Los Angeles Review of Books

We are pleased to announce a new column, “Letter from the West,” by Deanne Stillman, on our wide open spaces and what we do to each other and all that lives there. As she explains, “Above all else, the personal is geographic and the reverse is true as well. I would like for people to renew our basic connection with the West.” 

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FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, I’ve been away from California, living in Arizona but returning to the Golden State as much as I could. It was pretty clear early on that I began pining for it; I think as I hiked among the saguaros of the outlying terrain of Tucson and elsewhere, I realized that these were not my people. (Yes, I’m referring to the saguaros; while ’tis true that we are all part of the web, plants and people alike, these cacti were outliers among my crew, and I just could not get with the program.) Try as I might, the saguaro was no Joshua tree — the freaky, mighty totem of my life, one of them anyway; it was sending me no messages or information and nor could I find a point of connection. All it did was stand tall and point to the sky — a characteristic that I would later appreciate and take with me on my return to SoCal — but in general, the whole time I was in Arizona, I felt like I was cheating on Joshua trees, and in fact, a good friend told me that I was: evidently, on a hike in their national park, she heard them talking trash about me as soon as I had left.

Periodically during my hiatus, I would start hearing ye olde Eagles’ song “Hotel California.” I was never a fan of it, or theirs really, but the song would sometimes overtake me and I would feel sick at heart, longing to be back in the state that many years ago had become my geographic, physical, and spiritual home. It’s not that I ever knew all of the lyrics or wanted to; I had heard enough during the endless replays on middle-of-the-road rock radio everywhere, and the concept of checking into a hotel that you could never check out of seemed like a college course in existentialism 101, even if the guys who were singing about it were cute in a corporate frontier hippie kind of way.

Despite all that, I was haunted by the melody (and really the hook, and let’s face it: this song has the mother of all hooks), and then certain phrases from it kept drifting in and out of my thoughts, although “thoughts” doesn’t begin to explain it; there was a current running through my veins and I was riding it. A few old friends — one in particular — had picked up on my desire to return, or at least the certainty that I was in the wrong place, and they helped me along. The more they urged me back, the more this song was calling, asking me to ride the wave of something I had forsaken — Welcome to the Hotel California, I would hear as I hiked the trails outside Tucson, Such a lovely place (such a lovely place) … Such a lovely face … There’s plenty of room at the Hotel California … Any time of year (any time of year) … and I would look west at sunset, and imagine the surf rolling in beyond the Tucson Mountains, perfect barrels carved by the Santa Anas, and I knew I had to get wet soon.

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There was only one other time that I had given the song much thought, and that was in 2003, on the day that Baghdad fell. Along with millions around the world, I was watching it happen on television. Victory against the W-proclaimed “axis of evil” seemed close, and in many quarters people rejoiced in the belief that tyranny had been vanquished. American and NATO troops poured into the capital city and countless Iraqis danced in the public square. The moment was punctuated by the tearing down of the statue of Saddam Hussein. As I watched, I heard a soundtrack coming right from the streets of Baghdad, as if someone had flipped the switch on a CD player after a lifetime of waiting and hoping for the thing that was unfolding. “Welcome to the Hotel California,” came the song, “such a lovely place …” and then the camera panned to five or six Iraqi men in a line, singing along to the song, dancing in ecstasy, on their way to freedom — and, it almost seemed, to the Golden State.

I was shocked to hear this song, and then excited; my dislike for it slipped away, and it now became the perfect soundtrack for the fall of a tyrant. I mean think about it: of all the American songs someone could have picked to accompany the dismantling of the statue of Saddam and the liberation of Iraq, wasn’t it the only one to play? Yes, “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” would have worked, Van Halen’s “I Can’t Drive 55” would have been an interesting choice, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” could have done the job, or any number of screeching rock anthems: “School’s Out (Forever),” say, or “Another One Bites the Dust.” I mean if Dee Snider or Freddie Mercury doesn’t signify the Bill of Rights, who does? But “Hotel California” it had to be: of all the places in the world that most represent freedom, of all the states in America that most signify that very thing, California it is — not Ohio, Missouri, or even Hawaii. And let’s face it: it’s not likely that “Georgia on My Mind” or “My Old Kentucky Home” or “Sweet Home Alabama” causes oppressed internationals to yearn for Dixie. The good citizens of Iraq were casting off decades of shackles and fetters by way of a California dream, and this was the rock ’n’ roll song that would get them there.

And so, as I watched the coverage of the fall of Baghdad from my apartment near the beach in Los Angeles, I cheered along with the Iraqis and sang along with them and over the next couple of days, when everyone was talking about what had happened, I would excitedly recount my story of watching Iraqis burst into a round of “Hotel California” when the statue of Saddam was torn down — but strangely, it seemed I was the only one who had seen it. Not one of my friends had witnessed this moment, yet all agreed that it must have been quite wonderful. Or perhaps bizarre, as a few of them mentioned. The song, of course, is not just about freedom, they reminded me. It hinted of menace and madness and, well, the seven deadly sins. “This could be heaven, or this could be hell,” the Eagles sing, and perhaps the lyric “Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes Benz” portended a different sort of fate for Iraq, even though its happy citizens did not quite see America for the shiny and dazzling thing that it often is. “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device” is not much of an advertisement, especially for those who have just escaped the cell.

In any case, I had started to wonder if I had, in fact, imagined the scenario. Was I reprogramming the fall of Baghdad even as it happened? I began searching for the clip online in whatever configuration I could think of — “Baghdad” and “Hotel California”; “the Eagles” and “Saddam Hussein”; at one point I think I even tried “Glenn Frey” and “Iraq,” and I’m sure I must have thrown “Don Henley” in there somewhere. But no matter — no such clip seemed to exist. I continued my search over a period of weeks, in more of a fever when news that some CIA or other intelligence operatives had orchestrated the tearing down of the statue of Saddam as a publicity stunt designed to dominate that day’s news cycle and serve as the symbol of the liberation of Iraq. It seemed likely that whatever agency was involved in this stunt had probably brought the noise — but again, I could find no trace. And so I became resigned to the fact that I was the only one who had heard this musical accompaniment, and decided that I was the only one — perhaps on the planet — who had witnessed this strange and uncanny episode. Evidently, I was living in my own private Idaho, even if that private Idaho were California.

I put the memory to rest for awhile, thought about it from time to time, reveled in it, actually, and then it resurfaced recently, in a big way, as Baghdad is falling again, into different hands, rendering the entire American venture there completely obscene — and fruitless. Over the past few months, I began inquiring again into that moment I had witnessed, asking others if they had seen it or heard the spontaneous outbreak of song that I had heard, as I have asked so many times over the years. Not one solitary person could confirm the episode and there seemed to be no record of people singing “Hotel California” as Saddam literally fell down, or at any other time during the conquest of Baghdad.

With the song once again very much on my mind, I decided on another approach. I started googling “CIA and Hotel California” and variations thereof, remembering that the agency or one of its subcontractors was involved in that iconic moment in which the statue was torn down; maybe someone had by now, over a decade later, reported the details. There was nothing along those lines, but at some point, I hit bingo — and beyond: to my surprise and delight, there was mention of a book called Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq. Aha! I thought. There’s more to this story, not less! It wasn’t just that men were dancing in the street and singing that song when Baghdad collapsed; the entire invasion of Iraq was named after it. And nor had I been remiss in my original search; the book was published in 2009, six years after Baghdad collapsed, demonstrating that sometimes you just have to wait for good things to happen.

And on I excitedly read, expecting confirmation of my original experience any moment now. According to the description on Amazon, the book was about a secret venture that laid the groundwork for the American entry of Iraq, eight months before the invasion. It carried two bylines, Mike Tucker and Charles Faddis, the former a Marine infantry veteran and author of other military-related books about Iraq, and the latter, the leader of the CIA team whose accounts of the operation form the basis for the book. I immediately ordered the book and ran to my mailbox the moment I received notification that it had arrived. By then, my thoughts had reached even greater heights. Was it proof, I wondered, that not only had I heard Iraqis singing “Hotel California” when Baghdad fell, but that the entire moment in history — the very invasion — had been propelled by some weird dream of the Golden State? Let us recall that strange things have happened in service of that dream. The Gold Rush, for instance. The Donner Party. And doesn’t Hollywood count? In any case, I ripped open the envelope and pored over the jacket copy. “[…] On July 10, 2002,” it read,

eight Americans crossed the Harburr River from Turkey into Kurdistan. Carrying side arms and assault rifles, the CIA counterterrorist team soon linked up with the Kurdish peshmerga to commence their mission: strike and kill Al-Qaeda, and take down Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship.

They endured almost a year of being denied food, weapons, and ammunition by a NATO ally, Turkey, as they carried out a covert operation with profound consequences on the War on Terror, the Iraq War, and US foreign policy: Operation Hotel California.

It was a heated description, and since I’m suggestible, it sent me into a fever, especially repetition of the book’s title, and its promise to solve the very mystery I was investigating. I quickly read through the text, anticipating something, anything, that would serve as a clue to the song’s connection to the war in Iraq. But there was no mention of why this covert operation was named after the Eagles’ hit. So I immediately paged through the index, looking for “California” or “Hotel California.” There was no such listing. The table of contents did not give it up either, so of course, I kept reading the book. Alas, it did not explain the name given to the operation either, but I was heartened by a tidbit of information that suggested I was still heading in the right direction.

“Shortly before the Air War started,” the book said:

we arranged with the Kurds to use an existing radio station, in KDP territory in Erbil, and we began a regular series of prerecorded surrender messages, in English and Arabic. We used English deliberately, even though we knew that only a small number of people would understand, to ensure that there was no ambiguity about Americans being in the area.

Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good,” Toby Keith’s “The Angry American,” and Joe Diffie’s “Prop Me Up Against the Jukebox When I Die” were also on the tape, with a lot of Rolling Stones, too. The surrender messages were direct and clear: “Don’t die for Saddam. You guys want what we want — an end to the nightmare of Saddam. […]” In that context, just to add a little edge to it, we took this small transmitter, about the size of a steamer trunk, and loaded it with a ton of prerecorded surrender messages and music. We hooked it up to the power in an old sedan, so it could run directly off the juice.

Then Kurdish agents drove the car into Mosul and parked it near 5th Corps Marine headquarters. Surrender messages played until the car ran out of gas, with “Low Rider” by War providing the soundtrack.

And on I read, still hoping to find a mention of “Hotel California.” Alas, there was none to be found. It was time to contact Charles Faddis, the CIA operative who led the venture named after the song. After a bit of an online search, I found him at Orion Strategic Services, a consulting outfit “in areas of counterterrorism, counterintelligence and weapons of mass destruction,” according to its website.

One email led to an immediate response and the start of an interesting virtual exchange, during which Charles sent me the entire list of songs that were on the CD that his team broadcast into enemy territory. Among the other tunes were George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” by Joe Cocker, “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers, “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (which I myself had selected for my personal list of invasion rock), “Devil with the Blue Dress On” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and, yes, “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

It struck me that this list was not designed to harass bad guys or torment people, the way some law enforcement agencies blast their idea of bad pop music into hostage situations or prisons. For instance, during the siege at Waco, the Branch Davidians were serenaded — at a very loud volume — by sing-along with Mitch Miller Christmas carols, an Andy Williams album, and “These Boots Are Made for Walking” by Nancy Sinatra. POWs in Iraq were blasted by “Fuck Your God” by the death metal band Deicide, and at Guantanamo, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica was played loudly at all hours into the prisoners’ compound. Apparently, there’s a difference between trying to get people to relinquish hostages or divulge secrets and trying to make them understand that freedom rocks and America has a good beat that you can dance to, if only you lived there.

I asked Charles Faddis if he knew why the operation was named after the Eagles song. He didn’t — and by the way, much has been written on how and why military operations are named the way they are named. It’s all very interesting but sheds no light whatsoever on this one. I asked him how he and his team had come to select the music on the CD that they broadcast across the line of fire. He said that it reflected the taste of his brother operatives and beyond that, he indicated, there really was no strategy or desired goal, other than to lay down your arms and party. Finally, I asked him if he happened to have been in Baghdad on the day that it fell, and if so, did he know whether “Hotel California” was played as the statue of Saddam tumbled to the grounds of that ancient city. He wasn’t there, he said, nor was his team. They were far south in Mosul, and to his knowledge the song did not accompany this dramatic conclusion to the reign of one of the world’s most notorious dictators — at least not in any way that was broadcast for public consumption via the Americans.

So there I was, back at square one. I was still the only person I knew who had heard the song as the happy Iraqis danced in the streets and sang along to it. Had that insidious hook so penetrated my consciousness that I cooked up the entire performance? Did I myself so identify with the ecstatic men dancing in the streets that I actually heard the one song that conjured not just a state but a state of mind, one that I myself may have been living in, without even realizing it? Or did I hear the tune that they were hearing in their heads, that mournful call of freedom as the jailer toppled to the ground — the song with those haunting minor notes that we all know, the refrain that breaks through bonds with its siren call? And now as the curtain falls again on Iraq and secret ops are mounted one more time, and American rock is broadcast across a line in the sand, who will respond and in what way and, in their heart of hearts, don’t they all — and don’t we all — just really want “pink champagne on ice”?

Some of the Iraqis who represented in the streets on the day that Baghdad fell in 2003 may have made their way to the Golden State. Some who heard the music from a CD in an old car playing across the desert sands may have tried to get there and been killed in the process. Others may have checked into their own version of the “Hotel California” or — for all we know — may have already been living there. After all, the Garden of Eden, the original Hotel California, is in Iraq — or was, before Saddam drained it, killing the animals and fish and flowers and birds that had flourished there for centuries. After his fall, it was restored, and those sacred marshlands were reported to have been in full effect as of several years ago.

What will happen now that Iraq is once again in flames? To say that the American venture has ended in failure does not begin to explain what has happened. Words were torqued beyond belief in the service of the war on terror. As Donald Rumsfeld said at the height of the Iraqi invasion, “We create our own reality.”

Which brings us to the big question: what is the Hotel California anyway? Is it a real place? Is it an imaginary inn that lures innocents to its glittering chambers, stops time, and then closes in for the kill — perhaps like California itself? Or is it just a song with a great hook that has made millions of dollars for one of the all-time biggest rock bands ever? On my final trip out of Arizona, I was caught in a field of lightning on the 10 as I headed west. It was late afternoon and suddenly the sky grew dark and there were bolts of electricity on all sides of the freeway, not flashes but bolts, the kind that look like zigzags, close to the pavement, on the strip between the east and westbound lanes and up in the mountains where I was heading. Sand started to swirl and continued to swirl for nearly two hours. Will I ever get out of Arizona? I wondered. Is the state trying to keep me from leaving? What happens if I’m struck by lightning? I had never seen a lightning storm with this much ferocity or determination but on I drove, because by then there was one thing I knew: there was only one place I was going and that was west and if I stopped, I may never get there. “Welcome to the Hotel California,” I kept hearing in my head. “Such a lovely place … Such a lovely face …” And I know you may not believe me (for I was alone in my car, and, again, I may have been the only one to have witnessed the entire scenario), but suddenly the storm lifted and there was a stunning ROYGBIV sunset and the border crossing appeared, with the sign that said “You are now entering California,” and indeed it was and is such a lovely place, and I pulled over to the side of the road and texted a friend. “I’m back,” I said.

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Deanne Stillman is the author of Desert Reckoning and other books.