Retired Army Counterintelligence Officer John Davis has published his second book, “Around the Corner: Reflections on American Wars, Violence, Terrorism and Hope.” Look for that review here in September.
The following was originally posted on October 29th, 2013.
Having created a section of the SoHo Journal many years ago that fosters an appreciation for the creative talent of current and former American intelligence professionals, we were recently offered a new book to review. On our Art of Intelligence commentary we have displayed paintings, described novels and published poetry by those who have fought the secret wars for our country. Often, (as is described in The Book of Honor by Ted Gup) those who have served are neither publicly acknowledged nor identified after having made the ultimate sacrifice. Only a star is affixed in place of a name.
Along this road of discovery, which provided entertainment, appreciation and pathos for the writer and the readers, we met an Army Intelligence Officer of particular talent—John W. Davis. He offered poetry, essays, observations and support for our publication in the mission which we were intent on undertaking. This officer, now retired after 40 years of service to our country, has just completed a book of poetry, essays and remembrances that give us, the readers, a glimpse of the secret world of espionage war.
John Davis, recently retired from Army Intelligence, provides us with the conundrum of America in the current world of terrorism and hidden wars. How do we maintain our freedoms as we change and adapt to the new realities of engagement? While he gives us some answers, he describes the choices that we must make through analogies that clearly make the decision much easier. As he tells us in his prologue, “Nowhere is there a free pass from choices of good and evil.” It is as if he is alluding to the fact that it is not only Intelligence professionals, but all of us in a free America that must, on a daily basis, make a Hobson’s choice from among more than two equally unpalatable alternatives.
Davis’s Rainy Street Stories does not gloss over lines with the novelist’s adroitness as does LeCarre, nor does he appear to draw upon the wealth of knowledge that Nigel West, the “Godfather of Intelligence,” draws upon as the acknowledged historian of the Intelligence field. Instead, the reader is drawn into a collaboration with Davis in understanding the moral dilemma and making the difficult philosophical decisions about how we proceed from here. Davis enables the reader to travel with him by using short essays and poems that evoke the feelings and experiences of fear, betrayal, pain and death that are intrinsic and inescapable elements of the secret and not-so-secret wars.
The work spans decades from Hitler’s Nazism, to the Cold War under Stalin, and arrives at the burgeoning of al-Qaeda and the War on Terror. Along the way, he mentions the declared horrors of Northern Ireland’s “The Troubles” and the genocide of the Bosnian conflict.
Among the bread crumbs that he drops for the reader to discover in his Mission Impossible, of finding a firm footing for establishing a personal moral view of the secret wars, are vignettes like “Z-1557.”
In a visit to Flossenburg, at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, Davis comes upon a woman visitor who had been a gypsy and was rounded up, along with her whole family, and taken to the camp. While she escaped, the rest of her family was murdered. Their fate was among the likes of Canaris, the head of the german secret service, the Abwehr, who was tortured and then hung naked with Piano wire at the same camp.
The former camp is now a park, and the woman tearfully feared that the memory of what had been done there would be forgotten in another generation. Davis cautions that evil was present in this park and warns us, “It has been said that to do good and avoid evil is not enough. We have to do good and undo evil.”
In his essay “Serving Your Country,” Davis describes how America is the dream of the world. He follows this with “Veteran’s Day Reflection,” in which he suggests that the holiday should not only be celebrated by parades, but also by visits to the hospitals where our servicemen and women have landed for our freedoms.
We cannot take any of our Freedom for granted, we must be ever-vigilant of others as well as of ourselves, and we must make efforts, both individually and as a nation if we are to avoid the mistakes of previously great societies.
As Davis points out that while, “[Rome] was a model of virtue that the world admired, it had become a culture of death . In the quiet of the Colosseum, I could imagine the whisper of Fate warning us today.“ Unspeakable horrors took place there. It had once been “a coherent society.” Each citizen was honor-bound to do his duties of public service and civil defense. Each tried to behave in the Roman character; to strive for the ideal of the pragmatic, fair and well-balanced citizen. Was this not once the moral stance of America? And now?
His comments on torture are instructive. In addition to the fact that “Torture breaks everyone involved. No amount of double-talk makes the pain go away. […] Torture kills souls. The only cure for such a spiritual pain is confession.” Davis points out the practice’s frivolity. Said an old soldier, “ We got more information from a German general with a game of chess or ping-pong than they do today with their torture.” And, as Davis shows of torturers, whether they be CIA or water-boarders or electrode wielding mercenaries, “They become secret sociopaths, alcoholics, drug users or worse.” Yet, what do they accomplish?
But, Intelligence work involves dirty wars, secret wars, betrayal, pain and death. There is nothing romantic about espionage and intelligence work, though we like to think of it that way. As Erich Gimpel, Canaris’s Agent 146 once said, “There is, there was not, and there never will be any romance about the spy trade. The silent war of the spy is mean, cold and bitter. Is is the dirtiest side of war.”
Yet, Davis gives us some of the emotive beauty born of fear and pain. In his poem, “Webs,” he describes an operation with poignancy:
When the light from the match glowed, I chanced to see the web stretched across the window’s corner.
The man passing the restaurant window had paused, lit his cigarette, then faded into darkness.
Since I knew the web was there, I’d glance up from my dinner and look at it every now and then,
Finding in its construction a measure of transcendent beauty.
Remarkably, the street lamp across the square, where the figure waited, backlit the web.
The more industrious the spider, the more visibly agitated the figure waiting.
At last, the man who lit the cigarette met the man beneath the lamp.
At that very moment, a moth landed on the web and was pierced by the waiting spider.
I pressed a silent alarm, and the uniforms moved in.-by John Davis
As we in America who are concerned with how our society evolves, how many new cameras are installed in our public places (reminiscent of the ubiquitous Stasi Secret security apparatus), we must take note. Davis points out in The Lives of Others that “The Stasi were masters of the telephone tap, the hidden camera, the surveillance personnel, the faked encounter, the elicitation and the ultimate betrayal. This was life in a police state.”
One out of every 14 were part of the Stalinist East German Democratic Republic security apparatus. As Ulrich Muhe, an East German soldier-turned-actor did when he finally said ‘enough,’ he stood up for the cameras in 1989 and “demanded freedom of speech, and freedom from police state oppression.”
While Davis does not draw conclusions for us, he does drop enough hints and suggestions that we must remain vigilant. Is is neither a “liberal” or “conservative” point of view that we must embrace or espouse in America – when we hone in on the ramifications of our collective actions. We must be ever-vigilant about terrorists. But, we must shield our information from journalists and news organizations, And, we must protect our own humanity when we agree to participate in lest we, too, become the victims of our own inhumanity. Lest we, too, become the monsters—and the terrorists.
John Davis, in Rainy Street Stories, gives us a highly readable and entertaining book which addresses the philosophical ambiguities facing our country. We must defend ourselves, yet, we must grasp our hard won freedoms for which many died on the battlefields, tenaciously and jealously. Spend a few hours delving into the moral fiber of our democracy and think about what this talented author, a veteran of the secret wars, can tell us.
John Davis may very well be the new philosopher of U.S. Intelligence – The Chancery Gardener of America’s moral garden.
— D. Clark MacPherson