Administrator Note: This
piece was presented by T.H.E. Hill in response to a request for former
SIGINT folks from all agencies to share their experiences for posterity's sake. He
is a former Army Security Agency linguist.
A Call to Pens
I am pleased to make a contribution to Viva
USAFSS, because the mission
statement for the site recalls the dedication for my novel
Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary,
which tries to distill a sort of
literary truth from the
Security Agency (ASA) experience. The novel is
dedicated to all the countless Kevins and Gabbies, Fast Eddies and Megs
(characters in the novel) who fought the Secret Cold War for one tour and went
home to do something else. The characters are not based on actual people I knew,
but are rather stereotypes, amalgams of various people I met or heard about at
different times, and of assorted incarnations of myself.
I wanted to record what fighting the Secret Cold War
was like for the generations of people like Kevin and Fast Eddie who are sworn
to silence, before they move on to the undiscovered country. When their
(grand)children ask "What did you do in the Cold War?," most Secret Cold War
veterans have to say something trite, like "If I told you, I'd have to shoot
you." I wanted to give voice to some of their stories so that the stories would
not disappear when the people who lived them shuffle off this mortal coil.
Voices Under Berlin may not be exactly the story that each and every one of
them lived and would like to tell, but it is close enough so that people who
fought the Secret Cold War in places other than Berlin say that they felt right
at home while reading it. I wanted Secret Cold War vets to be able to answer
their children and grandchildren with: "I can't tell you exactly, but why don't
you read Voices Under Berlin?"
Mine is a big plan, in the sense of Burnham's Law
"Make no little plans. They have no magic to
stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big
plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical
diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be
a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember
that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger
us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."
, Chicago architect.
What brought me to ASA was not a plan. It was an
accident. A recruiting sergeant with an ASA quota to fill saw my test scores at
the Army induction station, and knew which buttons to push to stir my blood and
get me to sign up for an extra year to go to language school. Even after I
arrived at DLI I did not realize that I had become part of a 'noble logical
diagram' that, following Burnham's Law of Planning, had escaped the control of
its creators and begun 'asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.'
ASA (and USAFSS) were indeed living things.
Collections of intelligences that sparkled in their brilliance, and shaped the
individuals who were temporarily a part of them, challenging us all to 'think
big,' and to imagine an existence outside the boxes in which the armed services
tried to cage us. That is why the attrition rates were so high. The people who
drove what we called "the great green machine," made little plans, but the "cogs
in the machine" were capable of more, and resented the restrictions on them, so
they left after one or two tours to find a way to do more. The system's loss,
however, was society's gain, because we took the new vision that ASA (and
USAFSS) had given us back into society, and tried to make it a better place, but
that conclusion only became clear to me with the 20/20 perspective of hindsight.
The truth of the third part of Burnham's Law of
Planning--the part played by our sons, grandsons, and today, granddaughters--was
brought home to me after I finished writing Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of
a Monterey Mary. I was reading a discussion of the novel on a thread on the
Military.com Discussion Boards, in
which the poster said:
"I thought it was hilarious how some of the
SIGINT/linguist jokes and eccentricities have virtually remained
unchanged in sixty years, be it linguist vs analyst clashes, clueless
LTs, oversensitive OPSEC folks who throw out the "need to know" card at
every single turn, reclassed soldiers deriding "overeducated" DLIers for
not being "real soldiers," etc. I can assure you the same situations are
being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as I type this. :-)
I encourage anyone currently in SIGINT to read
up on this stuff. It will make you smile a bit knowing that people have
been going through the same crap you did as a SIGINTer for the past 60
This statement shows that the spirit of ASA (USAFSS)
is alive and well today, and I trust that the inheritors of that spirit are
indeed doing things that "would stagger us," if we were still cleared to know
The Cold War and I grew up together. I was born during
the Berlin Airlift, and came of age inside the confines of the Berlin Wall. I
was a direct participant in some events, and an indirect participant in others.
I watched the Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia and of Afghanistan, and the
rise of Solidarity in Poland from afar. I saw Havel and Dubcek raise their
clasped hands in victory on a balcony overlooking a crowded Wenceslas Square in
Prague. I watched in awe as the East Germans cowed the border guards into
opening the wall by chanting "Wir sind das Volk!" (We are the People!)
Alas, poor Cold War. I knew it well. It was a war of
infinite jest and most excellent fancy, fought more often in the shadows of the
mind than to the death, yet the lives of millions hung in the balance. It is a
war without monuments, but not without casualties. 136 people were confirmed
killed while trying to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin. Major Arthur D.
Nicholson, the last casualty of the Cold War, was a classmate. That makes it
In all the years that I and others like me fought the
Secret Cold War, it was under the motto of "Peace is our most important
product," because the alternative was unthinkable. We accomplished our mission.
The Iron Curtain came down without the Cold War turning hot. To paraphrase
Burnham, our watchword was peace and our beacon individual liberty.
On a recent visit to Berlin, we met an old German
couple, who, when they discovered that I am an American, thanked me for the food
and coal brought in on the Airlift that kept them and their newborn son alive
that very cold winter, and for keeping them out of the clutches of the Russians.
They also apologized that the younger generation has forgotten those things, and
does not like America anymore.
A friend who still teaches Russian at DLIWC put their
apology into perspective when he pointed out that almost all his students these
days were born after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Cold War is history to
his students, but not to me. The Cold War and I grew up together.
While history may not repeat itself word for word, it
does rhyme a lot. It is, therefore, for this reason that the lessons we learned
in the Secret Cold War should not be consigned to Trotsky's "dustbin
of history," but should rather be recorded as a part
of the collective memory of the "living thing, asserting itself with
ever-growing insistency" that ASA and USAFSS have become in the environment of
the hot war on Terrorism. It behooves us all to "think big" about how to
preserve the memories of the organizations that shaped our lives by teaching us
how to think.
There is a page on Amazon.com where you can find a
list of books that have been
tagged with "Army Security Agency". As of this
writing, there are 16 of them, while there is only one book on Amazon.com
If the readers of Viva USAFSS know of others, they should tag them so
that the rest of us can find them. If there are not any more, then it is up to
the USAFSS veterans who read this essay to record some of their own stories in
book form for posterity.
the author of Voices Under
Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary and The Day Before the
ADMINISTRATOR NOTE: Hill's recent release, The Day Before the Berlin Wall,
is another outstanding spy novel. Any field
analyst (SIGINT or otherwise) will be quite familiar with the book's two alternative
endings--the real and the fictional. These were the first to see,
analyze and report the unvarnished intelligence; however, what we saw
and reported was not necessarily what the public got after it had been put through
the National Policy filter.
The book is available on Amazon or directly from Hill.