The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth (2010)

‘Good information is vital, accidental misinformation is regrettable, but skilful disinformation deadly.’
The Cobra (p.400)

After a sequence of thrillers dealing with the Muslim world and Islamic terrorism, Forsyth makes an (apparently) clean break with a novel about cocaine smuggling from Latin America. In the event, we are soon introduced to characters from previous novels, which gives it a pleasing sense of continuity.

Forsyth appears to have begun by asking himself: if the President of the USA asked his people to STOP the cocaine trade, what would it involve? He sketched out all the steps and operations which would be required – and then placed them in the hands of a couple of tried & trusted characters from a previous novel, to implement.

The novel is divided into four sections, named with typically tongue-in-cheek humour: Coil, Hiss, Strike, Venom.

1. Coil (pages 17 to 74)

The grandson of a servant of the US President dies of a cocaine overdose in a Washington slum. The old servant weeps at an important State dinner. The First Lady goes to comfort her. She and the Prez can’t sleep that night: ‘Is there nothing we can do about this curse of drugs?’ In the early hours, the Prez phones the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency: I want a briefing about cocaine in three days.

The narrative includes this briefing, a characteristically interesting summary of the production and sale of cocaine in the US and Europe (though obviously out of date if you Google the subject). The Prez asks the Director of Homeland Security, ‘Can we abolish the cocaine trade?’ DHS says, I’ll need a man who used to work for the CIA. They called him The Cobra, lol (of course they do).

This turns out to be Paul Devereaux, the highly educated Boston-born Catholic who we last saw masterminding a two-year project to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in the novel before last, Avenger. He was (unwittingly) foiled by one-man seize-and-kidnap operator, Cal Dexter, formerly a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam, now known as The Avenger.

So the head of Homeland Security calls Devereaux and asks if it can be done: Devereaux thinks about it for a month and then says, ‘Yes’,on the following conditions: $2 billion of funds, no record of the project, the recategorisation of cocaine as a terrorist threat, and if he can hire Cal Dexter. He then phones Dexter, who mulls over the offer before saying Yes. Reuniting these old characters is either a) lazy and unimaginative or b) has the same humorous impulse as reuniting the original cast of The A Team or Mission Impossible for one last mission. This is not Henry James; it is thrillerland.

Forsyth cuts and pastes entire paragraphs from the earlier book to describe first Devereaux then Dexter’s biographies. This also could be described as lazy – but it also has a slightly avant-garde feel.The exact repetition of previous text is like the re-use of the same conflicts and wars which recur as backdrops in Forsyth’s fiction. You could think of them like a pack of cards containing the same limited number of ‘characters’ and ‘conflicts’, which is cut and dealt out anew in each novel.

— To give a sense of the ubiquity of these illegal drugs, the text is interspersed throughout with descriptions of shipments of cocaine arriving in Hamburg, Portugal, California and Vancouver, and in West Africa, in different boats, using different smuggling methods – a steady drip of scenes designed to give a sense of the vast scale and the unrelenting nature of the cocaine smuggling, going on every day,day and night, as I write and you read this review.

2. Hiss (pages 77 to 255)

Forsyth claims that, after years of chaos following the death of Pablo Escobar, recent years have seen the emergence of a ‘super-cartel’, the Hermandad. As far as I can tell, this is entirely fictional. Part two commences with a summit meeting of the various members of this ‘Hermandad’, led by Don Diego Esteban, held at one of his vast haciendas, the Rancho de la Cucaracha.

Procedural We watch Esteban convening the members of the Brotherhood; cut to the British Prime Minister consulting with his chiefs of staff at his country house (Chequers) and asking whether the UK should join the US’s crusade (yes). Then go with Dexter round the City of London where Forsyth demonstrates his knowledge of merchant shipping to show how Dexter goes about buying two grain cargo ships which can be converted into anti-drugs boats. Also the purchase and building of a secret airstrip on the Cape Verde island of Fogo…

In fact, Forsyth sets quite a few strands running in parallel, enough to become a bit confusing:

  • The priesthood Devereaux meets the Father Provincial of the Jesuits in Colombia and suggests he distributes throwaway mobile phones to every priest in the land with the invitation to anonymously phone in any information about drug smuggling which they might learn in confession.
  • Guinea-Bissau Dexter flies to the failed state of Guinea-Bissau with two black SAS men to spy on cocaine being smuggled in by boat to the coastal region of the Bijagos (p.127)
  • Letizia Arenal Spanish police send the team full lists of people leaving and entering the country, and computers flag up oddities of behaviour. Thus the Cobra learns about a Colombian lawyer, Julio Luz, who makes monthly and unusually short visits to Madrid. Dexter flies in with a team of CIA spooks. They break into Luiz’s hotel room and ferret through his correspondence (p.140). They tail him and observe that on every trip Luz exchanges not only attaché cases (full of smuggling details) but meets a pretty young woman and exchanges letters. Dexter establishes she is Letizia Arenal and, by palming a cup with her saliva on, gets a DNA test and establishes she is the daughter of Roberto Cardenas, one of the Don’s inner circle. In a long sequence she is seduced by a handsome, art-loving young man into a love affair. They get engaged, then he says he has to return to New York, can she fly out to join him? Ignoring all her father’s orders, Letizia does and is promptly pulled over in Customs who find a brick of cocaine in her baggage, obviously put there by Dexter’s people. Tearfully, Letizia is hauled into court and faces 20 years in a state penitentiary. The handsome man disappears and she realises she’s been framed. At this point the Avenger smuggles a letter into Luz’s luggage to carry back to her father, Roberto Cardenas, in charge of the Brotherhood’s logistics, arranging a tense meeting in a hotel in Cartagena. Here Dexter confronts the evil, violent man and simply says: tell us what you know, and she goes free. Some weeks later a flashdrive arrives with names of corrupt officials across Europe and their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands etc. Dexter arranges for a fall guy to be caught in Spain (temporarily), who confesses to planting the cocaine in Letizia’s baggage. The court in New York dismisses charges. She is released and deported back to Spain. The Cobra has his List, the ‘Rat List’.
  • The two Q ships The two grain ships are extensively converted into anti-smuggling warships in a pestilential shipyard south of Goa, India. Each will contain a deck just big enough for a small helicopter and a brig to keep prisoners in. They are MV Balmoral, crewed by Royal Navy and Special Boat Squadron and MV Chesapeake crewed by US Navy SEALs.
  • Captain Francisco Pons flies a converted Beech King aircraft loaded with a tonne of cocaine from Brazil to an isolated airstrip in Guinea-Bissau.
  • Juan Cortez Father Isidro uses one of the throwaway phones to inform on one Juan Cortez, a master welder who creates smuggling places inside steel hulls. Dexter, using the Cobra’s limitless powers, co-opts a Hercules transport plane and six Green Berets who first stake out Cortez’s daily commute, then stage an elaborate mock road smash, kidnapping and chloroforming Cruz, putting a recent (American) corpse of an unknown drifter in his car dressed in his clothes, with his ring, watch and wallet, then set the car alight. Cruz is airlifted back to the States; his family are told through official channels that Cruz died in a car smash and is tearfully buried. Then, a few days later, Dexter turns up at their house with a tape recording and photos proving Cruz is still alive but can never return – the Cartel would murder him and his family. Faced with no alternative, his wife and kids pack up, leave a message saying they’ve decided to emigrate (!) and are secretly flown to rejoin Cruz in Miami. Now reassured as to the safety of his family, Cruz starts to ‘sing’, and gives the name of some 78 cargo ships which he helped adjust to create concealed smuggling places. The Cobra has his list of drug ships.
  • Forsyth continues his description of the route of the cocaine after it lands in Guinea-Bissau, being broken up into smaller packs and driven various routes north across the Sahara. From the north African coast it is shipped in knackered steamers like the Sidi Abbas to Calabria, under the control of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, to be watered down and sold on the street.
  • The fighter pilot Dexter recruits Major João Mendoza, ex-Brazilian Air Force, to fly the vintage Buccaneer jet fighter he’s had re-engineered to become a drug buster. We meet the team of engineer enthusiasts who’ve carried out the retooling and his (woman) instructor, Commander Colleen Keck (p.193).
  • Global Hawks Dexter supervises the repurposing of two spy-in-the-sky flying probes, to watch shipping in the Caribbean and off the coast of Brazil. They operate BAMS – Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, and will monitor all shipping from the Latin American coast, either heading north to the States or East to Africa. Humorously, Dexter names them after the wives of the Prez and the UK Prime Minister – Michelle and Sam.

3. Strike (pages 259 to 354)

The Prez’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Silver, phones the Cobra to say, You’ve had your nine months of planning: is everything good to go? ‘Yes,’ replies the Cobra. What follows is a sustained and co-ordinated attack on the Cartel’s activities, which Forsyth describes in documentary detail.

1. The spies in the sky identify all shipping heading north or east from Latin America. When they identify a ship on either Cortez or Cardenas’s lists, they flash the news back to the hi-tech project headquarters in Anacostia, a neighbourhood of Washington DC. The nearest of the two MV boats is dispatched. The small helicopter appears out of nowhere with a sniper pointing a rifle at the captain’s head. It is followed by fast dinghies containing the SEALS or SBS men. They board and hood the crew and locate the cocaine. By this time the big MV boat has arrived. Crew and coke are transferred to the brig/prison and hold, respectively. This is repeated scores of times, as Project Cobra clobbers the smuggling boats. Crews and coke are taken back to the Cape Verde island, then flown to the other base, Eagle Island, we saw being constructed in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There they will be held forever without trial.

2. At the same time, Dexter meets with Customs authorities across the States and Europe and shares the list of corrupt port officials. One by one these are caught in ‘sting’ operations, along with the deliverers and the receivers, thus trapping the maximum number of people along the chain.

3. In the third strand, Major Mendoza scrambles from his base in the Cape Verde islands, and flies his retooled Buccaneer to intercept suspicious planes, suspicious in that they’re unusually small to be making the trans-Atlantic flight (but are able to, as Forsyth explains, because of extra fuel tanks with fuel often pumped manually by Latino peons). Mendoza simply blows them out of the sky.

Thus, within a few weeks Don Esteban realises his operation is under co-ordinated assault. In usual style he tortures and murders a number of ‘suspects’ to find out who the ‘traitor’ is: various unfortunates along the pipelines – either in Colombia or Guinea-Bissau – are tortured to death, chopped up with chainsaws, decapitated, or have their noses, ears, fingers and genitals removed to make them talk. Forsyth doesn’t stint on describing the really super-brutal methods of the cartels. Eventually Esteban establishes Cardenas as one of the leaks, and he is gunned down in a mass raid on his remote jungle hideaway.

But the Cobra still has the Rat list and the ship list and the devastation of the Brotherhood’s operations proceeds apace. Eventually the gangs down the supply chain become restless with the Cartel. Black gangs in Africa, the mafias of Italy and Spain, all the suppliers in Mexico who pass on to the US, all these middle men gangs are suddenly not receiving wholesale shipments. They start complaining to the directors of the Cartel responsible for distribution, they start wondering if the Cartel is favouring other gangs, they start looking round for other suppliers. Forsyth, with his usual documentary authority, describes the visit of one Cartel rep to the gangs of North America, and one to Europe, in both giving breakdowns of the races and ethnicities of the gangs.

The sting Then we find out why the Cobra has been so careful to seize and not destroy the cocaine shipments. In elaborate sting operations, the Cobra arranges for some of the ‘missing’ coke to be bundled in with shipments which they do let through. Then organises police raids, carried out with the usual publicity and lots of photos in the newspapers. Photos which show the consignment numbers of the jute-wrapped packs (for everything in this highly organised industry is numbered and monitored). Then arranges for the raids to be given maximum publicity.

As intended, the information gets back to Don Esteban and his lieutenants: the information that some of the bales from the boats and planes which disappeared did in fact get through. The disinformation that this sends the Cartel is that someone, somewhere is betraying them on an industrial scale: ‘disappearing’ planes and boats then stealing the shipments. Vengeance will be awesome.

4. Venom (pages 397 to 447)

Having planted the suspicion in Don Esteban’s mind that he is being double crossed, the Cobra now manufactures evidence suggesting the culprits are some of the key gangs who control the trade in Mexico. The Don carries out punishments, which lead to revenge attacks, and soon the Cobra’s campaign of disinformation has sparked a massive and very bloody war among the Mexican drug gangs.

In fact this is just the opening of an extensive campaign of lies and deceptions – spearheaded by a blog the Cobra sets up, which carefully mixes accurate info about the drug seizures with inflammatory posts carefully assigning blame to the numerous heavy duty drug gangs in Europe and the US — until all these strategies have prompted a major outbreak of public violence in US cities second only to the street shootings of the Prohibition era. The public outcry, the newspaper headlines, politicians screaming, a groundswell of protest escalates up to the Senate and then the Prez himself.

The Cobra explains it all very clearly and cynically to Dexter. This is what he aimed for all along: for the only people who can ultimately defeat the drug gangs are the drug gangs themselves, fighting themselves to extinction, wiping out the infrastructure for a generation. The Cobra delivers what sounds very much like an Author’s Message – that the comfortable societies of the West are happy to dole out violence abroad (and Dexter’s career alone has given us eye-witness accounts of just fractions of the appalling bloodshed caused in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) but don’t like the reality when they see it on their own streets. (This sounds like the traditional soldier’s contempt for cosy civilians who have no idea what real combat is about – a timeless complaint).

The Prez is a democratic politician, coming up for re-election, and he asks his Chief of Staff to tell the Cobra to stand down the operation. Right on the brink of success. These final pages have a bitter flavour, as the elected politicians turn out not to have the balls to see the job through (and all because civilians are getting injured and killed in the epidemic of violence which has rampaged across the States.)

In a puzzling final section, the Cobra flies to Colombia to meet the Don, in a Catholic church. He candidly reveals that his country (the US) has betrayed him by cancelling the operation. He has 150 tonnes of cocaine hidden. He will deliver it to the Don in exchange for $1 billion, which will allow him to disappear and live out his life in luxury. I found this bewildering because the Cobra had up to this point been portrayed as a man of inflexible rectitude. He flies back to Washington and calls Dexter in to tell him:

a) The entire operation is being stood down: the two ships handed over to their respective navies, the soldiers and special forces returned to their units etc.

b) He orders Dexter to fly to a tiny coral atoll in the Bahamas, there to find and torch the 150 tonnes of cocaine. Dexter does so, arriving with instructions which are actually carried out by the Marines on the spot. But as they’re being splashed with petrol, Dexter cuts into a bale and takes a taste. It’s cooking soda. He allows the Marines to proceed, but asks them what ship brought the bales. He pieces together the evidence that there’s another steamer, which has been dumping these fake bales and keeping the real ones. Reacting fast, he calls the Project computer headquarters and quickly identifies the steamer which must be carrying the missing cocaine. Just as quickly, he gets through to Major Mendoza on Cape Verde and tells him there is one last job. He tells the Major (whose brother died of a cocaine overdose and so takes the mission deadly seriously) to fly out across the Atlantic, identify the steamer carrying the coke to Colombia as part of the Cobra’s deal with the Don, and sink it. Which – in a bravura passage giving documentary description of an air force strike – he does.

In the Epilogue Dexter returns to the sleepy New England town he left nine months earlier, to resume his quiet, unassuming existence as a small-town lawyer. And reads in his paper that locals found the body of Paul Devereaux in his Washington mansion. He and his housekeeper had been brutally murdered. The last words are, ‘Nobody treats the Don like this.’

This ending really puzzled me: I was expecting the fake cocaine ploy to be a subtle last cunning strike by the Cobra – like, maybe the cocaine he was sending back to Colombia would be poisoned or booby-trapped. But it seems not. So are we really to accept that the shining beacon, incorruptible good guy, Cobra, at the last minute made a sell-out deal with the head of the world’s cocaine industry? Really? And that Dexter’s spotting that the cocaine in the Bahamas was fake, then quickly dispatching Mendoza to blow up the real shipment, in effect condemned his boss and the man he’d come to respect so much, to certain assassination? Dexter doesn’t seem very upset when he reads the news in his paper. Is that because he has discarded Devereaux – despite the immense feat he pulled off of nearly ending the world’s cocaine trade – as a broken reed, as turning out-to-be-corrupted?

I’ve reread the last chapter twice and am still surprised and puzzled by what happened and what I’m meant to make of it.


Thoughts

This novel is a fantasy of what the existing forces of law and order (or FLO, as Forsyth calls them) could do if they abandoned ‘political correctness’ and ‘human rights’ and all the other namby-pamby concerns for legal process which, in Forsyth’s view, clearly hamper them. It is a ‘right-wing’ fantasy of how an upright and pure police force could stamp out this massive social problem.

Given the epic scale of the crime now associated with drug smuggling, it is a beguiling fantasy, not least because:

a) It’s not that serious. Like all Forsyth’s novels – despite the blizzard of factual research into recent conflicts and geopolitical history, into official and illegal organisations, the detailed accounts of ranks and structures of army, navy and air force and their precise weaponry, as well as factual backgrounds on international crime and terrorism, of organisations or technologies (preceding the text is a list of no fewer than 27 acronyms and abbreviations) – despite these mountains of research, there’s a simple-minded cartoon feel to the whole enterprise.

b) The serious question of to what extent civil liberties can be suspended in the war against terror or the war on drugs, is something that can be debated forever by moral philosophers and lawyers, politicians and columnists – and never reach an actual conclusion. But The Cobra is a fiction which, despite the weight of research behind it, in origin is similar to the creation of countless other fictional vigilantes and crimefighters-without-the-law, from Dirty Harry to Batman (b.1939). Gotham City/San Francisco/the Western world is overwhelmed by crime. The police are too corrupt or overwhelmed to cope. Into the breach steps a superhero – Dirty Harry/Batman/the Cobra, prepared to use unconventional methods to get the results we all deeply desire. Same stable.

Forsyth’s novels are crisply written, full of fascinating background information and the cardboard heroes – just like the heroes of a thousand movies and TV cop series – always get their man. We live, for the few days we read it, in a simpler, fairer world, a world of violence and immorality and illegality, where the good is unquestionably Good, and if it also behaves violently and immorally and illegally, behaves thus in a good cause and so we should cheer it on. Come on the good guys!

What more do you want for your £6.99?


Credit

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2010. All quotes and references are from the 2011 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

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