4 stars
Of rebels, arms, and the cost of empire

The Taiping Rebellion raged in China from 1850 to 1864. It was a civil war (overlapping with America’s) in which 20-30 million human beings or more lost their lives. The Taiping sought to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy in its place. Their leader, Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ’s brother (presumably not that one). Where the Taiping ruled, the temples and “false idols” of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other ancient beliefs were often smashed to pieces.

In Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (2012), historian Stephen Platt retells the story of the rebellion and Western involvement in the conflict. After setting the stage with several maps, a timeline, and dramatis personae, Platt centers the experiences of memorable and colorful characters like Hong Rengan (the Taiping Prime Minister who envisioned Western-style reforms in China), Zeng Guofan (an imperial scholar-general who employed exceptional brutality to suppress the rebellion), and Frederick Townsend Ward (an American soldier of fortune who helped fight the Taiping).

A dynasty on its knees

After the First Opium War (1839-1842), the ruling Qing dynasty was near collapse. The overtaxed peasantry and gentry flocked to the Taiping in droves. Due to their Christianity-inspired and pro-Western ideology, they also had Western supporters, especially in the missionary community which hoped to help “correct” the group’s more idiosyncratic teachings. But along the way, Britain picked the side of the Qing dynasty, helping bring about the end of the rebellion.

When a Taiping force reached Shanghai (one of the treaty ports opened to foreign trade by force) in 1860, Taiping commander Li Xiucheng sent an advance letter assuring the foreigners in the city that the Taiping wanted positive trade relations, and that no foreigner would come to harm. Britain’s trade representative Frederick Bruce refused to even open the letter. Instead, British and French forces helped repel the Taiping forces from Shanghai—while simultaneously waging a Second Opium War against the Qing dynasty which culminated in the destruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing.

Reconstruction of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted and destroyed by Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War. (Credit: Guo Daiheng / Beijing Re-Yuanmingyuan Company Limited. Fair use.)

Gunboats and mercenaries

Britain continued to strenuously assert its neutrality in China’s civil war, but the intervention in Shanghai marked the beginning of increasingly active efforts to help suppress the Taiping: by imposing conditions on their military movements, by selling arms to the Qing empire (including an aborted attempt to sell China’s rulers a small fleet of gunboats known as the “Vampire Fleet”) , and through support for Frederick Ward’s mercenary force, the “Ever Victorious Army”, which would come to be led by a Brit, Major Charles “Chinese” Gordon.

The Qing dynasty lasted until 1912. Would the empire have defeated the Taiping without Western help? If not, would Hong Rengan’s vision of a peaceful, modern China have prevailed—or would Hong Xiuquan have led an increasingly fanatical theocracy, worse in its oppression than the rulers it sought to displace?

While Platt’s narrative is sympathetic to the Taiping (as is modern China, which has sometimes portrayed them as proto-Communists), he does not attempt to answer those questions. Instead, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, together with its “prequel” about the First Opium War, Imperial Twilight (reviews), helps us understand the wounds of colonialism and the human cost of empire in all its forms. It may also provide clues to modern China’s obsession with totalitarian political control.

The verdict

As in Imperial Twilight, Platt succeeds marvelously in making this history engaging, at the expense of attempting to chart out the larger patterns of the conflict (e.g., the economic impact of the First Opium War on the Qing dynasty, the ideological development of the Taiping, the volume of arms sales). Like Imperial Twilight, I recommend Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom unreservedly as a starting point to explore the history of China in the 19th century.

4 stars
What they did in the shadows

19-year-old Gail and Zella Kastner, identical twins born to a Montreal family, were honors students in high school, “popular with the boys and in love with skating and horse-racing” [source]. But one day in 1953, Gail made the fateful decision to seek help for mild depression anxiety at the highly reputable Allan Memorial Institute.

What followed was a journey through hell: electroshock treatments, drugs, and attempts to “de-pattern” her brain—reprogramming her personality in an attempt to cure her.

She emerged in a childlike state: sucking her thumb, talking like a baby, demanding to be fed from a bottle, and urinating on the floor. She also suffered memory loss and couldn’t recognize members of her own family, not even her twin sister, Zella [source]

Gail’s life derailed, and it’s only after long legal battles that she was awarded modest damages in 2004. Many more patients would be subjected to these destructive techniques by the institute’s founding director, Ewen Cameron, a towering figure in international psychiatry at the time. His work on de-patterning and “psychic driving” would become known as the Montreal experiments.

Gail’s story is referenced in a single sentence in Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief, a biography of Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra program. As part of the program, the CIA became aware of Cameron’s work, and decided to invest in his research by way of a front group ominously called the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology”.

But more than MK-Ultra’s notorious experiments with LSD, which Kinzer describes in detail, the Montreal experiments help us to draw the line between what happened in the 1950s and the “enhanced interrogation techniques” applied at CIA black sites around the world. Sensory deprivation, noise, endlessly repeating recorded messages: these methods have stood the test of time in the psychological torturer’s arsenal.

That’s also the perspective of a new documentary, Eminent Monsters, by Stephen Bennett, which focuses heavily on Cameron’s experiments, on the treatment of the “Hooded Men” in Northern Ireland in 1971, and on torture in the “War on Terror”. (You can watch it in full on Prime Video.)

While Ewen Cameron directed its work, many patients were admitted to the Allan Memorial Institute with mild symptoms and left with lifelong psychological damage. (Credit: The Cosmonaut. License: CC-BY-SA.)

In contrast, Kinzer’s book tells the whole story of Gottlieb’s work, or at least the parts which we have a record of. Gottlieb was involved in many of the CIA’s dirtiest plots—from an assassination plan targeting Patrice Lumumba (who was later killed in a Belgian-backed plot) to CIA-run brothels in the United States where patrons of sex workers were drugged and observed. Other highlights of Gottlieb’s career include:

  • Overseeing work at black sites like the notorious Camp King, where the US collaborated with nazi war criminals like Kurt Blome to conduct experiments on enemy prisoners, often ending in death;

  • Organizing a massive campaign to test LSD on thousands of students by funneling grant money to researchers—a campaign so vast that it unintentionally sparked the prominent role of LSD in student counterculture (John Lennon famously said: “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD”);

  • Drugging Frank Olson, a key figure in these programs, with LSD at a staff retreat. A few days later, Olson plunged to his death from a hotel window.

Kinzer paints Gottlieb as a troubled figure, a man with humanist sensibilities, who may have been riddled with guilt later in his life. Not a sadist, but someone who was radicalized by America’s anti-communist fanaticism to do whatever it takes in order to counter exaggerated or imagined threats.

There’s some gallows humor in these tales of a CIA so obsessed with LSD that people had to worry about spiked punch at Christmas parties, of experiments so bizarre that only the later Stargate Project (which sought to mobilize psychic “remote viewing” powers for intelligence) could top them.

Kinzer’s book is well-researched and includes some new and little-known material. As a biography, it is ultimately focused on the man Gottlieb, an approach which sometimes gets in the way of illuminating the context and consequences of his work. Bennett’s Eminent Monsters focuses more narrowly on the topic of psychological torture. While it is unlikely to dissuade those who believe that such methods are necessary to fight terror, it does a great job explaining their history and centering the victims.

Poisoner in Chief and Eminent Monsters are important contributions to understanding the intellectual foundations for modern torture programs. They also remind us of the importance of effective oversight of any intelligence agency, and what happens when “patriotic” fervor meets immense power without accountability.

4 stars
An entertaining page-turner that embraces conventions while poking fun at them

The Princess Bride was only a moderate success at the box office, but since its release in 1987, it has become a cult classic. Its lovable characters left an indelible impression on many, and the film has bestowed us several pop culture quotes and assorted GIFs, e.g.:

  • “Inconceivable!” — “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.“

  • “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.“

  • “You seem a decent fellow… I hate to kill you. “ — “You seem a decent fellow… I hate to die. “

This one’s a classic, too:

Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder today. (Animated GIF from the movie.)

The movie is based on a book, and if William Goldman is to believed, that book was written by a Florinese author named S. Morgenstern a long time ago, re-released in translated and abridged form by Goldman in 1973. Of course, he is most definitely not to be believed—but the fake origin story adds a charming narrative layer to Goldman’s novel.

At its heart, The Princess Bride is a comedic story of true love between Buttercup, a farmer’s daughter, and Westley, a farmhand. Their love is imperiled by the machinations of one Prince Humperdinck and his sadistic right-hand man, Count Rugen. Along the way, Buttercup and Westley cross paths with Inigo Montoya (a Spanish master swordsman), Fezzik (a Turkish giant), and Vizzini (a Sicilian criminal genius)

Compared with the movie, the book gives Inigo a proper backstory, helping lend emotional weight to the final confrontation between Inigo and the six-fingered man who killed his father. We also learn more about Fezzik the giant, although it’s a fairly worn out tale (the sweet, gentle giant who reluctantly learns how to use his strength).

But what of Buttercup? While she gets to boss Westley around for a bit in the beginning, she is quickly reduced to the traditional traits of princesses: beauty and devotion. One can argue that the book takes its stereotypes to such ridiculousness that they lose normative power, but that argument only goes so far.

Still, what saves The Princess Bride from becoming conventional and boring is its sense of humor. From the Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.) to the Zoo of Death, from Miracle Max and his questionable cures to Goldman’s tall tales about S. Morgenstern, the book is an entertaining page-turner.

Modern editions include the first chapter of Buttercup’s Baby, a sequel to The Princess Bride that was unfortunately never completed (Goldman died in 2018). It gives us a small glimpse of further adventures that could have been.

Not everyone will adore The Princess Bride as much as its many devoted fans do, but if you are a lover of adventure and comedy, it may well earn a special place on your bookshelf and in your heart, or the heart of a smaller human you read it to.

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