My Human Terrain, Part Two: “Which way to the bombs?”
I had time to notice that Mitzy’s allegedly tough, allegedly punk friend Corr, next to me in the back, wasn’t moving, wasn’t doing a thing to stop the fists slamming down. I was surprised; my capacity for surprise, which is to say “never learning a damn thing,” was virtually infinite.
What astonished me even more was Mitzy’s reaction. She was frozen in terror at the wheel, doing nothing. Which seemed to leave me as the only functioning mind in the car. We couldn’t go forward; that truck wasn’t going to move in our lifetimes. If we stayed here, they’d beat Ms. Film School to death, which at the time seemed like a bad thing.
A rock smashed into the windshield, making a fine pattern of safety-glass mosaic. I leaned into Mitzy’s ear and screamed, “Go back! Reverse!”
She woke and reversed out of there. But her instincts quickly reasserted themselves: Two blocks out of trouble, she was already ranting that every one of us was going to pay a quarter of the windshield repair costs. She meant it, too. Hunted all of us down, and I kicked in my quarter, after a little grumbling about having told certain people not to go down certain streets.
By this time, Mitzy was mainly concerned with her move to grad-school, Anthro at Yale, to which end I bought her the pearls I had apparently promised at some time past. Then she got in her big retro car and I waved goodbye, as she headed back to the East, with its gullible preppies, mixed drinks, a tepid ocean, names like “Jean-Paul Gaulthier.”
She wrote me occasionally; it was a little before emails, and you had to do letters if somebody didn’t have a phone, which I didn’t. The first year sounded grim, the collision of Marin and preppie manners, but sometime in her second semester, she figured out that what had been puzzling her about the Yale faculty was a reluctance to believe they were as gullible and stupid as they were. From then on, Mitzy at Yale was in the position of Ted Hughes’ hawk: “I kill where I please because it is all mine.” For the next year she was overjoyed at the convenient ignorance of her tie-wearing colleagues. They knew nothing. It was like they lived in a box; you could do anything to them.
There are social barriers between Marin and the NRA, and I thought those might last longer than the, you know, moral kind.
She moved fast, sticking with the Irish stuff, a little shocked to see the old snobberies still operating. She wrote me once that when she asked the department chair how she could learn Irish, he sneered, “Try the janitors.” At that time, she was still ostensibly on our rebel side, but that seemed to change fast as she moved into the creepy, well-funded world where the three-letter agencies meet the patched-elbow and pipe crowd.
She started boasting about going to their conferences. That was a shock. These were port-sipping pigs who’d given suggestions to the British Army how better to win over hearts and minds in Ballymurphy, while continuing to point muzzles at kids buying milk on the corner. At first Mitzy would insist she was there as an infiltrator, but that was too dumb for either of us to believe. She was always a joiner, and here was this club that drove cars worth more than the combined income of our whole Irish Northern Aid gaggle.
She still ran with the fox occasionally, though; going to Belfast and Derry for the Sinn Fein tour. She charmed them as usual in West Belfast, supplied with introductions from all our friends from Geary Street. But after each visit, she’d be off to another East-Coast conference talking to Kennedy-style academic quasi-spooks from both sides of the pond, and I knew her; I knew she loved to boast, to show off. She’d spill everything she knew, and those decent, straightforward IRA guys, because that’s what they were like, most of them, had probably told her way too much. Not me, of course; they kept a tight lip around me, the idiots. But Mitzy had them all dazzled.
My only comfort was that she seemed to have done an even better, faster job on the Anthro faculty at Yale. There were famous names fighting to be her advisor on the Ph.D. dissertation she published under the title “Pax Britannica.”
It was full of the cant of the 1990s, lots of “the body”; but what she’d really learned at our meetings was genealogy. These wars are family, nothing but family. We were at a movement wedding once in San Jose; five brothers from Derry, in a great mood because the middle one had just gotten off when he should’ve been going away for 20 years. It seems the judge was retiring and in a good mood.
But then the next-oldest brother, the smart one, looked down the lot of us, the Ireland’s 32 gaggle of dweebs, and stared out at the freeway, muttering, “If I grew up here…you wouldn’t find me wasting time.” I think even the dummies got it: We were Trekkies to him.
Mitzy was the only one who profited by it. And her first step in the big pivot was losing the name. “Mitzy” wasn’t gonna do it in the Jean-Paul Gaulthier world, so she changed it to “Montgomery” somewhere on the road, in her big car, on the trip back east. It was something to do with Montgomery Clift, which was embarrassing. He was that campy ’50s dead guy, and worse yet a name in a song by the fucking Clash. We used to have a photo of that idiot band’s one visit to Belfast, with our caption, “Which way to the bombs?” And now she was “Montgomery.” Granted, “Mitzy” isn’t a good start in life, but there has to be some answer this side of “Montgomery.”
Her letters were like updates from a leopard around dusk, as it blended with its ambush site for the night’s profit. After the Yale Ph.D., she was so pleased with the easy pickings back in the land of trust-fund dummies that she signed on for another stint, this time Harvard Law. That one was even easier than Yale Anthro; there was a stipend involved or something that made the boredom worthwhile.
We met once more in the early 1990s. She was back in the Bay Area. I was stuffing my fat belly into a cheap suit to go to yet another MLA interview; the convention was in SF that year, so at least I wouldn’t go broke on the airfare before getting my rejection letter. She and Corr breezed in—he had his mouth open with no words in it, as usual—but Mitzy was urbane enough for two. For three, in fact, counting me. I was an object of pity and a little amusement, a little gratification. And I agreed with her. As did, the bored professors who went through the motions crossed my name off the list, and sent me the “No thanks” letter a few months later.
Then I got saved. New Zealand saved me. In 1993 Otago University decided they needed somebody to teach “Communication” to a thousand med students a year, and I got an interview in Dunedin, a cold town at the end of the world, smelling of lamb-fat and coal smoke. The interview involved actual questions about literature, and they were pleased I could recite the canon from memory. No US interview panel had asked me about literature; it was all collegiality and syllabi. These NZ professors were doofii like myself. The only one who said anything about clothes was the lone American in the group, a stiff from the suburbs of Atlanta by way of U Chicago, who chuckled to me years later, “Oh, that interview! Your poor suit! That suit was suffering!”
The NZers on the panel hadn’t noticed. Half of them were wearing jerseys of indescribable color and scent, and they cared about clothes and syllabi no more than I did. We were busy trying to imitate the bellbirds in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens and remember the third verse of Cowper’s “Castaway.”
They offered me the job, and I grabbed for it like the Castaway grabbed for “the hoop, the cask, the knotted cord” thrown by his shipmates. There were some scary months before the NZ government would let me in—I had to see a cardiologist, go on blood-pressure meds—but after screaming at me, “You’ve hurt your heart! How did you hurt your heart?” he signed off on a letter that I wasn’t likely to die at NZ taxpayer expense anytime soon, and I was gone, gone, out of Berkeley forever, being invited to dinner parties in the cold brick houses of Dunedin.
That was the glorious decade of my life. I lost 40 pounds, went on antidepressants, published a half-dozen books and hundreds of articles, got up in the morning eager to get to the university to see my goofy, erudite colleagues. Best of all, I found the woman to whom I’m still happily married. True, I left the job in 2002 and began the, ah, picaresque, which is to say “impoverished,” stage of my life, and it remains very, very, way too picaresque to this day—but for a decade, in Dunedin, I knew what it was to have a place, to be someone.
So if Dunedin ever needs a VBIED driver, it’s welcome to put my aged ass in the driver’s seat of the Holden and head to the target, keeping to the left side (don’t want any of those stupid wrong-way tourist accidents). Greater love have no man, or at least not this one. I don’t like walking, and with the vest you have to walk, and they’re probably really hot.
Happiness makes you lose focus. I lost track of Mitzy between 1993 and the early 2000s, but she seemed to be having problems leveraging her Yale Ph.D. and Harvard law degree into the kind of money she wanted.
As email became more common, she sent me a few messages, with a grim, nervous undertone, no gloating. I gathered, reading between the clicks, that she’d come back to San Francisco and signed on with Baker & McKenzie, the biggest corporate law firm in SF.
But she quit after a few weeks. Something about the lifestyle. My impression is that senior partners are much harder to tease and twist than Yale profs. There was enough money in the Baker & McKenzie world to draw other predators, with all of Mitzy’s skills and glossier manners.
Then began her wandering years. She married an ex-army officer named Sean Sapone. The two of them wandered around Europe “drinking beer and seeing operas.”
It didn’t make much sense. I was too busy and happy in Dunedin to figure out what’d happened, but it seemed an odd destiny for someone who’d done so well back among the preppies. And what was this nonsense about beer and opera? I didn’t want to be a snob, but that she, who’d roared through band-quality meth and sung “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” should condescend to beer and opera seemed a bit gauche.
But she knew what she was doing. I was the one who was going to finish up broke. She’d figured out that the world of beer and opera had the real power. Maybe it was lame, but so what?
The clan she’d married into, the Sapone/McFates, were rightwing mutant dirty tricksters by trade. Her husband Sean was the prototypical weak son; it was his fearsome mother, Mary, who called the shots. She recruited Mitzy—Sorry, I can’t call her “Montgomery”—to do some truly terrible things, stuff that still shocks me. It was bad enough to be worth an exposé in Mother Jones:
“A resume that Montgomery Sapone used around 1999 describes her role within Mary Lou's business: ‘Collect and analyze intelligence on European activities of major international environmental organization for a company specializing in domestic and international opposition research, special investigations, issues management and threat assessment. Write weekly intelligence update on European animal rights and eco-terrorist activity. Assist in confidential litigation support research.’ …According to a Strategic Solutions Group invoice sent to BBI in November 2000, Montgomery Sapone—a Harvard law school grad and Yale-trained anthropologist—once billed the security firm $400 for four hours of her time, which included a ‘visit to target's office.’”
She and her sleazy kin worked for the NRA, lowest of the low. That one shocked me most of all; there are social barriers between Marin and the NRA, and I thought those might last longer than the, you know, moral kind.
All the rage from the lefties turned her ambitions in a new direction, one where they prefer that you have a few crimes on your CV. She sent me a very relieved, happy email boasting that she and Sean had just gotten a big contract from “a three-letter agency.” They couldn’t hire her; drug policy, and she wasn’t dumb enough to lie about that. So they hired the two of them as contractors rather than employees (Walmart style, but with a couple of extra zeros) to teach army officers to pacify villages in the approved Yale Anthro manner. No doubt the favor came from one of the Colonel Blimps she’d met over cocktails at those East-Coast seminars. God knows the US needed some help, as it discovered with shock after 2003 that these Iraqis and Pashtun refused to put their dukes up and face the M-1s fairly, man to man. The US forces, which had taken all of Iraq in 2003 with only about 500 KIA, had 906 people killed in 2004, after the “Mission” was supposedly “accomplished.” The US continued to lose about 75 people per month, not counting mercenaries, for the next three years, with casualties hitting a peak in 2007, when almost a thousand American volunteers died in shame, roaring around neighborhoods they didn’t know in vehicles that were easy prey for buried Soviet artillery shells that cost about one-millionth as much as the vehicles they blew up.
You may have heard some polite hints that the US occupation was badly conducted. Whatever you heard, it was much, much worse, a war run by an idiot, full of sound and money, vile and idiotic beyond any parallel I can find in military history. Don’t say “Vietnam”; that was the people who defeated the Mongols. The US effort in Nam was subtle, modulated, suave, compared to our Iraq cakewalk, a cakewalk by Frankenstein’s monster with its hair on fire.
And the US had absolutely no idea who was killing its people and blowing up its vehicles and mortaring its bases. You really can’t exaggerate the stupidity of the US forces in Iraq from 2003-2007. Collins’ phrase, “a blind giant,” gives them way too much credit. A blind pithed giant frog rolling around in the dried mud, lashing out with its tongue, gets much closer to what the US response was like.
An Army up-and-comer, Lt. Col. John Nagl, finally said what everyone knew: Nagl’s first try at getting the Army interested in Counter Insurgency (CI) back in 2002 had no impact on doctrine in Anbar Province, but by 2007 the brass gave him the job of writing a handbook on the topic, in which he quoted a former Chief of Staff on what happened in Iraq:
“We put an Army on the battlefield that I had been a part of for 37 years. It doesn’t have any doctrine, nor was it educated and trained, to deal with an insurgency . . . After the Vietnam War, we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.”
That’s what you call comic understatement. Yes, forgetting about CI warfare when you’re going to occupy a large, heavily-armed Middle Eastern country is “a bad decision” of some significance.
The funny thing was that I knew it would go that way, and said so, over and over in print, losing my one chance for fame and fortune by refusing to join the war fever. If I’d published a big gung-ho War Nerd book in 2004, I wouldn’t have been homeless by 2008, wouldn’t be writing this from a tiny hotel room in a place where the door doesn’t even close.
It was the Irish stuff that taught me—and Mitzy. Once the Tan War had soaked into your bones, you knew perfectly well what the US occupation of Iraq was going to be like.
As US casualties in Iraq went into four figures, the Army was finally ready to grit its teeth and deal with the eggheads again. That was the beginning of the Human Terrain System.
In 2005, a very bad year for the Army in Iraq, “Dr. Montgomery McFate” and her shadowy colleague, Andrea V. Jackson (try finding a photo of Andrea) started a pilot project, COR-HTS, designed to put anthropological know-how, assuming there be such a thing, to the US armed force’s use. They could have hired any man or woman from A-town for about one-millionth the price, and they’d have said, “Have you tried learning the lingo, talking to people? Oh, and another thing that helps is keeping track, you know, finding out who lives where. The big thing to remember, though, is to make sure you know which families have been in the struggle down the generations; find the head of the house and see what he’ll take to sit home for a while.”
But that’s not how the Army does things, or the US in general. It’s about the last thing any American would do, in fact. They went with a huge program, HQ’d in Fort Leavenworth —because when you think of a base to prep people for the Sunni Triangle you naturally just think “Kansas! Put it in Kansas!”
Then they provided Mitzy and Andrea, two suspiciously academic women (by Army standards) with a minder, a man who has to be seen to be believed. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Col. Steve Fondocaro.
Sometimes I think physical comedy is the essence of America, most of all when it thinks it’s being serious. Fondocaro… well, look at him. You know he was there to calm down the tankers and junior Pattons who didn’t want to know about this softly-softly stuff.
The mix worked, and the US military, in its usual way, ruined it by demanding an instant 400% increase in the slow development the program needed. Just as the services had ruined an earlier CI campaign, the Green Berets, by tossing thousands of shake-and-bake commandos into what was originally a slow, village-based program, the Army decided to hire every unhireable Humanities Ph.D. in the US (which, by this time, was pretty much all of them) to go talk to Pashtun patriarchs and Sunni elders in Anbar about how we might make the occupation more comfortable for them.
It was the Irish stuff that taught me—and Mitzy. Once the Tan War had soaked into your bones, you knew perfectly well what the US occupation of Iraq was going to be like.
Mitzy hit her peak, and it was quite a peak, in 2007, when Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency 101 reforms made the US Iraq effort slightly less spectacularly clueless, and the casualty counts started to go down. Suddenly the woman I knew as Mitzy was everywhere. I got an email from a reporter at SFGate Magazine. He’d written a gushing profile of Mitzy, and wanted to do a followup. She’d mentioned, he said, that I had “taught her the rhetoric of terrorism” at UC Berkeley. I’d never taught any such course, and wasn’t happy about the fact that I’d been airbrushed out of her history now that she was respectable and I was nobody. So I wrote back to say that I doubted we understood “terrorism” in the same way. The reporter’s response began with the exclamation, “Goodness!” and I understood how far I’d wandered from acceptable American discourse. I could hardly read the rest; just kept thinking, “How can you write the word ‘goodness’ with an exclamation point after it?”
How Mitzy, who had a real houseboat tongue on her, managed to talk to these people without offending them every second word, I never understood. But then she’d always been a jargon-sponge, a joiner.
As she rose in the big, bad military/think-tank world, she drew the hatred of the anthro professors guild. Which was annoying, because I had good cause, decades of cause, to hate North American professors, and didn’t want to agree with them about anything. It was especially irksome that Mitzy’s chief accuser was a Canadian leftist anthropologist named Maximilian Forte, a classic of the breed, a privileged white male who makes a tidy sum talking about white male privilege. Worse yet, he taught at Concordia, which was notorious at Berkeley for hiring only the most insufferable, canting, progressive hypocrites among our grad students. A more loathsome group of people it would be difficult to find, and yet I knew they were right. This is a common feeling for Berkeley vets, agreeing with the whole agenda of people whose very names and voices trigger your gag reflex.
What finally brought Human Terrain crashing down onto the, er, human terrain inhabited by us nobodies was opposition from the other side, the hardcore tankers who loathed the idea of doing anything resembling touchy-feely CI warfare. They didn’t want to send their guys to learn Pashtun and learn to wipe their asses with a rock, they wanted to wargame the Fulda Gap, like the good old days. Fuck the wars that actually happen, those bug hunts; they dreamed of the good old Cold War, when nothing real ever eventuated.
And they had their ammunition when Mitzy’s crusading Ph.D.s started dying in ways horrible enough to get publicity. One of them, Michael Bhattia, died from an IED in Khost; Nicole Suveges, “a funny, kind person” according to her HTS death notice, was blown to bits in Sadr City in Baghdad.
But the most cinematic, grotesquely comic, most utterly horrible death was Paula Loyd’s. She—also a nice, funny person who joked “I always wanted plastic surgery” after being burned over 60% of her body, was set on fire by a Pashtun man in southern Afghanistan. Loyd was one of the decent Ph.D.s, you could tell that just reading her nightmare story; a nice person who took the job with HTS because there weren’t any other jobs for our crowd anymore. A nice, blond, middle-class, moderate-feminist American… sent to a Pashtun village in Kandahar Province, Mullah Omar’s home turf. The Children’s Crusade seems like sound military strategy compared to this.
Loyd, her notebook or recorder ready, asked a man named Abdul Salam about the price of kerosene. Salam happened to be carrying a tin of kerosene. The temptation must have been too great; he poured it over Loyd and set her on fire.
After she fell screaming in agony, the grotesque comedy continued. Loyd’s bodyguard, angry that he’d failed to do his job, clotheslined Salam, tied him up. Some soldiers told the bodyguard Loyd was horribly maimed. The bodyguard took out his sidearm and shot Salam in the head. For which, believe it or not, the bodyguard was tried for murder.
That line from Apocalypse Now, “Like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,” comes to mind. The horrible jokes kept coming; the bodyguard was convicted of murder but only got probation… and a $12,500 fine.
Where’d the judge get that amount? Is that the price on a Pashtun murderer? Probably steep, in village terms, but seems a little low by the standards of US jurisprudence. But then, how sorry do you have to be for the woman-hating village jerk who set Loyd on fire? (Pashtun proverb: “A woman’s place is in the house or in the grave.”)
The random violence bounced both ways in Waymand; it was also where a gang of US servicemen decided to start their own mindless assassination program, mainly because the locals disliked them and tended to try to kill them.
I know personally how easy it is to be lured into death-traps by the kind of money the DoD can hand out. I went to Iraq because the neocons who ran a university there offered me more money than I’d ever made in my life—much more. Ended up loving the place, but I was fired after a year when they saw my Iraq-War stories. We ended up homeless, and I went back to lobbying for jobs in killing zones, like Kabul. l still don’t know why they turned me down for that TESOL job in Kabul (unless the idiots have finally learned to Google, which I doubt.). That was real money, and we were begging at public libraries and homeless shelters by that time. A bomb seems like a small problem compared to poverty, the real kind, in Anglo North America.
It’s one of the problems, judging Mitzy’s works and deeds, because whatcha might call the ambient level of horrible (including me, Oh yes, very much) is so high it’s hard to be too hard on her. Who’s the good guy, that Canuck anthropologist? Don’t make me laugh.
Forte, the self-righteous, tenured accuser, published a post on the death of the HTS woman in Iraq which is a classic of its kind for its stern yet modulated refusal to mourn this collaborator with Imperialism. Like so much academic righteousness, it makes you sick. Why do you think she was in Sadr City, Professor Forte? She liked interviewing slum mullahs? Why do you think all these poor bastards were in places they knew very well they weren’t welcome and stood a good chance of dying? Because it was 2008, you smug bastard; you know what 2008 was like for the untenurable? I would have jumped at that Kabul job.
In spite of everything, I can’t be too hard on Mitzy. She’s a con-man, so are we; she did well for a while, then fell, like you will, like I did.
All I actually know about Mitzy, present-tense, is that she lives on the East Coast. Last I heard from her, she sent me a short message that “they sent the [HTS] Program in a direction I couldn’t support, so I had to quit.” One odd thing: The email vanished in a few minutes. Some gadget, I imagine, picked up by one of her NSA-geek admirers.
I don’t know how to close this up, just as I didn’t know how to start. Vaya con dios, vaya con Satan, whatever.