This has been an exciting week in terms of progress towards armageddon. With NATO’s help, the Ukrainian military got some old Soviet-era cruise missiles airborne, and flew them hundreds of kilometers across Russia. One of them exploded over the Engels 2 air force base, where nuclear bombers and their hydrogen bombs are stored. Two Russian bombers were damaged, and three people on the ground were killed.
Meanwhile, back in the Land of Freedom, Northrop Grumann proudly “unveiled” the US’ latest nuclear bomber, the B21. I remember the televised “unveiling” of the B2 bomber, during George HW Bush’s twelve-year presidency, and this was one was even lamer. Turns out the miracle B21 has never flown, and won’t be airworthy for a while yet. And also turns out that its “stealth” coatings aren’t so stealthy, so the 21 won’t be able to travel to dangerous war zones, and will instead fire its missiles from thousands of kilometers’ safe distance. And also turns out that, being a miniature copy of the previous B2 flying wing, it doesn’t need a pilot! So there will be few Top Gun/Maverick job opportunities. The B21, built in mouth-wateringly small quantities due to its expense, will function – when the time comes to destroy the planet – as a drone.
This will be a drag for Tom Cruise, and the producers and directors of those movies, perhaps, but they at least will be secure in their New Zealand compounds.
As this is a little discouraging, perhaps, let me take you back in time, to the 1960s and 1970s, when our insane and inadequate leaders were also planning to embroil us in a fiery war of nuclear conflagration – but at least they were doing it with style!
First up, is the AVRO Vulcan, a British nuclear bomber from the 1950s and 60s. The above models are painted brilliant white, in order to reflect the flash of blasts in the vicinity. Royal Air Force pilots were instructed to wear an eye patch. If they were blinded by a nuclear blast, they could simply remove the eye patch, and use the other eye. Brilliant!
The AVRO Vulcan was designed to attack Russia. It was intended to fire rocket missiles at Moscow and other cities or bases, then swing back around to land in Germany, or England, not long after the missiles hit. The AVRO Vulcan is a famously-unreliable aircraft. On its “unveiling” in 1956, the first Vulcan flew around the world, then crashed while trying to land at Heathrow Airport. The pilots ejected safely, but four crew members in the back (including the Avro rep with his clipboard) were killed. Another protoype Vuclan crashed at a British air show in 1958, killing all four crew members and three people on the ground. And the same year a Vulcan crashed outside Detroit, killing all its crew.
Two Vulcans crashed in 1959 – the first wrecks without fatalities. In 1963, the Vulcan took delivery of its intended payload, the British “Blue Steel” nuclear bomb, and another Vulcan flew into terrain during a training exercise in Scotland, with 100% fatalities. In 1964, there were three more crashes – two more crews died. 1965-68 saw four more Vulcans crash, with multiple fatalities. in one instance a Blue Steel “missile training round” was on board the aircraft, which was totally destroyed by fire, on the runway at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire.
One might expect, as more of these planes were built, and flown, and loaded with nuclear bombs, that their reliability would improve. But it did not. Vulcans continued to crash on landing, and to incinerate the guys in the back.
Such a catalogue of carnage, wreckage, blazing jet fuel… It sounds like Blackhawks, or Blazin’ Air Combat. Yet none of this happened during a war. These disasters were all training exercises or air show events. Like the F-35, the AVRO Vulcan was an expensive and deadly blind alley of useless aircraft design. It killed numerous people, all of whom were on “our” side. Unfit for purpose, it ceased to have a purpose when President Kennedy cancelled the “Skybolt” missile, which was supposed to replace the highly-unreliable Blue Steel missile.
The Blue Steel missiles were withdrawn from service in 1970. The AVRO Vulcan could have been junked at the same time: up to this point it had done nothing but fly around the world and crash. But military boys will have their toys, and so the British nuclear bomber fluttered on for another decade. The seventies saw four more crashes, with multiple fatalities: one Vulcan broke up over a Maltese town, showering it with burning wreckage. Then, in 1982, came its salvation: Margaret Thatcher’s war to save the Falkland Islands.
At last, the Vulcan had a real mission! Several were prepared for the long flight to the South Atlantic, refuelling en route. This was apparently a world record in terms of distance travelled to drop a bomb on someone. And a couple of Vulcans made it all the way there, and did indeed drop several bombs. Unfortunately, returning from its first actual war experience, one Vulcan broke and had to make an emergency landing in Brazil. When it attempted to ditch its two remaining missiles, only one of them would fire. The Vulcan and its crew were detained by the Brazilian authorities until the end of the war.
Now, if the AVRO Vulcan seems an absurdist waste of money, human life, and fossil fuels, at least it had a sleek, original design. The same cannot be said of the Russian nuclear war-fighting craft seen below.
Behold the Lun Ekranoplan!
This was a big, heavy, ocean-going aircraft which flew just a few meters above the water, and was officially classed as a boat. At the front are its engines: eight turbofans, capable for pushing the massive creation forward at 550 kilometers an hour. Behind, and above, the jet engines are six missile launching tubes, intended to house conventional or nuclear cruise missiles with a range of 100-240 km.
The Ekranoplan sported various cannons, fore and aft, and had huge transport capacity, but its primary purpose was to be an aircraft carrier-killer. With a range of 2000 km, evading Radar due to its low altitude, it was to bear down on the fleet like a levitating whale and launch all six missiles, then – like Vulcan – turn around and go home. Designed in the 1960s, the Ekranoplan didn’t go into production till 1987, at the tail end of First Cold War. Only one was completed.
En route to its final resting place, a tourist attraction in Dagestan, the Ekranoplan was beached in 2020. Last year it was successfully towed ashore.
I met Lorenzo at the International Students Center at UCLA and we became fast friends. He’s a Peruvian who grew up in Lima and Mexico City, where he was educated at the “American School.” This was around 1977, 1978. We were still young pups. And one day Lorenzo asked me, “Do you know about Tlatelolco?” I did not. Lorenzo proceeded to tell me an amazing story, about a massacre of hundreds of protesters, most of them students, in Mexico City on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games.
This surprised me, because I’d never heard a thing about it. I’d been thoroughly aware of the Olmpic Games that year: another pointless sports spectacle inflicted on a populace already saturated in the stuff. But a massacre? Of hundreds of students? I knew nothing about it. “Probably because the international press never reported it,” Lorenzo observed. “They knew about it, but they didn’t want to spoil the Olympic Games.”
When we shot El Patrullero, people were talking openly about the massacre. Jorge Fons had made a film about Tlatelolco, titled Rojo Amanecer – directed it in secret, in a warehouse far from the studios, without any state or studio funds. Fons was a bold, resourceful, inspired director (he died last week aged 83). His film doesn’t show the Plaza where the killings took place: he focuses entirely on a family who witness it all from their apartment. Inevitably, the massacre intrudes. (Rojo Amanecer is a remarkable film, finely acted, and hard to find.)
One day, in the cutting room in Mexico City, Carlos the editor told me another amazing story about Tlatelolco. Servando Gonzales, another filmmaker, had just revealed that he had been employed by the Mexican Government to film the mass killings (Gonzales was already under contract to shoot the Olympics). He said he used eight Arriflex 35mm cameras with 400mm lenses, situated on the 15th and 17th floors of a tower which also housed the ministry of foreign relations. Gonzales claimed he processed the negative at Churubusco, and handed it over to the military. He assumed a copy went to the President, Diaz Ordaz.
In 2008, the American writer Jefferson Morley released his book Our Man In Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. There’s lots of fascinating stuff in here, about a fanatical anti-communist called Win Scott, an ex-FBI agent who bumbled his way into becoming CIA station chief in London,was befriended by Kim Philby – the infamous Soviet spy – and got shifted to Mexico, where, improbably but inevitably, he became the most powerful man in the country.
Scott did this, simply, by putting everybody on the payroll, and having them spy on each other. By everybody, I mean, of course, the highest and most influential policemen, generals, journalists, and politicians in the land. Diaz Ordaz received a monthly stipend and was code-named Litempo 2. A future president, Luis Echeverria, was Litempo 8. And an up-and-coming DFS policeman, Fernando Gutierrez Barios, was Litempo 4. Scott’s wife died in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and when he remarried, the CIA man invited several presidents to the wedding. They all attended, of course. But this was highly irregular. Scott, as station chief, was supposed to remain under diplomatic cover, in the shadows. Instead the US ambassadors, who came and went every four years, were the shadowy ones, subsisting off crumbs from Scott’s table.
Can you imagine my surprise when, three or four years back, I was invited to Mexico to play Scott in a series called Un Estraño Enemigo / the Unknown Enemy? Usually I am cast as disreputable characters: bums, maniac scientists, Fred C. Dobbs-like opportunists like the Gringo in La Ley de Herodes. Whereas Winston Scott is never without a suit and tie. He doesn’t take his jacket off. He’s usually seated, with a folder or a menu or a slim envelope full of money in his hands. And he has a lot to say.
The original Scott spoke Spanish, but not particularly well. The Mexicans liked the big Alabama football boy, because at least he tried, and paid well. But Scott in the series is a true Machiavel, extremely well spoken (the very literate script is by the director, Gabriel Ripstein, and several collaborators), and has a lot of information to convey. Most of the time Scott seems to be playing the other significant characters off against each other: they all want to be President, and he promises them all support. In return, he wants to get the US military and intelligence agencies further imbedded, and constantly winding his colleagues up about the danger of student communism. The Olympics – a huge waste of money at a time of severe social hardships – is a perfect opportunity for Scott to up the ante. IIf he doesn’t order the Tlatelolco Massacre, he certainly creates the circumstances for it to happen.
Since then we’ve seen the model – snipers fire from a tall building into crowds at a large protest, killing both police and demonstrators – used in Managua, in Caracas, and in Ukraine. The intention is part of a strategy of tension: to force a change in government, or to force a hard-line government to become still more hard-line. The victims are numerous, the snipers are anonymous. And the beneficiary is always the same.
There’s a longer trailer for the first season of Un Estraño Enemigohere. The principal character – played by the fantastic Daniel Jiménez Cacho – is loosely based on Gutierrez Barios – Litempo 4. Having ended the first season in disastrous disarray, in the second season – which has just begun and can also be found online – Captain Barrientos climbs to higher echelons of power, and Win Scott finds a whole new line of work for him.
After we finished shooting WALKER, a handful of the crew remained in Nicaragua: me (the director), Lorenzo (the producer), Carlos (the editor) and his assistant Edgar, and Joe, the composer.
It rained a lot in the evenings during that time, and Joe would come over to my place, where I had a video player and two cassettes: Kurosawa’s RAN, and Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. We watched both films many times. RAN gave us an approach to sound design in battle scenes, and showed us how the obsessive hero must be always be front and center, in the story.. PAT GARRETT seethed with violence and irony and political cynicism. It seemed, and still seems, the most political western of them all (though Kirk Douglas’ POSSE ain’t far behind). Joe, of course, imbibed Bob Dylan’s score, and during those weeks composed a score of equal brilliance, and greater variety.
Rudy Wurlitzer had told us that he took Dylan to meet Peckinpah, in the hope that the director would cast Dylan as Billy. Peckinpah, manically contrarian, pretended never to have heard of Dylan, said Roger Miller was his favorite musician, and went with Kris Kristofferson for the Kid. Rudy and Dylan wrote the words for “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” on a stormy night flight from Durango to Mexico City. In his first version of the the story – written for Monte Hellman to direct – Pat Garrett and Billy didn’t meet until the very end. Whereas, for Peckinpah, this was – like RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH – a tale of old buddies, one of whom betrays their code…
Who’s to say Peckinpah was wrong? The result of his collaboration with Rudy, and his actors, and his crew, Mexican and gringo, and his locations, is a masterpiece. But which version of the masterpiece did Strummer and I watch?
When I first saw PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID in 1973 it was quite short, missing its opening and ending, and lacking various other scenes of some importance. This, rumor had it, was the work of villanous studio head Jim Aubrey, who had fired Peckinpah and cut his own truncated version of the film. Something similar had happened on Peckinpah’s earlier Western, MAJOR DUNDEE.
In fact, the situation seems more ambiguous. Aubrey was a bad man, reputed to hate directors. Peckinpah was spoiling for a fight and couldn’t resist provoking the studio head. His drunkenness was reported in the American press, and he was photographed being carried to the set on a stretcher, drip-fed from a whiskey bottle. According to his friend Max Evans, the first cut Peckinpah showed the studio was three and a half hours long. Shortly after that, it appears he was fired. Or quit. He left the cutting room and did not return. Yet he retained his office – the Marilyn Monroe Suite – on the MGM lot and continued to hang out there, drinking with his cronies and throwing knives at the door.
What was going on? If Peckinpah had time for that, why didn’t he sneak back into the editing room and finish the film? Worn out by the usual vices, our director died in 1984, at the age of 59.
When we were cutting REPO MAN, the editor, Dennis Dolan, told me a remarkable thing. He had been an assistant of Roger Spottiswoode – the editor of PAT GARRETT. And when Peckinpah was fired, they sneaked a 35mm copy of his cut out of the studio, on the floor of Dennis’s VW bug. So that version was not lost, and, thanks to Spottiswoode and others, Peckinpah’s original cut was restored and a new print made. I saw it at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles, in 1986. Coburn and L.Q. Jones introduced it, and the unwonted appearance of the deleted scenes gave the screening a dream-like quality. I’d thought I already knew the film. Now it was different…
Which version did Joe and I watch on a small portable TV, smoking spliffs on that rainy patio in Granada? This was 1987, so most likely we were relying on an old, truncated VHS for inspiration. The longer version of PAT GARRETT was quite magical. But on a second viewing, there was also something… long about it. The beautifully-photographed scenes often played for more time than they should have: say, five minutes instead of three – as if the director had rough-cut his picture and then departed the cutting room.
In the early 1990s, Ted Turner acquired the MGM film library. Possessed of a fine cowboy moustache and a herd of buffalo, Turner naturally paid for a new restoration of PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, which premiered at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival in 1995. This included all but a couple of the long version’s many scenes, but sped up the languid pace. Again, Spottiswoode was involved, and the editorial choices he made were, I think, spot on. This third edition is the best.
There are still problems with the film, as regards a coherent narrative. Emilio Fernandez (who had so memorably portrayed Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH) appears out of nowhere and is swiftly dispatched. Other interesting characters – L.Q. Jones’, Jack Elam’s, Rudy Wurlitzer’s – don’t receive enough screen time: they lurk in the background, say a few lines, and are dead. And at one point, Peckinpah presented his editor with a choice of scenes, both set in a whorehouse. In the first, seeking information, Pat Garrett, slaps a prostute across the face, whereupon she insists he slap her again, to make her reveal Billy’s whereabouts. In the second, Pat is found in bed with several prostitutes: we assume he has acquired the necessary information via his amorous skills and delightful personality. As I recall, the excellent Spottiswoode chose the second option.
Rudy wrote a scathing introduction to the paperback edition of the screenplay. Copies are hard to come by now, and very expensive. His descriptions of Peckinpah ditching his script, and reverting to scenes from his early episodic TV westerns, like The Rifleman and Zane Grey Theater, are most amusing. But, over time, I think he’s come to appreciate the finished film. Either way, as the author of the most political western ever made, he was the one and only screenwriter for WALKER.
This year Criterion will release a new disk of the PAT GARRETT. Which version(s) it will contain, I don’t know. But I’m excited to ride that morphing, magical trail again.
Back in January 2017 I wrote the first of a series of thirteen pieces titled “Dodging the Bullet.” The theme was nuclear war: how miraculous it is that we haven’t had one since Nagasaki, and how blase the mainstream media and political class are about the possibility of one happening today. I called it “Dodging the Bullet” because that seems to me such a uniquely American expression – the idea that anyone can dodge a bullet is absurd, and yet the concept clearly exists. “Dodged that bullet, bro!” But no one can.
One thing that encouraged me was the United Nations treaty to ban the possession and use of nuclear weapons: the sheer number of countries that signed up for it. Just about the only countries which didn’t sign up were the ones which own nuclear weapons, plus all the members of NATO. It seemed a fine example, which might even influence a NATO membert or two. How about Spain? The last piece I wrote was about US plans for war with Russia, based on US Army publications. That was in July 2021. I’d written everything I could think of on the subject, I thought.
Wrong. Instead, an entirely preventable, regional war is spinning out of control due to the US and NATO’s desire to keep it going. Careers (in NATO and the arms industry) are made from threatening war and further enhanced (for a while) from making it. Pundits and politicians, Raytheon and Northrop, the three-letter-agencies, all profited and rose in status as a result of destroying Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Syria, and…
It was easy, as an American professional politician once remarked, to throw some shitty little country up against the wall every few years. It didn’t matter if this policy killed millions, wrecked functioning states, and created wave after desperate wave of unwelcomed refugees. For the people with a bit of money, war was always good business, and they could invest somebody else’s son.
Now US and NATO politicians bay for a boots-on-the-ground, shooting war with Russia. Maybe they will get one. In the mean time, they are practicing:
Starting on January 29 (a month before the invasion of Ukraine), NATO began war games in Estonia, on Russia’s border. British, French, and Estonian troops practiced “force on force” attacks, live fire, and anti-tank exercises. NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup Estonia” is led by the UK’s Royal Tank Regiment, with France and Denmark providing forces on a rotational basis. Iceland also participates. NATO has other “Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroups” in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. These exercises were followed by “Operation Bold Dragon”, which began this month and involves aerial war games over Estonia by the Belgians, UK, French and Danes. Belgian F-16s have been deployed to Estonia for an indefinite period.
Meanwhile, in tiny Latvia, adjacent to Estonia, and also sharing a border with Russia, NATO has just started the “Namejs 2022” military exercises: a series of war games involving soldiers from the Czech Republic, Poland, the UK, Lithuania, Estonia, Albania, Czech Republic, Italy, Iceland, Montenegro, Canada, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.
In case you thought Lithuania was being ignored, don’t worry. This small state, which shares a border with the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, recently hosted its largest-ever NATO outdoor combat operations: “Exercise Iron Wolf”, involving thousands of troops from the US, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Poland, plus the Lithuanian “Iron Wolf Brigade.” Another round is scheduled this year.
No doubt these ongoing NATO war games on their border in wartime will not be interpreted by Russia as aggressive in any way. We must all reassure ourselves that NATO’s pretend attacks and incursions will never accidentally spark a thermonuclear war.
If you would like a playlist to enjoy while following the progress of Exercise Iron Wolf, I recommend a couple of songs from The Clash. They’re both on the Sandinista album and entirely of this moment: the anti-war song The Call Up and the disco anthem, Ivan Meets GI Joe.
[Update: not that it makes any real difference, but the US, despite its congenital inability to appoint ambassadors, has managed to appoint one to oversee the brinkmanship in Ukraine. Her name? I kid you not: Bridget Brink.]
[Another update — continuing the Brink Theme, there is an organization called Back From The Brink, which seeks to convince the US government to renounce first use, cancel the 1.7 trillion dollar nuclear upgrade, and “actively pursue a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals” which sounds pretty weeny. “Actively pursue a verifiable agreement” is like “provide access to health care” – meaningless Democrat-ese which ultimately produces nothing. But less money for war is always a good cause.]
(Continued from the previous post, visible if you scroll down)
Via Estes Park and up into Rocky Mountain National Park as far as Rainbow Curve, for a magnificent view. Then backtracked and headed east to I-25. Riding north into a rainstorm, I pulled off the highway beneath a bridge to shelter. Stepping off the bike, I was almost flattened by an eighteen-wheeler, hurtling by a foot away… But I was not. On to Cheyenne. This place seemed like a ghost town as I rode in, late in the day, a wind storm blowing up. Checked out a room at the Plains Hotel, high up on the fifth floor, with a great view. But I thought the price too much – $35.00 – and moved on. I paused to take a photo of the Union Station. Back in 1978 the San Francisco Zephyr stopped here, and I’d got off and walked around. Amtrak didn’t stop here now. There was no antique locomotive outside the abandoned station. It seemed sunny and sad.
Then the clouds rolled in. I took a $22.00 room at the Frontier Motel and watched the Democratic Convention on TV. Went out and roamed about. Ate an awful salad at the flourescent Bonanza Cafe. Dropped into a bar called the Eagle’s Nest, where a sign said, “Leave Your Colors & Your Attitudes Outside.” There seemed to be two factions drinking within – the denim jackets and the black t-shirts. All wore beards, tattoos, and red-rimmed eyes. Had a beer and took in the drunken engine babble, slurring, farting. As I exited, two cop cars pulled up outside. (A mere 165 miles today.)
Tuesday July 17th Breakfast at the Luxury Diner, across the street. Clouds piling up to the north. “Looks like it’s gonna rain again,” said someone. But, for the first day in a week, it didn’t. North of Cheyenne I left the interstate and rode west, then north, via Torrington. Stopped and poured another quart of oil into the Beemer. She burned about a quart every four days: with just over two quarts in the oil tank total, this was not a good sign. But I kept topping her up, and on we went. In Lusk I pumped quarters into a pay phone and called the big boss at Orion, to report on my researches and my meeting with Jon. “When can I have the script?” the big boss wanted to know. I promised within a month.
Past Mule Creek Junction a Disneyesque billboard welcomed visitors to South Dakota, and there was a list of increasingly heavy speeding fines, some including Mandatory Court Appearance. I endured ten miles of unannounced gravel road, and reached the town of Hot Springs, where I entered Wind Cave National Park. Here I discovered that I had no tread at all on my rear tire. Such an attentive motorcyclist! It was a Metzler, I’d bought it new only 7,500 miles ago. Rear tires wore faster as they carried more weight, of course. I knew that. So what was I doing out here, mid-adventure with a previously-unnoticed, utterly-bald tire? Trepidatiously I loped for the nearest town, Rapid City – view of Mount Rushmore en route. Rapid City is some fifty miles from Sturgis, which means that it was, and is, Harley country. There was no BMW dealership. None of the bike shops I visited had a tire for my machine. Finally I reached Pig Performance, on St Patrick Street. Porky, the proprietor, had a Continental tire which would fit my bike, for a good price ($62.00) but there was a problem. They were a Harley shop. No motorcycle other than a Harley had ever entered the premises of Pig Performance. That was not about to change. “What if I take the wheel off and bring it to you?” I suggested. Porky thought about this, nodded, and told me bringing the wheel into the shop would be acceptable. By now it was six, and he said to come back the next day.
In the adjacent car wash, I washed the bike. I did the motel tour and found a basement room for $20.00 – my desire to save a few bucks by staying in the least attractive premises continued unabated. I bought three beers and watched the Democrats again. Jesse Jackson was running for the Presidential nomination, and it was his turn to speak. I can’t describe his speech. It was the first time I’d ever seen a network broadcast something Jesse said in its entirety. He was inspirational. He was right. Later I called Vito, the mechanic, and got his permission to install a wider tire on the BMW. I watched more of the Convention, and saw more black people than I had ever seen on TV. Unusual television.
(321 miles today.)
Wednesday July 18th At 0900 I rolled my rear wheel into Pig Performance Parts and they changed the tire. Porky told me he was the local coordinator of ABATE, the anti-helmet-laws organization. He and his staff had beards and pony tails and earrings and ink before these things were universal. He confessed he knew nothing about Beemers, and asked me if they had a center stand. I said yes, luckily for me, as this had permitted the easy removal of the rear wheel. I didn’t reveal that unbolting the rear wheel, changing the spark plugs, and topping up the oil were the only maintenance duties I knew how to do. The boys posed for a photograph, and I aimed for Deadwood.
How happy I was! Riding in the warm sun through the Black Hills, rear tire connecting impeccably with the road. But where was I going now? And what had it to do with the script I was supposed to write? I had no idea.
Just outside the town of Custer, I encountered the Flintstones Campground, where large replicas of Fred, Wilma, Barney and co. presided over the RVs and campsites. Then there was Scenic, at the junction of 44 and 589: a town of a thousand dead cars, decaying buildings, two abandoned churches, and the Longhorn Saloon, also dead, decorated with thirty steer skulls and the words “Lakota Iyuskinya Upo – No Indians Allowed.” I bought a ticket for the Jewel Cave tour, but the lift broke down, so I turned back towards the Badlands. South of Rapid City was the Motion Unlimited bike shop and museum, featuring exotica such as a Vickers tricycle, and other antique four-cylinder machines in the style of the K100 and the GoldWing. The inline four was obviously a respectable engine option for motorcycles since the dawn of time… Indians, Aces, and other famous, long-lost marques had all built air-cooled, inline four. In 1984, the form factor was back, but the flying bricks had radiators, adding to their weight and bulk. Whereas the Beemer (insert idyll of the Boxer twin) …
Took the freeway east to Wall, home of Wall Drug, and checked into the Welsh Motel. Dumped my tank bag and headed out to see those Badlands. Pretty marvelous, they were. Cruising around, I turned a corner and discovered, against a backdrop of red and ochre ragged peaks, a Beemer rider named Bill, standing beside his machine, lighting his pipe. I shared a bowl with him and his wife Becky, and enjoyed the view. They told me I should join the BMW Owners Club (in due course I did).
It stayed light till late, and I drank in the views for a long time before going back to Wall. Got in just after ten, in time for the Democratic Convention and the vote to nominate a candidate. Mondale, the hopeless toad, who had offered my printer a hundred bucks to run for governor, won the nomination (and went on to lose the election to Reagan, by a landslide). Jackson spoke briefly, but the energy was nothing like last night. Then Action News 7 began reporting a new, horrible massacre: twenty people murdered by a gunman at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, California. “Uphill” I wrote in my notebook. 295 miles.
Thursday, July 19th After breakfast at the Cactus Cafe and another quart of oil, I headed back out for those Badlands. Cruised around the North Unit, found it crowded with tourists. Took a dirt road to the South Unit, and up a winding track to Sheep Mountain Mesa. I was full of ideas of how the Beemer was a great bike in these semi-off-road conditions, how its long suspension made it particularly blah blah blah… Then, dismounting to take a picture, the side-stand slipped and I dropped the bike.
Dropping the bike is something you should never do. Only neophytes and bozos drop their bikes. In fact, everyone who rides a bike has dropped it – just as everyone who rides for long enough can point to various broken bones. Luckily, in this case, the saddlebags and cylinder guards (metal rails to protect those protruding pistons) had prevented a total, 90-degree collapse. The 90/6 was leaning on its bags and guards at a 40-degree angle, and was not hard to right. (Whereas a 100 RT, with a full fairing and bags, was impossible for a lone, skinny individual to pick up if it fell down. When we discovered my 100RT lying on its side in London, I had to ask the executive producer of another film, Margaret Matheson, to help me get it upright. Most embarrassing.)
Out of the Badlands, I rode south to Wounded Knee. In a shallow valley was a metal sign recalling the “Massacre of Wounded Knee,” The word massacre was on a plate which had been bolted over a different word. I wondered what the original word had been. Battle? Picnic? Beyond the sign was a cemetery, where the majority of the 150 Sioux victims – warriors, old men, women and children – had been thrown into mass graves. Some of the dead were named. One was called Scatters Them.
South into Nebraska. Fair weather; pretty rolling hills and trees, farmland. 385 took me to Alliance where, seeking lunch, I entered the “Cafe/Restaurant.” This turned out to be a bar, whose secret name was Lost Roads. Had two beers with the barman, Scott. He told me about his time abroad. “I was in Europe for three years, in Germany. Technician on the P2. Man, that sucker hit its target in 90 seconds. 4000 miles in 90 seconds. Up in orbit and down, like a rainbow. Makes a fireball 320 miles wide.” I was familiar with the Pershing missiles, together with their siblings the Cruise missiles, twin nuclear weapons to be employed by NATO against Russia and Eastern Europe, and his description of their speed and range was far greater than I had read. Indeed, it seemed incredible. Still, he had been there, and Thatcher was enthusiastically installing them in Old Blighty, prepping a massacre which would make Wounded Knee look like the work of amateurs. I asked Scott what he thought about nuclear war. “You can call me a wimp, but in the end I said, no way. They offered me a commission: $5000 just to sign up for eight more years. Eight years, dude. I got to thinking about it and quit. Two days later I was in civvies on the plane back home.”
Via backroads through Sidney and Lorenzo to Sterling, then the freeway to Boulder. I rode 481 miles that day. And my antics were not done. I changed clothes, ate with my generous hostess and her b/f, and hastened to the departure shed beside the Union Station in Denver. Fortunately for me, the Chicago Train was twenty minutes late.
(I spent three days on the train and visited Detroit. That had been the point of all of this, once: a bike ride all the way to where my film was to begin, acquiring screenplay inspiration. Now Detroit seemed like a sideshow, something to be attended to, before I could reunite with my machine.)
Tuesday July 24th Arrived back in Denver. In Boulder I washed clothes, and processed snaps – i.e. took my 35mm film negatives to the pharmacy for developing and a set of prints. For these were analog days. Departed mid-afternoon, up Canyon, into the mountains. Immediately the rain came down. Pulled over to don my raincoat and wrap plastic bags around my legs (fool! Never hear of rain gear?) and an R90S stopped alongside me, whose rider invited me to the local bar. This proved to be Marvin’s, in the charming former mining town of Nederland, where I played pool with Kevin and John, the Beemer boys. “Colorado is the best state!” everyone in the bar agreed. We smoked a joint at John’s – a little house two feet above a roaring torrent: his R100RT – dollar-green, like Michael Nesmith’s – was parked out back.
Then on! Into what seems to me now like a full day’s ride: first, down the winding backroad from Nederland via Blackhawk to the interstate, where the rain began again. Then, west – thousands of feet upward, through the Eisenhower Tunnel – it got very cold past 11,000 feet. Dressed more warmly in the bathroom of the Tastee Freeze in Vail. Then, as was my wont in those days (why was I in such a hurry?), I pressed on into darkness, missing the dramatic canyons east of my destination, Glenwood Springs. 189 miles.
Almost stayed at the ultra-seedy Western Hotel (only $10.00 a night) but something persuaded me to cross the river and check out the Colorado Hotel: a grand edifice like the Copper Queen in Bisbee, where Teddy Roosevelt had stayed during his famous bear hunt of 1905, and which was later patronized by Legs Diamond and Al Capone. “Corporate” room rate, $38.00. A block away, the world’s largest outdoor hotsprings pool and Indian vapor caves awaited. I learned this was the town where Doc Holliday died, in 1887, at the age of 35.
Wednesday, July 25th Up and into the hot pool. Swam, soaked, breakfasted, wrote many postcards. Then west on I-70, through red sandstone canyons. Entering Utah, I left the freeway and rode through Cisco, an old, decrepit town, on an unmaintained road, Route 128. This turned out to be the best road them of all: two lanes of alternating tarmac, dirt and gravel, following the Colorado River, crossing it via a grand, old suspension bridge. It felt like riding through the Canyon de Chelly, with a monster river coursing down the ravine. Another storm approaching. I ploughed through little flash-flood streams. An RV driver pulled over to warn me, “Y’better not shilly shalley.” North of Moab, I rode into Arches Park. Boots off, hiking shoes on, and off I went for a hearty hike. The rain did not fall. I walked past Landscape Arch as far as Double O Arch. Saw two deer up close. Came back through Fells Canyon. Five and a half miles. It was seven in the evening now. The storm had passed. I had been very wound-up, racing into the Park. The hike was the best thing in the world.
Stayed at the Prospector Hotel, and watched To Have and Have Not on the electronic hearth.
252 miles today – the best day of the ride to date, I noted.
Thursday, July 26th Up and out by eight. Breakfast in Monticello. South to Bluff. Then eastward, on what in 1977 had been a narrow, red dirt road. Now it was a wide gravel one, with big’n’chunky gravel pieces. Not good for two wheels. I turned back and made, inevitably, for Monument Valley. En route, still in Utah, paused to visit the remains of the arch Mr. Leone had built, back in 1968, for Once Upon A Time In The West. The wooden arch itself had collapsed, but the supports, set into the concrete dolly track, were still there. I took out my E-flat harmonica and played Charles Bronson’s mournful theme. The only thing I’d learned to do with my E-flat harmonica was to make doleful wailing sounds, but it did that very well. Then on, into Arizona, and the Valley overlook.
I didn’t take the Beemer down into the Valley proper. It’s a steep slope and I wanted no further embarrassments. Took pictures, and headed south to Kayenta, clipping the edge of another storm.
Northwest up 98 through Page and across Glen Canyon Dam (much hated by Ed Abbey, but the lake looked pretty in the late light), and on up 89 to the Paria dirt road, another of Mr Abbey’s points of reference, in search of the Paria Ghost Town movie set. This didn’t amount to more than four or five tumbledown gray buildings and I couldn’t think of a use for them in the screenplay – though Paria Canyon itself was a multicolored thing of beauty. I jammed back to Page and if I had been sane I would have called it a night there. Instead I loaded up on some dreadful mcfish, overlooking the Dam, and got back on 89 again as it got dark.
Rode down off the mesa through a steep pass. The plain below, laden with thicker air, looked like the ocean, and I had the feeling, hurtling down that two-lane road with darkness on both sides, that I was tearing along a narrow peninsula, surrounded by the sea… a waking dream. Arrived at Flagstaff a bit more than an hour after I left Page. The Beemer sat outside my room at the Carousel Motel, filthy dirty with red, brown and white mud from different portions of the trail. It looked good. I loved my motorcycle. 517 miles today. Unnecessarily many. Why was I in such a rush?
Friday July 27th I wake up to the “700 Club” – anti-Sandinista propaganda for TV Christians: support the contras for freedom! Alt 89 took me through pine forests into scenic Oak Creek Valley. Sedona seemed horrible, realty-land; Jerome was old and reminded me of Bisbee, but more decayed. Ate breakfast there and wrote the last of my postcards. Further south through Salome (which seemed a good location… remember the script!), taking the blacktop route. “Have you ever been to California?” an old feller with a camper and a dog asked me. “What do they inspect? Do they make you unload?” I enquired where he was going. “I don’t know. Ain’t made up my mind…” There was a strong scent of sage on the wind from the desert ahead.
Made such good time that when I got to Parker around three, I stopped and got a haircut, from a barber in a trailer. Ate a rancid salad (the last of my salad bar experiences – almost universally bad, staffed by teenagers throwing ice cubes and food) and shilly-shalleyed for an hour. Entered California at Earp, the tiny town named after Wyatt. My trip was almost over, I thought. I should be back in Venice, CA, around eight. Ha ha. First came the dust storm, filling the sky with reddish-brown dirt, tumbleweeds flying across the road. I slowed down and hunkered on through it. A pause in the weather came.
More, darker clouds loomed up ahead. I pulled over and got into my raincoat and plastic bags. Downpour. The blacktop was flash-flooded. Swelling rivers of water, mud and rocks rolled across the road. Thunder and lightning, almost simultaneous. I paddled forward at 15mph.
Joined the interstate at Desert Center. More rain, harder and heavier than before. Finally I gave up, pulled off the road, turned on my flashers, and took shelter in a culvert under the highway. I watched a scummy trickle of water spread down the channel, followed by a raging torrent. In a minute it was three feet deep. I climbed out of the culvert. Finally the rain lessened, and when I got back aboard the bike, it wouldn’t start. I hitched a ride to Chiriaco Summit and found a gentlemen with a pickup who, for $59.00, transported the cycle back to the garage there. Tried to get a room, but failed: “We can’t let you have a room. They’re too dirty.” In the shelter of the gas pumps, I waited for the machine to dry out. Various well-wishers shared their thoughts about my Beemer: “I used to work on airplanes and lawnmowers. The rule is, never buy anything unless you know how to work on it.” Finally, at 11.45pm, it occurred to me to remove the filthy sparkplugs and clean them.
The Beemer started right up. The rain had stopped. I burned back to LA, landing around 2:45. At that late hour the freeway was still full of cars. On the exit ramp, I saw a white TransAm go into a smoking tail-spin. The LA Olympics began the next day.
(524 miles on the last leg.)
I wrote that script, and called it War Baby. There were scenes in Detroit and Tijuana, of course, but also in Monument Valley, and the Flintstones Campground. Jon Davison was ready to produce. But the big boss didn’t like it, and the film was never made. So what did I get from all of this? I got paid, of course. I can’t remember how much, now. And I found an excuse to take that trip: 4,977 miles through the American West, at the age of 29, on a fine machine. The value of that was inestimable.
In 1984 Orion Pictures hired me to write a script about bikers – specifically, a father-and-son team who ride their machines from Detroit to rescue the son’s mother/father’s ex from a Tijuana jail. Jon Davison was to be the producer. Jon lived in Telluride. So, always looking for reasons to leave Los Angeles, I proposed a research-oriented road trip, following our heroes’ route, with a stopover at his place in Colorado. The title of the script, though I didn’t know it yet, was War Baby.
At this point, the furthest I had ridden was New Mexico, so the idea of a bike trip all the way to the Motor City and back filled me with exotic delight. By this time I had acquired a BMW 90/6, the very best of my sequence of machines. It was perfect for the jaunt. In those days, 900cc was considered a large engine, and I imagined it more than sufficient for any cross country trip. The disk brake and shaft drive were my friends. There were two fiberglass panniers, and I had one of those tank bags with a transparent cover into which you could slip your map (for there was no GPS back then. Nor internet. Nor lots of other things. But life was still pretty exciting).
So, packing the panniers and the tank bag and strapping a sleeping bag and an (unused) self-inflating camping mattress to the rear seat, I set off. There were 44,280 miles on the clock. It was Saturday, July 7, and the reader might anticipate a tale of travels through sunlit summer landscapes. It was not so. I rode down the 405, crossed into Mexico at Tijuana, ate a late lunch at Cesar’s (a place I cannot recall at all, though it was apparently the home of the Cesar Salad) and headed east on Mexico Highway 2 – La Rumorosa. I’d planned to continue on this infamous road the next day, but it grew dark and I encountered an army patrol searching cars – they waved us on – and no room at the inn in Tecate: there was a fair in town. So I crossed back into the US, and fetched up at the El Portal Motel in El Cajon, CA.
(How easy all the above sounds! It was a 250-mile drive. But what amazes me today is to think of getting out of LA traffic, transiting San Diego, crossing the border twice … all in a few hours. Even on a motorcycle this would be a hard, long slog today. And why did I end up in El Cajon? It seems I embarked on this journey with little idea as to what my daily destination was, or what my options were. Maybe Detroit seemed destination enough…)
Sunday July 8 Idled east again, breakfasting in Dulzura, having coffee in Jacumba, and visiting a famous Desert Tower (again, forgotten). If you have a motorcycle, people want to talk to you about bikes: “I’ve got a Honda 750. Came off it in gravel three weeks ago. Did this. (rolls up sleeve) My son was on the back. We got a flat at 55. I went down through the gears. If I’d have touched the brakes we would have really ate it.” Riding through Yuma I encountered lightning and light rain. Fetched up at the Seashell Motel in Gila Bend, AZ – where the only seashells are fossils. Like many motels I stayed at, the place was owned by (East) Indians. Delicious cooking smells, but no food for sale. 319 miles covered.
Monday July 9 Cut south into Ajo, a mining town with an extraordinarily beautiful main plaza – a mixture of faux-Spanish and John Ford cavalry post. The mine was still active in those days, and the miners were on strike. Headed west on a minimal backroad, ate popovers in Sells, on the Papago Res, and reached Tucson in daylight. 177 miles. Spent the night with friends, sitting in a car on Mt Lemon, watching the city lights.
Tuesday July 10 To the BMW shop. In these days if you were a keen motorcyclist you visited the parts store frequently. Beemers were the finest machines, but they were not for the faint of wallet. The parts were every bit as expensive as their equivalents in BMW cars. Fortunately the only authentic Bavarian tech needed on this occasion was a rubber o-ring for the dipstick. I recall being pulled over by the Tucson police because I had a pillion passenger, riding side-saddle, and the two of us being warned by the officer that side-saddle was not an appropriate motorcycling technique. Was this the occasion when this happened? Or was that another trip? It was unseasonably humid in the Old Pueblo, and there were huge thunderheads to the east. I rode east past the airport, alone. Half an hour out of town it suddenly cooled down. Electric energy filled the air. Then lightning and a terrific downpour. I pulled over onto the shoulder of the Interstate, turned my blinkers on, and sat there as the rain fell. A car pulled up behind me and the driver hit the horn. Ran to the car, an Olds. Door opened. Inside were two army guys from Fort Huachuca. They gave me shelter and sat smoking cigarettes. The rain was so hard we couldn’t see the bike, 20 feet in front of us. One of them was being ordered back to Germany for three more years. The other was going to Monterrey “for languages.” After 20 minutes, the rain stopped and the sky appeared again. We said goodbye.
South via the Old Sonoita Highway, Route 33 – very picturesque. At Tombstone drank a beer in the Crystal Palace saloon, where men dressed as cowboys watched a Western on the bar TV. Thence to Bisbee, and a room in the grand and ancient Copper Queen Hotel. Watched a documentary about Dien Ben Phu, followed by the news. “80 percent of sulfur dioxide poisoning in the Western US is concentrated in a triangle including Bisbee, Douglas, and Cananea, Mexico…” Only 129 miles. Day most eventful.
Wednesday July 11 In the morning I took the tour of the open pit copper mine, a giant sore on the landscape which had devoured most of the town. “Stripping began in 1918, and by 1921 Sacramento Hill had become Sacramento Pit…” In a print shop window I saw a sign which surprised me: a pro-communist poster, in English, showing a woman endangered by a shadow, with a slogan – ‘With Socialism, Women No Longer Live in Fear.’ I entered to enquire about it. It was the work of Bob, the old printer, once a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. The movie business had come to town recently, shooting John Milius’ anti-communist film, Red Dawn, and Bob was hired to design and print some appropriate propaganda posters. He found it ironic and a lot of fun, as he had always been into politics. “Fritz Mondale gave me a hundred dollars to file so I could run for governor of Minnesota in ‘52. But I was drinking then, and didn’t have the nerve.”
Dipped into Mexico again at Naco. This was then a quiet, easy-going, tiny town. The border crossing was never busy. There was no wall and you could see for miles into Mexico from the US, and the reverse. There was a golden statue of a man on horseback and I asked a kid who it was. “Pancho Villa.” Of course! I crossed back into the US and drove east to Douglas, where Highway 666 began. Highway 666 is no more. Today in Arizona it’s called 191. Rumour has it that the number was changed at the insistence of the Vatican, which operates an astronomical observatory on a mountaintop adjacent to the road. This is unfortunate, as it was a memorable number for a memorable route.
Detouring to glimpse the Chiricahua National Monument (a million rocks), I passed through Safford and Clifton. Bob Richardson and I had ridden out to Clifton a couple of times. It was a pretty copper-mining town in the mountains. On our second visit things were pretty tense. The miners were on strike and on the lookout for scabs. So we didn’t stay long. In 1984, the strike was ongoing still: a blackleg miner hung in effigy from a Coors sign outside a bar.
Beyond Clifton, 666 wound serpentlike in between high, straight stretches. A lovely road, but a slow one. It grew dark, and threatened to storm. I pulled off the road, took off my helmet, and exchanged the clear lens for the yellow-tinted one: night-driving mode. I ploughed on into darkness. Black chasms fell away on either side of me. Sunset appeared briefly – a dark, red eye glowing beneath gray clouds. Lightning flashed below me. I rode on.
Three Honda GoldWings passed, going the other way. One had a sidecar. All towed heavy camper trailers. Such excess was uncommon, back then. Two deer crossed the road ahead of me, and a dozen cattle. (It was foolish to ride this at night as it’s one of the most beautiful roads in the west – 123 miles of high-altitude curves still known as the Devil’s Highway, in honour of old 666.)
Around 9pm I found The Lodge – an inn high in the White Mountains, in a place called Hannagan Meadow. Bob and I had stopped here one freezing snowfield day two years previously, and drunk scotches. The Lodge had closed, in theory, but was still open. $35 got me a cabin with a wood-burning stove. $2.50 bought me two cans of beer. I’d ridden 308 miles. “Life is good” I wrote in my notebook. “God bless Orion Pictures.”
Thursday July 12 At breakfast, I struggled over the title of this script that I was to write. Before the Storm? Into the Wind? The temptations to call it Born to Be Wild or Uneasy Rider had to be resisted… At St Johns, the Beemer and I entered the territory of Triple A’s Indian Country map (which still showed the road as 666) and headed north into red-dirt, Navajo country.
Somewhere in the region of Ganado or Chinle, I lost my sleeping bag and self-inflating mattress (unused). Retraced my tracks for some miles but saw no sign of the missing items. Headed north again, into another brewing storm. It rained. I sneezed a lot inside my helmet. Then I cut eastward into better weather and still more scenic country. Rode into Cortez, Colorado, at sunset. Spent the night at the Frontier Motel. Ate a bad fish meal, and saw Gremlins at the movie theatre. 391 miles.
Friday July 13 A short 100-mile jaunt followed. Topped up on oil, and ate a huge hot green chile omlet at El Grande. Headed northeast into the most scenic country yet, and more rain. Rico was a charming, ghostly town. Telluride was a damp, hippie hangout. Three more miles of uphill dirt road brought me to Jon Davison’s place. I spent the afternoon with my producer, his charming girlfriend Sally Cruickshank, and dog Felix. The altitude – 8,500 feet – got me to gasping. A fine Italian dinner at the Sheridan Hotel in Telluride ensued. John memorably declared, “The only history of the West is MINERS!”
Saturday July 14 Departing the producorial ranch, I took the high and winding route via Ridgway and Ouray, to Silverton. This was apparently called the “Million Dollar Drive” on account of its visual magnificence, which the weather continued to obscure. According to my notebook, in Ouray I swam in a huge, outdoor municipal hot pool, then rode through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison: “Incredible Victorian-etching-type canyon, myriad of cracked-rock details.” I had now exited Indian Country, according to the map. 239 miles on, I spent the night in Crested Butte, another ski/rich/hippie Tellu-town, at the Elk Mountain Lodge – an old miners’ dorm turned hotel, with showers in the hall.
Sunday July 15 Not cloudy! Not raining! I crossed the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet). Outside Leadville, saw a fleet of K100s heading west on the Interstate. These were the new touring bikes BMW had just introduced: instead of a twin, air-cooled motor, they hefted four cylinders and a radiator – like a car… or a Honda GoldWing! To observe this was not a compliment, as the GoldWing was the poster child for giant engines, radiators, heated seats, eight-track stereos and other things a motorcycle didn’t need. Heavy, powerful, unmanouverable, and reliable, the GoldWing ultimately became the model for all large touring bikes, but at the time these flying bricks seemed an odd departure for the company, given that the boxer 90/6 was the perfect motorcycle. In Georgetown, Colorado, I bought a book of essays by Edward Abbey – of course! When traffic stopped on the freeway I lane-split, California style. Passing a group of stalled Aspencades (fucking GoldWings, man), I got yelled at by their riders. “Asshole! Jerk!” Was lane-splitting bad form in Colorado, as riding sidesaddle seemed to be in Arizona?
Dropping 3,000 feet, I approached Denver. It grew hot and humid, and an endless, brown plain stretched ahead of me. Riding the BMW through the western deserts and mountains had been wonderful. The prospect of traversing that great, hot, hissing plain for a thousand miles seemed less than wonderful. I steered for the Amtrak station, which in those days was a shed adjacent to the tracks, parked, and obtained a schedule. Back in those days a train called the San Francisco Zephyr left Denver every evening at 7.10pm. It arrived in Chicago the following afternoon at 2.15. From Chicago there were three trains a day to Detriot, including the Twilight Limited and the Wolverine… I called the friend of a friend in Boulder, and backtracked to that small city on the eastern edge of the Rocky mountains. I had been told to sing the song “Beef Baloney” by Fear to this person, and did so, to good effect. My hostess, whom I had never met, said I was welcome to stay the night at her place. We dined at a restaurant called the Chataqua, followed by drinks at the stately Boulderado. By evening’s end I had convinced myself to take the next train to Chicago. 319 miles that day.
Monday July 16th But wait! What if my protagonists took a more northerly route on their motorcycle journey? I wasn’t tired of riding around – just intimidated by the endless, fruitless plain. Surely there was more of the west to be investigated! I rode north again.
I took the above picture a few years back when Kim Ryan and I were driving along the East Lancs Road in Liverpool. We were heading back into town, and coming towards us was a fleet of police cars. The lead car was doing that very dangerous thing that American cops like to do: veering across all the lanes of traffic, so as to force oncoming cars onto the side of the road. This is cowboy stuff, and the cops who do it are very silly, since they rely on the good sense and driving skills of the motorists in the oncoming lane. Good luck if there’s a Tesla barreling towards them! I’ve seen cops do this in the Arizona desert when they’re leading a wide load. But this was an urban environment with a lot more traffic, and the police were just showing off, telling us they owned the road.
And why did they need to own the road? Because behind them came the big, unmarked van you see depicted. What’s in there, I wondered. Prisoners, Kim replied. Apparently “high security” prisoners (drug dealers? terrorists?) are sometimes incarcerated in Manchester but tried in Liverpool. This was a convoy returning prisoners or a prisoner from court in Liverpool to jail. Who were these high-risk individuals (or individual) who required such a massive cop convoy? Kim didn’t know. I enquired of the Liverpool Echo. They had no idea.
So a secret trail was being held in my home town. The police were making a big show of it. Yet, apart from the authorities, no one knew who was being tried. I’ve no idea if the people/person in the van had a jury to adjudicate their case. Given the ostentatious secrecy, I doubt it. Like all the individuals named above, they probably faced one politically-appointed judge.
Which brings us to the list of names above the picture. Who are they?
Of course, you’ve heard of Julian Assange. Having saught asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and been given diplomatic status, the journalist/publisher found himself trapped in the building for several years. His “private” conversations with his lawyers and family were surveilled by hidden cameras and microphones. The US government plotted ways of kidnapping or killing him. The United Nations Rapporteur reported that his treatment amounted to torture. Then the English cops raided the building and he was taken to a high-security prison, Bellmarsh, where the torture could be improved. He has been held in Bellmarsh for two years, in solitary confinement until his fellow prisoners petitioned for him to be allowed to join the general population. His fate – facing extradition to the US and life imprisonment in a supermax – is being decided, very slowly, by a politically-appointed judge named Vanessa Baraitser. Baraitser replaced a previous judge, removed because her proximity to the Americans and the arms business was too close even for English justice to stomach. During his rare court appearances Julian is confined with prison guards in a glass box. He cannot communicate with his lawyers. He has been recognised as a suicide risk. He has never seen a jury. Yet his extradition proceedings – for the crime of journalism – continue. You can learn more about Julian’s case, and how to help him, here.
UPDATE — Julian Assange has suffered a stroke, and been granted permission to marry his partner, Stella Moris, in Bellmarsh Prison. He remains incarcerated.
Steven Donziger is an American attorney who won a $9.5 billion environmental case in Ecuador. Chevron was found guilty by the Supreme Court of Ecuador of deliberately dumping of billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands. For the crime of doing an excellent job, Steven was targeted by a US judge who had investments in Chevron, Lewis Kaplan: he observes that this politically-appointed judge “targeted me with the first corporate criminal prosecution in the history of the United States. Private lawyers at the Chevron law firm Seward & Kissel were appointed by Judge Kaplan to “prosecute” me on contempt charges after I appealed a shocking and unprecedented order from Kaplan that I turn over my computer and cell phone for review by Chevron.” After months of house arrest ordered by Kaplan, Steven has just been sentenced by another politically-appointed judge, Loretta Preska, a leader of the Chevron-funded Federalist Society, to six months in jail. He has never seen a jury. You can learn more about his case, and how to help him, here.
UPDATE — Steven Donziger was released from a federal prison on 9 December 2021, to complete his sentence under house arrest.
Daniel Hale is an American whistleblower who went public about US drone murders. He was arrested in 2019 on allegations that he disclosed classified documents, believed to have been the source material for a series in The Intercept. A USAF veteran turned anti-drone activist, Daniel pled guilty to one count of espionage and was sentenced to 45 months in prison in July 2021 by a politically-appointed U.S. District Judge, Liam O’Grady. He has never seen a jury. You can learn more about his case, and how to help him, here.
Pablo Hasel is a rapper who has been condemned by the Spanish Supreme Court to nine months’ imprisonment, starting in February 2021, for the crime of “encouraging terrorism and insulting the king.” It’s worth remembering that Spain was a republic, and that the monarchy was reintroduced by the fascist dictator, Franco, as part of his deal to step down. The former King of Spain has been accused of multiple acts of corruption, and more than 200 Spanish artists and journalists, including Pedro Almodovar and Javier Bardem, have called for Pablo’s release. Pablo has never seen a jury. Insulting the monarchy isn’t a crime in England yet. We shall see how long that lasts.
UPDATE — A Spanish court has added an additonal year and four months to Pablo Hasel’s imprisonment, for failure to pay a fine of 29,340 euros. The fine was imposed by the court which imprisoned him in the first place. Meanwhile, the football club Real Betis has tried to have Pablo jailed for two and a half more years for injuring its repuation: the rapper had criticized a footballer for Nazi inclinations. This attempt was rejected by a Spanish judge in December 2021. Pablo remains in jail.
Craig Murray is a former diplomat and British ambassador. Since leaving the diplomatic service he has been an author, activist, political commentator and journalist. His has written extensively of the problems with the Skripal case, and his reporting of the Julian Assange and Alex Salmond trials put the MSM to shame. For the latter, he was found guilty by a politically-appointed judge, “Lady” Dorrian, of the novel crime of “jigsaw identification” and sentenced to eight months in prison. It’s worth noting that Salmond, the former head of the Scottish Nationalist Party, was accused of sexual assault (shades of Julian Assange and other annoying activists) and found innocent of all charges by a jury of his peers. This suggests that his accusers commited perjury, which is a crime. Nevertheless, Craig, and not the perjurers, was sent to jail. (It’s been suggested this was a stitch-up in order to prevent him travelling to Spain to testify as a witness in the trial of the private spy ring which illegally surveilled Julian Assange.) Craig is an old gentleman (almost as old as me). He has never seen a jury, and Dorrian is now calling for an end to jury trials in Scotland. You can learn more about Craig’s case, and how to help him, here.
UPDATE — Craig Murray was released from prison on St. Andrews’ Day, 2021.
Alex Saab is the Venezuelan Ambassador to the African Union. He was illegally detained in Cape Verde in June 2020, on the orders of the US, which seeks to extradite him. He has been imprisoned, tortured, and denied cancer treatments. His crime, according to the Americans, is attempting to circumvent US sanctions which deny Venezuelans food and medicine. His diplomatic status is being violated. He has never seen a jury. You can learn more about his case here. And you can sign a petition for his release here.
UPDATE — Alex Saab was turned over to the US on Sunday Oct 17 2021. His extradition process was still incomplete.. The MSM, predictably enough, described the kidnapping as an “extradition” or “arrest”, and the kidnapped diplomat as “a fugitive Colombian businessman” “a money launderer” “of Lebanese descent” and “a financial fixer.” You can read two African perspectives on the case, and its impact on Cape Verde, here and here. He is scheduled to attend a hearing on 7 January 2022, and be told when his case will be tried.
Early this year, it looked as if the US and Russia were about to go to war over the Donbas region of Eastern Europe, where many Russians and Russian speakers live, and which is part of Ukraine. Fortunately this did not occur. A couple of months later British and Dutch warships sailed through disputed waters adjacent to Crimea. The Russians fired warning shots. Again, fortunately, a war did not occur.
But, if you would like to know how the Americans propose to conduct a land war against the Russians, you can find out pretty easily. The US Army has placed copies of its war-fighting plans in several places. You can download one here. One click and you can view all hundred pages of TRADOC pamphlet TP52 5-3-1, The US Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, “approved for public release, distribution unlimited.” There’s a preface and an executive summary, if you just want the synopsis. But I encourage you to read the whole document, as it contains some gems.
Not that it’s entirely clear or consistent. The drift from peace to war in pamphlet TP52 5-3-1 is murky, as the US Army believes we’re already in the early stages of war with Russia and China. The evidence for this is their (particularly the Russians’) bad behaviour on the Internet. Many pages are devoted to the “unconventional” and “information” warfare our “near-peer competitors” are already waging non-stop against us. But fear not. This snowlake stuff doesn’t last for long. At some point, the bad guys are going to make their move – and the US Army will be ready! Not on its own, of course. The Army is but one player in a Multi-Domain Operation which includes the US Air Force, US Navy, US Marines, US Cybercommand, US Space Force, not forgetting NATO, of course, all of which will battle the aggressor in space, cyberspace, the air, the sea, the land, and the waters under the earth.
The way the Army’s war will go is this: at some point the Russians (or the Chinese) will seize territory which isn’t theirs: Donbas, perhaps, or a land bridge between Russia and Kaliningrad, or the American-held oil fields of Syria, or Taiwan. They will do this swiftly, in an attempt to present us with a fait accompli. The example the pamphlet gives of such a possible enemy action is “anti-Russian rallies in Kiev in 2015.” (Appendix D-4) It’s a strange example, since Russia didn’t seize Kiev. But, as we shall see, TP52 5-3-1 anticipates battles in “dense urban terrain” and so Ukraine fits the intended war scenario.
Obviously, enemy aggression cannot be allowed to stand. Perceptively, the pamphlet observes that the USA is a long way from its chosen battlefields, while Russia and China are comparatively close (said battlefields being on their borders), and so the US has to preposition large quantities of war material nearby. Prior to the war, the US must prepare and harden APS sites: bunkers fortified against cruise missile strikes, in order to supply the US expeditionary force (Pg. 37). To protect the bunkers and repel the attack, “Forward presence Army long-range fires must enable the Joint Force to immediately begin neutralizing enemy long-range systems (IADS, SRBM, long-range MRL, and command and control) and have munitions stockpiles in theater sufficient to support operations for several weeks.” (Pg. 30) Let us unpack that sentence, and what it means.
IADS means Integrated Air Defence System: in other words, Russian radar, aircraft, and anti-missile defences. An SRBM is a short-range ballistic missile. An MRL is a multiple rocket launcher: the Russians have many of these, and they are mobile. So, in response to a localised Russian or Chinese aggression, the Americans plan to take out all these air defences. And they propose to do so “during the transition to armed conflict” (pg. 33) In theory, the US Army will do it all, through ground-based, long-range artillery fire. In practice, they will probably receive assistance from the USAF. In the case of Taiwan, presumably the Army’s role in shelling enemy defences will be superceded by the US Navy. But since this is an Army document they don’t talk about that.
Apparently, the US Army will destroy Russian air defences via “converging capabilities across all domains, the EMS, and the information environment … high-volume analytical capability and sensor-to-shooter links enabled by artificial intelligence.” (Pg. 38) Perhaps the reader can detect some bullshit here. Fortunately, the pamphlet is more concrete on Pg. 34, where we are told that the Army will receive targeting information “from space- and high-altitude-based surveillance or low-observable air platforms, and striking those high-payoff targets within minutes.” At the same time, cyber-warfare will include decoys and simulated attacks in order to “stimulate enemy long-range systems” (e.g. radars), locate, and destroy them.
Armed conflict on the ground has not yet begun. “Forward presence maneuver forces and partner nation conventional forces use the advantages of the defense, particularly in dense urban terrain… Army forces leverage their preparation during competition to harden friendly urban areas…” We are not told how this “hardening” is to be done. At the same time, “proactively countering enemy space surveillance is particularly important.” This involves disabling the Russians’ “space ISR capablities.”
ISR stands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and “space domain” is defined in appendix GL-8 as “the area above the altitude where atmospheric effects on airborne objects become negligible.” In other words, while the Americans are destroying the Russians’ radar and airfields, they will also take out their satellites.
Neutralizing all Russian air defences may take more than a couple of minutes. Pg. 40 notes that “while the enemy has dozens of long-range systems in each combined arms army, they possess hundreds of mid-range systems”, all of which must be destroyed for the plan to work. Nevertheless, at some point the Russians’ defences will be overwhelmed, and the much-anticipated “manouver in dense urban terrain” can begin. This fighting will be based on the recommendations of the Army’s Mosul Study Group (appendix D-1), a report on a nine-month long battle (Oct 2016 – July 2017) in which more than 100,000 US and Iraqi troops ultimately defeated between five and twelve thousand ISIS insurgents, destroying the city in the process. But the US Army and its partner nation forces now have a chance to improve on the Mosul experience as “dense urban terrain offers increased possiblities for using cyberspace- and EMS-based weapons.” (Pg. 44) EMS means elecromagnetic spectrum (not emergency medical services). The acronym also appears in the Executive Summary on pgs. vi and vii, in conjunction with the “information environment”, which seems to mean EMS weapons designed to knock out electricity grids or other infrastructure. The EMS referred to in the city-fighting section may be that, or anti-personnel weapons of the science fiction kind, or Tasers.
When we get to the section titled “Conclusion: Penetrate” we might assume the battle is almost won. But no: we are told that “the key to penetration is the neutralization of the enemy’s long range systems” – something which a few pages back was to be achieved “within minutes”, while the U.S. Army was still rumbling towards its chosen battlefield. Nowhere in the 100 page TP52 5-3-1 document is it clear how the war is to be concluded. Various words are defined in Section II – “Terms” – including adversary, battlefield, fix, reset, and destroy. But the word victory does not appear there.
Instead, the goal appears to be to fight the Russians to a standstill, in whatever cities have been selected as the battleground. The section titled “Conclusion: Exploit” reports that “in a conflict with a near-peer enemy armed with nuclear weapons, the operational exploitation, however, will conclude with some combination of policy, logistics, and resource constraints. Although the enemy’s conventional forces will be severely degraded, it will retain cohesion and capablities to remain a threat.” After thwarting Russian aggression, the US and its allies will oversee “a successful transition from conflict to return to competition.” (Pg. 44) On the next page, the pamphlet acknowledges total victory over Russia or China is impossible: “where peer enemies have nuclear capacity, it is an unlikely expectation to hope for a vanquished opponent”, so US occupation forces will be necessary “to consolidate gains.” Meanwhile the Army will embark on the “rapid regeneration of munitions stockpiles.” (Pg. 45)
Appendix A-2 is titled “Fundamental assumptions.” Assumption G is as follows: “Neither the U.S. nor adversaries will employ nuclear weapons. The use of such weapons would so significantly alter the strategic context that different operational approaches would be required.” This is good to know.
AN EXAMPLE IN PRACTICE
Let’s take one of the above examples and see how these US military plans might work in practice. The ideal war from the perspective of TP52 5-3-1 would be a Russian fait accompli seizure of Donbas. The US and NATO have armed Ukraine and presumably created substantial APS bunkers there. There are several large urban areas, including Donetsk and Luhansk, which could be hardened/reduced to rubble. But let’s look at a less-discussed, far more incendiary possibility: a Russian invasion of the territory which separates it from its enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad was a “spoil of war” allocated from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference that divided up Europe in 1945. The countries which lie between Russia and Kaliningrad are Latvia and Lithuania, both members of NATO. To the immediate east is Belarus, currently a Russian ally. Much effort is currently being expended by US and European intelligence agencies to encourage a “colour revolution” in Belarus, and overthrow its pro-Russian government. What if they succeed? Russia will then have nothing but hostile nations on its Western border. What if it decides its interests are best served by seizing a land bridge to Kaliningrad?
Lithuania is home to a 1000-soldier NATO detachment. Most of the soldiers are from Germany, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. A Polish Air Force detachment with four F-16 fighters represents NATO at the Siauliai air base. US Army and Special Forces troops also operate there. APS bunkers have been established at Marijampole: since 2014, the US has given Lithuania 200 million euros to buy weapons and store them there.
Latvia is home to a batallion-sized NATO battle group of 1,500 soldiders at Adazi, with troops from Canada, Albania, Poland, and elsewhere.
There is also a NATO battle group in Estonia, to the north – run by the English – and a much larger one, in Poland, to the south – run by the US. More than 10,000 US troops are deployed to Poland, with a “surge capacity” of 20,000 additional Americans availiable in the vicinity. Together these forces are known as NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States.
These are substantial forces, which surround Kaliningrad. The US Air Force and NATO practice near-constant training exercises in the vicinity of the Russian enclave, which contains the headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Sea fleet, a forward staging point for combat aircraft, ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and anti-ship and -aircraft defences. Some 25,000 Russian troops are based there. Let us assume that an increase in tensions, or just plain wickedness and hatred of freedom, causes the Russians to invade central Latvia and Lithuania, in order to secure a permanent link to these naval and air facilities.
Kaliningrad is two hundred miles from the Russian border. It seems unlikely that the 2,500 NATO troops in Lithuania and Latvia could hold back several Russian divisions. But as NATO’s website reminds us, “an attack on one Ally is an attack on the whole Alliance of 30 members.” What happens next?
Per the US Army plan, the US Space Force will knock out Russian satellites to deny them intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Simultaneously NATO artillery and air forces will attack Russian air defences, both in mainland Russia and in Kaliningrad. And US/NATO cyberwarfare will spoof Russian radar with multiple imaginary attacks, in order to locate and destroy them. American Aegis missile complexes in Poland and Romania will be activated. Meanwhile the tanks and artillery in Poland will be rolling.
Their air defences having been destroyed “within minutes”, the Russian expeditionary forces will be confronted in the “dense urban terrain” of small cities like Rezekne (population 30,000), Utena (population 30,000), and Kaunas (Lithuania’s second-largest city, population 300,000). Russia will become bogged down in Mosul-style streetfighting. Despite much greater numbers and vastly superior equipment (the Fourth Russian Tank Division has 12,000 active duty personnel, 320 battle tanks and 300 infantry fighting vehicles), the Russian military will be defeated just as ISIS were.
Armchair generals can interject at this point that tanks and armoured cars are useless, in the face of drones. And there is truth in this. But it’s still remarkably optimistic of TP52 5-3-1’s authors to equate several Russian armoured divisions with a lightly-armed band of terrorists. And even more optimistic, perhaps fanatically so, to imagine that the war will not go nuclear. With this in mind, let’s turn from this hopeful fantasy to:
THE LIKELY RESULT
When the Russians and the Chinese lose their satellites, and their radars show incoming missiles and aircraft, what will they do? Leave their own missiles and planes on the ground, to be destroyed? Or launch them?
In the case of Baltic warfare, NATO’s number one target will be Kaliningrad. It is, after all, the site of numerous air defences, which it is our policy to destroy. General Jeff Harrigan, Commander of US Air Forces in Europe, told the National Interest that “US forces know how to crack Kaliningrad.” But Kaliningrad is also the home of a nuclear weapons storage site at Kulikovo, as well as the fleet base at Baltysk, where frigates, destroyers, corvettes, and nuclear-capable submarines are berthed. The missile base at Chernyakovsk houses nuclear-capable SS-21 and SS-26 SRBMs (short-range ballistic missiles). And there are half a dozen S-300 and S-400 air-defense units. Kaliningrad is what General Harrigan and the authors of TP52 5-3-1 would consider a “target-rich environment.” Artillery and planes based in Poland, or at sea, can reach it within minutes.
What will the Russian response be, to an incoming attack on Kaliningrad? Leave the subs and aircraft and missiles to be destroyed? Or get as many planes and missiles in the air before the bombs arrive? As Daniel Ellsberg told us, local American commanders had autonomy to launch nuclear attacks in a time of crisis – especially if their “command and control” network was disrupted. And TP52 5-3-1 aims for disruption of Russian command and control.
The blithe statement that “neither the US nor adversaries will employ nuclear weapons” (emphasis in the original) seems unsustainable. Nuclear and conventional weapons are co-mingled in both US and Russian inventories. Aircraft can carry either type of weapon. SRBMs like the S-400 and the Aegis are dual capable: that is, they can be fitted with conventional or nuclear warheads. In the absence of a treaty-based inspection program, it’s impossible to know how many nukes either side fields. And even if nuclear missiles are not targeted, there are nukes in bunkers in the target area, nukes aboard aircraft, nukes aboard submarines.
The Russians have observed that if they are attacked they will respond “asymetrically” not just against the attackers, but against those who ordered the attacks. This is an important distinction, for it means that Russian missiles may not be reserved for “defence.” After all, what is there to defend if Kaliningrad is about to be destroyed? So rather than attempting to knock down incoming planes and missiles, the Russians may target the NATO capitals which sent them. Their “defensive” missiles, with a range of 500 kilometers, can reach Berlin and Warsaw. Those aircraft and ICBMs which get out ahead of the attack can target London and anywhere in Europe, plus the continental USA. Like the Americans, the Russians do not have a “no first use” policy and reserve the right to respond with nukes, if they consider the homeland endangered. They are committed to defending their little enclave, just as NATO is committed to defending tiny Latvia, with nukes if required.
As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” TP52 5-3-1 is an illuminating document, illustrating the wonderful American capacity for optimism and the belief that everything can be forced to turn out for the best. It also demonstrates a complete lack of imagination and a narcissistic inability to learn anything or to step outside themselves. If this is serious military doctrine, we don’t need to worry about global warming. Nuclear winter is on the cards.
Norman Saunders was a cover artist for the pulps. He painted lurid, action-filled scenes for the covers of Eerie Mysteries, Dime Detective, Wild West Weekly, Saucy Movie Tales, True, Saga, and Real. There’s an excellent site devoted to his work, curated by his son.
By the late 1950s, pulp magazines were in rapid retreat. Magazines in general started showing a preference for photographic, rather than painted, cover art. Saunders found himself working for the Topps Baseball Card Company, fixing flaws on trading cards and repainting the players’ uniforms when they changed teams. He made a living at it, but retouching baseball cards was not his calling. In 1961, the anniversary of the American Civil War, Woody Gellman – Topps’ head of product development – decided to produce a non-sports series on the subject. He asked Saunders to paint it, and Len Brown, a 21 year old science fiction fan who wrote the backs of the baseball cards, to come up with the text.
Based on Gellman’s and Brown’s suggestions, a sketch artist would provide an outline in a 4X6 inch frame on an 8X10 illustration board. Topps hired some of the best comic and pulp artists of the day, including Jack Davis, Basil Wolverton, Mort Drucker, John Severin, and Wallace Wood (all veterans of EC and Mad magazine). The sketch artist would deliver the board to Saunders, who painted it – making substantial changes and additions. Brown then provided text, in the form of a “contemporary” newspaper report (most of the battles were fictional). The cards were called Civil War News, and were released in packages of five, together with genuine, authentic Confederate banknotes, reproduced on parchment paper, and a piece of pinkish plastic, which children were expected to chew.
What made Civil War News worth collecting wasn’t the historical information, much of it bogus. It wasn’t even the Confederate banknotes, though walking around with a thick wad of the stuff, hundreds and tens and twenties in fake dollars, certainly made one feel like Paladin. The series’ unique selling point was its total grisliness. Most of the cards captured moments of intense hideousness: cannons exploded, killing their crews; soldiers were bayonetted or impaled on lances; cavalrymen tumbled from their horses onto spikes; wagon wheels crushed wounded men; little boys were hung as spies; sharks and alligators attacked. It was great stuff!
The cards were very popular. According to Saunders’ son, David, there was also a parental backlash, and Topps was flooded with letters of complaint. To mollify its critics, the company announced a card set titled Flags of All Nations. This gave Topps “educational” cover to produce an even more violent and blood-spattered trading card set: Mars Attacks.
Len Brown, inspired by a Weird Science cover, came up with the story (told in short paragraphs on the back of each card). Wallace Wood and Bob Powell sketched the outlines; Norman Saunders painted them. Apparently another artist, Maurice Blumenfield, painted five or ten of the 54 cards, which were then retouched by Saunders.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot of the Mars Attacks cards. It can be told quite quickly. Martians, knowing their Red Planet is doomed, mount a flying saucer expeditionary force and invade Earth. The attack focuses on major US cities and the US military, who are quickly routed. The Martians devastate China and England from the air. In the US, they land and engage in search-and-destroy operations. In addition to their deadly heat rays, the Martians deploy a frost ray, a shrinking ray, tidal waves, and giant shovels to clear the streets. Then, in a second attack wave, the Martians release giant insects, which prey on humans and assist in street clearing, a Martian priority. Surviving soldiers battle the insects with flame throwers. In Paris, a giant caterpillar destroys the Eiffel Tower. Amazingly, despite the Martians’ seemingly total dominance, humans are able to mount a worldwide rocket-based counterattack. Our forces atom-bomb the planet, then land and attack a magnificent domed city. Having destroyed it, we depart the planet. Mars explodes.
As an alien invasion story in the War of the Worlds vein, Mars Attacks is quite splendid. One can take issue with a couple of narrative points: are the giant insects strictly necessary? And how does mankind, having been so thoroughly pummeled by the Martians, manage to put together this massive rocket-based comeback? No matter. Mars Attacks compels the viewer the wayThe Triumph of Death does: as a massive and cohesive vision of the doom of man. Saunders’ invaders even look like Bruegel’s skeletons: skull faces in space suits, with massive, exposed, pulpy brains. (Saunders borrowed David’s Captain Video space helmet, placed a plaster human skull inside it, and used it as a model in his paintings.)
The Mars Attacks cards were a big seller, beloved by science fiction fans and malevolent little boys. One of the most offensive cards was number 36, Destroying a Dog, which as the reader might intuit depicts a space-suited, skull-faced Martian turning his ray gun on a poor pup, while Junior flails hopelessly, saucers hover overhead, and the mailbox burns… According to David Saunders, “The whole family and neighborhood friends loved to pose for Dad. He often dressed us in stage clothing and directed our acting roles under theatrical lighting. Our dog “Cindy” and I got to be zapped into ashes by a merciless Martian. At first Dad painted the scene with the dog roasted into a hideous charred skeleton, but Topps made Dad retouch the dog with a coat of fur. I’ve always wondered if the owner of that painting knew there was a more “x-rated” dog underneath that revision!”
In the late 1970s, in a comic book store in Hollywood, I encountered the original Destroying a Dog illustration board, for sale. The painting was four inches by six, but where the disintegrating dog had once been, was a US soldier – also disintegrating. Perhaps he was Junior’s older brother. Accompanying the painting was a card explaining that the painter had suffered remorse over the Martian animal cruelty, and painted over the pup. So – in the manner of certain Bruegels like The Massacre of Innocents – multiple retouchings changed the image’s impact, and meaning. I wish I had bought that painting. It probably cost more than I could afford, but… According to some sources, Topps had commissioned Saunders to repaint several of the most gruesome cards, so that a new printing of the series could be issued. Then a complaint from a Connecticut district attorney was received. Topps cancelled the second edition, and finally brought out Flags of All Nations.
No children bought these boring cards. But they gave Topps cover for one more grotesque saga: Battle! – a series of violent scenes from the Second World War in which Japanese planes machinegunned drowning airmen, beautiful women were flogged by swarthy Asians, schools were bombed, and Americans set Germans on fire with flame throwers. Like Civil War News, it was historical type stuff. Saunders painted some of the cards.
In 1966, a company called A&BC bought the rights to all three sets and released them in England. The first to come out was Mars Attacks. At the time, I wasn’t interested in trading cards, or bubble gum, but there was something about the images which fascinated an eleven year old boy: their delirium, their strong graphics, their gratuitous sadism. I set about acquiring a full set, buying cards and swapping them with my colleagues. Soon came the backlash. The cards were discussed in the venerable Houses of Parliament. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was cited. Card number 16 was not mentioned. The cards were banned.
However, no system was put in place to return or destroy the corrupting cards, and I was able to make a deal with our local tobacconist to acquire what remained of his stock. Despite the Parliamentary ban, my collection was soon complete, my psychological ruin assured.
In the late 1980s I brought the cards to the attention of the producer John Davison, who had just made a popular ironic SF movie, Robo Cop, and was looking for another one. He got us a development deal with a company called TriStar, and I wrote two drafts of a script. On the title page of the first draft, the studio head, Mike Medavoy, wrote “This film will have huge grosses.” And yet it was not to be. Medavoy felt my scripts weren’t right, and wanted someone else to take a crack at it. He hired an English writer by the name of Martin Amis. I didn’t think this was a good idea, but what did I know? I was just the director, maybe. Or maybe not. Amis turned in a couple of drafts. I didn’t see them. Then he penned a piece in the New Yorker, in which he made fun of how stupid Hollywood studio executives are, with witty portraits of a thinly-disguised Medavoy, and other TriStar execs.
TriStar abandoned the project. A decade later it was picked up by Tim Burton, and made into a film. I don’t think either of us got it right. My scripts were too diffuse: too many stories running in parallel, and a nasty protagonist lifted from a Frederik Pohl short story, Children of the Night, whom actors didn’t want to play. Burton’s Mars Attacks! movie began with a brilliant scene based on card number 22: Burning Cattle. Thereafter, it became a celebrity fest, and suffered from being made at a time when all Hollywood movies had to be filmed in Las Vegas, for reasons unknown. Still, that scene based on card number 22 was key: for the right way to make a Mars Attacks movie would be to respect the cards – to have 54 discrete incidents. No stars. No continuous characters (most of them are swiftly killed). Just 54 two-minute scenes depicting, as the cards do, the war between Mars and Earth.
What a film that would be! And it is still to be made…
(Subsequently, Topps came out with several more Mars Attacks sets, including 2013’s Heritage Invasion, and a new one this year: Mars Attacks Invasion 2026, in which Elon Musk plays the leader of the Martians. There is also a ten-card Deleted Scenes set, featuring new paintings based on unused sketches by Wood and Powell, and captions by Brown, which you can have fun interspersing with your original set. The best of this add-on set, which merges the principal themes and aesthetics of Mars Attacks and Civil War News, is below.
Pablo and I talked on our podcast a couple of weeks ago about flying saucer films. My contribution was to watch EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS! – made in 1956, and more recently colorized. I enjoy colorized films, especially when they’re done well (MY MAN GODFREY and the Russian version of THINGS TO COME) and the work on FLYING SAUCERS was pretty good. And the visual effects were by Ray Harryhausen! Not that they are excellent. The death rays are pretty hokey, and the UFO interiors are absurd. But the flying saucers themselves, seen from without, ain’t bad.
Almost immediately, the MSM jumped aboard our bandwagon and have been babbling about flying saucers like the most avid choir. The official narrative, as Caitlin Johnstone observes, moved rapidly from “these really poor quality video shots of who knows what? are evidence of visitiors from outer space” to “these really poor quality video shots of who knows what? are evidence of Russian and Chinese high-tech drones and aviation and the poor US military need much, much more money to emulate them!”
Why anyone would believe anything the US military, or “anonymous intelligence sources” or their mainstream media flacks told them I cannot say. But the refrain “There must be something to it because it’s the US Air Force who are witnessing these incredible phenomena” is particularly absurd. Though I love flying saucer stories, and will soon write about my favourite, the Mars Attacks bubble gum card series, I don’t think the latest round of very poor quality video of who knows what? means that we have alien visitors. Nor do I believe it’s Russian or Chinese aerobatics. But I know there’s a lot of money to be made, by Lockheed, and Boeing, and Raytheon, and the generals who will soon retire and become high-ranking excutives in those corporations, by hyping “mysterious aerial phenomena” and claiming there’s a flying saucer gap.
As we now know, the original “UFO flap” of the 40s and 50s was a creation of the US Air Force. Why would this one be different? Back in 1994 I wrote an article about this for UFO Magazine. It was also published by the investigative journal The Fourth Decade. Since we are living through a manufactured re-run of the 1950s, with witch hunts and blacklists and anti-Russian propaganda of the most absurd kind, let me reprint a shorter version of that piece here:
System maintenance takes many forms. Could conspiracy theories serve to protect or benefit elite interests? One instance might be the origins of the "Flying Saucer" flap of the late 1940's - where the familiar shadows of certain intelligence figures can be seen.
Some years ago I had lunch with Jim Marrs, writer and lecturer on the JFK assassination. Our conversation was pleasant, familar, paranoid, inspirational -- and astonishing, when he remarked to me that "the real story, the real cover-up, is UFO's." He wrote a book about this, Alien Agenda.
Today, "Psy-Ops" designed to convince us that truth is a lie, and vice versa, are are part of our daily lives and the fabric of official discourse: designed to win elections, prolong wars, distract an already-alienated populace, and maintain business as usual.
To me the UFO business sounds a little like a "Psy-Op" too – partially because the Flying Saucer "scare" of the 1940's - the seed of the UFO reports and beliefs of the present day - was the creation of U.S. military intelligence.
From the mid 1940's, when the sightings began, all significant reports of flying discs and other objects - and the insistance that they "behaved like nothing on earth" - came from members of the U.S. military: first from the Air Force pilots and ground crews, later from the Navy. The "news" of the crashed UFO at Roswell came in the form of an official press release from the Army Air Force Base. George Adamski, the self-proclaimed "alien contactee," was a military man; he is buried at Arlington cemetery. Donald Keyhoe, a prominent Navy Commander, authored the book Flying Saucers Are Real, while Commander R.B. McLaughlin, a head of the Navy guided missile team at White Sands Proving Ground, N.M., wrote an article entlited How Scientists Tracked Flying Saucers for True magazine in March 1950. William Cooper, author of Behold A Pale Horse, claims to have been in Naval Intelligence, and accuses fellow UFOlogists Moore, Shandera and Streiber of being intelligence stooges.
Whitley Streiber was a science fiction novelist before becoming a UFO celebrity. He shares, no doubt coincidentally, a Navy and science fiction background with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard - who, legend has it, declared at a science fiction authors' conference in the 40's, "If a man wanted to make himself some real money, he'd get out of science fiction writing and start a religion."
Throughout the 40's, 50's and 60's, the most prominent UFO reports - though regularly debunked by the military - came from the military. "Non-military" reports came from police, state troopers, "civilian" aviators (often military-trained), even "off-duty" CIA personnel.
Edward Ruppelt, an Air Force captain assigned to investigate Flying Saucer reports for project Blue Book wrote: "during July 1952 reports of Flying Saucers sighted over Washington D.C. cheated the Democratic National Convention out of headline space." The reports came from Washington National Airport, and from Andrews Air Force Base. In 1957, a huge Saucer "flap" occurred immediately after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II (Sputnik - which carried a doomed dog into orbit - was considered a scientific triumph for the Russians and a humiliation for the United States. The UFO excitement lessened the Sputnik story's domestic impact).
And who was running the "official" USAF investigation into UFO's, Project Blue Book - along with the allegedly "more secret" parallel investigations, Projects Grudge and Sign? In his Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Edward Ruppelt writes,
"Early in 1951, verbal orders came down from Major General Charles P. Cabell, then Director of Intelligence for Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, to make a study reviewing the UFO situation..."
Anyone who has superficially studied the cast of characters surrounding the JFK assassination will have heard of General Cabell. Former Head of Air Force Intelligence, Charles Cabell was Deputy Director of Intelligence at CIA under Alan Dulles. He was fired, along with Dulles and Richard Bissell, the Director of Plans, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A native Texan with extensive business interests in the state, Cabell returned to his home town of Dallas, where his brother Earl was Mayor. A few months before the assassination of the President, Cabell addressed a group of businessmen at the New Orleans Trade Mart, as the guest of a New Orleans booster called Clay Shaw. After the death of JFK, Cabell became an employee of Howard Hughes.
It was popular after the Bay of Pigs failure to debunk Cabell: in Dulles' absence from Washington, Cabell had been left to carry the can. Understandably, the Bay of Pigs vets did not like their nominal leader: they called him "Old Rice and Beans." But Cabell was a military intelligence professional, the highest armed forces rep. in a supposedly civilian organization. It is unlikely that his interest in UFOs was frivolous. As a hard-nosed military man, the General may have desired to debunk them, as Project Blue Book usually did. But as a covert operations specialist, Cabell may have decided that "Flying Discs" would serve as a handy cover for "Black" USAF and CIA aviation projects, or for the recovery of crashed Soviet satellites and space probes. At least once such incident appars to have occurred. James Oberg wrote in Omni (Sept. 1993) that the "crashed UFO" rumor which arose in Western Pennsylvania in 1965 was most probably a "Psy-Op" spun to mask U.S.A.F. recovery of the crashed Soviet Kosmos-96 Venus probe:
"In the 1960's, U.S. military intelligence agencies interested in enemy technology were eagerly collecting all the Soviet missile and space debris they could find. International law required that debris be
returned to its country of origin. But hardware from Kosmos-96,
with its special missile-warhead shielding, would have been too
valuable to give back... What better camouflage than to let people
think the fallen object was not a Soviet probe but rather a flying
saucer? ... And if suspicion lingered, why UFO buffs could be
counted on to maintain the phony cover story..."
In the 1950s, "Skunk Works" aircraft designer Kelly Johnson and CIA's Richard Bissell flew over Groom Lake, a dry lakebed in Nevada, and deemed it a good base for their top-secret, high-altitude spy plane the U-2. A few decades later, UFO true believers would gather on the highway near the USAF "black" base at Groom Lake, Nevada - nicknamed "Dreamland" - convinced that super-secret, alien-engineered craft were being flown out of there.
General Cabell is an enigmatic figure. I’ve seen only one photo of him, head and shoulders, square-jawed, in uniform. I have not seen his autobiography (unlike many contemporaries, Cabell didn't make it into print), although a copy apparently resides in Dallas, with his sons. He seems to have been seriously involved in the U-2 program. According to Michael Bechschloss' Mayday, Cabell may have been behind a covert op to give the Russians secret U-2 information, in order to wreck the Eisenhower/Khruschev Geneva Summit in 1960. After Clay Shaw was found innocent by a New Orleans jury, District Attorney Garrison claimed he was going to start proceedings against Cabell in connection with the JFK hit. But Garrison did nothing: presumably he had no jurisdiction in Texas. (Jim Phalen, a New Orleans reporter who took Clay Shaw's side in the trial, is mentioned in The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects as a friend of author Ruppelt's, calling from Long Beach with "a good Flying Saucer report...")
As Head of Air Force Intelligence, Cabell ran, through intermediaries such as Ruppelt, three differently-classified projects related to UFO's: Blue Book, Sign, and Grudge. This is sometimes cited as evidence that the Air Force "had to be covering something up." But the existence of not one, but three, Air Force investigations, potentially with three different explanations for the same event -- all of them potentially false -- also sugggests a classic intelligence-constructed "hall of mirrors" in which the "real" truth can be hidden, behind several veils, from foreign spies, and also from domestic watchdogs.
I‘ve never seen a UFO. So perhaps I’m too skeptical. But I have heard the sonic book of a once-top-secret USAF SR-1 Blackbird (successor to the U-2) flying low over Managua, Nicaragua, on election day in 1984, in a "Psy-Op" to convince the populace that bombs had begun to fall.
Back then, according to a Gallup Poll, one in seven Americans believed in UFO's, somewhat more than the one in ten who claimed to have spoken personally with the devil. And since President Clinton's military budget was higher than his predecessors, there were still trillions of dollars to be made from high-tech, ultra-secret aircraft like the B-1B (which President Carter tried to cancel, but could not), the Northrop flying wing B-2, the TR-3A, the SR-75 Penetrator, and the XR-7 "Thunderdart" hypersonic spyplane. (Wild Blue Yonder: Money, Politics & the B-1 Bomber, by Nick Kotz, Princeton University Press, 1988).
"Psy-Ops" involving UFO's and alien abductions may be the small additional surcharge we must pay, to keep our minds off the real bills.
Keep watching the sky!