Six Questions — January 18, 2013, 12:49 pm

Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure

Christopher S. Stewart on his epic hunt for Honduras???s lost White City

Christopher S. Stewart. Photograph by Matthew Spiegelman

There’s a lot of sweating in Christopher S. Stewart’s new book, Jungleland. There’s the ordinary amount that you might expect from hiking thirty-mile days in the forest near Honduras’s Mosquito Coast — “the shittiest, buggiest shithole jungle in the world,” as one person in the book calls it — and then there’s the added panic brought on by attempting to navigate stretches of road with names like “bandit alley.” Stewart, who in 2006 interviewed a Serbian assassin in Harper’s Magazine, suffered through it all searching for a legendary lost city called Ciudad Blanca. The stories of a White City deep in the Honduran jungle have been around for centuries (Charles Lindbergh once reported flying over the white ruins of “an amazing ancient metropolis”), but no one could place it on a map. Then, in 1940, an explorer named Theodore Morde claimed to have found it. He was planning a second expedition to excavate the ruins, but he died before he could return — or tell anyone else the location of the city. In the book, Stewart tells both his own story and Morde’s (reconstructed from his notebooks) as they get closer and closer to their well-hidden quarry. We caught up with Stewart in cold Brooklyn to ask him six questions about Jungleland:

1. Have you always been interested in tales of lost civilizations?

Yes. The notion of a lost place somewhere out there, whether it’s an El Dorado or an Atlantis, is thrilling, particularly at a time when the world seems so thoroughly explored and mapped. We’ve gone to both poles. We’ve crossed the oceans. We’ve climbed the highest mountains. What else is there? There’s outer space, of course. But for the ordinary explorer wannabe that’s out of the question. The White City had been rumored to exist for centuries, going back to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. And many have gone searching for it — without a lot of luck. Some died and more got lost. In many ways, a lost city refuses to be discovered. Which is half of the fun. As I trekked through the jungle and talked to people, the city was always around the next bend, up the next river, over the next mountain. Some of the indigenous people I met believed that it was never meant to be found. I liked that too. The idea that it would continue to elude us all, like a specter, moving from one unreachable place in the jungle to another. It’s always out there, keeping the romance of it alive.

2. What attracted you about Theodore Morde’s story, specifically?

It wasn’t just one thing. When I started researching Morde’s life, every story I dug up seemed to outdo the last.  As a teenager, he stowed away on different oceangoing ships. During the Spanish Civil War, he was a correspondent, along with Hemingway and Orwell. And then there was his plot to assassinate Hitler, which happened when he was in the OSS, the agency that predated the CIA.

I liked this about him: he was outsized and had a real thirst, a man who clearly understood the power of a great story. That he was constantly on the move in the world made him interesting for sure, but also unpredictable and more than a little mysterious. That mystery is at the center of the book. Specifically: Did Morde really find this great lost city, which would have been one of the most important discoveries of his time? And if he found it, why didn’t he tell anyone where it was located? Why all the secrets?

3. Who were some of the literary forebears you looked at when writing this story?

One of the first books I read for this was Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure, which tells the story of the author’s trek into the Amazon in the 1930s in search of the lost British explorer Percy Fawcett. It manages to be both hilarious and serious, as almost everything about Fleming’s adventure goes terribly wrong. Fleming, by the way, is the brother of Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond books. There was also a lot of Mark Twain and of course Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — Marlow’s “peculiar darkness.” I also spent a lot of time with Paul Theroux, especially Mosquito Coast, about the same region I was planning to visit. In the novel, Theroux writes of a remote jungle city and an enigmatic people he calls the Munchies. His nonfiction was just as important to me, especially The Old Patagonia Express. I’d say that one is pretty much the ideal of travel literature, driven by the essential question, as he put it, “How did you get there?”

4. When things start to go wrong on a trip like this, is there a small part of you — the part that remembers you have to write a book about it, perhaps — that cheers on the adversity?

Oh yeah. And everything started going sideways right away. Weeks before I left on the trip, there was a military coup in Honduras. The streets swarmed with armed men, and people were getting killed. The U.S. State Department warned travelers to stay away from the country, which was already ranked as one the most murderous in the world. Part of me thought maybe I should wait and see how the coup played out. A slightly crazy voice in me, though, kept saying, “This is great, what luck to have a coup for the backdrop of my story!” I felt that slightly crazed voice a lot when I was in danger, and a couple of times when I felt I could actually die. On a car ride through bandit country. On an encounter with river pirates. One voice saying, “You’re dead,” the other voice almost giddy with the possibilities, saying, “Hey, Chris, if you make it out of this, it will be good for the book.” It wasn’t the safest voice, but it was a voice that recognized that the worst dramas sometimes make for the most interesting storytelling.

5. You were able to keep in touch with your wife and daughter during your travels, and you include several scenes with them in the book — scenes that contrast in their calmness and sweetness with the dangers and difficulties of Honduras. Were you conscious of breaking the traditional adventure narrative by including these?

It felt natural to include those scenes. When you’re walking for hours and hours a day through the jungle, it gets pretty monotonous at times, especially during those flat, open stretches, where the sun is blazing down. Your mind wanders a lot and you fixate on certain things; it’s like when you can’t get a song out of your head. The song in my head was mostly of my family back at home — what I had left behind. Chris Begley, the archaeologist who was my guide on the trip, had a slightly different metaphor for this: “When I’m down here, two movies are going on in my head: the crazy one in the jungle and the one at home, with my wife and kids.” For me, part of this was because of guilt: I was going to miss my daughter’s fourth birthday, and you only turn four once. The other part was existential: me trying to make sense of a new life as a father and husband and how that all added up. That turned the book into something more than just the search for a lost city.

6. Do you still feel a kinship with explorers like Morde? Would you ever do something like this again?

Absolutely. I understand Morde’s constant itch for travel — and that of others like him. By the time he was in his twenties, he had circled the globe many times. His life carried on like this, always in pursuit of something out there in the world. Needing travel to live. At one point, Morde tried to settle down. He married, had kids, and moved into a house in suburbia. But the settling down wasn’t exactly for him — and in part probably contributed to his early death.

The same itch that got to Morde sent me to the jungle. But we are different. Something happened out there in the rain forest. As I slogged through the jungle near the end of my trip, full of blisters, my body broken and sleep deprived and absolutely soaked, I knew that I couldn’t keep doing this sort of thing forever. I knew that there would likely be other moments in my life that the itch would get to me, telling me it was time for another adventure, and I would have to deal with that. I knew that fighting it off would be difficult. But I also knew there were good adventures in Brooklyn, too — with my young family. I didn’t want to be like Morde. At one of the lowest points in my journey, I wrote in my notebook, “Go home.” 

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The End of Eden

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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