Drawing back the curtain

February 23, 2015

One of the amazing powers of literature is its ability to draw aside the curtain.  Writers who have experienced other roles in life use their background for a book and the readers get a glimpse of life-in-the-trenches written by someone who knows what they’re talking about.  Want to see World War I as a medic?  Pick up Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  How much of Mad Men is true?  Try Jerry Della Femina’s From those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, a terrific book on advertising.  Those books and others entertain us with insights into the human condition but they also enlighten readers by revealing a world we’ve never known.  One of my best friends recommended a book that fits in this shelf.  No matter what else happens I guarantee you won’t forget You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger.  Who could give us a better inside view at military intelligence than a former OSS officer?

Roger Hall was an army lieutenant during World War II, ensconced on a base in Louisiana when luck and poor work on the commander’s baseball team led to a transfer to the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA.  Because of his training as a teacher, the OSS initially had him teach other recruits the basics of scouting and patrolling.  Hall was qualified because he’d grown up near the training camp and already knew the landscape.  Eventually he went to paratrooper school where he got the immortal advice on landing, “Feet together or broken ankles. Take your choice, sir.”  After that came more training, testing and some instruction in Spies 101 where the exams included being able to walk into any town, without ID and then get a job in and data on a place that ought to be using security.  In order to keep up one cover story, our hero ends up making an impromptu plea in a factory to buy war bonds.  The speech is so successful, the newspaper writes an article on him.   Nothing like keeping a low profile!

Hall’s intelligence shows as well as the attitude that made him a writer instead of a CIA agent: As one commander said, “You’re much too impatient with inefficiency, either above or below you and with yourself as well.  In an organization that makes as many mistakes as this one has and always will, too much obvious impatience will brand you as a maverick.”  Hall was an intelligent maverick and a lucky man to boot.  When he’s sent into occupied France, he parachutes, not into a nest of Nazis but behind American lines.  Patton got through two hours before he landed. Then he does map duty in unoccupied France and battles a stuffy British major.  He finally goes from training to real action just in time to take the surrender of Hitler’s troops remaining in Norway.  Hall runs from one operation to the next, helping where he can and learning a lot about the brave, incredible people who did the impossible to aid the Allies during World War II.  Because of of this book, we get a birds-eye view of a small but important section of a very big war. 

There’s a rumor that the CIA used to show copies of this book to their new recruits and say, “Never let this happen again.”  I think that’s sad.  People in the intelligence community must be smart to do their work and many smart people are iconoclasts, Roger Hall included. Yes, they can be harder to monitor (ask any teacher with gifted students) than the rest of us average Joes but these are the people we rely on for original and critical thinking, a commodity sorely needed in security and defense.  As it is, Roger Hall served his nation and the world, first in secret and then by telling tales.  Thank goodness he survived the war to pull the curtain back for us.

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