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Soldiers of Reason

Vanity Fair
Alex Abella infiltrates the Rand Corporation, the top-secret think tank whose Soldiers of Reason (Harcourt) have been pulling the strings of American government for 60 years.
(Elissa Schappell, Hot Type, May 2008).

Book Forum
When Gerald Ford's secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, opined that "Spengler was an optimist," the world finally had the obiter dictum to sum up the trenchant doomism at the heart of the cold-warrior mentality-and the coldest of the cold warriors were at the rand Corporation, where Schlesinger had worked before ascending to the secretariat. In fact, his quip would serve well as rand's motto.

Although rand has arguably been the most influential nongovernmental policy organization in American history, until Alex Abella's Soldiers of Reason there was no comprehensive history of its inner workings, presumably because rand preferred it that way.

However, Abella was granted unprecedented access to the rand archives-save the top-secret material, of which one imagines there is bales. Having granted access, one staffer added that "agreeing to this book was either the brightest or the dumbest move rand had ever made." How it could be the brightest move is hard to figure, but how it could be the dumbest is unfathomable. After all, these are the people who helped bring us, among other things, the cold war, the arms race, the Vietnam War, the neutron bomb, Operation Rolling Thunder, Reaganomics, the S&L crisis, our health-care system, the mujahideen, the Iraq war, and, most famously, the sunny, sanguine ethos that shone on America's postwar years: mutually assured destruction.

Even as Eisenhower warned in his farewell address against the "military-industrial complex," what would become its most assertive avatar was gestating in the bowels of his administration (a mixed metaphor, but intentionally so). The precise combination of defense contractors, government officials, and academics that Ike regarded as so pernicious was taking shape at rand, then the in-house think tank of the US Air Force.

With the advent of nuclear warfare, the air force suddenly became a cogent force at the Pentagon. It was made into its own corps and, as such, began the endless lobbying for an ever-larger piece of the defense budget. rand, with its advocacy of nuclear arms, which at the time were delivered exclusively by bomber, provided continual justification for funding increases.

Through rand archival letters and memos, as well as numerous interviews, Abella goes a long way toward fleshing out which influentials passed through the rand offices, which, like the University of Chicago, became a site of genuflection for the devout, touring the neocon stations of the cross.

The two most definitive figures in the heyday of rand, when the theories and practices that would define the organization were being devised, were Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn. Wohlstetter, slim and almost reserved, and Kahn, rotund and voluble, were the apocalyptic Abbott and Costello, dueling geniuses of nuclear absurdism.

In one of the many logical cul-de-sacs that rand spawned, Kahn's and Wohlstetter's arguments purport to be contra mutually assured destruction. The idea is for our side not to be destroyed, which is to say that what is being advocated is a thermonuclear engagement in which we have the capacity to sustain an attack and survive-survive, that is, intact enough to launch a retaliatory salvo, the all-important, all-devastating "second strike." However, if one supposes the other side has the same in mind, this amounts to annihilation all around.

Deterrence theory can seem like a feedback loop, as Abella points out. "Wohlstetter's was a self-fulfilling prophecy," he writes. "Whether proffered sincerely or not, his pessimistic worldview helped to create a world in which the worst was always possible." It's tempting to view the problem as deterministic, to say that once started, the arms race was unavoidable, unstoppable-and this is certainly the way the minds at rand saw it. However, it's simply not true. In 1961, as Eisenhower handed over the presidency, the Soviet Union had only four nuclear bombs. There were once only two in the world, and we used them. The arms race was enabled by decisions and positions at every turn.

To wit: "In 1982, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger issued a 'Defense Guidance' paper stating that the official strategy was for the United States to augment its second-strike capabilities so that it could 'prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.'" As Abella grimly notes, this is "the same argument for winning nuclear wars that rand's William Kaufmann made to Robert McNamara in 1961."

We are now in a new and perhaps more frightening nuclear age. And while the number of countries in the nuclear club isn't forty, as rand predicted in the early '80s, there are enough-not to mention the possibility of extranational groups with nuclear capabilities. India and Pakistan stare across Kashmir in the same zero-sum predicament that bound the cold-war superpowers. It's possible that if a nuclear strike were made against the United States, it would be unclear to which country we should return the favor. Second-strike capability is not as much fun when you don't know whom to obliterate.

Martin Amis once wrote, "I argue with my father about nuclear weapons. In this debate, we are all arguing with our fathers. They emplaced or maintained the status quo. They got it hugely wrong. They failed to see the nature of what they were dealing with-the nature of the weapons-and now they are trapped in the new reality, trapped in the great mistake. Perhaps there will be no hope until they are gone." The problem is that they are very much not gone. In fact, many of them still hold sway. Paul Wolfowitz, Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, and Scooter Libby have all done time at rand. It turns out that maybe Spengler was an optimist, for we are still making the great mistake.
(May 2008

A crisp history of the world's most influential think tank, which the Soviet publication Pravda once called the "academy of science and death."

The Manhattan Project proved to the military during World War II the efficacy of assistance from independent civilian scientists. Seeking to maintain that link and understanding the need to cope with peacetime threats to national security, Air Force hot shots, including the legendary Generals Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold and Curtis LeMay, helped to found RAND (for "research and development"). Throughout the next half-century, RAND's intellectual gunslingers--its researchers and advisors have won 27 Nobel Prizes--expanded their role and helped set large portions of America's military and political agenda. RAND's detractors accuse the corporation of subordinating morality to the achievement of U.S. government policy, of operating wholly without conscience and of practically inventing the Cold War. Los Angeles Times contributor and novelist Abella (Final Acts, 2000, etc.) takes a swipe at the problematic implications for the country of RAND's seeming amorality, but he deals far more successfully with the corporation's history, particularly the early years, and the procession of larger-than-life personalities who passed through RAND's portals and who influenced the nation's thinking far more than any single policy paper the institute produced. RAND's luminaries have included the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, thermonuclear war expert (and model for Dr. Strangelove) Herman Kahn, national-security expert and Cold War strategist Albert Wohlstetter, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and even the humorist Leo Rosten. Its theorists have contributed to our everyday lexicon such words and phrases as "fail-safe," "doomsday machine," "systems analysis," "futurology," "zero-sum game" and "prisoner's dilemma." How many enemy factories can we destroy with the kind of aircraft we possess? After a nuclear exchange, would the living truly envy the dead? Paid to think the unthinkable, RAND's analysts and their mission come off here as simultaneously marvelous and horrible.

As good a look as we're likely to get about an organization where, Ellsberg notwithstanding, keeping secrets is second nature.


Shadow Enemies

From Publishers Weekly
In 1942, with Americans still on edge after Pearl Harbor, four German-American operatives disembarked from a U-boat and waded ashore, soon melting into the crowds of Manhattan, the first of several teams assigned to blow up manufacturing and transportation centers as well as Jewish-owned department stores in the United States. Novelist and journalist Abella (The Killing of the Saints) and Gordon, commissioner with the Los Angeles County Superior Court and a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, depict a crew of would-be saboteurs with varying degrees of discipline, experience and dedication to the Nazi cause. Their leader, George Dasch, had lived in the U.S. as a boy, but had drifted from job to job without ever satisfying his grand ambitions. Returning to Germany, he joined the military and was eventually recruited for the terrorist mission in the U.S., despite his ambivalence toward Hitler's National Socialism. Realizing that the Allies would most likely win the war, Dasch eventually turned himself and his co-conspirators in to the FBI, with the thought of making himself a war hero. While the exploits of Dasch, his partners and their sympathetic contacts are fascinating, also engrossing is the U.S. government's handling of the ensuing court case. J. Edgar Hoover, closely involved, knew that his agency's reputation was at stake. President Roosevelt, concerned about the lack of control in a civilian trial, ordered a military tribunal, which eventually ordered the execution of many of the conspirators and several of their sympathizers. Dasch was returned to Germany after the war, where he was greeted as a traitor. By painting these sometimes reluctant and occasionally bumbling terrorists in such vivid detail, the authors have re-created timely and compelling series of events with an immediacy that hits close to home.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
International terrorism aimed at American cities did not begin two Septembers ago. In 1942, a team of Nazi saboteurs emerged from a submarine near Amagansett, New York, bearing fake documents and crates of explosives. Chosen for their English language ability and their knowledge of American customs, they were to destroy factories and bomb public landmarks; a second team landed in Florida a few days later. Both might have succeeded had team leader George Dasch not defected and informed the FBI. Choosing secret military tribunals over public civil trials, J. Edgar Hoover & Co. saw most of the conspirators electrocuted, navigating the eerily familiar terrain of national security versus rights of the accused. Abella and Gordon do not press the relevant ethical questions as much as they might. Instead they detail the court proceedings with a Dragnet-like play-by-play; we are then reminded that one author is a lawyer. In spite of its spy-novel-turned-courtroom-drama sensationalism, however, this is a fascinating and timely look at terrorism and wartime justice, especially gripping because it's true.
- Brendan Driscoll
Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved


The Great American

From Library Journal
Cuban-born Abella's (The Killing of the Saints, LJ 9/1/91) second novel is set amid the drama of the overthrow of Cuban dictator Batista and the rise of Castro. William Morgan, an AWOL marine, comes looking for fun with a Cuban pal but is quickly caught up in the fight to topple Batista. Love also plays a central role, as the idealistic Morgan is driven by his often conflicting loves for Laura and Irma. The novel makes several direct references to Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, but this novel is not of the same caliber. Abella excels when he incorporates witchcraft scenes, Morgan's awkward use of Spanish, and the complexity of the Castro revolution, especially as these relate to U.S. interests. But while an action novel with a conscience is to be appreciated, Morgan's political-religious soul searching often intrudes. Look for this romantic novel possibly to resurface as a film.?
- Rebecca Sturm Kelm, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Killing of the Saints

The New York Times
Notable Books of the Year 1991
Published: December 1, 1991
THE KILLING OF THE SAINTS. By Alex Abella. A strange and powerful first novel, narrated by a court investigator and written in an ornate style, about the Cuban-American subculture in Los Angeles.

The New York Times
September 29, 1991
Alex Abella's strange and powerful first novel, THE KILLING OF THE SAINTS (Crown, $19), opens with a snarl but soon drops to one knee, pleading for understanding if not mercy. For the most part, this brutal narrative about the subculture of Cuban-Americans living in Los Angeles earns the horrified attention it clamors for. "Their case was a dog," says Charlie Morell, the court investigator who narrates this hotheaded tale, when he reads in El Diario about two drugged-up Marielitos who went on a murderous rampage in a jewelry store. "They have no defense," he taunts their lawyer. "They were there, they robbed the store, they killed the hostages. . . . No matter how you slice it, they're going to get gas in Quentin." When the court appoints him to their dog of a case, Charlie has to chew his own words. Mr. Abella's ornate style takes getting used to, and so does the operatic hyperbole of the violence. Even the courtroom becomes a theater when Charlie's mad-dog client Ramon de la Concepcion Armas Valdez presents his novel defense: the gods of his voodoo religious cult made him do it. "I'm beyond your right and wrong," he informs the mesmerized jury. Charlie, who is also listening hard, submerges himself in this exotic case -- the better to come to terms with his own ethnic identity, the ghosts of his own buried past. Like the reader, he surfaces from his new experiences with a painfully raw view of Latin Los Angeles.

From Publishers Weekly
Enriched by its splendid setting in the Cuban section of Los Angeles, this atmospheric thriller explores witchcraft and courtroom procedures. Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Latin American magical realism makes further inroads into mainstream American fiction with this unusual courtroom thriller set in the milieu of the Los Angeles Cuban refugee community of practitioners of the Santeria cult. The book centers on the murder trial of two cult members who are charged with murdering six people in the course of robbing a jewelry store. The narrator, himself a Cuban with a tormented past, is appointed by the court as an investigator for one of the defendants. Rich in gritty local detail, exemplified by a wonderful series of graffiti that runs through the entire book, Abella's book joins Madison Smartt Bell's The Washington Square Ensemble ( LJ 2/15/83), among others, in the ranks of excellent novels exploring the refugee experience and the fringes of religiosity. A worthwhile purchase for general fiction collections. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/91.
-David Dodd, Benicia P.L., Cal. Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Final Acts

Suite des (més)aventures de Charlie Morell, l'avocat que l'on avait découvert dans Le massacre des saints. Moins brillant que son prédécesseur, Le dernier acte n'en reste pas moins un bon roman noir. Charlie Morell, avocat rencontré dans Le massacre des saints (chez le même éditeur) a de sérieux ennuis : spécialiste de la Santeria, le vaudou cubain, on vient plus ou moins lui demander son avis lorsque des femmes sont retrouvées décapitées suivant un rite qui pourrait ressembler à ces croyances… Le hic, c’est que dans le même temps on commence à le croire suspect de ces meurtres. Et rapidement Morell se retrouve sur le banc des accusés. Enigmatique, charismatique, Morell est une drôle de personnalité et Rita Carr, pétulante avocate irlando-mexicaine que Morell est venu chercher pour assurer sa défense va longtemps se demander sur quel pied danser. Cette suite au Massacre des saints est beaucoup moins prenante que le premier épisode. Certes, les ingrédients d’un bon polar sont réunis, mais le texte souffre de quelques longueurs (le récit est plus intéressant quand c’est l’avocate qui parle que lorsque c’est la lecture du manuscrit de Morell) et de trop grosses ficelles. Mais ne boudons pas notre plaisir, les polars d’Abella sont trop rares pour ça.
-Christophe Dupuis
© Jowebzine.com - Mai 2004

The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd.
As I read beyond the first few chapters of this book, becoming deeply absorbed into its fascinating Latino/Hispanic ambience, I reflected on other recent genre novels that have used Cuba as physical location and cultural driver for both plot and characterization. It wasn't difficult to bring up titles - Randy Wayne White's North of Havana; Martin Cruz Smith's Havana Bay; Dan Simmons' The Crook Factory; Edna Buchanan's Britt Montero series; Jose LaTour's Outcast; and of course, Alex Abella's series featuring PI-turned-lawyer Charlie Morell, of which Final Acts is the third episode. No one can accuse this author of being prolific. Abella introduced Charlie Morell to mystery readers in 1991 with the well-received The Killing of the Saints, but didn't follow up with a sequel until Dead of Night hit bookstores in 1998. In between those two thrillers, the author produced The Great American, a mainstream novel focusing on (I assume) Jose Marti's role in the Cuban Revolution of 1895. Abella's writing is topical, and obviously wrenched from a heart still residing (at least partially) on that large island ninety miles south of Florida. Indeed, his fictional output is less a series than it is a triptych, with a common thread solidly grounded in the strange African-Catholic hybrid religion known as santeria, and its bastardized black magic offshoot palo mayombe, often confused with Haitian voudon. Charlie Morell has been fighting members of the latter sect across all three novels, and plot similarities are strong enough to recommend not reading them back to back. Conversely, strength of continuity dictates they should be read in order for maximum enjoyment. Perhaps it is that similarity that caused Abella to manipulate character viewpoint in Final Acts. Part of the book is told in real time first person by Charlie's feisty Latina lawyer, Rita Carr; the other part is told by Charlie, in first person flashback. The result is interesting, but only somewhat successful in that I could predict much - not all - of the outcome by the end of the book. I also found myself liking Rita Carr more than Charlie. Where Charlie comes across more Anglo than Cubano, Rita's view of Southern California politics carries a distinctively Hispanic ring: "Growing up half Irish and half Mexican, I was always aware of Senator Decker's colorful career. For more than twenty years he represented a district that had gradually been transformed from lily-white upper class to lower-middle-class brown. Irish like my mom, he too had a Mexican spouse, and he reportedly mangled the Spanish language with the largesse that only those who live with a native speaker would dare. Known as the compadre guero, the fair-skinned compadre, he controlled his fiefdom with an iron fist. He was, in essence, the last of that small group of Anglos who ran Southern California until the 1970s, when Tom Bradley and his black-Jewish coalition defeated Sam Yorty and brought the century-long reign of the white man to a close." Charlie Morell's mystical triptych motif will disappear if the author decides to continue on with Charlie's war against palo mayombe. I hope Abella can add fresh perspective as he goes. Final Acts is a wild and crazy reading experience that succeeded for me as a thriller - there is pain, blood, a nasty villain or six. It will also be satisfying for any reader not bound by a traditional mystery storyline.

Reviewed by Reed Andrus


Dead of Night

Alex Abella's first book about Cuban American private eye turned lawyer Charlie Morell, The Killing of the Saints, got some fine notice for its vivid writing and its unusual setting--the small but lively Cuban American subculture in Los Angeles. The mysteries and rituals of the religion known as santeria play a large part in this new story, as Morell searches for the murderer of his friend, Armando, who first got him interested in the subject. "We're not all like Ramon Valdez, Charlie," Armando says about the villain of the first book. "He was a devil worshipper. We follow the path of the light. You should come see us sometime." As Morell tells us, "with those simple words Armando opened the door to my own forgiveness. No, I did not find salvation at the foot of some ridiculous idol, nor did I pledge my soul to an imp from the African forest.... I came to see that in its theological complexity, hierarchical subtleties and accumulated wisdom, santeria was as passionate and stirring as the ancient Greco-Roman myths, as enlightening as the unfolding monads of Hinduism." Charlie--called "the voodoo counselor" by a sarcastic cop--will need all the enlightenment he can muster as he discovers that the brutal killer has made him his next target. Amidst all the local color and considerable bloodletting, Abella proves that he also knows how to deliver a suspenseful mystery.
-Dick Adler


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