“The Air Force seems inescapable, like the Eye of God, and soon, you imagine … all will be razed, charred, defoliated by that searching gaze.”
— Mary McCarthy, 1967
“The General is another matter. … In his fifties, he is mild, pleasant, soft-spoken, and not bad-looking … but he has hollow eyes. I don’t know quite what I wish to say here. They are not weak eyes, but they do not have any light in them.”
— Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost, 1991
When one first encounters the oeuvre of Edward Lansdale (1908-1987), the hard part is deciding what to use for a game scenario. Myself, I’m not sure I could resist bringing him all the way into the Fall of Delta Green campaign as a recurring sage-enigma-antagonist-namedropper in a sort of “is he or isn’t he” role — Delta Green friendly? Majestic-12 field commander? Devotee of the neon memetic gods of America’s id? Let’s take a tour with some of his highlights.
Lansdale begins, like all great dubious GMCs, as a heroic OSS agent fighting the Axis. After the war ended, he stayed on in the Philippines as a liaison between the U.S. military (he switched his Army major’s rank for an Air Force captaincy in 1947) and the Philippine government, eventually using his advertising skills (Lansdale had been a successful ad man in Los Angeles before the war) and a few million CIA dollars to shepherd the virtually unknown Ramon Magsaysay into the Philippine Presidential palace. Lansdale also wound up assisting the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency effort against the Huk rebels from 1949 to 1953, when the CIA transferred him to Vietnam.
Lansdale spent four years running similar psychological warfare ops in Vietnam, where President Diem ignored his advice on plausible vote-hocusing (earning himself the nickname “Colonel Landslide” after Diem “won” 98% of the vote) and the CIA and the Army ignored his advice on counterinsurgency. (Or so he claimed later.) After a stint at the Defense Department (ended when he resigned rather than help plot the overthrow of his old pal Diem), he rotated back to Vietnam in 1965 as an ill-defined “minister” in the U.S. mission in Saigon. He left Vietnam in 1968. His personal papers and library burned (conveniently?) in a house fire in 1972. In the 1980s, he played mentor and connector to Oliver North, John Singlaub, and other key players in the Nicaraguan contra effort. He died of heart failure in 1987.
Among Lansdale’s many many greatest hits:
- To remove entrenched Huk guerrillas from a strategic jungle, he first suborned a famous soothsayer to predict “death in the jungle” for that region. Then, he spread rumors that an aswang — the Philippine vampire — operated in that area. Then, the coup de grace: his commandos snatched a Huk guerrilla, strung him up, punched two holes in the man’s throat, then left the bloodless corpse where his fellow Huks were sure to find it. (In a Night’s Black Agents agent’s backstory, maybe Lansdale didn’t fake a vampire attack …)
- Huk guerrillas on a mountaintop used a nearby village for food and supplies. Lansdale’s psywar team captured a Huk courier from the village and tape-recorded his confession, which was, in Lansdale’s own words, “made to sound as if his voice emanated from a tomb.” [Aaaaah! –KH] The courier was then [I bet. –KH] killed, his body dumped near the village. After the villagers buried him, the psywarriors infiltrated the cemetery and set up sound equipment, to play the eerie “undead confession” of the courier at full volume, at night. The villagers evacuated their haunted town, and the Huks starved.
- When his Philippine patrol killed and beheaded a Huk sympathizer, Lansdale picked up the head and began shouting questions at it, slapping it when it “refused” to answer. Eventually, his men told him “He’s dead, he can’t talk,” to which Lansdale replied “He’d talk soon enough if you hadn’t cut his damn head off!” Lansdale later claimed this was to prevent his men mutilating the dead, at least in a non pretend-vampire capacity.
- In Vietnam, the Diem government wanted to encourage mass migration from the Communist North to the South. Lansdale assembled an almanac full of horoscopes and predictions, all forecasting bad things for the North. One prophecy targeted at Vietnamese Catholics urged “The Virgin Mary is going South.” To make sure his targets took the almanac seriously, he gave orders not to give it away but to sell it for the local equivalent of about 50 cents: what people buy with their own money, they’re more likely to value and thus to believe.
Along with necromancy and fortunetelling, Lansdale was a big fan of the power of projected images. He made successful propaganda films, selling the war to both Vietnamese and American audiences. His teams showed Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons to the children in the Philippine villages they entered. While attached to the anti-Castro Operation MONGOOSE, one of his (unproduced) brainwaves was to holographically project the Second Coming of Christ above Havana to terrify the Communist soldiery. Lansdale became larger than life, almost literally: the model for “Colonel Terryman” in Jean Lárteguy’s Yellow Fever and “Colonel Hillandale” in Lederer and Burdick’s The Ugly American. He thought (mistakenly) that he was the model for Alden Pyle in The Quiet American, and subtly redirected the film’s director Joseph Mankiewicz into detourning Greene’s novel into support for the anti-Communist effort.
But it gets even better. One “Philip Jeckyl” wrote pornographic spy stories starring “Lansdale, of the Army Air Force,” and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia wrote, directed, and starred in a 1968 spy movie in which he defeated and killed an American agent named “Lansdale.” (The name of the movie, by the way, is Shadow Over Angkor, for anyone looking for a campaign title.) Sihanouk based the film on an attempted coup against him by governor Dap Chhuon uncovered in February 1959, two weeks after Lansdale had visited Chhuon on a no-doubt unrelated matter. In 1991, Oliver Stone depicted Lansdale in his film JFK as “General Y,” one of the “three tramps” on the grassy knoll and a key player in the assassination.
So it’s this sense of immense, hidden iconic figures working behind the scrim of the Cold War that makes me pick this last one as my best-of-all Lansdale story.
Their Eyes Were Watching God And Vice Versa
As early as World War I, fighter pilots would buzz the enemy positions and shout threats at the soldiers below: “We see you, and we’ll tell the artillery where you are.” During WWII, Lansdale headed a team that looked for Japanese proverbs which could be redirected jujitsu-style into airdropped leaflets or radio broadcasts: “The man who makes the first bad move loses the game” was a favorite. But an even more personal touch was better.
In the Philippines in 1951, Lansdale read a report from one of his operatives in the field, a psywar officer in Colonel Napoleon Valeriano’s 7th Brigade Combat Team, the wonderfully named “Skull Squadron.” In a Piper Cub above an escaping Huk detachment called Unit 17, the quick-thinking operative grabbed a bullhorn and shouted down at the Huks, calling them by name (“yes, you, Pepe, and Ramon, and Carmelo, and Baby”) and repeating details from the various briefings he’d received about that unit’s background. Then he completed his call-out with “And to our friend in Unit 17, our thanks for your helpful information!” Unit 17 held a number of fatal self-criticism sessions shortly thereafter, and Lansdale decided to expand the methodology.
Lansdale’s version of the story is a wonderful combination of Walt Disney, Dan Draper, and Aleister Crowley:
“The name of this technique, the ‘eye of God,’ reminded me of the ancient Egyptian practice of painting watchful guardian eyes over the tombs of the Pharaohs. … Recalling its appearance, I made some sketches until I recaptured the essence of its forbidding look [Aaaaah!! –KH] and I handed over the final drawing to the Philippine Army with suggestions for its use.”
Political officers would drive into towns that had an active Huk underground, and announce over the loud-hailer that “God sees all traitors,” or something similar. That night, the psywar teams would enter the village and paint or posterize the walls with Lansdale’s Eye design, in the best case only hitting the walls opposite the homes of suspected Huks. Ideally, every Huk sympathizer would awake to see an All-Seeing Eye staring in his window. As Lansdale put it in his memoirs: “The mysterious presence of these malevolent eyes the next morning had a sharply sobering effect.”
Lansdale must have lost connection with the Eye at some point. Possibly his South Vietnamese intelligence protégé Pham Xuan An stole it — An, it turned out, was a Communist Vietminh agent. (An also went to community college in Orange County from 1957-1959, perhaps his own attempt to back-trace the secret to Lansdale’s Hollywood goëtia.) Lansdale’s career in Vietnam is full of these weird Lovecraftian-via-Tim Powers details, a sorcerer trying desperately to return to power. (Even in WWII, he made a point of interviewing ichthyologists, which has to set Cthulhoid alarm bells ringing.) Lansdale began training dogs to watch for disturbances at houses under surveillance, and studied traditional Vietnamese geomancy. From 1965 to 1968, he asked his visitors in Saigon to sing folk songs for him, recording hundreds of hours of tape. This is where the Agents come in, tools for Lansdale’s attempts to find a new Key. He doles out (Doels out?) lore and hints, perhaps provides a ritual or two, and sends them into the jungles or up the mountains to look everywhere … until they see Something looking back.