Reports from Hell.
In exactly two weeks, on August 11, my third book Reports from Hell releases into the wild. Books are strange things, antiquated and cumbersome, but I love them beyond any other human invention. Love holding them, smelling them, caressing them, reading them and writing them. As much of a silly narcissist as I appear, I don’t like promoting them, though, but that is a necessary part of the affair.
If you would like, you can pre-order a signed copy here. Or buy one on Amazon. Or anywhere books are sold. I’ll be doing an online reading with La Jolla’s iconic Warwick’s (link here) on August 12th too.
Here is the prologue.
Thank you, sincerely, for reading. As much of a shallow narcissist as I appear, I appreciate you all very much.
I’m standing in the right wing of a Baz Luhrmann–designed theater behind a luxurious velvet red curtain with General David Petraeus, who happens to be telling me about Syria, and I’m nodding along but mostly thinking that he is not as short as everyone says. His biceps, knotted little balls sticking out of a shiny gray polo shirt, pull most of my focus. His skin is that waxy, shiny, taut thing that happens to people who work out compulsively in subscription gyms—but he seems normal, at least height-wise. Maybe even above average. Everyone had said he was really short. Like, exceptionally short.
On stage, a hedge-fund manager is talking about shorting Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway. Or actually he’s saying that he would never short Warren Buffett while also saying that Berkshire Hathaway’s stock will lose at least fifteen percent of its value when Buffett steps down as chairman and that he is basically two hundred and thirty years old and might step down any day, so it sounds to me like he is talking about shorting Warren Buffett.
The room is filled with other hedge-fund managers scribbling furious notes as titans of finance, political insiders, professors, doctors, and billionaires discuss the state of the world at a very exclusive, invite-only financial conference in Miami’s just-opened Faena Hotel. There is a twenty-million-dollar penthouse up top and a twenty-million-dollar Damian Hirst–gilded wooly mammoth in hurricane-proof glass out front.
And General David Petraeus is sharing with me that Syria will likely never again unify, but he’s doing so in a small-talky sort of way. After the brave man calling bullshit on Buffett’s empire is finished, I’m supposed to interview the general onstage about current events in the Middle East and how they affect international marketplaces. I’m also supposed to be calling him “general” but he’s not a general anymore unless “general” is like “doctor” and you get to keep the title even after being unceremoniously shown the door and retiring to save whatever face you used to have.
Either way, he earned it.
After graduating from West Point, he’d served in Haiti and Bosnia before being promoted to general and heading off to Iraq, distinguishing himself in both combat and the nation-building that followed. After, it was off to command the US forces in Afghanistan then retiring from the military and becoming the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. That’s where he had a steamy affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and lost everything except his handle.
Of course, I’m not supposed to ask him about the affair, but really, and I say this even as a famous-in-some-circles surf journalist, who cares? The appetites and foibles of powerful men are as interesting and unpredictable as American Treasury Bonds, which I just learned about two speakers ago and which are neither interesting nor unpredictable. The narcissism that it takes to climb to the top—the drive, ambition, self-obsession, and the self-belief— is an utterly knowable phenomenon.
His voice is quiet yet authoritative. He delivers easily digestible, easy-to-understand drips of Middle Eastern insight that I imagine rack-rate conference-goers crave, though he isn’t looking at me but rather studying the printed notes in his hand instead. They are the questions I’m supposed to ask him once we go out onstage, ones submitted in advance, but I was drunk when I wrote them a week ago, so can’t remember what they are. I try to steal a glance, but the only one I can see reads, “Oil?”
He has transitioned now and says something about Hezbollah’s interference in regional stability and I accidently snort. He stops suddenly and fixes me in his steely eyes. They’re piercing, almost like a bird’s, and I wish he would stop looking at me again.
To break the tension I say, “Oh. I’ve spent some time with Hezbollah.” The stare intensifies and I want him to go back to looking at my drunken questions while patronizingly walking me through the current state of Syria’s union but add, “They kidnapped me and my best friend, Josh. Or not really kidnapped, but they did blind us, stick pistols to our temples, drive around for a bit, throw us in a blood-smeared dungeon, interrogate us, and then feed us a delicious dinner.”
He cocks his head slightly and now I’m stuck, so I just start rolling out the story.
“Okay, so do you remember when Al Gore launched his television channel Current TV in the mid-2000s? I can’t think of why he did it or who his partners were, but anyhow, along with my best friends Josh and Nate, we were sent over by Current to Lebanon in 2006 to cover the Israeli invasion because, well…” and I pause trying to do the math. His expression hasn’t changed. “…right after 9/11 we were the first people to ever surf mainland Yemen and while we were there sort of stumbled onto the headwaters of violent anti-state radicalism…or, wait, we found that the second time we were in Yemen, riding motorcycles through Osama bin Laden’s ancestral village, which we were only doing to get to India and this madrassa where that ideology had metastasized but got all screwed up because Josh saved me from a life spent trying to be famous and decided we needed to kidnap a monkey in Bombay and take it to Pakistan first…or not kidnap but somehow procure a monkey in Bombay and take it to Pakistan because in Pakistan he would be truly revered and live a better life but…sorry, that was right after Lebanon.”
My mouth kept moving and the words kept coming out, even though they all sound patently ridiculous even to me, even though I lived them. Like, what the hell was Al Gore thinking when he launched a premium cable network channel in the mid-2000s? Especially one built off user-generated content? Hadn’t he foreseen the Internet and/or invented it?
In any case, a producer at Current had read some of our adventure stories, reached out and asked us if we’d consider doing a bit for them, possibly a series or host a segment. “Pods” is what they called them, and they were basically YouTube videos for cable television before YouTube videos existed. Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel had just started to flare with Hezbollah snagging two Israeli soldiers and Israel threatening full-scale invasion. We told him that the only thing we were interested in was the impending war. They agreed at once and Josh and I were thrilled because we had signed a development deal at Fremantle Media the year before as they had also wanted to make a show about our adventures, partying with terrorists, etc., but things had taken a very ugly turn and devolved into a show about us going to Timbuktu in order to discover new musical acts.
We gave them an ultimatum—either let us go and cover a real war or let us out of our deal—which seemed a fine scenario, all things considered, and it worked like a charm. They balked, insisting that the musical acts of Timbuktu would shine if we would only give the concept a chance, but they understood our bloodlust. We recruited our other best friend, Nate, who had just finished his master’s degree at American University of Beirut in political studies and found ourselves on an airplane to Amman, Jordan, just two weeks later, right after Israeli bombs had rendered Beirut International useless.
“…so we found a cab driver in Amman who had agreed to drive us into Syria,” I continue to tell the general, “then we headed over the border to Beirut even though the border had been totally bombed out, but the driver started to get cold feet as we got farther and farther away from Amman because he said our giant shiny Mylar surf board coffin strapped to the cab’s roof would look like missiles or something nasty to the Israeli jets that were running around-the-clock sorties…”
Now General David Petraeus is really staring at me.
Going all the way back to Yemen, Bombay, and Amman to get to the damned Hezbollah kidnapping story was misguided in retrospect, but as I was thinking about it again, why had we brought surf boards with us in the first place? I mean, obviously to surf, but the war happened in the summer and the Mediterranean that laps Lebanon’s coastline is as flat as a pancake from late spring to late autumn. The only possibility of surf, which we had gotten pretty good on a few different occasions, was middle winter, when the seasonal storms were violent enough to whip the sea into little head-high nuggets. We’d had some honest-to-goodness fun sessions in Lebanon, though I pry my mind away from remembering them so I don’t spin General David Petraeus out any further.
“…but that guy had a brother or cousin or brother-in-law in Syria who agreed to finish the job, so we bundled into his cab and he was furious about the surf boards but also had a small Chinese or Korean van. You know the ones, right? I’m sure they were all over Iraq when you were there. Those super micro vans that they love to stuff forty adult males into throughout the Middle East. Yeah?”
General David Petraeus dips his head slightly in agreement, though his eyes have lost none of their intensity.
“Well, he called that in and figured we would put the damned surfboards inside the van and away from prying Israeli pilot eyes once we arrived at the border, which was a total junk show when we did. It was crowded with all sorts of displaced people and so bombed out and smoldering that his small Japanese van wheels had an impossible time and we had to get out and lift the damned van and our surfboards and the driver over the bigger craters. We were sweating like crazy, and I had an awful haircut then that made me look exactly like Ellen DeGeneres but we made it, somehow, to Beirut where our first stop was Europcar, where we rented an Audi A4 because we figured that was the only right way to cover a war…”
He thinks I’m slow. I can tell he thinks I’m slow because I’m telling him about an Audi A4 and I would think I was retarded too. He’s a decorated veteran who cut his teeth in Iraq, took towns under fire while bravely sitting shotgun in a Humvee with his jaw set and his eyes birdlike, scanning the horizon. I mean, I guess he’s short, though not that short. A Humvee is the sort of car General David Petraeus drives, though. Humvees or maybe Dodge Durangos. Something big and American, but it’s true. We had rented an Audi A4 because we figured that was the real way to cover a war, Anderson Cooper and the rest of them be damned. We would have rented a Porsche 911 if they had had one. It really was crazy that Europcar was open at all, much less renting cars, to say nothing of renting them to us. It was still very early days in the Israeli bombing campaign and I don’t think they had even sent troops across the border yet, but it was still a war, and what in the world were we doing there? Why did those Lebanese Europcar employees think we were there? They certainly didn’t ask too many questions, though we would later supplement our Audi A4 with two motor scooters because we realized quickly, and should have realized in the small Japanese van, that bomb-cratered roads are an absolute pain in the ass. We wanted the scooters to be motorcycles, cool James Dean café racers, but we couldn’t find any and had to settle for ugly Chinese toys.
“…and Josh and I were on our scooters because we had just ridden them from Beirut to Damascus to deliver our MiniDV tapes to our editor back in the States, who was a lunatic, and we had spent our entire budget on champagne and children’s Halloween costumes, but since the airport was all bombed out in Beirut, and since Israeli intelligence was snooping on every piece of mail coming out of Lebanon, it was our only play. The thing was supposed to be ‘current’ after all.
“Man, that was a savage run. Israeli drones strafed us as we throttled across the Bekaa at midnight. You could hear them coming. Hear them like giant mosquitos looking for blood… oh, and Hezbollah had gotten ahold of us on that run too but let us go because they assumed the Israeli Air Force would take care of the job for them. But we made it, dropped the tapes, slept for a few hours, had Bloody Marys in Damascus’s brand-new Four Seasons, then made it back to Beirut right when we saw a huge bomb explode in the Dahieh and decided we had to scooter in and check it out…”
I feel a tap on my shoulder and swing around to see the stage manager, a kind, middle-aged Puerto Rican or possibly Cuba wearing a navy-blue H&M suit looking at me very apologetically. “I’m so sorry but it’s time for you and the general…” He motions toward the stage.
I sure had gone off the rails there despite not wanting to begin, savoring the utter absurdity as I relived it again. General Petraeus is less into it. His eyes have transitioned from birdlike to politely interested to mildly shocked to mostly addled to dead as doornails, either because his Middle Eastern life is far more fabulous than my own, what with his leading troops into combat, knowing every secret in the CIA’s vault, and sexting a biographer with an epically shiny, Botox-enhanced forehead, or because my Middle Eastern life makes no sense at all. In fact, it makes such non-sense that it forces everyone from Fremantle to the general public to General Petraeus into a catatonic, what-the-hell-are-you-on-about- I-literally-have-zero-handle-on-your-references state. Or because my Middle Eastern life makes his look like a dull, uninspired sitcom where the punchlines are telegraphed, the lessons are canned, and the laughter is too. A tableau of suppositions and formula connected to reality by only the most boring strands.
In this particular case, it may be a combo of all three. I follow him on to the stage muttering, “…so then we were kidnapped by Hezbollah and I wrote about it in a surf book that mostly dealt with life on Oahu’s North Shore from the perspective of a surf journalist raised in Coos Bay, Oregon…” but he doesn’t hear me because he’s in conference mode, soaking in hedge-fund applause while the master of ceremonies details all of his decorations and then introduces the surf journalist who will be interviewing him. We both sink into the plush chairs that have been set up for us— General Petraeus sitting ramrod straight and me all bendy and fidgety. The conference’s founder thought it would be funny to throw a screwball at the audience. Something they wouldn’t expect.
I’m supposed to be the screwball, but I’ve also seen General Petraeus’s Global War on Terror from more angles than he has. I have seen it spreading across a Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan that no longer exist. I have seen and experienced a world vanished forever by an epic explosion, and as General Petraeus starts to drone on about Saudi Arabia being our great ally and a great investment opportunity, I put my Tom Ford sunglasses on, slouch deeply in my chair, and stare into the burning klieg light.