“Plans are all right sometimes … And sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”

The Continental Op is alive and well, gainfully employed kicking down doors in Tikrit. I refer to that black sheep of American literature, the nameless detective of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (1927) whose tactical doctrine is quoted above. You might run into him now and then, or rather someone quite like him, in expatriate bars around Asia.

Hollywood embraced all of Hammett’s heroes except for the Op, whose casual destructiveness offends American sensibilities. Yet Hammett’s grubby detective might be American literature’s most original invention, and, more to the point, he is just the man America needs right now in Iraq.

We encounter the Op in a 1920s Western town, where the mine boss imported gangsters to break a strike, and the gangsters stayed to run the rackets. A brittle truce prevails among the various gangs, the corrupt police and the mine owner. The Op willfully incites a gang war, deceiving colleagues and superiors. He dislikes authority, not least the one that pays him. Damsels in distress and downtrodden workers matter to him not at all. He is a loner without friends, short, fat and alcoholic. His transient love interest is a demimondaine whose murder he neglects to prevent. He incites the war simply because he can, at great risk to his own life, which in any case he holds cheap. He manipulates rather than confronts. The story ends when everyone else is dead.

Numerous films borrowed Red Harvest‘s plot outline, including Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s For a Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, and the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, without, however, portraying Hammett’s protagonist. That anomaly reveals much about American culture. The detectives and cowboys who infest American cinema descend from the silly chivalric literature that Miguel de Cervantes lampooned in Don Quixote.

Americans want their tough guys to have a heart of gold. In the Kurosawa-Leone-Hill adaptations, the Toshiro Mifune-Clint Eastwood-Bruce Willis characters take great risk to aid a lady in distress. Hammett’s Op cares neither about lady nor risk. His object is the mutual destruction of the contending parties, which he arranges with humor and enjoyment.

At one point the Op arranges “a peace conference out of which at least a dozen killings ought to grow … pretending I was trying to clear away everybody’s misunderstandings … and played them like you’d play trout, and got just as much fun out of it … I looked at [the police chief] and knew he hadn’t a chance in a thousand of living another day because of what I had done to him, and I laughed, and felt warm and happy inside.”

There is no “there” there in American culture, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. (What Is American Culture? Nov 18, 2003). That is true because America is not a destination but a journey. Franz Rosenzweig described Christianity as a perpetual journey, that is, an infinite midpoint between the promise of redemption at the crucifixion, and its fulfillment at the end of days. By the same token, Americans remain in perpetual transition between the Old World culture they abandoned on arrival, and the promise of redemption that always lies past the sunset.

The most compelling image of American narrative art is the journey toward redemption: Huck and Jim rafting down the Mississippi, or John Wayne and Claire Trevor in the John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach. Because it presumes a return to innocence, the journey is set most powerfully in a fairy-tale setting, such as Ford’s Painted Desert location.

But the Continental Op already has made the journey and has no hope of redemption. In an uncanny dream sequence, “I walked … half the streets in the United States, Gay Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, Colfax Avenue in Baltimore, Aetna Road and St Clair Avenue in Cleveland, McKinney Avenue in Dallas, Lemartine and Cornell and Amory Streets in Boston, Berry Boulevard in Louisville, Lexington Avenue in New York, until I came to Victoria Street in Jacksonville … Tired and discouraged, I went into the lobby of the hotel that faces the railroad station in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.”

America produces irredeemable outsiders like Hammett himself: a philandering alcoholic who burned himself out after half a dozen books and a handful of screenplays. Americans enjoy the comic outsider, invariably portrayed as an immigrant or regional character (Why Americans can’t laugh at American culture, Dec 16, 2003). They cheer on the loner who rides into town and rights all the wrongs, an Amadis of Gaul with six guns. But a clever misfit who already has walked down every street and expects no redemption frightens Americans. The Op better resembles the typical American movie villain, the crafty manipulator and spinner of webs, than the typical movie hero.

That is why we never have seen American literature’s most characteristic creation on the screen, which abounds with cynical tough guys, but cannot abide an intelligent one. In any event, he upsets the French. “The last word in atrocity, cynicism and horror,” said writer Andre Gide of Red Harvest.

Fortunately for the United States, there still exist a few of the genuine article. In the 1920s, Hammett’s character worked for the Continental Detective Agency. Today, he might be a contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations.

Instability is his natural element. He acts unpredictably, even quirkily, to keep the other side off balance and to discover openings. The point is not so much that he despises authority, but rather that it is meaningless to give him orders. The more textbook counterinsurgency fails, the more responsibility will devolve to him. Frustrated military commanders will whisper, “Take care of this for me, and don’t tell me how you did it,” and let slip this particular dog of war.

To paraphrase, as Mephisto told Faust, “all that you call sin, destruction, in short, evil, is my proper element.” Circumstances may compel the military and diplomatic hierarchy to give free rein to irregulars on the ground. “Fewer than 100 men of the army’s 5th Special Forces Group,” argued Robert D. Kaplan in the January 4 Wall Street Journal, “essentially took down the Taliban regime on their own … they succeeded where the British and the Soviets before them in Afghanistan had failed, because they had been given no specific instructions.”

That is the right general idea, although Afghanistan’s pre-existing civil war made the Special Forces more welcome to the Afghanis than they are Iraq (The devil and L Paul Bremer, Jan 21). Covert operatives rather than Special Forces may play the key role, for that matter. We will see as little of the real protagonists in this battle as Americans have seen of the Continental Op in the cinema.

Like the Op said, sometimes it’s better not to have a plan. American intelligence lacks the linguistic and cultural expertise to infiltrate the Iraqi resistance (Why America is losing the intelligence war, Nov. 11, 2003). There is, of course, another way to go about the matter. That is to ignore the question, “What is the enemy’s intent?” and instead change his intent by forcing him to respond to your provocation. In this game there is no goal except to keep the initiative, without regard for the consequences. There is nothing wrong with making plans, of course – the more plans, the better. My Asia Times Online colleague Marc Ericson offered an ingenious one on January 24 (Why Saddam Hussein’s arrest did matter). Assembling a paramilitary force of “de-Nazified” Ba’athists as a Sunni counterweight to Shi’ite power in Iraq is a fine idea. I fear it may be a trifle premature. Heinrich Heine’s verse comes to mind about the death-like countenance of a rejected suitor:

Die Maedchen fluestern sich ins Ohr:
“Der Stieg wohl aus dem Grab empor.” Nein, nein, ihr lieben Jungfrauelein:
Der legt sich erst ins Grab hinein.

The pretty girls passed by and quipped:
“He must have risen from the crypt!”
Not yet, I’d tell the girls, if queried:
First he will die, and then be buried.

Resurrecting elements of the Nazi party as American instruments was facilitated in 1945 by the fact that most of the Nazis who wished to fight to the death already had had the opportunity to do so, while German cities lay in ruins. Before they enter American service to save themselves from the Shi’ites, the Ba’athist remnants might require a similar opportunity.


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