“They’re So Corrupt, It’s Thrilling.” – Lenny Bruce

A review of Pisces Moon: The Dark Arts of Empire by Douglas Valentine

In Pisces Moon: The Dark Arts of Empire, Douglas Valentine descends into some of the most sinister aspects of US foreign policy. These include drug running, illegal arms sales, bribery, human and artifact trafficking, far right coups, assassinations, agitprop and disinformation, as well as fiefdoms set up by former CIA and their assets that are rife with slavery, pedophilia and sadistic sex. Pisces Moon creates a mixture of the personal and historical, an intimate Heart of Darkness, that in moments captures the poisonous fog that inhabits Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a film that Valentine himself castigates in his book. As for the book’s title, I attribute it to happenstance, being an agnostic when it comes to all things metaphysical.

Pisces Moon is couched as a memoir of Valentine’s journey to Southeast Asia in the early 1990s. His book, The Phoenix Program, the best book on the subject I’ve ever read, had caught the eye of The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Valentine was ‘hired’as a consultant to a documentary series the BBC was making about the CIA’s activities in South Vietnam. However, other consultants on the project more sympathetic to the crimes of the CIA such as John Ranelagh, objected to Valentine’s presence and once he arrived in Southeast Asia, he received little support from the feckless BBC; this even though he ‘muled’ ten grand to the BBC’s rep in Vietnam.

Largely left high and dry by the BBC, Valentine links up with locals and ex-pats alike and recalls his adventures including being briefly detained in Vietnam. The memoir/travel framework serves as a contemporary grounding for Valentine’s impeccable research. And his major reason for traveling to Indo-China, to interview three retired CIA station chiefs living in Thailand, Anthony Poshepny, John Shirley and William Young, do produce some revelatory results.

Valentine is a consummate researcher and interviewer with an amazing ability to get criminals to speak openly about their crimes. In fact, as I have observed over the years — confirmed by Valentine — these miscreants even, or especially, at the highest levels of the clandestine world like to brag about their international felonies.

Valentine, to this purpose, reprises Kathy Kadane’s reporting in the New York Times, concerning the slaughter of 900,000 Indonesians after the US mastered coup against Sukarno. Kadane told me personally that two CIA directors, William Colby and Richard Helms, had literally bragged about their parts in the wholesale butchery of nearly a million people. The same with Robert J. Martens, political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, who provided lists of ‘communists’ to the Indonesian military and the CIA’s Deputy Station Chief in Jakarta, Joseph Lazarsky. After a couple or three of scotches and a pretty face, these psychos probably thought this turned Kadane on, as these homicidal maniacs swaggered through their tales of mass murder. Valentine describes Bill Young as being “relatively open and held little back”.

So, in agreement with anthropologist Cora Du Bois, that there are cultural types, Valentine too describes the CIA as being made up of “criminal, sociopathic (often psychopathic), capitalist, ultraconservative, racist, sexist and fascist.” As Lenny Bruce joked apropos the Richard Daley Chicago Democratic Machine, “They’re so corrupt it’s thrilling”.

Valentine’s ability to make murderous thugs confess their crimes along with his deep research makes for an exhilarating brew. And Pisces Moon is no exception. Whether it’s John Muldoon, Richard Secord, Tom Clines or The Blond Ghost, Ted Shackley, Valentine has interviewed them all. And that takes guts.

I’m reminded of the way John Pilger cringed in fear when Duane ‘Dewey’ Clarridge, drunk as a skunk and reeking violence, challenged him over the number of Chileans the US had proxy murdered after the Salvador Allende coup during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. I don’t know if it’s his excellent preparation or because Doug looks so goddamn straight, which makes these black bag felons spill the beans. But Valentine has shown uncommon courage and composure taking them on as well as a detailed knowledge which demonstrates to them he is a serious interlocutor and not another media hack.

And as a result, Valentine in Pisces Moon moves seamlessly from facts culled from his interviews to his deep research into the background, the historical context where the new information fits in like pieces of a historically credible conspiratorial puzzle. As he states on page 142 of Pisces Moon, “My visits to Udon, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Bangkok provide me now with a means to chart the extent of CIA operations and drug trafficking in Southeast Asia. What follows is a summary of the origins of that apparatus, which will help put my interviews with Poshepny, Young and Shirley in perspective.” Then follows one of many historical accounts too rich in detail and source material to reprise here.

For me, the headlong plunge into the historical data is the most exciting part of this excellent book. And for anyone familiar with the material, Pisces Moon is an essential update. All the old perps are here from Vang Pao to Bill Casey, Lucien Conein to Paul Hellilwell, Ed Lansdale to Donald Gregg, Frank Nugen to Michael Hand, George White to Sidney Gottlieb etc. But as Valentine brilliantly demonstrates, the devil is in the details and the details in their own unique sociopathic way are exhilarating. Nobody writes more vivid, in your face historical reportage than Valentine.

For example, here’s bit of Valentine on the Hmong tribesmen and Vang Pao:

CIA case officers were also busy recruiting hilltribe chiefs with no loyalty to the indigenous lowland Laotians. Vang Pao, military commander of the Hmong tribe that had migrated from China in the 18th century and settle on mountain tops in northeast Laos, was by far the most important. Not only were the Hmong outsiders, but Pao had proved himself as a soldier while fighting for the French at Dien Bien Phu, where the French made there last stand before turning Vietnam over to the Vietnamese in 1954. Located just inside Vietnam some 250 winding miles north to Luang Prabang, Dien Bien Phu was important for having been the center of the French opium trade since 1841. Notably, the French had relied on the Hmong in the surrounding mountains for their opium supply, not to the lowland White Thais who had inhabited the region for over a thousand years.

Or this corruption titbit about Deputy Director of the OSS in China, Willis Bird and Director of OSS ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan:

Central in the CIA’s underworld was Willis Bird, who surfaced after the war [WWII] in Manila where, on behalf of outgoing OSS Director William Donovan, he managed the disposal of military surplus worth hundreds of millions of dollars. As OSS officer Oliver Caldwell observed, ‘It became wise for the colonel [e.g. Bird] to leave the Philippines without stopping over in Washington. The last I heard of him, he was living in Thailand with a bevy of beautiful Thai girls.’

There has been much excellent detailed reporting on the connection between the CIA and the international drug trade from Alfred J. McCoy’s groundbreaking Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, to Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press; to Peter Dale Scott’s Cocaine Politics and most recently Aaron Good’s primer for the grandchildren, American Exception: Empire & the Deep State.

All of Valentine’s books including Pisces Moon abide in the pantheon of works on this most crucial topic. And all of these works expose the rot of American imperialism and its clandestine services, which, on the whole, helps explain America’s current decline. The US Evil Empire is on the wane and no doubt this is in large part a result of the institutionalized murder, theft and perfidy that are at the heart of US foreign policy. With the rise of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its commitment to peaceful development, the international community has caught on to such US militarily destabilizing efforts like Africom.

But this decline is, also, in no small part due to the efforts of courageous historians like Douglas Valentine and books like Pisces Moon. On page 213 of Pisces Moon, Valentine quotes William Burroughs calling the present collapse of US hegemony, “the backlash and bad karma of empire”.

In 1584, in the age of Elizabethan piracy and Spanish conquest, Giordano Bruno in his La Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1584) trumps Burroughs remark by 400 years. Bruno prophecies the future decline of the West in terms of the Age of Discovery and European Imperialism:

The helmsmen of explorations have discovered how to disturb the peace of others, to profane the guardian spirits of their countries, to mix what prudent nature has separated, to redouble men’s desires by commerce, to add the vices of one people to those of the other, to propagate new follies by force and set up unheard-of lunacies where they did not exist before, and finally to give out the stronger as the wiser. They have shown men new ways, new instruments, and new arts by which to tyrannize over and assassinate one another. Thanks to such deeds, a time will come when other peoples, having learned from the injuries they suffered, will know how and be able, as circumstances change, to pay back to us, in similar forms or worse ones, the consequences of these pernicious inventions.

Bad ‘karma’ indeed. And Douglas Valentine is one of our best chroniclers of this grand ‘karmic’ collapse. Pisces Moon gives ample context to the US’s moral, ethical and material tumble. It is an essential read.

Carlo Parcelli is a longtime activist currently hosting the Foreign Policy Review podcast. He is also a poet, an editor with FlashPoint Magazine and is Beat Poet Laureate Emeritus for Maryland and the author of 7 books of poetry. Email: alphavillebooks@verizon.net. Read other articles by Carlo.