combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

Something a bit different for Pass in Review this issue. I examine two polar opposites, one, a short whimsical little photo history detailing the picturesque growth of a California air base; the other a very long and carefully researched history of a grievous, sordid, sick and sadistic epoch in recent memory, the brutal war Joseph Stalin waged against his own countrymen. He did this while locked in a death struggle with his erstwhile comrade and brother-in-arms, Adolf Hitler, proving that the enemy within was at least as dangerous to him as Guderian's panzers knocking on the doors of Moscow. Because of the importance of its subject, I have reviewed Stalin's Secret War at great length and included, as an addendum, comments Count Tolstoy recently made to me concerning the book. He enables us to see as through a glass darkly what is in store wherever the terrorist or bolshevik or fascist vision should prevail. That it will not prevail is by no means certain, given a glance about the globe, and given the disgusting track record of Western appeasers, who are hoping and praying that the beasts will tire and simply go away. Unfortunately, they will not be going away any time soon. Blood is a very powerful elixir.

"The reason why men go to war is because the women are watching."
by Thomas Edward Lawrence [(T.E. Shaw) Lawrence of Arabia]

Travis Air Force Base
by Diana Stuart Newlin; Arcadia Publishing [127pp, $19.99] (©2004)

Primarily a pictorial history of the Fairfield, California base, the growth of Travis Air Force Base parallels the expansion and increasingly diversified missions of the American military since World War Two.

Major Newlin, the author, is the deputy curator of the Travis Air Museum, and she has compiled another informative entry in the Images of America book-series, Slices of Americana which, as the blurb states, "celebrate the history of neighborhoods, towns, and cities across the country. Each title presents the distinctive stories from the past that shape the character of the community today." With their sepia-toned soft covers and slick black-and-white photographs, these engaging texts possess an antiquish, vintage feel. No doubt their popularity — they can be found in almost any bookstore or library — is a direct result of the public's enormous appetite for nostalgia.

While today's base covers 6,000 acres and employs 15,000 workers, the original site encompassed a mere 945 acres. Constructed just after the Pearl Harbor attack, administered by the Air Transport Command and initially called Fairfield-Suisan, the base was designed as a gateway to the Pacific and a strategic defense against a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. Fairfield's task was to prepare aircraft and train crews for battle. The base housed B-24s, B-25s, B-17s, AT-17s, AT-20s, C-47s and C-54s, some of which are on display in the Travis museum. It was renamed in 1951 for General Robert F. Travis, killed along with his crew when their B-29 crashed on the runway. During the Korean War, the base became a major medevac point for wounded soldiers and by 1953, contained state-of-the-art medical facilities as well as enlarged recreational and work areas.

As propeller craft were being phased out in the late 1950s, Travis received SAC B-52 bombers and giant new airlifters like the C-130 Hercules. Travis pilots ferried supplies to isolated Berlin when Khrushchev's Wall went up in 1961, and transported UN troops into the Congo during the Katanga secession and the Stanleyville mutiny.

When the Vietnam War escalated in 1965, Travis began flying its famous Red Ball Express supply missions, two per day from Fairfield to Saigon. Base personnel also participated in three big troop deployments between 1965 and 1968, carrying infantry and paratrooper units into the combat zone. Sadly, Travis had to endure the handling of thousands of caskets out of Southeast Asia in those same years.

On a positive note, Travis planes evacuated several thousand Vietnamese orphans in Operation Babylift in 1975, as Saigon fell to the communists. Its crews flew components for NASA's Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, and by supplying the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War, helped save that country from defeat. In the '80s and '90s Travis personnel shuttled troops around the globe, operating in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, the Russian Republics, and even Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze, delivering food, medicine, and vital equipment to stranded scientific teams.

As with all the titles in the Images of America series, the photos are well-chosen and varied. There are, of course, old as well as recent pictures of air crews and of planes in flight, snapshots of celebrity visitors, such as Joe Louis, Liz Taylor, and Danny Kaye, and a stirring group picture of the surviving crew members from the famous Doolittle B-25 Raid of 1942. There is also a photo of President George W. Bush addressing a Travis crowd in 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks.

Anyone wishing to learn more about a colorful and unique local history would do well to pick up this genial, entertaining little book.

Stalin's Secret War
by Nikolai Tolstoy; Holt, Rinehart and Winston [450pp, $27.00] (©1982)

"A dead man cannot bite."
by Joseph V. Stalin

An excellent description of Joseph Stalin's methods of terrorizing his subjects appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, The Lord of the Rings. In that novel's climactic battle scene, a powerful demonic spirit called the Witch-King assails a warrior and utters this threat: "Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye."

Thus did Stalin, man of steel, heart of stone, the devil's disciple, torment the Russian people, tortured ceaselessly in Soviet dungeons and then dispatched to the far-flung graveyards of the Gulag Archipelago.

Stalin's Secret War is not strictly a record of his horrific crimes, nor the psycho-biography of a warped and wicked soul – think of him as a cross between a more bloodthirsty Tamerlane and Vlad the Impaler – although Tolstoy illustrates aspects of both. Rather it is a carefully researched, penetrating interpretation of domestic and foreign events occurring during the fateful years 1938-1945. This was a period when Stalin's fear of the regime's collapse was the overriding consideration in his policymaking. And so he waged a war of repression against those desperate, would-be rebels, his own countrymen.

At hand was a frightful weapon, the secret police, Sword of the Revolution, bequeathed to him by Lenin. More terrible by far than the Tsarist Okhrana, which the Bolsheviks had constantly decried as bestial and inhuman, this organ, first known as the Cheka, was run by a succession of sadistic psychopaths, starting with Dzerzhinsky, then on to Yagoda and Yezhov and Beria. Stalin's great achievement, Tolstoy explains with a touch of sarcasm, was to place the entire population of 200 million in thrall to the Cheka – later GPU, NKVD, MGB – while himself retaining absolute mastery over the police.

The long, sickening tale of their barbarism, comprehensively brought to light in Solzhenitsyn's epic The Gulag Archipelago, reads like a nightmare from the Spanish Inquisition. Except that in the case of the Soviet Union there was not just one Torquemada, but thousands — interrogators, torturers, murderers — possessing the coercive apparatus of a modern state, recruited and rewarded for their savage qualities.

Tolstoy documents some of the means used to squeeze fantastic confessions from innocent people:

"Women and young girls were thrown into cells, beaten to pulp. Their hair was torn out from their scalps, their fingers broken, their toes crushed, their teeth knocked in. They were beaten on their heels, kicked in the stomach, raped. Beatings of prisoners and their families were a regular form of interrogation. A man would be stripped naked, strapped to a table, and have his genitals lashed to pulp with heavy, soaking towels. If these punishments were not horrifying enough, you could have a needle repeatedly stabbed through the back of the neck until a thrust penetrated between the vertebrae, injuring the spinal cord and causing convulsions .... A man had his hands clamped down to a board and gramophone needles were hammered into the flesh of his fingers under the nails. Then someone kicked him in the groin and he lost his senses. His condition was such that he had to be castrated in the prison hospital. In short, there was scarcely a device for increasing and prolonging the agony of their victims that the NKVD did not fasten upon with eagerness."

These and other tortures were but preliminaries, visited upon the victims before they were shipped to the destructive-labor camps where fresh agonies awaited. At any given moment during the three decades of Stalin's rule, upwards of ten million human beings languished in the Gulag Archipelago. People from all walks of life were continually raked in – children included – from schools, industry, the medical and legal professions, scientists, writers, farmers, peasants, and soldiers, up to and including high-ranking officials who were regularly purged and who groveled abjectly in the great show trials, where they confessed to the most outlandish, preposterous crimes.

In this way, Stalin made certain to forestall any incipient rebellion from above or below, all the while luxuriating in Oriental splendor behind phalanxes of armed bodyguards. His existence structured to avoid all contact with the resentful poverty-stricken masses, Stalin, like tyrants after him, built for himself dozens of mansions and palatial estates which were hermetically sealed off from the public, and traveled mostly under ground. Tolstoy presents a number of vignettes revelatory of Stalin's hatred and morbid fear of the Russian people:

  • A blind man's dog once awakened Stalin with its barking. Both dog and master were immediately put to death.

  • The Leader greatly relished eating a certain type of fish. To please him and curry favor, the NKVD went grenade-fishing in a lake, destroying the livelihood of an entire village. When the villagers protested, they were all packed off to the Gulag.

  • Stalin's private train possessed automatic armored shutters and carried enough supplies to withstand a two-week siege.

  • The Vozhd always wore a bulletproof vest beneath his tunic.

  • During military parades in Red Square, the NKVD maintained an armored cordon around the reviewing stand, and Stalin forbade the troops to carry live ammunition. Should any be discovered, the death penalty would apply to them and their officers, as well as to commissars who had failed to detect the contraband.

  • To obtain foreign currency, Stalin concocted a counterfeiting scheme in which the NKVD flooded the West with fake hundred dollar bills. When the conspiracy was thwarted, Stalin ordered waves of new arrests and sent multitudes to camps in the Kolyma, digging for gold in the tundra and permafrost above the Arctic Circle, where millions perished.

But it was in the realm of foreign affairs that Stalin revealed his fears to the world, allying himself in 1939 with Adolf Hitler, attacking Finland, and massacring the Polish officer corps – fifteen-thousand men – at Katyn in 1940. His aim was to extend communism into the Baltic States, acquire territory, booty, new slaves, and liquidate all potential opposition leadership. Hitler was happy to oblige him. The secret protocols in the Nazi-Soviet pact not only divided up Eastern Europe between the totalitarian giants, once again partitioning Poland, but bound the dictators together in the pact of blood — the blood of conquered peoples. Were it not for Hitler's irrational attack on the USSR, Nazis and Communists might still be allies today. As Stalin nostalgically exclaimed after the war, "Ach, together with Hitler we would have been invincible!"

This leads to a fascinating theory as to how the German invasion of 22 June 1941 could have caught the Soviet Union by such surprise, resulting in stunning defeats and near-collapse. For years historians have debated why Stalin, always shrewd, cynical, and paranoid, his political antennae attuned to the subtlest shifts in the balance of forces, was so utterly deceived. Why did he stubbornly refuse to believe that an attack was imminent when numerous governments, as well as Soviet master spy Richard Sorge, kept telling him so? Why was he astonished when it happened? Tolstoy provides a novel explanation.

Clearly Stalin wanted to believe in Hitler because he feared and respected him, but also because the alliance was advantageous to Hitler, advantageous, in fact, to both of them — Germany received huge quantities of raw materials nullifying the British naval blockade, not least the oil with which Guderian's panzers raced across France, while Soviet Russia received military equipment from Germany — therefore an attack was contrary to German self-interest. But more significantly, the Gestapo in the first days of the war may have funneled information to Stalin revealing that a clique of renegade Wehrmacht generals had instigated the invasion and that Hitler would quickly put an end to it if Stalin did not react. But why should Stalin have been hoodwinked by false intelligence? The answer, Tolstoy speculates, can be found four years earlier in 1937.

At that time there were numerous contacts between the NKVD and the Gestapo, and in a strange circumstance Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Schutzstaffel Security Service known as the S.D., obtained evidence that German generals were plotting with Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, first general of the Red Army and Deputy Commissar for Defense, to mount a coup against Stalin. Delighted with information he could use against the General Staff, which he considered insufficiently Nazified, Heydrich, after adding phony documents to the Tukhachevsky file, gave it to Hitler. The Führer at once saw that he controlled Stalin's fate. Perhaps reasoning that a grateful Stalin in power would be more beneficial to him than a potential Caesar, Hitler passed the file on to his brother dictator. Tukhachevsky fell. He was arrested and charged with conspiring with the Germans to overthrow the government, and shot without trial, whereupon the Great Purge commenced. Of 1937, Solzhenitsyn recalls:

"Arrests rolled through the streets and apartment houses like an epidemic. Just as people transmit an epidemic infection from one to another without knowing it, by such innocent means as a handshake, a breath, handing someone something, so, too, they passed on the infection of inevitable arrest by a handshake, by a breath, by a chance meeting on the street. For if you are destined to confess tomorrow that you organized an underground group to poison the city's water supply, and if today I shake hands with you in the street, that means I, too, am doomed .... Now the countryside might have watched them massacre the city, but the countryside itself was too dark for that, and was still undergoing the finishing touches of its own slaughter."

Stalin forced the Russian people through a wringer of terror and decimated the officer corps of the army, down to the company level. Simultaneously in Germany the two highest-ranking generals, Blomberg, the Minister of War, and Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the army, were purged. Whether or not the Tukhachevsky conspiracy actually existed, Stalin and Hitler apparently believed in its authenticity.

Extrapolating from these events, it follows that Stalin in 1941 would have had ample reason to believe that Hitler's dissident commanders were responsible for the attack and that the Führer would soon rein them in. "The suggestion," Tolstoy writes, "that Hitler sent personal assurances to lull Stalin's suspicions as the invasion opened, would explain Stalin's belief that the attack was a military provocation not to be responded to. It would explain the ferocious purges within the Red Army at the time, and the fact that the NKVD kept a very strict eye on the movements of the Red Army near the frontiers."

Despite the deep German thrusts into Soviet territory that summer and the loss of several million Russians killed or captured — "All that Lenin built is lost!" moaned Stalin — the Leader was not yet frightened enough to throw the one million well-armed NKVD troops guarding the camps into the battles for Leningrad – where the encircled, starving population resorted to cannibalism – Kharkov, Smolensk, and Vyazma. The transport needs of the NKVD, busily engaged in murdering prisoners and shuttling others eastward away from the oncoming Germans, had priority over the military requirements of the Red Army, fighting for its life, and so demonstrated that Lenin's heir feared the Wehrmacht less than he feared a slave revolt.

Though bitter rivals locked in a war of annihilation, Nazis and Soviets were more competitors than true enemies. Their secret police maintained contacts throughout the war years, and afterward a number of SS and Gestapo went east and joined their brethren in the NKVD. Collaboration extended to the joint suppression of Czech and Polish freedom fighters, just as in the good old days of 1940, and to Stalin's halting of the Red Army before Warsaw in 1944, allowing the Germans to complete the destruction of the risen Warsaw Ghetto and the extermination of all remaining Jews in the city.

As his struggle with Hitler unexpectedly turned toward victory and the Red Army began its westward march, new fears seized Stalin. Escaped POWs and returning veterans, all those who had seen capitalist countries and could speak about their prosperity, constituted a menace to Soviet power and so were hauled off to camps in the hundreds of thousands. Just when the Russian people dared to hope that their years of suffering and sacrifice to repel the invader would, must, result in a freer society, Stalin tightened his grip. Since many Russians (as well as troops from all of Europe) had fought alongside the Germans, 800,000 of them under General Andrei A. Vlasov, former commander of the Second Shock Army and hero of Leningrad who was betrayed by Stalin, the country had to be punished, purged, bled and re-bled. Whole nations of the Soviet Union were exiled to the Siberian wastes; Volga Germans, Crimean Tartars, Chechens and Kalmyks, and the NKVD redoubled its assault on the Ukrainian nationalists, the Banderists. The teeming camps of Gulag were never fuller than at the moment of victory. As usual, Stalin took no chances.

The final chapters of Stalin's Secret War recount some of the most shameful and sordid episodes in modern history, foremost among them the British and American betrayal and forced repatriation of thousands of unsuspecting Russian exiles, including 90,000 men of the Cossack Corps, which had fought against Stalin, and who were promised asylum in the West. Agreed upon at Yalta, this base act of perfidy — hundreds of desperate men and women killed themselves rather than be remanded into the tender care of the NKVD — continues its infamous echo into our own time. Western treachery was not limited to betraying individuals. The whole of Eastern Europe was condemned to slavery when the Allies permitted the Red Army to occupy and install puppet regimes in every nation, including, yet again, unhappy Poland, for whose freedom Britain and France had originally declared war on Hitler in 1939.

Tolstoy also investigates the sinister role of Western traitors, communist agents like Kim Philby and Alger Hiss, who were ensconced in high government posts, and explains how Stalin's Western enthusiasts, people such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Lillian Hellman, strengthened an evil tyranny and helped perpetuate its monstrous crimes. "One of the most disheartening aspects of the Russian people's suffering," says Tolstoy, "was the widespread indifference with which it was regarded in the free and luxurious West."

Because the Russian people were considered the greatest threat to Communist rule and therefore had to be continually purged and repressed over the course of decades, the Soviet system was, sooner or later, bound to implode. The only question was how many lives would be snuffed out before that blessed event occurred? The real reason for the collapse was not so much economic as spiritual. For so great had been the people's agony, so vast and prolonged the suffering, and so deep the feeling of guilt on the part of the last Soviet rulers, that the only possible outcomes were the Fall of the House of Lenin or the descent of the entire nation into mass insanity.

Overall, this is a brilliant, enlightening, but disturbing treatise that demands re-reading and reflection. Its sad subject is mitigated somewhat by the liveliness and verve of the author's prose, and by his effective use of irony. Tolstoy is masterful at weighing evidence, and analyzes events cogently instead of merely recording them; his voluminous chapter-notes and citations of primary sources, particularly works by high-ranking Soviet defectors, provide a solid foundation to the narrative.

The secret war of Stalin is, in the end, no secret. It is a war that is ongoing, initiated by totalitarian terrorists willing to drown all of creation in oceans of blood in the name of the Party, the People, or the Will of Allah. It is a war against the very notion of humanity's infinite variety.


In a recent conversation with Count Tolstoy – he is a distant cousin of Lev Tolstoy and patriarch of the clan – I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about Stalin's Secret War. Since the book was written before the Soviet Union collapsed, what, I asked, if anything, would he change if he were writing today? I also wanted to know if he believed that Stalin sowed the seeds of the collapse, or did he think the system would have crumbled sooner without him. Tolstoy's response follows:

"Although I have followed scholarly writing on the subject over the years, I have seen nothing that challenges my major conclusions. Obviously I would have to take into account the fascinating and extensive material available in the Russian archives, in which I have worked extensively since 1990.

I think the only serious alteration I would have to make is what I think is an over-estimate of the number of people who suffered and died in Gulag. The numbers undoubtedly ran into millions, but not I think into the very large statistics I drew upon.

Stalin was extremely successful in achieving his personal goals, and I suspect that for all his blunders preserved the dictatorship more effectively than the would-be intellectuals Lenin or Trotsky. The alliance with Hitler made perfect sense for the Soviet Union and conferred on it great advantages while it lasted. Only the unpredictable factor of Hitler's total irrationality wrecked it — it was equally advantageous to him. The regime could only survive by the exercise of unrelenting terror, and as its most efficient practitioner Stalin must be looked upon as a successful Soviet leader."

      The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties by Robert Conquest; Macmillan (©1973):
      Historical masterpiece by the leading authority on Stalinist Russia.

contributed by Christopher S. Baldwin

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones