- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Over the next decade things changed. The dress and turnout of private soldiers recovered style and glitter, noncommissioned officers began again to stand apart, officers resumed the expectation of instant obedience. When in the mid-1980s I visited the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, I found an organization of exact hierarchy, manifest purpose, pride in work. Every member, from staff officer to enlisted man, bristled with pleasure at the appearance of the commanding general, who made himself my escort. They overflowed with eagerness to tell him what they were doing, emphasize commitment, listen for his word of approval. This was an army responding to the decision, taken by stalwarts like Norman Schwarzkopf after Vietnam, to persist with the institution and return it to its old traditions; when I came to interview him after the Gulf War, he told me that his life’s fulfillment had been to see the dispirited formations of the 1970s transformed into the relentlessly battle-winning elements of the expeditionary force that had secured victory in Kuwait.
It was an un-uniformed service, however, that I came to know best and to admire very greatly, the Central Intelligence Agency. Casually remarking one day to an American met at an academic conference that I thought “order of battle analysis”—the reconstruction from scraps of evidence of the organization of armies—the most intriguing of all problems in military history, I received some months later an invitation to lecture at a CIA training course on the appropriate techniques. The lecture was a success, and the invitation was repeated. When I next turned up at Langley, it was to a more elaborate reception. The escorting officer who collected me at the airport told me that we would be going to the main building, not the training block. After I had completed some elaborate paperwork, I was let into the secret that the Director, then William Casey, had expressed a desire to meet me.
My escort set off confidently up a series of elevators and down anonymous corridors. After a while he was, I could see, flagging. We were on the wrong floor, then another wrong floor. There was embarrassed whispering with bypassers. Eventually, behind an anonymous door in another anonymous corridor, the Director’s office was run to earth. Some very large and fit-looking young men occupied the floor space of the antechamber. Much of the floor space of the room within, a modestly sized, book-lined study, was occupied by the Director himself. William Casey was—fatal disease already had him in its grip—a large man. He had an anomalously small voice and a habit of swallowing his words. Placed at the corner of his desk, I found myself edging forward to catch what he was saying. As a newspaperman, which I had then become, rather than as a writer of history, I had jumped to the conclusion that a scoop was in the offing—some confidence about the Russian campaign in Afghanistan perhaps. In fact, when a senior subordinate joined us, there was a revelation—that America was supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahedeen—on which I should have jumped. By then, however, I was disoriented. The Director of Central Intelligence, I had at last identified, was talking to me as one historian to another. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss our common craft. What was my working technique? Did I write longhand or on a word processor? Did I make a point of visiting the battlefields about which I wrote? I stumbled out answers as best I could. After a long passage or almost mutual incomprehension, the Director rose to his feet, plucked a book from his shelves—it was to prove of the greatest value to me in my work—inscribed it, and said, I presume, good-bye.
In the corridor outside, my escort had been joined by others I already knew. “What did he have to say?” they asked.
“I’m not altogether sure,” I answered. “I couldn’t really understand.” There was suppressed, insider laughter. I was looking at the book I had been given. It was entitled Where and How the War Was Fought: An Armchair Tour of the American Revolution by William J. Casey.
“We call him Mumbles,” a member of the group commented, “the only man in Washington who doesn’t need a secure telephone.”
Casey’s cover was clearly very deep indeed: a second identity as a historian in a Le Carréesque disguise of great sophistication. Oddly, when a year or two later I was met at the entrance to the Pentagon by an escort who told me that the Secretary of Defense had also expressed a desire to meet me, I found on entering Caspar Weinberger’s office (what a contrast with Langley: vast space, colonial antiques, portraits of American military paladins at the door, Cinquecento paintings lining the walls within) that he, too, wanted to talk about our common craft, writing, history, the literary analysis of the trade of diplomacy; but by then I was attuned—and anyhow, Weinberger enunciated our common language with exquisite clarity. I like the American Foreign Service very much and take great pleasure in the perpetuation by so many of its members of the Dean Acheson look and manner: neat mustaches, the slightly pained expression, an accent more Canadian than American. I continue to find, however, its sister intelligence service the more interesting.