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Films and film criticism seem to bring out the prejudices of British journalists, in particular a low-level animus against things American.

You can see this in the often over the top carping about Hollywood bad guys with British accents (a phenomenon I wrote about here) and simultaneous failure notice the way that Brit actors who can do good American accents get a disproportionate number of starring roles (see eg the careers of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Idris Elba, Damian Lewis etc etc.)

Most recently it was detectable in the hysterical articles responding to the imminent opening of Anonymous, the Roland Emmerich movie about Shakespeare. The film promotes the theory that the Earl of Oxford was the real author of the plays credited to Shakespeare and that the latter was an ill-educated bumpkin actor. You would imagine from the coverage that this is some terrible new American idea concocted to insult Britannia. In fact, this bonkers theory has been around for more than a century (See the Wikipedia entry on Shakespeare authorship question) and famous British propagators include Sir John Gielgud and Jerusalem star Mark Rylance…

I was more bothered by the complacent ignorance revealed in reviews of a new documentary about the Black Panthers, Black Power Mixtape. Not a single reviewer in Britain seemed aware of the squalid non-political criminality and violence — in particular the murder of Betty van Patter — that underlay their well-crafted heroic image, even during their heyday. For a sense of how clueless the British response has been, check out this article in the Telegraph by Ekow Eshun. There were some impressive and brave people in the Black Power movement, and its activists were often victimized and persecuted by law enforcement; however the glamour of the Panthers was a specious as their claim to have achieved anything concrete on behalf of Black Americans.

Returning to Baghdad, where he was embedded in 2003, the author finds the “Hellraisers” of the Third Infantry facing the challenge of training Iraq’s new army

I first saw Baghdad on April 8, 2003, two days before the city fell, while embedded with the army’s Third Infantry Division. What is now the Green Zone was recently a battleground, a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A wrecked Russian-made armored vehicle rusted silently under a clump of trees. Here and there were the remains of Iraqi soldiers, semi-preserved by the dry heat. The G.I.’s gave some of them nicknames: Headless Harry, Shoulder Sam, Puddle Pete. The only signs of life were the cats you would see gnawing on the corpses. The area included several palaces, all of them bombed except for the Presidential Palace, a ziggurat belonging to the Ministry of Defense, clusters of apartment blocks belonging to regime favorites, and the green residential area of Tashri. Its garish mansions, surrounded by flower gardens, ponds, and moats, had all been abandoned in the months leading up to the war — the dust, the lack of furniture, the doors left open, made that obvious. G.I.’s quickly moved in, installed VCRs and TVs, and wandered in wonder through the gardens. They toured in their Humvees past abandoned houses and offices, chased away looters, and occasionally brought in curious Iraqis who’d never seen the area that was reserved for Saddam and the Ba’thist elite.

Now the whole district is at least as off-limits to ordinary Iraqis as it was before. Its green loveliness hasvanished behind the concrete blast walls that surround everybuilding and every compound. And when I drove through the zonelate last spring, with soldiers who had liberated it more thantwo years ago, everyone in the Humvee went silent, shocked at the transformation. “I can’t even fucking find my way roundhere now, and I drove here every day,” one sergeant said.

Back in 2003, I spent my first nights in Baghdad on the floor of the Presidential Palace, the headquarters of the 4-64 Armor Battalion and now, shorn of the giant heads of Saddamthat once adorned its roof, the embassy of the United States. Saddam’s half-Olympic-size palace pool was then bone-dry. Thescouts took showers in the deep end using buckets. Their palsin the mortar platoon pissed in it. Today it is full, and youcan see its blue waters through the heat haze, like a mirage,as you land on the Green Zone helipad.

The 4-64 Armor returned to Baghdad with the rest of the Third Infantry Division just after the elections of January 2005, replacing the First Cavalry Division. The soldiers they relieved had seen some ofthe worst fighting since the invasion, battling the Mahdimilitia of renegade Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunniinsurgents from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Some of the battalion’s troops now provide security in the Green Zone, operating checkpoints alongside a legion of private security guards, allied soldiers (mostly Georgians), and Iraqi security forces. Others oversee infrastructure projects in their area of responsibility. Still others are engaged in training the new Iraqi Army and patrolling the streets adjacent to the Green Zone on both sides of the Tigris.

It’s all vital work, but the task of training an effective Iraqi security force is now a top priority of the U.S. military. Though the economy manages to function despite the bombs that go off almost daily—indeed, the new cars jammed onto the streets make that all too clear—Iraqi civil society, the country’s nascent democracy, and an eventual American departure without disgrace all depend on this. Though U.S. troops rarely find themselves in sustained combat (except where the Marines are fighting near the Syrian border), this past summer has been bloody, especially for the thousands of Iraqi civilians killed by the largely Sunni suicide bombers often referred to by Baghdadis as “Wahhabis.”

The company I was with in 2003, and now again, has escaped the tedium and danger of checkpoint duty, much to the soldiers’ delight. Nicknamed the “Hellraisers,” they arefinishing the training of one Iraqi Army unit that was begun by the departed First Cavalry and beginning the training of another. As a friend from my previous visit, Sergeant Richard MacDougal of the Hellraisers’ mortar platoon, said to me, “It’s the best gig going out here.”

But the price of that gig is living out at FOB Independence, on the Muthenna airfield, in North Baghdad, instead of in the comforts of the main battalion base at Prosperity Palace, in the Green Zone, with its gleaming shower and toilet trailers and luxurious chow-hall. (Almost all bases are now termed “FOBs,” or Forward Operating Bases, even if they are in the rear. The big FOBs are essentially officeparks, like camouflaged versions of a D.M.V. or postoffice.)

“Fobbit” has become the derogatory army slang for a soldier who lives in, works in, and rarely leaves the FOB. It is the rough equivalent of the epithet REMF (rear-echelonmotherfucker) of Vietnam War fame. At FOB Prosperity, ther eare many soldiers for whom a trip out of the base and to the nearby PX convenience store is a huge, rare deal.

FOB Independence is something else entirely. It’s a combat-and-training base out in “Indian” country. There’s a fence around the airfield and several high-walled compounds within it. Before you get to the American area, you have to go through an Iraqi National Guard camp. There are gates, and your vehicle has to wind through a “serpentine”— concrete obstacle course that denies a straight run to truck bombers—to get to each compound.

A few hundred American troops live there, and next door to them about a thousand troops from the 302nd Iraqi National Guard. With its castellated walls, FOB Independence feels a bit like a French Foreign Legion base from an old movie. At night when you hear gunfire in the distance, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if the natives fled, or turned on their foreign advisers.

Iraqi soldiers man the watchtowers on the outer perimeterof the base. The Americans check every night to make sure theyare not asleep. When the 4-64 moved in here, it found that theIraqi troops had actually put bunk beds in the towers.

Nevertheless, none of the U.S. troops there seem nervous.They were expecting much more contact with the enemy that they refer to simply as “the bad guys,” and that military publications refer to as “Anti-Iraqi Forces,” or A.I.F.

The Hellraiser company is now commanded by Captain Ed Ballanco. An air-force brat who grew up in Germany and Florida, he’s 30, married—as most officers are—and has a master’s in international relations. Ballanco was in a tank battalion during the thrust into Baghdad when I got to know him. Now he has a baby girl at home and is in charge of the American compound on the Muthenna airfield.

The Hellraisers’ shelter from the punishing heat and dust consists of three long, drab barracks that are kept at frigid temperatures by roaring air-conditioning units. Their world includes a cafeteria, a small garden, a makeshift gym in a hot and dusty tent, and a recreation area under a palm-frond roof that could have been transported from a Thai beach. Within the compound there are three little stores–a phone center and two Internet cafe—all Iraqi-owned.

The Muthenna airfield hasn’t been used as an airfield since it was bombed during the Gulf War, in 1991. A control tower sits south of the U.S. compound and is occupied by an Iraqi Army unit. Near it are two giant cranes and the foundation pillars of a huge unfinished mosque–one of several begun by Saddam as he shook off the Ba’th Party’s secular origins. The U.S. troops call it the MOAM, the Mother of All Mosques, and they use it for urban-warfare training.

The Iraqi Army recruits live in a giant airplane hangar. Apart from the MOAM, the dominant feature of this strange post-industrial landscape is a large mound of earth, a kind of artificial mountain. It is the core of Captain Ballanco’sachievement: a range and training area for American and Iraqi troops. Ballanco’s range is surrounded by HESCOs, big barrels filled with dirt and debris. They absorb bullets, shrapnel, mortar shells, and a huge amount of explosive force.

At the very edge of the airfield is another Iraqi Army compound, where recruiting is done. It is a frequent target of suicide bombers. Security is tight, though on my second-to-last day a bomber set off his charges as he was being searched in a concrete enclosure, reportedly killing at least 13 people.

Ed Ballanco is a soldier’s soldier. One gets the impression he will dread the staff jobs that await him once he’s done his tour and gets promoted. Like so many young officers in combat units, he’s something of a fitness freak, as well as a history buff and a movie fan who makes his men watch films about leadership. (On my first day at Camp Independence he had them watch Gregory Peck play a broken World War II air-forceofficer in Twelve O’Clock High.) Above all, Ballanco loves going out on patrol, itching for contact. But these days he spends most of his time battling with recalcitrant bureaucracies–Iraqi and American–on behalf of his mission.

On my first day at FOB Independence, Ballanco was dealing with an Iraqi contractor who, instead of trucking the base’s sewage to the main city sewer system, was merely dumping it in an abandoned yard in a nearby neighborhood. Ballanco was also yelling at the supply troops at his own battalion headquarters for their failure to truck up fresh food supplies and ice cream for his men. The Green Zone, where the supply troops are based, is only 10 minutes away. Ballanco and his men travel the route several times a day, and they despise the fearfulness of the Green Zone Fobbits, whose main exposure to the war is through the news, and who are terrified of going out into “the Red Zone”–military jargon for anywhere outside the Green Zone.

 

Every day a few Hellraisers go on patrol with the Iraqi National Guard, who have just completed a year of training by two different U.S. units here at Muthenna. The I.N.G.’s, as they are called, patrol several times a day, clambering up onto old pickups, some of which have desk chairs strapped on the truck bed for a machine-gunner to sit on.

Though the I.N.G. troops took some time to be cured of their instinct to use the guard towers on the base as sleeping quarters, the Americans who patrol with them now deem them as good as any U.S. support unit. “They search the shit out of things now. They’ll go down sewers if they have to. They leave on time every time. And they’ve got a lot of qualities you wouldn’t expect,” Captain Hunter Bowers, a 25-year-old Nashville native, told me. It’s true; every time I joined themfor a patrol, the I.N.G. soldiers were lined up, ready to hit the streets 10 minutes early. One day, when we were running a mere minute late, we found they had already left.

The I.N.G.’s weren’t always this solid. According to First Sergeant Rob Hixson, a 39-year-old St. Louis native and veteran of Haiti and Somalia, they had a transforming moment last year. One of their companies got into a firefight with insurgents, “and they got the shit kicked out of them. One dead and 17 wounded. Then they got serious.”

Hixson adds that it was easier to train the Iraqi National Guard troops well because when they were first formed the Americans were still in charge, not the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (M.O.D.). The Americans could hire, promote, and fire officers with impunity. Now it’s hard to move people around, because Iraqi officers have apparently paid a lot for their positions. “I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it costs $60 just to join the Iraqi Army,” he tells me.

 

The I.N.G.’s technically are part of the Iraqi Army now, but everyone still calls them I.N.G. troops. They stand out from ordinary I.A. units because they have slightly different uniforms and vests.

 

Though the 302nd is one of the best Iraqi units in the whole country, with a proven battlefield record, it is aCinderella unit unpopular at the M.O.D. and with the Saddam-era top brass who dominate the ministry.

 

For a long time the I.N.G. here at Independence suffered from inadequate and unclean food supplied by an M.O.D.contractor. Repeated complaints by the brigade’s general and by Captain Ballanco had no effect. Then one night, before my arrival, 60 men were taken violently ill after their dinner. A couple of days later the food supplier was kidnapped. He was released later upon payment of a $10,000 ransom. The food improved markedly. (The I.N.G. deny they were involved.)

 

Knowing that they are good, and feeling left out of the loop, the I.N.G. brigade operates in a maverick fashion. Its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alaa Talib Mohsine, an energetic and fearless man in early middle age who had enlisted in the I.N.G. as a private (though he’d been a colonel in Saddam’s army), takes his men on raids outside of the sector, snatching insurgent suspects and bringing them back to the crowded trailer at Camp Independence that doubles as a jail. One day while I was there, I.N.G. soldiers, upon hearing of a big fire in Sadr City, mounted their pickups and drove over to help put it out.

The I.N.G.’s know that one reason they are looked upon with such disfavor by the Iraqi Army’s new command is their more Western style of leadership—which gives responsibility to junior officers—here considered a subversive innovation. The regular Iraqi Army is heavy with colonels and generals, like a South American one, yet the Americans have found that in units like the one Captain Ballanco was training no one is willing to make even a minor decision.

The I.N.G. is kind of a platonic ideal of the new Iraqi Army. Not only does it include both Sunni and Shia (the battalion executive officer is a Sunni), it also contains men who had held positions in the Republican Guard and men who had been part of the Shia anti-Saddam underground.

It felt strange to walk down Haifa Street again. Since I had been there last, it had become known as “the Street of Death.” There were more than 400 attacks against American and Iraqi security forces on the road or in the area around it in 2004 alone. The narrow warrens behind the tall buildings that line Haifa Street were christened with nicknames such as “Grenade Alley” and “Purple Heart Lane.”

Yet it now seemed almost as unthreatening as it had been when the 4-64 and I were here two years ago. Walking through these medieval streets as they bustled with urban village life, I remembered how people streamed out of them in April 2003 to loot the apartment buildings and offices on Haifa Street. The apartment blocks where Saddam had housed members of his favored groups (party activists, Palestinians, Syrianexiles, et al.) had been a particular target.

The lanes look the same now, except that there are airconditioners in a lot of the windows, and everywhere there are satellite dishes, which were banned by Saddam’s regime. The three-foot disks cluster like fungus on rooftops and walls. Even the poorest hovels without running water or toilets seemto have satellite TV.

Some of the alleys in the mixed Shia-Sunni neighborhood are friendly; others feel distinctly hostile. In a friendly street, young women with scarves but uncovered faces giggled at the soldiers as they walked by.

The previous week, I.N.G. soldiers caught an insurgent when one of the “jundis”—the word used for a private—overheard him speaking with a Syrian accent. As Ed Ballanco pointed out, this is something that no American patrol would ever notice.

The patrol walked down both sides of the boulevard, each soldier keeping about 10 feet behind the man in front, staying about a foot from the wall, pointing weapons down sidestreets. But the general feeling was relaxed. The Hellraisers were attacked with grenades and by snipers here in February and March, but since then they have had minimal contacts.

The Hellraisers are particularly amazed when they’re personally recognized on the street. Back in spring 2003 the company’s mortar platoon was stationed outside the big looted bank on Haifa Street. Naturally they got to know some of theneighborhood kids. Specialist Chris Masters was there. “The other day we were staging behind Haifa Street for a patrol and this little kid runs up to me and says my name the way they always mispronounce it: ‘Chrace! Chrace!’ I couldn’t believe it. But I recognized him as one of the kids we used to let inside the bank compound to help clear it up. He pointed out another kid, and I realized it was the one we used to call Beaver because he looked like the “Leave It to Beaver” kid. We had nicknames for all of them because their names wereso hard to pronounce.”

I was here for the first day of U.S. training for a new Iraqi Army battalion. The Iraqi recruits had been on the airfield for almost three months, waiting for uniforms and weapons and learning how to march, with that slightly embarrassing goose step that the new Iraqi Army has inherited from the old, along with its venal, authoritarian officer corps.

To the gratified surprise of the Hellraiser G.I.’s, it turned out that the “jundis” can strip and re-assemble their weapons with impressive speed. But that was as far astheir soldierly skills went.

The Iraqi troops carried their Romanian and Bulgarian AK-47s by the barrel, by the trigger guard, upside down over their shoulders, or trailing in the dirt, and often pointed them at their buddies and instructors. It was as if they had no concept that guns are dangerous.

Some 30 trainees were asked to fire three single shots at Captain Ballanco’s makeshift targets. (Official army targets had been ordered months before but had yet to make it down the supply chain.) The instructions were given loudly and clearly—all the interpreters were experienced themselves, having spent the past months with the Iraqi National Guard.

The first line of I.A. soldiers stood on the firing line. “Ready!” “Ai…” brrrrrrap! Before the final consonant, all the soldiers emptied their magazines on full auto. Grinning in joy and fear, they seemed to be awakening from a trance when the noise died down and they heard their own officers, the interpreters, and the Americans yelling at them to cease fire. In 10 weeks of basic training, these soldiers had rarely fired their weapons. In the old Iraqi Army, there was almost no live-fire training.

So the rest of the morning was spent teaching the Iraqi battalion how to behave on the range. Sergeant First Class Michael Brown’s voice boomed out to the “jundis” sitting under camouflage nets to shelter them from the midday sun: “At no time will you point the weapon in the air, at your buddy, at your feet . A translator in a U.S. Army uniform repeated his words in Arabic. Oblivious, the Iraqi lieutenant next to me had his rifle pointed at the navel of the man beside him.”This is how you will carry your weapon in training so you can avoid shooting somebody accidentally; finger off trigger, on safe, pointing down,” shouted Sergeant Brown.

An Iraqi lieutenant’s cell phone rang and he wandered away for a chat. When he strolled back and over to the range where soldiers were learning to sight their weapons, he moved the feet of a soldier lying in prone firing position, as if to show that he knew his stuff. He did not.

A U.S. Army colonel who had just trained a similar Iraqi Army unit told me that much of the early training is designed to avoid what he and his colleagues call “the deathblossom”—when an untrained Iraqi unit makes contact and fires wildly in all directions. “It’s why before we take them out on the streets we do so much training with live fire. We have them clear rooms with live fire. If they don’t do it properly they’ll shoot each other,” he told me.

Another, rather different culture clash became apparent at the end of the day’s training. The Americans began to pick up the used brass cartridges on the range and asked the Iraqis they were training to join in. The recruits and their officers seemed utterly baffled by this. Farther up the range Captain Mark McClellan, a 2001 West Point graduate from Macon, Georgia, handed out plastic trash bags and began to pick up some of the water bottles that carpeted the area. It wasn’t clear which confused the Iraqi recruits more: the idea of cleaning up trash or that of an officer joining in such a demeaning task.

Hygiene was the main topic of discussion at that evening’s officers’ meeting. Ballanco was worried about flies and disease as a result of Iraqi Army soldiers relieving themselves in the scrub near the training range. He asked Sergeant First Class Leon “Pete” Peters to order more porta-johns for the back of the range. But as First Sergeant Rob Hixson pointed out, the new porta-johns installed near the I.A.’s hangar hadn’t been used. Apparently they were the Western type, with seats.

“Jesus, I got used to squatting in the desert during the war—why can’t they get used to shitting on a toilet?” one ofthe officers asked. New, Asian-style porta-johns were ordered.

A couple of days later I went on a patrol with a squad from the 302nd Iraqi National Guard battalion, this one through the poor Sunni neighborhood justsouth of Haifa Street.

Ed Ballanco noted how part of the 40-man platoon had gone forward to ensure security from rooftops and high windows;that they kept their rifles down, fingers off but near the triggers; that they kept the right distance from one another as they walked. “These guys are studs,” he said. Certainly, their discipline was in stark contrast to that of the rabble Ballanco and his men were trying to train that morning.

The I.N.G. men stopped to shoot the breeze with the local shopkeepers. One local man insisted on talking to Captain Ballanco as well as to the I.N.G. commander. A power line had broken nearby. It was obvious he believed that if the Americans knew about it it was more likely to get repaired. The truth is that all soldiers like Ballanco can do is pass the information up the chain of command. If the project is small enough the battalion may take it on. But if it involves something more substantial, the request gets passed to the relevant ministry, where it becomes subject to the mysterious and unedifying currents of Iraqi politics.

 

The I.N.G. troops are astonishingly good at spotting roadside bombs. Ballanco and his officers marvel at the way they can tell that a pile of trash or section of curb just looks wrong. One day, a soldier on an I.N.G. patrol found a bomb stuffed into the gutter. Ballanco’s men started to call a bomb squad, but one of the I.N.G. soldiers walked over to the bomb, casually pulled some wires out of it, and lifted it up in triumph. According to Ballanco, he’d been in the old Iraqi Army and had been trained to make bombs out of artillery shells.

At six the following morning, the Hellraisers took the new Iraqi Army recruits through physical training. The Iraqis did about a tenth of the workout expected of U.S. troops: a short run, some calisthenics. Yet, it was too much for some of the jundis. Three of them quit on the spot, taking off their uniforms and boots and walking off through the gates in their underwear and bare feet.

 

The I.A. battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Ubiasis Ridha, is a fit man in his 30s who kept up with the Americans–but many of the other officers couldn’t. As they explained to Captain Mark McClellan, in the Iraqi Army, officers are supposed to be fat. They said it was humiliating to have to exercise with their men. McClellan informed them that in the American army officers are supposed to be fitter than the men they command and better at using every weapon system. They looked at him as if he were insane. Apparently, much of the point of being an officer in the Iraqi Army is to not have to do uncomfortable or difficult things.

Physical training took place in a concrete parade ground near the hangar where the 1,500 Iraqi Army trainees live. First Sergeant Hixson showed me the unbelievable squalor of those living quarters. There was no running water. To wash themselves and their one uniform they had to walk up the airfield to some rusting tanks containing fetid rainwater. They relieved themselves in a room at the back of the hangar.They ate on the bunks. The flies were thick. Although he had seen it before, the scene filled the American sergeant with fury.

 

Ballanco and his own commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Roth, had asked for funds to pay for showers, an eating area, and other improvements to the barracks. The 4-64 has been doing what it can, with limited funds, to help the Iraqi trainees. They were allocated $10,000 a month for training purposes, but that amount was cut to $2,500 last April–official U.S. policy is to slowly shift power to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, which must fund such improvements itself. One colonel told me that the Ministry of Defense i is not yet up to the job of provisioning and equipping an army. While the Americans have had success at training soldiers at the tactical level, there are few training efforts at the senior bureaucratic level. The ministry is widely said to be a basket case of nepotism, corruption, and incompetence.

U.S. officers like Ballanco say that now is not the time to let the M.O.D. learn from its mistakes. “Let’s win the war first and then train the bureaucrats.”

The next day it was reported that, although the new, Asian-style porta-johns had been delivered, the Iraqi soldiers still weren’t using them. Sergeant Peters caught several soldiers relieving themselves in the scrub behind the range again. One of the jundis told him that he’d been told that the porta-johns were for officers only. Captain Ballanco said there must be an announcement that they are for everyone, and that soldiers who didn’t use them would be fined. “I can’t believe I’m even discussing this stuff,” he said.

 

The senior Iraqi Army officers had asked Captain Ballanconot to let the Iraqi National Guard soldiers assist in the training of their troops. Ballanco eventually agreed to this despite the fact that having top-quality Iraqi soldiers helping on the range speeded training enormously.

However, Captain Ballanco and his men refused to give in to the Iraqi officers’ requests that they be allowed to skip physical training and eat separately from their own men. In the U.S. Army, not only do officers eat with their men, they eat last. That means that if there isn’t enough food it’s the people in charge who go hungry.

During an officer-training session, one of the Iraqi officers interrupted Captain McClellan’s presentation about how to plan an operation to point out that “in the Iraqi Army we lead from the back, not the front.” The American officers didn’t know what to say. The interpreter, a former professor of English who came back to Iraq in 2003, said, “Yes, and that is why you lost twice to the Americans.” The room erupted. The Iraqi officers were furious. “That’s not true!” one of themshouted. “They only won because of their technology, becauseof their airplanes!”

 

Once the jundis had been taught basic marksmanship, the American trainers gave prizes to recruits who did best on the range. Ballanco and his men use high-status awards to motivate the Iraqis they are training, sometimes giving away watches and sunglasses. It works very well. (“What is it Napoleon said?” asked Sergeant Dan McDonald, one of the civil-affairs soldiers attached to the battalion. “I could conquer the world if I had enough ribbon?!”) The most valued prizes are equipment that American troops themselves favor, such as G-Shock watches and the two favorite brands of ballistic or protective sunglasses, Wiley Xand ESS.

 

One day Ballanco invited several of the Iraqi Army officersto have a go on the range with an M-4 carbine, the U.S.military’s short rifle that’s gradually replacing the M-16. He showed them how to use the red dot in the rifle’s telescopicsight. They all took a few shots at a water bottle he had placed on a wooden post about 60 feet away. They all missed. One of them handed the rifle back, saying he was sure the sight was broken. Ballanco picked up the rifle, which was not even his but his sergeant’s, knocked the bottle off the post with his first shot, and then bounced it up and down the range, hitting the bottle with every shot he fired. There was a thoughtful silence afterward. For the next few days, the Iraqi officers seemed less awkward about taking the advice of their trainers.

 

Sometimes the culture clashes on the range took on a comical tone. Captain McClellan was disconcerted when his Iraqi charges kept telling him he had a beautiful face. Some of them added their opinion that “women are for babies, men are for fun.” “I just say, ‘Thank you,’ and keep back,” McClellan said.

 

McClellan believes it’s important to set a reasonable bar for the level of training. “We are not trying to make an army like the 82nd Airborne that can parachute into Tehran. We’re trying to make an army that can support the government in what it needs. We will train them hard and we’ll at least have an army that can see what good is. Certain things stick: they still parade like the British after 50 years. Now there’s ageneration of jundis and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] that will have been trained by Americans. They’ll at least know what good soldiering looks like.”

 

Given how much the training effort depends on the determination and skill of the U.S. officers involved, it was disconcerting to me to find out how little some of the top U.S. brass seemed to understand the challenge.

 

The MNSTC-I (Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq, or “Minsticky,” as it’s called) is based in the greenest, most luxurious part of the Green Zone, near the mansions I stayed in with the 4-64 back in 2003.

Minsticky was, until September, led by Lieutenant General David Petraeus, one of the most highly regarded officers in the U.S. Army. (Petraeus is now in command of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.) His leadership in Mosul after its capture in 2003 by his 101st Airborne Division was wildly successful. Many people here believed that if only his methods had been duplicated elsewhere things would have gone very differently. Petraeus seduced and inspired otherwise intractable sheikhs with a combination of charm, money, and firepower.

 

But the Power Point briefing I was given by two colonels was a mere recitation of numbers: weapons distributed, training days completed, units fully trained. There was no sense of the vast variation in the quality of training among Iraqi units. I mentioned the terrible conditions on the air base, the failure of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense to supply its own troops with food and running water. The colonels told me that, according to their records, those problems had been dealt with.

 

When I got back to brigade headquarters I was questioned closely about the briefing. People were disappointed but not surprised by the cluelessness of the Minsticky staff. A colonel told me he wished there were still generals like Patton who came out to the field on unannounced visits, who knew that “you can’t rely on staff officers who just tell you what you want to hear.”

 

(In late September, General George Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, told Congress that the number of Iraqi Army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help had fallen from three to one. That means out of 86 battalions, only one is battle ready.)

 

Meanwhile, the toilet saga continued. At the evening meeting Sergeant Peters reported that the Iraqi soldiers had been defecating next to, behind, and even on the outer walls of the porta-johns, but not in them. Apparently, the problem was that most of the recruits were rural men from Hilla, farm boys who simply didn’t like to do their business in an enclosed space. Sergeant Steven Cotton, the medic, had reported two possible cases of typhoid, and Ballanco was at his wit’s end.

In front of me he called the battalion doctor about getting vaccinations for the I.A. trainees. But the voice at the other end was already irritated with the Hellraisers for pressuring him to perform an operation on a local child suffering from hydrocephalus. “Typhoid vaccinations cost $10 to 20 per shot. With 1,500 I.A. that would cost $30,000. So, no way.” Ballanco went red. “No way? What about the soldiers?” “I guess they’ll all get typhoid,” came the reply from the medical officer.”Goddammit!” Ballanco exploded. “Don’t you fucking get it? The quicker I get these men trained, the sooner they can get out on the fucking street and fucking win this war, and we can all go home.”

 

Back in 2003 the Hellraisers had no running water (they drew water to flush toilets from the Tigris), no PX, no freshly made food, no DVDs or computer games, no Internet access, and for the most part had not been able to speak with their loved ones at home unless a passing reporter had lent them a satellite phone.

 

Life was very different when I returned, even on a small, relatively uncomfortable base such as Independence, which lacks a big Halliburton chow-hall, a fancy, air-conditioned gym, and large-screen TVs. These days there’s relatively easy phone access on most bases, and Internet access ($2 an hour) provided by Iraqi entrepreneurs. At Independence, many of the soldiers had the Internet in their rooms. People I.M.’d their spouses back home and used Webcams to flirt with chat-room dates.

 

Though many of the FOBs still have sandbagged windows from the months when there were daily mortar attacks, there have been few significant attacks on any of the bases in Baghdad since 2004. That means many of the soldiers you see playing on their computers in dusty offices are really in serious danger only when they leave the confines of their brigade and battalion headquarters.

 

This time, everyone had a laptop. Digital cameras were everywhere. Several soldiers at Camp Independence made digital movies for their own amusement; many of them were quality documentaries. One soldier had spliced in footage from the unit’s Raven, a small video-surveillance drone.

 

Pornography is technically forbidden by a general order–thesame one that forbids alcohol. But the alcohol rule is strictly enforced. Ed Ballanco suspected that some of his men gave in to temptation when the Iraqi National Guard officers in the compound next door offered them beer. But you don’t see any booze in the barracks themselves. Drugs are even more forbidden and, as far as I could tell, astonishingly rare.

Another huge difference between this army and its drafted predecessors from previous wars is that more than half of its soldiers are married. Marital problems are common in thearmy–a casualty of one-year deployments. (The Marines and the British are usually sent abroad for shorter periods of time.) At least one soldier I knew from 2003 got divorced when he went home last time.

 

As their first week passes, the Iraqi Army recruits look more like soldiers and less like extras shambling around a movie set. I watch them as they practice searching cars, setting up checkpoints, and moving under fire between the columns of the MOAM. Not only has the awkwardness of their first few days vanished, the jundis exhibit genuine enthusiasm. Sometimes they point out to the American trainers the corners where “Wahhabis” would be hiding if this were the real street. When I look surprised at the trainees’ improvement, First Sergeant Hixson says to me, “You should see how bad American army recruits are at the beginning of basic training.” Already the American trainers are spotting jundis with a knack for marksmanship or leadership. Soon they will have to try to persuade the Iraqi general–noone else has the authority–that these are men worthpromoting.

In the chow-hall, Ballanco addressed his company: “I’ve never seen a group of guys workas hard as you have in the last week since I’ve been in the army. I’ve done basic training as an XO [executive officer], and what you are doing is harder than what drill sergeants do. You are teaching Arabs, not English speakers. You don’t have the regular training plans.

“I know that you enjoyed being on Haifa Street with the I.N.G., having grenades thrown at you, people shooting at you. But what you are doing now is winning the war and helping to make Iraq stable and a democracy. These I.A., they have been sitting here for three months. If someone had put some passion into them, they would be out there like the I.N.G. You are here and you are making it happen. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not one of these Fobbits who spend a year here and tell people at home, ‘Oh, I was in Iraq in all the danger,’ can say that.”

This sort of un-ironic gung-ho attitude is remarkably common in combat units here. One civil-affairs sergeant told me after a long day dealing with sewage problems in a desperate slum, “You’d hate to walk out of here and not have done all you can.” And Ballanco himself, despite frustrations battling Fobbits for supplies and money, the Iraqi M.O.D. for showers for the Iraqi Army recruits, or colleagues who don’t get the importance of the mission, remains, above all else, dedicated. “We are winning here,” he said, “but we are winning in spite of ourselves.”

 

Talk of the Town – The Pictures –

With the Islanders away, Bollywood invades the Nassau Coliseum

On a normal Saturday night, the security detail at Nassau Coliseum has the arduous task of keeping thousands of heavymetal enthusiasts in line. Or the famously aggressive fans of the New York Islanders. But at the recent performance of “Megastars—live in concert” these hefty men, many of them moonlighting Irish and African-American cops, stood around looking bemused and a little inconsequential as some seventeen thousand Indians of all ages applauded the giants of the subcontinent¹s cinema.

 

“Megastars” features, for the first time on one stage, five of the biggest stars in the Hindi movie industry: Amitabh Bachchan, Manisha Koirala, the brothers Sanjay and Anil Kapoor, and the nation¹s newest sex symbol, Shilpa Shetty. They are here to dance, to lip-synch to movie songs, and to horse around with the comedian Johnny Lever. As Amitabh Bachchan points out, “It is a mix like Indian movies—spicy and different.”

 

Tonight, at the coliseum, the loudest shrieks are for Buchchan. A cross between John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, he is handsome in a rugged, broken-nose way, although his hair is an unnaturally deep black. “He¹s just a god!” a young female fan says.

 

India produces about eight hundred movies a year, and most are musicals, love stories, and melodramas all at the same time. Each has a compulsory wet-sari scene, some slapstick comedy, and several gun battles or fistfights. The acting is hammy by Western standards. The dancing is a hybrid of Hindu temple dance, folk dance, and moves copied from Michael Jackson. It is also hugely suggestive, with much pelvic thrusting by both sexes. At “Megastars—Live in Concert,” dancers accompany each of the five superstars in elaborately choreographed production numbers from their best-known films. With the prerecorded music and vocals, these spectacles resemble nothing so much as the song-and-dance bits on the Academy Awards broadcast. In each routine, the dancers wear a different costume, but most feature sequins and exposed midriffs. In one, the girls are dressed as nurses and the boys as doctors, while Anil Kapoor appears wrapped entirely in bandages, which the dancers then unravel. In another, they wear orange mechanics¹ coveralls.

 

When you see them in the flesh, you realized that Indian movie stars are heavier than our own. They are wearing the five pounds that the camera adds to our skinny actors. The Bollywood moviegoing public just prefers them that way. Fans also seem to like men with bushy nineteen-seventies-style haircuts who won¹t leave coy women alone. A typical stage bit: the star approaches a dancing girl and starts thrusting his hips in her direction; she pushes him away, he grabs her; she pulls away, then turns and thrusts her pelvis at him, then runs away. The crowd loves it.

 

Between numbers, Bachchan comes out onstage alone to declaim, in Hindi, speeches from his movies, and it is clear that the audience knows them all by heart. Many of the speeches are overflowing with anger—Bachchan usually plays poor, oppressed, but extremely macho men who take terrible vengeance on someone who has wronged them. (His popularity with poor urban Indian men helped him win election to India Parliament in 1984.) Then, unlike the other Megastars, he actually has a go at singing. After reciting some Urdu poetry, he finishes the four-hour concert with a set of magic tricks, and makes a live puma appear in an empty cage.

 

“We don¹t actually have concerts like this at home,” Bachchan says later, in his courtly British English. “People have the original musicals instead.” But there are those who find the whole film-stage-show genre rather embarrassing Upper-crust Indians despise it in the way Western highbrows despise Las Vegas kitsch. Only last week, at the Asia Society, the New Delhi fashion designer Rohit Bal said, “Indian movies are a completely warped, disgusting, vulgar part of Indian sensibility.” But any foreigner watching the Megastars is sturck by how well Indian popular culture has resisted American influence at a time when almost everywhere else in Asia Hollywood movies have won huge audiences. Similar concerts sell out at the Nassau Coliseum several times a year. The fans never cause any problems. And, unlike Islander fans, the never go home disappointed.

 

 

With one close friend and partner in hedonism — producer Don Simpson –dead, and another — Warren Beatty — enjoying domesticity and fatherhood, writer-director James Toback (whose extraordinary “Black and White” opens today) looks like the last of the larger-than-life Hollywood filmmakers.

It’s hard to imagine any of today’s up-and-coming independent filmmakers — let alone the colorless business-school types who run the studios — marrying and divorcing the granddaughter of the duke of Marlborough, teaching literature at CUNY, financing a movie with cash won at Vegas gaming tables, rewriting a lost (handwritten) script from memory in 40 hours straight, or threatening a studio head with assassination.

Toback, a celebrated New York character and irrepressible raconteur –whose screenplay for “Bugsy” was nominated for an Oscar — has done all this and more.

As he walks through Midtown, bearded, baseball-capped and bearlike, stories of Hollywood and Harvard, Las Vegas low-lifes and London high society, pour out.

His life and obsessions have provided material for his movies — a body of work admired as brilliant and brave by some critics and dismissed as pretentious and undisciplined by others.

Warren Beatty says his old friend “has a self-effacing way of alternating between the witty, the vulgar and the profound.”

And it’s true. Toback’s conversation slips from the literary virtues of “my friend and mentor” Norman Mailer to the coming impact of digital technology on film (he fears it will give talent-hating execs even more power), to the nature of female sexual desire.

The grandson of a man who owned — and gambled away — most of Columbus Circle, and the son of a president of the League of Women Voters, Toback was born and educated in Manhattan before going to Harvard, where he nearly died of a huge LSD overdose. (The episode is at the heart of “Harvard Man,” the script he hopes to make next).

After getting a graduate degree from Columbia and teaching literature at CUNY, Toback became a magazine journalist.

An assignment to interview Jim Brown, the football player-turned-actor-turned-activist, led to an orgiastic year living at Brown’s house — one which Toback recounted in a widely praised book titled “Jim.”

It was only after a second near-death experience at 28 — he nearly drowned in Broad Beach, Calif. — that Toback decided film was his true artistic calling and began his first screenplay for Karel Reisz’s “TheGambler.”

He’s since helmed nine movies, including last year’s “Two Girls and a Guy.”

Now 56, Toback’s wildest days are over. An evening with him can still turn into what one New York film executive called an odyssey — “you’re at a meeting with Toback, and 12 hours later you’re still out with various interns, show people and bookies, and you don’t want to go home.”

But Toback says he’s conquered the raging gambling addiction that once left him millions in debt.

Remarried and living again in New York, he’s also forsworn the womanizing that provoked a notorious article in Spy magazine and provided some of the best lines in his movie “The Pick-Up Artist.”

When asked about his own colorful sexual past, Toback lets his movies do the talking.

“Everything I wanted to say about picking up girls, I essentially dramatized in the tone that I wish to use in ‘The Pick-Up Artist,'” he says. “Everything I wished to say about the subject of sexual duplicity I dramatized in ‘Two Girls and a Guy.'”

As anyone who sees “Black and White” will recognize, James Toback still has plenty of obsessions to explore in his unapologetically personal way.

“Black and White” takes a daring, unsparing but often very funny look at one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena of our time: the conquest of white, teenage America by hip-hop culture.

And it features the kind of cast that only someone like Toback could assemble and control, with Mike Tyson playing a surprisingly charming version of himself, and supermodel Claudia Schiffer delivering a genuinely impressive performance.

Those who know Toback credit his charm and capacity for friendship, despite all the stories about feuds and furious phone calls.

As his old pal Beatty told me from his home in L.A., “Underneath all of the theatricality, there is an essential sweetness to Jimmy — he’s a very nice boy who is devoted to his wife and mother … and is never, never boring.”

Toback is particularly proud of the involvement in “Black and White” of Wu-Tang Clan, whose improvisations and authentic gangsta dialogue, he says, helped his film “tell the 100 percent truth about the hip-hop life.”

Toback knows he’s taking a chance by throwing together professionals and non-actors, but he’s never shied away from risk.

“It’s not as if I’m making war movies,” he says. “I make movies that are

connected to the worlds that I know and the people I know.”

 

He is the outstanding chronicler of the Anglophone Caribbean, the brightest literary beacon of the Indian diaspora and arguably Britain’s greatest living writer.

But V.S. Naipaul, prized by millions of readers for his precise language and thought and recent winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is just about the last author one would expect to win the Nobel. The Royal Swedish Academy, after all, is the same body that gave its 1997 prize to Dario Fo, the clownish Italian writer of bad agitprop plays.

Naipaul, on the other hand, not only excels at fiction (including his latest effort, “Half a Life) and non-fiction, he’s a purveyor of uncomfortable, politically incorrect truths in the clear-eyed, morally rigorous tradition of George Orwell – particularly when it comes to post-colonial or “Third World” societies like the one into which he was born.

The child of Indian Brahmins whose ancestors came to Trinidad in the late 19-th century, Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul grew up in Port of Spain before attending Oxford on a scholarship in 1950. Having moved, as he later put it “from the periphery to the center,” he made his home and his name in Britain, though his Trinidadian childhood and subsequent travels inspired much of his best work.

Perhaps his best-loved novel is the superb “A House for Mr. Biswas,” a dark, moving comedy of manners loosely based on his father’s life on the island. (Another much loved novel, also set in Trinidad, “The Mystic Masseur,” has just been made into a lyrical movie by Ismail Merchant – the first Naipaul book to be filmed.)

An exile and a member of an ethnic minority on several levels, Naipaul has written repeatedly about belonging and foreignness. But he has done so without a trace of the self-pity you find in the work of other post-colonial Caribbean writers like Caryl Phillips and Jamaica Kincaid.

Instead, in works that recall both Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh -novels like the brilliant, quietly terrifying “A Bend in the River” and travelogues like “Islam: Among the Believers” – Naipaul has devoted himself to painting unromantic and often deeply bleak pictures of post-colonial societies.

What makes much of the non-fiction so effective is not so much Naipaul’s ability to synthesize his experiences, impressive though they are, but the way he lets the people he meets along the way tell their own stories. In the end you get a kind of dossier. “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples,” for example, becomes at its conclusion a kind of unwitting indictment.

Though well-known for his pessimistic perception of Islamic countries like Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia, Naipaul’s depictions of India have provoked the most controversy.

Indeed, the publication of “An Area of Darkness” (1964) and the even more devastating “India A Wounded Civilization” (1977) – written during the “Emergency,” when Indira Ghandi assumed dictatorial powers – earned him the hatred of India’s endlessly self-congratulatory and thin-skinned post-independence elite.

Both books, which are essential reading for anyone who visits the subcontinent, depict a society that is fathomlessly indifferent to the vast poverty and suffering in its mist, a society whose cruelty is inextricably linked to habits of mind inculcated by Hindu tradition. Naipaul has since mellowed on India, however: In 1990, he published the rather more optimistic “India: A Million Mutinies Now.” But he remains an unapologetic champion of high culture, rationalism, individualism and of what he calls “our universal civilization.”

And it is to the credit of the Swedish Academy that it has recognized Naipaul “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny.”

 

Though I am not a smoker, Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to ban smoking from every corner of every bar and restaurant in New York seems creepy and wrongheaded.

It is weird enough that his administration seems to feel so confident it has solved such social problems as crime, homelessness and dysfunctional schools that it can expend time and energy on the smoking crisis.

But the most distasteful thing about this puritanical, righteous crusade is its deep contempt for ordinary people and the choices they make. The mayor promotes his coercive legislation as protecting the health of people who work in bars and restaurants, as if they have no choice but to assume some great risk. But even if you buy the much-debated science on the risk of second-hand smoke, this is preposterous.

While we rightly don’t rely on the market to enforce genuine issues of workplace health and safety, it is hardly as if jobs are so tight in the hospitality industry that thousands of waitstaff are forced to work in bars or restaurant smoking sections against their will.

Does anyone believe that the Mayor or anyone else in the anti-smoking movement cares about restaurant staff? The obsession with banning smoking has always been an upper-middle class, Baby Boomer fetish. Its devotees are oblivious to the financial or even psychological costs of their cause.

For them, it’s obvious that restaurant workers are better off unemployed (as many of them would be thanks to the proposed law) than working in the vicinity of smokers, even if the workers themselves might think otherwise.

This elitist arrogance seems even more callous if you take into account just who bears the brunt of anti-smoking laws. Just look at the people you see huddled outside office buildings, cigarettes in hand, in the worst of weather. They’re disproportionately the secretaries, assistants and messengers, not the law-firm partners or big-deal bankers. (They’re so disproportionately female, in fact, that one French friend asked me how there could be many hookers standing around in Midtown at midday.)

Add in the folk who really do need cigarettes to get themselves through life- the mentally ill in half-way houses, the recovering alcoholics you see puffing away around coffee cups at 2 a.m. This is a slice of the population with no chance of standing up to well-organized, well-funded upper-middle-class busybodies.

You also have to wonder if Bloomberg and his allies have even considered the extent to which a smoking ban will repress New York’s cosmopolitan character.

It’s no secret that foreigners – whether expensively dressed Italian bankers or busboys recently arrived from Ecuador – like to smoke, especially when drinking and eating. So do lots of artists and other creative people, who have fled to NewYork from less cosmopolitan parts of the country. If they and all the wealthy Europeans, Latin Americans and Asians who choose to live and play here, wanted to live in a health-obsessed, smoke-free paradise, they would be in San Francisco.

Smoking is clearly an unhealthy practice. But H.L. Mencken once pointed out that the puritans banned bear-baiting not because of the pain it caused the bear but because of the pleasure it afforded the people watching . . .

If the mayor has more generous motives than this, and has any respect for citizens he serves, he should heed the suggestion of Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s restaurant: Make smoking an option for which restaurants pay, like a cabaret license.

Then those of us who want to own, work in or go to restaurants and bars where we or our friends can light up could decide for ourselves if the pleasures of tobacco are worth the risks.

 

 

From the Red Scare hearings of the 1940s to the Clinton administration’s post-Littleton probe into the entertainment industry announced this Tuesday, government intrusion in the entertainment industry is an ill wind that has never blown anyone any good—in this country or anywhere else.

Following a recommendation in last month’s Senate crime bill, the president has ordered the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to investigate the marketing practices of the film, recording and videogame industries.

This probe is not due to release its findings until December 2000. But while it may give Al Gore ammunition to counter GOP charges that the Clinton administration is too close to Hollywood, it will only serve as a distraction from real efforts to explain the societal sickness—or plain evil—behind the Littleton massacre.

And if anything practical should come out of the probe, it is as likely to damage the American entertainment industry and imperil liberty as all previous efforts by government bodies to influence media content have.

It’s not just a matter of over-regulation of private enterprise, or the danger that our society will slide down the slope of state censorship of the arts.

This kind of interference also tends to corrupt the politicians who are tempted by an all-too-easy target—and the glamour it affords (in a subliminal way) even to its critics. In a society obsessed with celebrity, what legislator, governor or president can resist a trip to the coast to pose with sympathetic stars while sternly lecturing the industry on its moral failings?

While there are studies that suggest links between viewing images of simulated violence and the commission of violent acts, common sense and historical experience would suggest that those links are pretty weak. As Professor Fredric Smoler of Sarah Lawrence College points out, ‘Strong historical evidence suggests that there is an inverse correlation between the proliferation of violent images and a society’s readiness to employ real violence.”

In other words, societies that have severely limited the depiction of violence have been at least as violent and cruel as our own, if not more so. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union placed severe restrictions on violent or sexual imagery in film. In apartheid South Africa, the Afrikaner regime banned dozens of ‘unwholesome” movies without the slightest effect on the nightmarish atrocities in the townships.

Even in ancient Athens, a society that forbade the on-stage depiction of violence in its tragedies, slaves were treated with a savagery that would sicken all but the most psychopathically brutal American.

To the extent that the administration really hopes to ‘do something” about schoolyard massacres by heavily armed teens, there is a kind of magical thinking at work in the Clinton initiative: namely, the idea that you can control violence by controlling its representation.

There are serious problems with the way the entertainment industry regulates itself. The Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system is far too concerned with whether a buttock can be seen on screen and insufficiently worried about the promotion of a antisocial messages, like the glorification of sadism and cruelty that has become a staple of so many black comedies aimed at teen-agers.

In some other countries, the state does play a much greater role in deciding what the public may watch or listen to.

In France, for example, legislators have successfully fought to limit the exhibition of American movies on the grounds that French culture is vulnerable to pollution by the crass sensationalism of Hollywood. This oblique censorship has combined with government subsidy of elitist cinema to cripple a once-great indigenous industry. A similar process achieved the same end in Mexico and Brazil, countries that once had flourishing movie industries of their own.

Not a good model to follow at all.

 

 

A few years ago, I was hiking up to an observatory in Georgetown on the Malaysian island of Penang. On the steep, winding road to the top, I fell into conversation with a well-dressed middle-aged man, a Malaysian Chinese, who told me about the problems his daughter faced getting into university because of the regime’s nastily racist program that favored ethnic Malays and penalized the ethnic Chinese minority. It was unfair, unjust. “You’re British,” he said. “You should do something about this.”

It was touching and not a little sad that he thought British influence still counted for so much, and that he automatically associated the concept of fair play with the former colonial power. From a historical point of view, he wasn’t entirely mistaken: Over the centuries, many people — African slaves in agony in the Middle Passage, Hindu widows being burned alive, Indian travelers strangled by religious lunatics, Belgian civilians brutalized by Wilhelmine soldiery, and Jews being kicked to death by Nazi brownshirts — have all wanted the British to do something about it, and eventually they did.

But then Britain and its prestige are perceived differently abroad than at home these days — especially by the political class. When Peter Hitchens, the former Trotskyite who is now Britain’s most forthright conservative pundit, laments the “abolition of Britain,” he isn’t talking just about the Blair government’s formal destruction of the United Kingdom as a unitary state or even the modernizing Kulturkampf against such vestiges of the imperialist, racist, class-ridden past as the breeches worn by the Lord Chancellor and the popular Royal Tournament show of military pageantry. He’s also talking about the long-term shift in national self-perception that allowed all this to happen — a shift, strangely enough, that accelerated as Britain left the strikebound malaise of the late 1970s for the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s. Essentially, the British seem to have reacted, rather belatedly, to the loss of empire with an orgy of self-contempt. Pushed along by a middle-class minority who passionately desire the submersion of Britain in a European superstate, this peculiar self-loathing has made the British particularly vulnerable to a virulent form of PC multiculturalism and to the idea that Britain’s institutions and traditions are, at best, outmoded and absurd.

“We allowed our patriotism to be turned into a joke, wise sexual restraint to be mocked as prudery, our families to be defamed as nests of violence, loathing, and abuse, our literature to be tossed aside as so much garbage, and our church turned into a department of the Social Security system,” Hitchens writes in his concluding chapter.

“We let our schools become nurseries of resentment and ignorance, and humiliated our universities by forcing them to take unqualified students in large numbers. . . . We abandoned a coinage which. . . . spoke of tradition and authority. . . . We tore up every familiar thing in our landscape, adopted a means of transport wholly unfitted to our small crowded island, demolished the hearts of hundreds of handsome towns and cities, and in the meantime we castrated our criminal law, because we no longer knew what was right or wrong.”

Some of these changes were organic and others artificial (though Hitchens, to the detriment of his argument, rarely distinguishes the two). Some were initiated by Labour governments, but a surprising number were the work of Conservative administrations.

So, for instance, the foreign office under Margaret Thatcher pursued a relentless policy of post-imperial betrayal, beginning with hints to the Argentines that Britain no longer cared about the Falkland Islands and culminating in the selling of the people of Hong Kong to Communist China — after first removing their right to reside in the United Kingdom, so they’d have no leverage and nowhere to run.

And so, for another instance, the Tories under John Major took the country deeper into the European Union — while reciting the mantra that further integration into the emerging superstate was the only way Britain could hope to exert any influence, now that it was merely a “fourth-rate power.” (This phrase is always delivered in tones of such gloomy satisfaction, no one notices that such a “rating” ignores factors like economic strength, nuclear deterrents, seats on the U.N. Security Council, and cultural influence.) But Tory surrenders of sovereignty pale beside the changes instituted by the “New Labour” government of Tony Blair. For the most part, the British population has been an unenthusiastic but oddly resigned witness to even more revolutionary changes. (Though the drive to abolish British currency and replace it with the Euro provoked a surprisingly vocal opposition.) The most important of these changes are the constitutional “reforms” carried out merely because the need for such changes was self-evident to the London media elite that calls the tune in British society.

The fact that the United Kingdom seemed to work — despite the oddness and antiquity and irrationalism of its constitutional arrangements — was declared irrelevant. Sure, it provided reasonable prosperity, liberty, and security at least as effectively as systems in use in the Continent (or across the Atlantic). Sure it proved less vulnerable to economic and political storms than, say, the modern German state since 1870 or the various republics, empires, and monarchies that have ruled France since 1789. But that’s all ancient history. The key thing is that nothing about the old United Kingdom conforms to what the new British elite conceives of as “modernity.”

The idea that there might be risks in sudden, radical constitutional change, that for a constitution to be effective it needs legitimacy and the emotional allegiance of the people, is not one that Britain’s hyper-rationalist but parochial reformers have given much thought to, despite the warnings flashed from Yugoslavia. For the new public-sector middle class and the metropolitan media elite, a single idea is paramount: Britain is a musty, provincial place “held back” by dated, irrational institutions and a culture that wrongly venerates a history that is essentially a record of shame and oppression.

In its mildest form, this idea is manifested in the culturalist theory of British decline that influenced Thatcher as much as Blair: the idea that postwar economic failure is inextricably linked to the persistence in Britain of a culture of deference. Better policy might well have been found by asking instead how a pair of small islands off the coast of Europe managed to become the world’s most powerful nation for a century and a half, producing a fair number of the world’s best scientists, poets, admirals, and statesmen. But those old successes were dismissed. As the newly elected Tony Blair put it in 1997 — so memorably and tellingly, in marketing-man’s jargon — Britain desperately needs to be “rebranded” as a “young country.” That the Blair government has been able to tear so much down in so short a time with so little effective opposition is one of the most fascinating mysteries of modern politics. After all, it’s rare for a perfectly viable system of government to be dismantled in a time of peace and prosperity. Peter Hitchens understands that Britain came to this pass because of a series of social and cultural changes, some of them inevitable results of postwar exhaustion and impoverishment, but many more of them the products of cultural and class warfare.

Unfortunately his Abolition of Britain is arranged in such a scattershot way that it conveys no real sense of either the chronology or the interplay of the various factors that broke British morale and allowed a resentful section of the population, without previous experience of power and responsibility, to make a revolution. Still, The Abolition of Britain is an entertaining and moving read that helps explain why certain key strata of the British middle classes are such enthusiasts for eliminating the things that make Britain unique. It offers a key to such mysteries as how the British state could actually prosecute merchants for using non-metric measures, jail a farmer for defending himself against brutal robbers, and arrest a man for the “racist” act of flying a flag above a pub.

There are so many effective anecdotes in Hitchens’s book that it is difficult to pick one as particularly telling. So, for symbolic concision, how about the abolition of the flag? It was in 1997, the year of Blair’s election, that British Airways removed the Union Jack flag from the tails of its aircraft and replaced it with “ethnic” designs that it hoped foreign customers would find more sympathetic.

The airline’s then-CEO, Robert Ayling, apparently feared that foreigners associated the British national flag with skinheads, soccer hooligans, and imperialism. This was not based, of course, on any polling of Africans or Asians or Europeans. But Ayling did know that the Union Jack is associated with skinheads and soccer hooligans and imperialism by the media folk and the professional middle classes who now control Britain. These are people far too well-educated and sophisticated to have any truck with anything as atavistic as national pride and who simply cannot conceive that anyone would see a Union Jack as a symbol of something positive. (Britain is not in fact a flag-waving country; its inhabitants have long been embarrassed by the kind of loud patriotism associated with their continental neighbors or the United States. But there’s a difference between this kind of reticence and actual hostility to the flag.)

Kipling once asked, “What do they know of England who only England know?” The Blairite elite, for all their vacations in French or Tuscan villages, have much less experience of the outside world than the imperial elite they replaced. It’s why they don’t know that the French, whom they worship, are utterly unembarrassed by the traditional pageantry being scourged in Britain and would not dream of deconcessioning the tricoleur. Have the Blairites never seen the Communist deputies saluting, as mounted republican guardsmen in breastplates and horsehair plumes lead the Bastille Day parade, just in front of the tanks? Apparently not, which is another reason no one in the new ruling elite even questions the assumption that Britain is an embarrassingly Ruritanian society, long overdue for a thorough house-cleaning.

Still less do they doubt that a country properly cleansed of cringe-inducing vestiges of a quaint, elitist past like the changing of the guard, Oxbridge, red telephone boxes, hereditary peers, and the monarchy will be both more efficient and more popular with foreign tourists. For them it is an article of faith that new is better.

Alas for Peter Hitchens, impassioned, perceptive, and courageous though he is, the opposite is also an article of faith: For him, all change is bad. Hitchens actually laments the advent of central heating and double glazing, because families are no longer brought together by having to huddle around a single hearth. When he contrasts the Britain of Princess Diana’s funeral with the Britain of Churchill’s funeral, his case that everything has gotten worse includes the “crazed over-use of private cars” and “the disappearance of hats and the decline of coats.”

Indeed, if you were going to be harsh you might almost subtitle this book “A compendious diatribe of everything I hate about Britain today, with minor, aesthetic irritations given the same weight as the destruction of the constitution.” There’s a silly chapter in which Hitchens bemoans the famous trial of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which made it all but impossible for the British government to ban books on the grounds of obscenity. Then there’s his notion that the “American Occupation” of Britain from 1941 to 1945 introduced adultery to British womanhood — a claim that would have amused Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

But the most bizarrely wrong chapter is the one that blames the satirical television and wireless programs of the late 1950s and early 1960s for destroying national unity. The idea that a culture that survived Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift could be brought down by Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett is preposterous. And if comedy “made an entire class too ridiculous to rule,” then P. G. Wodehouse and perhaps even Charles Dickens are also to blame.

Of course many things are worse in Britain than they were during the 1950s, the decade that Hitchens takes as his paradigm for the real, lost Britain. Even people of the Left look with disgust upon Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” with its ubiquitous youth culture awash with drugs, its government by glib marketing men, its increasing corruption, the ever-spreading coarseness, and the startling ubiquity of violent crime (you’re now much, much more likely to be mugged or burgled in London than in New York).

But is it so terrible that the food is better, that there are sidewalk cafes, that middle- and even working-class people can afford to travel, that the state plays a smaller role in the nation’s economic life (though a far greater one in other realms)? Some of Hitchens’s nostalgia fixes on things that were not especially British, or not laudably so — like censorship, or the prosecution and blackmailing of homosexuals. Other things Hitchens sees as quintessentially British were, in fact, freakish phenomena of the postwar decades. In particular, the placidity and gentleness in those years was an artificial state, the result of exhaustion and wartime discipline.

Hitchens should know that for centuries European and other visitors were struck by the amazing pugnaciousness of the English and by their quick sentimentality. (Two enjoyable recent books, Jeremy Paxman’s The English and Paul Langford’s Englishness Identified, take up this topic.) From the eighteenth century on, Britons were seen even by their many European admirers as terrifyingly violent. That’s why small numbers of them were able to defeat large numbers of foreigners either on the continent or the battlefields of empire. The British soccer hooligan is a mere return to form. So, too, the Victorians were famous for their weeping: They kept emotional reserve for important moments, like when they were about to be tortured by Fuzzy Wuzzies.

It is a shame The Abolition of Britain includes so much cranky fogeyism (including nostalgia for the flogging of teenage criminals). It’s a shame, because at its best this book combines superb reporting (especially about the hijacking of education by frustrated leftists) with a heartbreaking analysis of one of the strangest revolutions in history. And in many ways it is the most important of the torrent of books that have dealt with the crisis of British identity.

What Hitchens understands is that bourgeois New Labour is far more revolutionary than any government before — although, ironically, it learned just how easy it is to defy tradition and make radical constitutional changes from Margaret Thatcher, who abolished the Greater London Council merely because it was dominated by her political enemies. Hitchens rightly sees the New Labour “project” as a kind of politically correct Thatcherism with a punitive cultural agenda aimed at certain class enemies. The House of Commons’s vote to abolish fox hunting is a perfect example: an interference in British liberty enacted by our urban middle-class rulers in order to kick toffs in the teeth — one that will put thousands of rural working-class people out of work. When Labour was dominated by cloth-capped, working-class socialists, ownership of the means of production may have been at issue, but the party never threatened the structure of the kingdom. Tony Blair heads the least socialist, least redistributive Labour government ever. Yet at the same time he has used the legally unchecked powers of a House of Commons majority to enact the most revolutionary changes in the British constitution since the Civil War of the 1640s.

It still isn’t clear whether the Blair government sees its steady stream of attacks on the old order’s structure and accouterments as a clever and harmless way of distracting its genuinely socialist members and supporters from their fiscal conservatism, or whether they actually know that traditions and rituals are rather more important than marginal tax rates when it comes to destroying the old United Kingdom they despise. Because the reforms, enacted swiftly and without serious debate, were intended mostly to proclaim the new government’s difference from the Tories, they followed no consistent theory. Scotland and Wales got separate parliaments but continue to send MPs to Westminster where they make laws for the English (some 80 percent of the population) who do not have their own separate parliament.

Of course, it never occurred to the Blairites — who see themselves as technocrats above primitive feelings of attachment to nation or any community other than their own cosmopolitan class — that by tossing bones to the Welsh and Scots nationalist minorities they might awaken the long slumbering beast of English nationalism. These people have lived so long under the protection of an inclusive British nationalism, they couldn’t imagine that English nationalism, fed by growing submission to Europe and the unfair favoring of Scotland, will of necessity be racial and resentful. When a few old souls mentioned the danger of awakening nationalisms after centuries of peace and comity, they were laughed at by the Blairites. Now you see all over England the red cross of St. George, a symbol from the medieval past that spontaneously appeared in the hands of soccer fans and on the dashboards of London taxicabs. It’s enough to make Hitchens warn of “interesting times” ahead — in the scary sense of “interesting.” As he says, “When a people cease to believe their national myths and cease to know or respect their history, it does not follow that they become blandly smiling internationalists. Far from it.”

Of course, you can detect in the Blair generation’s discomfort with Britain’s past an element of envy and insecurity. It cannot be easy for middle-aged Britons to look back on the achievements of their fathers and grandfathers (who defeated Hitler and the Kaiser), or, worse still, those of their great grandfathers (who brought peace and prosperity to millions around the globe), without wishing to denigrate those achievements. But if you want to understand why a significant chunk of the British population loathes Britain and wants to undo it, you have to look beyond generational resentment to class. An acquaintance of mine was on his way to a party for the fiftieth anniversary of VE day in 1995 when he bumped into Jon Snow, a well-known British broadcaster and fairly typical figure of the new British establishment. He asked Snow if he too were going to a VE celebration. Snow sneered back that he was going to “an anti-VE day party.” Not for him any of that jingoistic nostalgia for World War II.

As Orwell pointed out, the English intelligentsia has always been severed from the common culture of the country. But in the 1930s, the intellectuals were joined in their alienation by a significant number of mandarins, upper- and upper-middle-class civil servants, who responded to democratization and the simultaneous decline of British influence by deciding that their country would be better off ruled by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The modern equivalent is to transfer one’s allegiance to the “European ideal,” which means, in practice, rule by the smooth bureaucrats of Brussels. For the remnants of the mandarin class, there’s something comforting in the idea that Britain and Europe can be run by a sophisticated international elite — made up of chaps not unlike themselves.

“Europe” also solves a status problem for the new public-sector middle class. Unlike the treacherous mandarins, these people have not lost position; they never had it. They therefore define themselves as being more “civilized” than the country-house toffs above them and the bigoted proles below. And they take to an extreme the retarditaire notion that everything is done better on the Continent. The basic idea is that if you are the kind of person sophisticated enough to appreciate wine and cappuccino — rather than beer and tea — then, of course, you must favor the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels.

There are good reasons for Americans to study Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain. It won’t be a good thing for America if British PC multiculturalists manage to discredit the parent culture of the United States. More important, however, is the lesson about the fragility of culture that Americans should take from this book. In his famous essay “England, Your England,” George Orwell wrote, “It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture.” But reading Hitchens you soon realize that Orwell was wrong: A culture can be destroyed from the inside, as well.

 

The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana by Peter Hitchens Encounter, 332 pp., $ 22.95

Fred Astaire ate there once a week and ran a tab; John Belushi dined there the night he died. Dan Tana’s was an insider’s place when it opened in 1964, and it’s an insider’s place now. Tana’s never changes; where there have been improvements over time, they have been so small and imperceptible that the old crowd never notices–and that’s the way they like it. It reminds some of New York and others of Europe, but there’s nothing that European about it, and in New York it would be just another Elaine’s, with good food.

Dan Tana’s is sui generis–an L.A. landmark whose look, feel and ethos are so un-California that it could exist nowhere else but here. It is the exception that proves all the rules: a restaurant that is open late in an early town, where, instead of organic leaves and obscure mineral waters, people go to eat huge steaks and drink stiff martinis. It’s an Industry favorite, but being a star or a top executive won’t get you in without a reservation, and it caters to both the old guard and young turks.

At times, Tana’s seems like some strange English gentlemen’s club whose admission requirements have long been lost. You just have to fit in, and if you don’t, you wouldn’t like it there anyway. Walk in early on any given night, and you’ll see a smattering of Hollywood grandees, like the Wassermans at the top table, and regulars like the William Shatners in one of the discreet booths. A little later, around 7:30, the middle-aged execs–the Katzenbergs and Gubers–arrive, followed by, say, Larry King and some agents from William Morris grabbing some pasta before a show at the Troubador next door. You won’t see one of the Penn brothers or Matt Dillon till at least 9, and rockers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers blow in much later.

Yet Tana’s is resolutely untrendy. It will never be trendy. It’s small. It has red-and white-checked tablecloths; big, comfortable booths; and chianti bottles hanging from beams lit year-round by strings of Christmas-tree lights. The waiters, captains and busboys are all seasoned professionals, nor absentminded actress-models or resentful would-be directors with goatees.

Tana’s didn’t really hit its stride until the sexy excess of the ’70s, when rockers mixed with Industry swingers. (Regulars still recall seeing customers snorting coke off the bar and having sex in the wine room.) But despite all that, it is still one of the few places left that carries the tang of an even earlier time–the L.A. that appears in Raymond Chandler novels or the movie Chinatown. “It is the last colorful restaurant in L.A.,” says screenwriter and regular Lionel Chetwynd. “If you put everybody in white tie, it would be The Thin Man.”

This Runyonesque quality is also no small part of the restaurant’s success. It has long been a favorite of granite-faced men accompanied by Neanderthal types in bulging suits, sometimes decorated by spectacular bimbos. As one regular explains, the wise guys get a kick out of seeing the young stars, who are thrilled to be in the presence of big studio execs who themselves are excited by the nearness of the wise guys.

Indeed, Tana’s is reputed to have the best steaks on the West Coast, thanks to a “man of respect.” This gentleman, a visitor from Chicago, complimented Dan on his steaks some 15 years ago, then told him that they could be even better if he used the very best beef, and he knew where to get it. So Dan tried the beef, which comes from Kansas City, and it was and is superb. To this day, it arrives fresh in big hunks from K.C., and the chef cuts off huge steaks as needed. Because the meat is so expensive, Tana’s makes virtually no profit on its steaks, but it would never use another source and would never dream of changing the portions. It’s just the Tana Way.

On first entering Dan Tana’s, everything is pitch-black–at least until your eyes adjust; then the lighting reveals itself to be an extraordinarily flattering brothel red. The walls are decorated with photographs of the owner, numerous bits of sports memorabilia, gifts from regulars and watercolors by Dan’s ex-wife Andrea. Just inside the door, next to several restaurant awards, there’s a picture of Dan with actor Robert Urich, who starred in the TV series Vegas. The show’s producers were regulars, so Urich’s character was named Dan Tana. There’s also a large poster from Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice–the sexy one with Jessica Lange on the kitchen table pulling her skirt up to her waist. One of Dan’s daughters wanted him to take it down, but Rafelson is an old friend. Anyway, the picture confirms the slightly naughty, Rat Pack spirit of the place.

When the restaurant opens at five o’clock, you can hear the soothing classical music that’s always on in the background, but by six it’s been drowned out by the sounds of glass, metal and human voices. For all the din, the acoustics are still unexpectedly good–one reason Tana’s is such a great date place and Valentine’s Day is booked solid a year in advance.

There are other reasons. Two are the little booths on the nonsmoking side tucked away in their own alcove. Princess Katya Galitzine, a Russian sculptor who used to live in L.A., saw a couple smooching during one of her first visits to the restaurant and knew right away that someday she too “just wanted to be kissed there.” (She was.)

Then there’s the dim lighting, which seems to encourage May-December liaisons. But most important, there is the attitude of the staff. In the kitchen, their crude language–like that of all old-style professional waiters–belies an intense romanticism, and out on the floor, they do everything possible to make a date go well? especially when the couple is young and coming to Tana’s is obviously a big deal. There’s no hovering, no leering, no condescension, but the boy will feel like he’s one of the machers at Table 1.

The two maitre d’s play a vital role in making sure that the Tana Way is maintained even when the owner is not around. Jimmy is at the front from Tuesday through Saturday, while Sunday and Monday, Michael, the manager, takes his place. Michael is a Yugoslav, like Dan. He has a full head of bouffant white hair and a distracted air, as if he were thinking about the accounts or worrying about a late delivery of Pellegrino. Jimmy is of Mexican extraction and erupts into a torrent of Spanish when crossed.

Jimmy was born into the business. His father is maitre d’ at Musso’s, and he himself was recruited from the old Brown Derby. He is slim and good-looking, and there’s a definite chemistry between him and some of the female customers, though, like any true Latin lover, he is the soul of discretion.

The most important thing about both maiter d’s is that neither knows who anybody is. Jerry Seinfeld was surprised not to be recognized one night and asked Jimmy, “Do you know who Jerry Seinfeld is;” Without a trace of apology, Jimmy said no. As he likes to explain, “I don’t watch TV except for sports, and I don’t go to movies.” Of course, Jimmy and Michael have people they consider VIPs, but only because they are regulars.

Occasionally, Dan himself or one of his daughters will whisper in Jimmy’s ear that so-and-so is an immensely powerful or famous person and ought to be accommodated if at all possible. But there are many, many tales of Tana maitre d’s putting celebrities in their place. One Sunday evening, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig phoned the restaurant to say that President Nixon wanted to speak to John Wayne, who was dining there that night. On hearing that the president of the United States was calling, the maitre d’ said, And I’m George Washington and slammed down the phone. Shortly afterward, a carload of L.A. sheriffs deputies arrived with a message that it really was the president. And he wanted to speak to Mr. Wayne immediately.

Perhaps the most famous story involves John Travolta–which is ironic, given his “Let’s go to Dan Tana’s line at the end of Get Shorty. As legend has it, Travolta was at the height of his Saturday Night Fever fame. He turned up on a busy night, date in tow, with no reservation, and was told that he could have a table in two hours. “Do you know who I am?” Travolta asked the maitre d’. “NO,” came the reply.

“I’m John Travolta.”

“Well, for you, Mr. Travolta, it will be three hours.”

On the other hand, no celebrity is ever hassled at Tana’s. Autograph hounds and paparazzi cannot stand up without a waiter or busboy intercepting them like a Patriot missile. That’s the way things are done there. That’s why three generations of Barrymores, from John to Lionel right down to Drew, have patronized Tana’s.

Regulars always take precedence when it comes to reservations and seating. And while a considerable number of the regulars are rich or famous, many of them are neither, and you end up with a strange democracy that could exist only in L.A. You see it most clearly at the bar. It opens at five with the restaurant, and the regulars take their places while the staff sets up under bright white spotlights. Some stay till closing time, nine hours later, but the bar regulars generally divide into two shifts. The first often includes a tubby, womanizing agent, a successful lawyer known for his ponytail, a woman who runs an upscale safari company, a beauty in her late fifties who was once the world’s highest-paid model, a sloe-eyed actress and a handsome Yugoslav who everybody says is a gigolo.

The second shift is slightly tipsier, slightly crazier and slightly more diverse. An X-rated comedienne called Glitter. Luis the 911 operator. A smooth African-American banker named Robert. A movie producer with a sideline in coke. A professional golfer. A rich kid in his late twenties who was a hockey star in college. Then, on different nights, the Irish exiles, the Yugoslavs, and the barmen and maitre d’s from the big hotels and restaurants around town who come in after their own establishments have closed.

It is the kind of old-fashioned bar where Mike the bartender knows most of his customers’ names and remembers a face for a decade. Mike is a tall man with a handlebar mustache. He loves a peculiar Yugoslavian liqueur with an unpronounceable name, and halfway through the evening, he’ll have a shot or two with the regulars. As a kid in Croatia, he was always in trouble with the authorities, mainly, he says, because he was a practicing Catholic. Mike dropped out of high school, but he sent two children to college here in America.

Jimmy hired Craig, an actor, to take Mike’s place on Sundays and Mondays. “He told me he’d never poured a drink in his life,” Jimmy recalls. “I told him I could teach him that, but I couldn’t teach the personality. So I brought him in, set up some bottles of water and told him, ‘Look at me and pour a shot with your right hand and then your left, without looking at it.’ I can teach anyone how to wait on tables in two hours, but it’s the personality that makes you an asset to the place. For example, Mike is an excellent bartender, but more important, he’s rough and tough and rude and crude, and people like that.”

Despite the presence of the TV above the bar, the banter is continuous and gets raunchier as the evening draws on. The set is always silent, and Mike controls the clicker. Invariably, it is tuned to a sports channel. The staff is obsessed with sports, and a fanatical devotion to soccer is one thing they all have in common, whether they work in the kitchen or out front, no matter where they were born.

Dan was a Yugoslavian soccer star before he defected in the ’50s, and he is currently director of a soccer team in London called Brentford, so he sets the tone. Basketball comes in a close second to soccer, especially since the sport is huge in the former Yugoslavia. One regular customer named Robert–a rugged-looking writer in his fifties–goes into the kitchen every day to question Mate, the chef, about his odds for the evening games. Mate (pronounced mah-TAY) is a Croatian. He speaks very little English, but he’s an expert on the NBA and the NHL.

Tana’s has always been a favorite of professional athletes and team owners. Vlade Divac was a regular (with a dish named after him), and Magic Johnson celebrated his return to the Lakers there. Wilt Chamberlain accumulated a goodly portion of those 10,000 women at the bar, and there are signed and framed Lakers and Rams uniform shirts on two walls in the nonsmoking room. Dan says that one of these days he’s going to take down the Rams shirt because he is disgusted by their departure from the city.

Dan gave up soccer for golf long ago, but he’s in great shape for a man in his early sixties. He is tall, about six feet, and broad-shouldered. His solid build, his big, bald head and his thick white mustache make him look bearlike and cuddly when smiling, fierce when angry. It’s partly his eyes, with their faint suggestion of the Central Asian steppe. If you were casting a movie and needed someone to play a partisan or a bandit king, you would want him to have Dan Tana’s eyes.

He was born Dobrivoje Tanasijevic in Belgrade in 1933. His father owned two successful restaurants in the city but made the mistake of supporting the monarchist partisans rather than the communists during the war. When peace came, both restaurants were nationalized by Marshal Tito, and though Dan’s father stayed on as manager, his son had no intention of joining the business. Instead, he became a teenage soccer star for the country’s top team, Red Star Belgrade.

Dan defected from Yugoslavia to Belgium in 1952 when the team was on a tour of that country. He stayed there for six months, playing for the soccer team Anderlecht, then went to Germany to play for Hannover, one of their top teams, then moved to Canada, where he led a Jewish soccer club called Hakoah. He finally came to the States in 1956 when he joined a Yugoslav-American soccer team in San Pedro.

The new arrival took classes at Jeff Corey’s famous acting school in Malibu–“to practice my English”–and now he laughs at the notion of a “defector from a communist country taking classes from a man who had been blacklisted.” As an actor, he soon started to get small parts in movies, mainly as “Germans, gangsters and Russians. I played communists, fascists and criminals. I always got killed, and I never got to kiss the girl.” He appeared in The Enemy Below with Curt Jurgens and Robert Mitchum and also in Rin Tin Tin, The Untouchables and Peter Gunn.

When not working on movies, Dan worked in restaurants and clubs. For a while, he was a partner at Peppermint West, the city’s first strictly-for-dancing nightclub. (“It introduced the twist to Hollywood,” he says.) But soon after he married Andrea Wiesenthal (they are now divorced), he left Peppermint West to become the maltred’ at La Scala. It was there that he first decided to start his own restaurant.

When Dan Tana’s opened in 1964, it was just a neighborhood spaghetti joint with Mussolini’s former cook as first chef. With the help of Industry friends and by keeping the restaurant open long after his competitors had closed, Dan gradually transformed Tana s into an institution.

“I never expected it,” Dan says of his success. “I thought I’d have a better chance of winning an Oscar. But that’s show business for you.” (By the ’70s, in fact, he was able to take time off to produce films in Yugoslavia, one of which won a prize at Cannes.)

Dan is always beautifully turned out in suits or jackets made for him by Douglas Hayward, the London tailor who dresses Michael Caine. On his lapel he wears a tiny brown teddy bear; his daughter, filmmaker Gabriella Tana, gave him 1,000 of them a few years ago. His manners are old world: He is one of the few men who can carry off kissing a woman’s hand. He does it swiftly, smoothly and without hesitation, the same way he lights your cigarette. It’s one of the things that gives him his tremendous charm and enables him to get along with anybody and every body He speaks Russian, German and Italian and has the air of a man who has embraced America but in the past has played by the rules of a much harsher society. Everyone who works in the restaurant has the same quality.

Dan is a serious gambler and impulsively generous. He once won $100,000 at the track and shared it with the staff. In return, he enjoys ferocious loyalty from friends and employees. On August 1, 1980, the restaurant was all but destroyed by a mysterious fire while Dan was vacationing in Yugoslavia. He flew back and was told that it would take seven months to a year to rebuild.

He still enjoys telling the story of what happened next: “Usually, it takes seven weeks to get a permit to start building, but it only took us a couple of days.” It didn’t hurt that then governor Jerry Brown was a regular at the time, along with his then girlfriend, singer Linda Ronstadt. “On the front door, there were all kinds of notes and flowers: ‘Please don’t change it, leave it the way it was. This is our home.’ People asked, ‘Do you want any money?’ It was very heartwarming.”

Work proceeded at an incredibly rapid pace. “We got a builder. He was Yugoslav. He said, ‘I will have a heart attack, but I’ll do it as quickly as I can.”‘ Every day, the staff came in, made the workmen lunch and helped with the repairs. “It was like a family,” Dan says. In seven weeks, Dan Tana’s reopened.

The Kitchen at Tana’s is suprisingly small. The “hot line”-the stove, grill and fryer–is jammed into an incredibly tight space, and between the line and the worktable is a corridor wide enough for only two men to pass at a time, as long as one of them is not Big Nino, the deputy chef. If the bar is Tana’s heart, then the kitchen is its soul.

Favorite customers (and a few Tana family members) who always eat the same thing or have contributed their own recipes sometimes have dishes named after them. This has replaced metal nameplates on the backs of chairs, a system that provoked too much jealousy and was abandoned after the 1980 fire. Actor James Woods loves the veal florentine, so it’s now called Veal Jimmy Woods. The menu offers Steak Dabney Coleman and Chicken Karl Malden. Producers Sidney Beckerman and Dino Conti have Potatoes Beckerman (fried German style with onions) and Swordfish a la Dino Conti (grilled with olive oil, basil and garlic).

There is constant tension between the kitchen staff and the staff out front. When a dish is ready, one of the cooks puts it on a butcher block for pickup. If the waiter isn’t right there, chef Mate bangs on a little bell. It drives him crazy if waiters don’t pick up a dish within seconds, and he slams on the bell with a wooden order spike again and again. When the place is busy, you can’t hear the bell unless you’re standing outside the kitchen door. In any case, the waiters refuse to be rattled by Mate, and they keep smiling even as he rants.

Sometimes a customer sends food back for no good reason, possibly to show off to a date. Mate goes ballistic when someone sends back one of his lovingly cut steaks, and it’s the waiters who have to bear the brunt of his anger. But they stand their ground and insist that he give them another steak.

 

Friends often pop in to see Dan in the office upstairs and then stop by the kitchen. Like many of the regulars, they know just about everyone. Dan’s golfing buddy, Roger, a Beverly Hills dentist, has treated Mate, who suffers frequently from toothaches. Mate is remarkably thin for a chef; he doesn’t like to eat very much, and he drinks only mineral water with lemon juice. (While researching this article, I worked at Tana’s for a month, and one day Mate yelled at me for eating my lunch outside on a step while reading the paper. “Come inside and sit at the table,” he said. “And put the paper away. Eat like a man.” It was one of the longest things I ever heard him say.)

In contrast to Mate, his deputy Nino is an enormous man, strong as an ox. Nino comes from Split in Croatia, but he is half Serb. Though it is hard to believe from looking at him, he was once a top waterpolo player. He has a fearsome voice, but when he shouts he is almost always just kidding around.

In the kitchen, Mate is clearly in charge. At one time, he did all the cooking himself, and he is still such a control freak that he stays long beyond his shift to make sure no one is screwing up. He comes in at 10 or so every morning and starts to concoct the marinara and meat sauces, which are made fresh every day and take hours to prepare. If it is Thursday, he lovingly makes osso buco, a favorite of many of the regulars. He is assisted in the mornings by Paco, who cleans and cuts an enormous amount of whitefish, squid and chicken before setting to work peeling garlic.

Tana’s serves only dinner, so the first shift usually arrives around lunchtime. Mike the bartender comes in around two to make sure that everything is clean and in its place. If it is Monday, he curses Craig for moving things around, even though Craig has been bartending on Sundays for seven years and knows exactly how Mike likes things organized. Abel, who comes from Sonora, has been waiting tables at Tana’s for years, and he or Danny the busboy starts setting the tables in the early afternoon.

Around three, Mate takes a break and has a late lunch in the dining room. One of his deputies, usually Daniel or David, comes in around the same time to make alfredo sauce, fry breaded eggplant slices and see that things are ready to go at five.

Some nights it gets busy right away. But even if it doesn’t, you can feel the rhythm of the kitchen speeding up by seven. Between seven-thirty and eight, the orders start flooding in on pink slips of paper that the waiters stick on a spike. If they include salads, the waiter shouts “una gringa!” (one green salad) or “dos Cesares!” (two Caesars) to Filomeno in the back. Regulars rave about the salad dressing at Tana’s, and it is Filomeno who prepares it according to a secret Dan Tana recipe.

All four cooks on the line are equally responsible for the orders. If one puts a pan on the stove and has to turn away to deal with something else, the next guy watches it for him and takes it offwhen it’s ready, all without a word being said. As they bend to take stuff out of the ovens or reach to put a steak on the grill or throw a handful of salt over another’s arm, not a single movement is wasted–they could be gymnasts or a team of Navy Seals.

 

To the outsider, the language of the kitchen and the wait staff is a raucous Esperanto. Listen carefully, and you realize you are hearing Spanish and Serbo-Croat mixed with heavily accented English. The Yugoslavs all speak some Spanish, and the Mexicans and Central Americans have picked up some Serbo-Croat. Mostly curse words, of course, but other phrases, too. Danny the busboy, who is Mexican, will often shout “Gospedi Sedek!” at Nick the waiter, pointing at the slightly too long sleeves of Nick’s tux. It means “Hey, Mr. Country Boy” in Serbo-Croat. And they both double over laughing.

One might expect that a restaurant owned by a Serb who employs members of every Balkan ethnic group–from Bosnian Muslims to Macedonians–would be racked with enmities. But under Dan Tana’s benevolent but absolute dictatorship, and with money steadily pumping in, everybody gets along fine.

Nick the waiter is a 23-year-old refugee from Croatia whose ancestry is mixed Serb and Croat. He got out as a crew member on a cruise ship that docked at Long Beach. He and his best friend jumped ship after finishing out their contracts, then called Dan Tana, whom he knew from the island of Hvar in the Adriatic, where Dan has a summerhouse. Dan gave him a job and put them up until they found their own feet.

Another young Yugoslav exile named Dushko works as a busboy. His father was a leading journalist in the old Yugoslavia and lived for a while in London. Dushko speaks heavily accented but very rapid English and talks to anyone who will listen, particularly about films, though he has a Frenchman’s contempt for “Hollywood” movies. He’ll drop off some plates in the kitchen and ask, “Tell me, do you know this film with Julie Christie?” only to have Nino the cook cut in with “Get the foutta here, I’m sick of you talking. You’re like a sports commentator–talk, talk, talk. Get out of my kitchen!”

The war in the Balkans and the breakup of Yugoslavia have been painful for Dan. His beloved vacation villa is on a beautiful island that is now part of Croatia. He designed the house himself and over the years has made it available to hundreds of friends. (When Wilt Chamberlain arrived on the island accompanied by two gorgeous Swedish girlfriends, he was the tallest man the islanders had ever seen.)

But Dan has returned to the house only once since the war ended. It was a difficult experience. All of his non-Croat friends were gone-their houses confiscated and given to the Croats. His own place is sacrosanct only because he is an American citizen. The local mayor was still friendly and took him out to lunch, but during the meal a nearby diner said very loudly, “What the hell is that damned Serb doing here?”

Conventional restaurant wisdom holds that the owner of a restaurant must be there all the time. But Dan’s duties with UEFA, the European soccer federation, and with the Yugoslav World Cup team take him away for weeks at a stretch. When he returns, things tighten up, the pace in the kitchen quickens, and the service seems slightly more polished. Even customers can feel the difference in the air. Dan comes through the small, crowded kitchen several times a day. They are casual visits–he doesn’t check the sauces because he and Mate have worked together for nearly two decades–yet he notices everything. If Dan thinks people are getting sloppy, he becomes an avenging angel, all geniality extinguished, eyes flashing. “Clean this up! Put that away! What the hell do you think you are doing?” (I saw him do this only once, but everyone in the kitchen was fearful and subdued. A half hour later, the city health inspector arrived for a spot check.)

 

Still, Dan’s absences are just as important to the smooth running of the restaurant. If he were there all the time, the staff would be too nervous. When he’s away, the place breathes and stretches and trundles right along. For Mike the manager and Jimmy the maitre d’, the Tana Way is almost second nature. But without Dan at the helm, the personality of the place, its whole culture, begins to undergo subtle, almost undetectable changes, like a ship veering ever so slightly off course. In the short term, it doesn’t matter; in the long term, it could be dangerous. Dan knows this, and he always comes back within six weeks. “When I’m in town, I’m in the restaurant every night–even if I eat somewhere else,” he says. When he’s away, he calls every day.

Though Dan has produced eight movies, he says that “the hardest thing of all is running a restaurant. That’s why I’ll never open another one. You can’t duplicate it.” Though he’s been asked many times to give his name to a franchise, he always refuses. “If you really want to be successful with a restaurant, you can only have one. It’s like a wife. You can have a lot of mistresses, but only one wife.”

 

 

 

After the Uprising

It has been nearly a decade since the Tompkins Square “uprising,” when anarchists, squatters, and junkies fought the police who’d come to evict them from their encampment in the trash-choked park. The riot was brief but bloody; the insurgents howled as cops pulled down their cardboard and plastic tent city. But the neighborhood people elderly Jews, Russian emigres, Puerto Ricans from the tenements and housing projects—watched in silence.

In those days, Alphabet City was a genuinely scary place: abandoned buildings disfigured each filthy block; feral teenagers prowled the streets. Outsiders buying drugs often ended up robbed and beaten, since the place lacked even the order imposed by a drug gang monopoly.

After the riot, the city closed the park for refurbishment. Reopened, it had three new playgrounds and a dog run. Most of the grass formerly suffocated by rubbish and human sewage had grown back. The graffiti had vanished from the water-fountain gazebo, with its no-longer-ironic dedication to Charity, Hope, Temperance, and Faith. Police enforced a midnight curfew.

Still, everyone expected—and some die-herds hoped—that the old spirit of the park would return. The drug dealers and the homeless would trickle back; boom boxes would compete with bongo drums in the night. But it didn’t happen.

Soon after the park reopened, the then-new Giuliani administration began to implement its “zero tolerance/quality of life” crime-fighting strategy. Well, more like “almost-zero tolerance”—the Lower East Side doesn’t get the same “zero tolerance” as the Upper East Side. But there isn’t a neighborhood in Manhattan that has changed as swiftly or as profoundly. The drug-dealing bodegas have almost all been shut down, and the crack houses cleaned out. The Ninth Precinct increasingly deals with the noise and disorder spilling out of the dozens of new bars and restaurants that have sprouted all along Avenue A and are beginning to pop up on Avenue B.

I came to live half a block from Tompkins Square Park two years ago. When some of my goateed neighbors bemoan the awfulness of “gentrification,” I don’t bother arguing. I am delighted by the changes, as are most of the real natives of the neighborhood. But I, too, have selfish reservations about the process going too far: the area’s patina of grunge keeps my rent down even as the neighborhood keeps improving.

Those who feel nostalgia for the bad old days want the East Village to be a permanent transgressional theme park for self-conscious bohemians trapped in perpetual adolescence, where working-class Puerto Ricans are forced to play the role of an offended bourgeoisie. An article in the Village Voice last year bemoaned “martial law,” “quality of life overkill,” and a “Ceausescu-like crackdown” in the park. The crackdown hasn’t gone far enough, in my view: it ignores the public urination that takes place only 100 yards from the public toilets or the dope dealing a block west of the park on St. Mark’s Place.

It’s not as if Tompkins Square has been sanitized or its century-old radical tradition crushed. The rump of the squatters’ movement still holds rallies in one corner. In another, powerfully muscled young men do pull-ups and swap body-building tips picked up in Sing Sing, while others with no visible means of support play basketball. Bums still cluster near the chess tables; bongo drummers still play. And yet there is a gentleness in the air that has come back with the flowers.

When I walk through the park every morning, I am cheered by the shouts of children on the swings, by the tai-chi class, the old people reading newspapers on the benches in the sun, the dog owners chatting each other up while their pets chase each other around the run. This is city life as it is supposed to be. Who could ask for anything more?