Of course I could be wrong, but my guess is that the Martian—judging by military budgets, overseas military bases, and number of “military actions”—would find America to be off the charts. The Martian would probably be intrigued to note that it’s only Americans who can’t see this. I would try to address the Martian’s perplexity by explaining that human perception is massively distorted by something called the fundamental attribution error. Were the concept new to the Martian, I would advise the Martian to use the Internet to look up this extremely important key to human behavior.

Anyway. I think that unless Russia’s war in Ukraine blows up into something bigger, up to and including the end of human civilization, it will be resolved by guarantees of Ukraine neutrality, meaning no western forces in and no NATO for Ukraine (this would probably apply to Georgia, too). These have been Russia’s demands since 2008, when America first started urging NATO to admit Ukraine and Georgia as NATO’s 31st and 32nd member states, and when Russia began making clear that it would go to war rather than allow such a thing to happen.

It’s interesting to note that George Bush Sr.’s Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev that in exchange for the Soviet Union acquiescing to a unified Germany becoming part of NATO (an extremely bitter pill for the USSR to swallow, given what Germany did to Russia in WWII), NATO would not expand “one inch” further east. After which, we flipped the entire Warsaw Pact into NATO and expanded the alliance all the way to Russia’s western border.

All of this is of course memory-holed in America, where Putin simply wantonly invaded Ukraine for no reason other than Peter the Great/Hitlerian dreams of conquest.

To me it feels like 1979, when Iranian students took the US embassy in Tehran and the hostage crisis began. Most Americans believed the whole thing started that day, that Iranians were just evil and for no reason wanted to give America a black eye, etc. I was 15 at the time and that’s what I thought. 1954, Mosaddegh, the entire history of US meddling and the coup that installed the murderous Shah regime…all memory-holed.

It’s always like this, but citizens seem not learn from the obvious patterns. Maybe it’s because the fight itself is so captivating; because the factors that led to the fight were hazy and not particularly cinematic and so went unnoticed by most people at the time; because once the fight is on, powerful, primitive emotions kick in and not just occlude the ability to reflect and to reason, but are so pleasurable that they cause people to *resist* reflection and reason, lest reason get in the way of the emotional high of The Good Fight.

It’s interesting to consider that the solution to conflicts is often obvious from the beginning, but ego prevents the actors from adopting the obvious solutions except at the brink. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is a perfect example. America had positioned Jupiter nuclear missiles in NATO member Turkey, on the USSR’s border. America launched the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961 (followed by the Operation Mongoose terror campaign). Cuba asked the USSR to position nuclear weapons in Cuba to forestall another US invasion and further US meddling. Khruschev agreed. America picked up the activity in satellite photos, blockaded Cuba, and threatened to sink any Soviet vessels that tried to breach the blockade.

Again, all the foregoing history is memory-holed in America. In the American popular imagination, without provocation Khrushchev aggressively and wantonly moved nuclear missiles into Cuba, after which brave John Kennedy cooly and intelligently faced Khruschev down. All that’s taught is the story of how America *resolved* the Cuban Missile Crisis. You have to go searching on your own if you want to understand what America did to *provoke* the Cuban Missile Crisis.

None of this is about blaming America, hating America, or Whataboutism, or any other such bullshit that people commonly throw up to protect their emotional attachment to the feeling that their own country is Good and the adversary is Bad. Mostly it’s about understanding that other people don’t see us the way we see ourselves, and understanding that other people don’t see themselves the way we see them. This is as old as Sun Tzu, but it’s given not much more than lip service, again and again with disastrous results.

Anyway, eventually the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by the Soviets publicly agreeing to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba; by America publicly promising not to invade Cuba anymore; and by America secretly promising to remove its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey (secrecy required to save face for President Kennedy, even though “Please remove your nuclear missiles from just a few miles from our border, where they’re needlessly provocative” was exactly America’s complaint about what the Soviets were doing in Cuba).

The solution to Russia’s war in Ukraine seems equally obvious. Getting to it without blowing up the world is another matter.

It’s worth noting in this regard that we did almost blow up the world before resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s much more on this, but just from Wikipedia:

During the blockade, "the US Navy dropped a series of ‘signalling’ depth charges (practice depth charges the size of hand grenades) on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the blockade line, unaware that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allowed it to be used if the submarine was damaged by depth charges or surface fire. As the submarine was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, the captain of the B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo. The decision to launch these normally only required agreement from the two commanding officers on board, the Captain and the Political Officer. However, the commander of the submarine Flotilla, Vasily Arkhipov, was aboard B-59 and so he also had to agree. Arkhipov objected and so the nuclear launch was narrowly averted.

“On the same day a U-2 spy plane made an accidental, unauthorised ninety-minute overflight of the Soviet Union's far eastern coast. The Soviets responded by scrambling MiG fighters from Wrangel Island; in turn, the Americans launched F-102 fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea.”

That’s the kind of shit that happens during the Fog of War. We have been unbelievably lucky, more times than any species deserves to be lucky. If you doubt that, Google Nuclear Close Calls.

I wish that instead of relying on luck, we would spend a little more time considering what could be done to avoid these wars and other crises. Because once they’ve begun, they seem not to get resolved except at the brink. One day, maybe this time, we’ll get to the brink and still won’t resolve it. We’ll go over. Over and out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

RIP Andrew Vachss, A Warrior Protecting Children

This morning I received extremely sad news: Andrew Vachss, a lawyer and novelist who dedicated his life to protecting children, is gone.

About ten years ago, International Thriller Writers asked a collection of novelists to contribute to a forthcoming book: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. My entry was about Vachss, who I didn’t know at the time other than by his reputation and through his novels, which I’d been devouring since first discovering them through the work of another writer, violence expert Marc MacYoung, in 1989. Sometime after Thrillers was published, Vachss got in touch and we became friends. We never met, though we would talk on the phone every few months. Those conversations were long and involved, and my wife Laura could always tell when I was talking to Vachss—everything about my expression and posture revealed how closely I was listening.

Vachss had an unusual and insightful take on everything: politics, writing, publishing, and most of all, human nature. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of crime, and his website will remain an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to learn more about human predators and how to combat them (as well as for thriller and mystery novelists who aspire to greater realism).

You might think someone who had seen the things Vachss had seen would be consumed by pessimism about our species. But a pessimist wouldn’t fight as hard or as long as Vachss did. I once asked him how he managed not to despair. He said, “Barry, why do you think I always ask about Emma [my daughter]?” I understood then. His calling was a battle with poisonous evil. The antidote was hearing about love. I told Em as much about Andrew as I told Andrew about Em, and I know the hug I got when I shared with Em the news about Andrew’s death would have meant a lot to him.

Vachss had a way of summing up concepts with deadly accuracy and memorable brevity. Love is a behavior, not an emotion. Behavior is the truth. Blood makes you related—love makes you family. He had no patience with platitudes like “to heal, you have to forgive.” He knew that forgiveness is a choice, not an obligation. As he put it, justice was his vehicle, but hate was the fuel it ran on. I borrowed that concept for my character Livia Lone because it suited her so perfectly, and dedicated my book The Killer Collective to Andrew and his wife Alice Vachss, a former sex crimes prosecutor and herself a warrior against human predation. I don’t think any novelist has had as big an impact on my writing as Andrew, and without Alice’s book Sex Crimes: My Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, Livia and her world would be far less real and compelling.

Andrew, who suffered from (though never complained about) various severe health problems, had no illusions about his own mortality. He often said that if he could go out carrying a bomb into a room filled with every child abuser on earth, he would do it gladly. Such a thing wasn’t possible, of course, at least not literally—but Andrew did give, he did dedicate, his life to the protection of children. If you want to honor his memory and his work, I’d suggest contributing to the Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection, an organization he founded and which even in his absence will continue to wage what Vachss called the only holy war worthy of the name.

If ever there was someone whose spirit will outlast him, it was Vachss. The world was made better by what he did with his time in it. And through all the children he saved, all the work he inspired, and all the battered souls he touched by speaking truth and abhorring bullshit, it will remain better even now that he’s gone.


Update

One more thought, about something I should have included in that last paragraph. Andrew liked to point out that child protection is crime prevention. So among the ways he made the world more positive is in a sense via a negative—crimes that would have happened, trauma that would have been inflicted, but didn’t because of Andrew’s work. Any of us might owe to Andrew the absence of some horror, and though we can’t measure such a thing, all of us are in his debt for it.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Talking Violence in Fiction and Fact With Tim Larkin

Hugely enjoyed doing this three-part talk with violence expert Tim Larkin, one of the people with whom I've been privileged to train and whose influences appear in my books. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.





Saturday, October 16, 2021

Flash-Forward Preambles: What, How, and When

Updated Below

For various reasons, recently I got a little obsessed with flash-forward movie and television preambles. That is, presentations that begin with a scene from later in the story, and then spend some amount of screen time catching up to the “later” scene that came at the start. How much catch-up varies. Sometimes the catch-up happens only a few scenes later; sometimes the preamble was actually the end of the movie.

I started by casually going through a bunch of movies I’d already seen and thought I knew well, and was surprised to find many more examples of the technique than I had expected. The flash-forward preamble gets used in all kinds of stories: action, comedy, drama, horror. My guess is that opening with a flash-forward has become more common as it’s become easier for viewers to switch to something else. Once upon a time, a movie meant something of a commitment—a drive, parking, $20 for tickets…various opportunity and transaction costs. If something didn’t hook you right away, your alternative was to get up and leave, eat the $20 and the other costs, come up with a new plan and go someplace else. All of which meant you’d be incentivized to stay, which in turn meant movies could take their time warming up.

Today, going to a cinema has become an ever smaller part of how people consume movies, and hundreds, maybe even thousands of alternatives are always just a click away. Meaning filmmakers are motivated to find ways to hook an audience immediately, and keep them hooked. One popular method seems to be the flash-forward preamble. I’ve even seen the technique creep into previews, which are now often presented with a quick flash-forward from something later in the preview before the preview opens and plays sequentially.

It’s worth emphasizing that the fundamental objective of the preamble is to hook the viewer. How the preamble achieves this is important but ultimately secondary. If the viewer is hooked, the preamble was a success. If the viewer isn’t hooked, the preamble failed.

Now let’s talk a bit more about: (1) what the technique consists of; (2) how it works (that is, what makes it work); and finally (3) when you might want to use it (that is, what kinds of stories lend themselves to the technique). And then we’ll finish with a list of examples. Sound good? Okay, here we go...

What It Consists Of

As already noted, the flash-forward preamble consists of something that happens later in the story, presented upfront. But that’s merely necessary, not in itself sufficient, and in the best executions there were other commonalities, which we can distill out as principles (no spoilers in here because hey, these are all openings):
  • A presentation of something central to the story. Examples:
  • Breaking Bad—the impossibility of simultaneously trying to be a meth criminal mastermind and inoffensive high school teacher family man (duty to others vs self actualization)

  • City of God—how to escape the favela when trapped between its warring forces (physical survival vs following your dream)

  • Goodfellas—the cost of becoming a gangster, which “I always wanted to be”

  • The Hangover—“Getting married in five hours,” “Not gonna happen, we lost the groom”

  • Nobody—“Who are you, really?” (which identify defines us and which should we be true to)
  • A complete presentation—that is, no fragments, no shadows, no direct mystery about what you see in the preamble, only an indirect mystery about how what you see in the preamble relates to the larger story. You can see everything, you just don’t yet know (but you badly want to know) how we got here, which makes you want to watch the rest of the movie or show.
How to Hook

The hook consists of two things:
  • doling out certain critical information on who, what, and where, to draw in the viewer and ground the viewer in the story; and
  • simultaneously causing intense curiosity about each piece of doled-out information, and ultimately instilling an even greater global curiosity about how and why we got here—a global curiosity that can only be satisfied by watching the rest of the show.
Sometimes preambles are expressed in terms of “teasing” the audience. I think this is a misnomer. Getting teased is easy to walk away from. Getting hooked, by definition, is not. So the goal isn’t to tease. The goal is to hook.

And because the goal is to hook—which requires both grounding and curiosity—it follows that more information in a preamble is good. But only as long as the curiosity created is commensurate. Lots of grounding plus lots of curiosity—answering lots of questions while posing other and more compelling ones—makes for the most effective hook, and therefore the most effective preamble.

Think of how much information is conveyed in the four-minute Breaking Bad preamble, or the one from Goodfellas. These are complete story moments—linear, chronologically intact fractals. The one exception I found is The Accountant, where too little information was presented (you cant even see whos involved), and not coincidentally that preamble was a relatively weak hook.

To put it another way: the preamble must offer substantial nourishment—while simultaneously, insidiously, and paradoxically famishing the viewer for more. That is, when it comes to preambles, less is not necessarily more. More can be more (another reason I dont like the teaser nomenclature).

For more general thoughts on how a story engages an audience, I recommend this terrific TED talk by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, The Clues To A Great Story.

It’s interesting to observe that among the examples below, almost every one involves a depiction of violence—either the violence itself, or the threat of violence, or its aftermath. This doesn’t mean that violence is necessary in a preamble; in fact, we know it’s not, because there are powerful instances of non-violent preambles (The Hangover, True Romance). But it certainly seems to be the case that violence can be useful.

And if most of this sounds relevant to story openings generally—it is! All openings should aim to hook, and all will do so with the paradoxical combination of nourishing and famishing discussed above. The flash-forward is just a particular way to do it.

Okay, now you know what it is and how it works. How do you decide if your story would benefit from it? After all, there are innumerable movies and television shows that hook you immediately without a preamble (though I do sometimes wonder whether even a masterpiece like Die Hard, were it made today, would have some studio executive saying, “Opening on the airplane is too slow and low stakes…do a flash forward to the explosion on the Nakatomi Tower rooftop and Bruce Willis leaping off with the firehose, then show a title card saying Six Hours Earlier and cut to the plane...”).

When To Use It

I think the stories that benefit most from a preamble are ones that in the absence of a preamble would begin with something slow, low-stakes, or otherwise not immediately gripping. If Vince Gilligan had opened the Breaking Bad pilot with Walter White in bed, then exercising, then eating breakfast, then getting disrespected at school and at his second job at the car wash, viewers might have grown impatient. But begin with that crazy Winnebago preamble, and for the rest of the pilot, viewers will be wondering, “How the hell do we get from this boring life to whatever that Winnebago thing was all about?”

Likewise, Brick is a noir mystery, but it’s set in a contemporary suburban high school. If Rian Johnson hadn’t opened with the dead girl in the culvert and Joseph Gordon-Levitt crying over her body, it would take much longer for viewers to understand that the stakes in this teenaged high-school world are actually life and death (and Johnson would have lost the opportunity to hook by making viewers wonder how and why the girl died, and what Gordon-Levitt’s connection with her was).

That said, while some stories might need a flash-forward preamble more than others, there are lots of reasons to use the technique beyond bare necessity, such as tone. But no matter what, the preamble should hook, or you risk losing your audience to one of the other thousand forms of entertainment always a click away.

Examples

I put together the following list from movies I know pretty well (and the television show Breaking Bad). I’m sure there are many more examples I haven’t thought of or don’t know of. Anyway, here you go.

Breaking Bad
Brick
Casino
Centurion
City of God
Deadpool
Deadpool 2
Fallen
Fight Club
Goodfellas
Hacksaw Ridge
The Hangover
John Wick
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Let Me In
Limitless
Nobody
Once Upon A Time In America
Out of Sight
Pulp Fiction
True Romance
The Usual Suspects

And some notables that start with a flashback preamble, but one that functions similarly to the flash-forward variety (interestingly, both are extremely violent):

Bad Times At The El Royale
Casino Royale

Okay, those are my thoughts. Take it all with a grain of salt because though I’ve written a bunch of novels and short stories, I’ve never had a movie or television show made. So I could be off base about any of this, and even if I’m not, I still have a lot to learn. To that end, please don’t be shy about mentioning any additional flash-forward preamble examples in the comments section, along with any thoughts about how you think the technique works and when it’s best to use it. Thanks and I hope these thoughts have been useful.

Update:

Should have thought to check Wikipedia earlier—lots of interesting thoughts and examples under In Medias Res and Flash-Forward.