Anderson, Jon Lee 1957–

views updated

Anderson, Jon Lee 1957–

PERSONAL: Born 1957, in CA; father, a diplomat; married; wife's name Erica; children: three sons and a daughter.

ADDRESSES: Home—Bridport, West Dorset, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Penguin Publicity, 345 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Freelance journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker; New Yorker, staff writer.


(With brother, Scott Anderson) Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League, Dodd (New York, NY), 1986.

(With Scott Anderson) War Zones: Voices from the World's Killing Zones, Dodd (New York, NY), 1988.

Guerrillas: The Men and Women Fighting Today's Wars, Times Books (New York, NY), 1992, published as Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Grove/Atlantic (New York, NY), 1997.

The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, photographs by Thomas Dworzak, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2002.

The Fall of Baghdad, Penguin (New York, NY), 2004.

Also contributor to Taliban, edited by Thomas Dworzak, Trolley (London, England), 2003. Author of foreword for Baghdad: The Truth Lies Within, photographs by Bruno Stevens, Ludion (Ghent, Belgium), 2004.

SIDELIGHTS: Jon Lee Anderson began his book publishing career working with his brother Scott Anderson; after collaborating on two volumes of nonfiction, the brothers began working on individual titles. Jon has continued to write books that reflect his work as an investigative journalist with an eye toward liberation movements, guerrilla warfare, and the war on terrorism, while Scott moved in the direction of fiction writing.

The Andersons' first book together, Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League, is a 1986 expose of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) and its dark alliances with the Unification Church, Japanese Mafia, Nazis, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It represents two years of investigation, some of it done at significant personal risk, to uncover these connections, and argues for completely severing any ties the United States government has with the WACL.

The authors provide a history of the WACL that gives some insight into the organization's configuration in the 1980s. Instituted by the Korean and Taiwanese governments in 1966, the WACL, according to Penny Lernoux in the National Catholic Reporter, is the "public relations arm" of these governments. Even then, its primary organizers were Nazis from Croatia, Slovakia, Latvia, and Ukraine who transferred their anti-Semitism to this new anti-Communist endeavor, and continued their policies of "gunning down Communists and Socialists and their families and sympathizers on the slightest pretext," commented Glen Jean-sonne in Present Tense. Yaroslav Stetsko is one of these; under his command seven thousand Jews were killed in Ukraine. As a member of the WACL he was "invited to the White House by President Reagan in 1983 and has met with Vice President George Bush," noted Lernoux.

Inside the League also traces the League's connections with the Unification Church and its leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Japanese Mafia, and the U.S. government. The cordial reception that Moon and his supporters received from the Reagan White House, despite Reverend Moon's indictment and incarceration for tax evasion, has further encouraged these ties.

Ties to the U.S. government do not stop there, however. The CIA is believed, according to the authors, to have been instrumental (along with the Vatican) in helping Nazis escape Europe and set up new lives in South America, as well as in recruiting former Nazis for missions against the Soviet Union. The Andersons also cite the CIA, according to Lernoux, "for introducing the European Nazis to Korea's right-wing strongman, Park Chung Hee, and his counterpart in Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek." Commendations the League has garnered from right wing supporters such as Senator Jesse Helms and the Reverend Jerry Falwell have done little to deter its influence and range of activities.

Reviewing Inside the League for Present Tense, Jeansonne explained that Europe was the arena for anti-Communism in the 1940s and East Asia in the 1960s, but in the 1980s the arena was Latin America. The Andersons acknowledge this shift by concentrating the second half of their book on Mexico and the countries that make up Central America. While Jeansonne was not entirely persuaded by the Andersons' argument about direct ties between the League and right-wing Mexican and Central American death squads, he did acknowledge their research showing common operatives in these groups. The Andersons maintain that funding for the death squads originates in the United States with South Korea laundering the money and providing weapons.

In the early 1980s the replacement of the WACL U.S. chapter's previous head with "Nazi sympathizer" Major General John Singlaub helped to whitewash the League's reputation. According to Jeansonne, Singlaub is "a man of action who is fearlessly outspoken—in May 1979 he was relieved of his duties as chief of staff of United States forces in South Korea after publicly criticizing President Carter's proposal to reduce American troop strength there—the general has little time or sympathy for armchair anti-Communists." Singlaub, while chairman of the WACL, "claim[ed] to have purged the league of its most extremist elements," wrote Lernoux, further securing its reputation as a centrist organization, despite its pivotal role in channeling private funding to the contras. Contributions have come from "the Moonies, Texas oil millionaires, and right-wing dictators in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America," remarked Lernoux.

Lernoux called Inside the League "a timely look at the origins and activities" of both the WACL and Reverend Moon and his followers. Lernoux commented that "the Andersons probably exaggerate in attributing the formation of Latin American death squads entirely to WACL's influence." However, Lernoux stated that the Andersons were "correct in underlining the threat posed by the Moonies, who have succeeded in insinuating themselves into Washington's power circles." Jeansonne was nonetheless convinced by the book's main argument and message, which he summarized as: "The folly of supporting policies likely to fail and regimes destined to fall."

Shortly after the publication of Inside the League, the Anderson brothers published War Zones: Voices from the World's Killing Zones. This time, the two authors mapped war's impact on the civilians, called the "primary victims" in the book, of the wars in Ulster, Palestine, Uganda, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador. For War Zones, the Andersons interviewed 150 civilians in these war-torn regions, and the stories these people tell echo with the despair and confusion of men and woman whose basic survival is under constant threat.

Lawrence Walsh, reviewing War Zones for the Christian Science Monitor, noted that one fact the Andersons point out in their book is that in World War II only five percent of the casualties were civilians. In the civil wars described by the authors, ninety percent of those killed are women, children, and elderly people least able to flee the violence. Those who do flee often find themselves barely surviving in refugee camps; yet this reality is unfamiliar to most of those not directly involved. These are, as Lawrence Walsh wrote, "wars fought down below the level of summit meetings, and sadly beyond the attention spans of most journalists."

Several reviewers of War Zones noted the uniqueness of the material and the voices that might otherwise remain unheard. Louise Leonard, writing for the Library Journal, complained, however, that "the book takes too long to convince us." Walsh also faulted the Andersons for "existential resignation" in discussing their findings; nevertheless, the critic characterized War Zones as "important."

Jon Anderson's solo project, Guerrillas: The Men and Women Fighting Today's Wars, is comprised of interviews with guerrilla soldiers from five political movements: Afghanistan's mujahedin, the Karen of Burma, the Frente Farabundo Marti (FMLN) of El Salvador, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and young Palestinian men in Gaza. Anderson summarizes the political situations in which each of these groups fights, but the main focus of his book are the "human dynamics" and shared vision of guerrilla groups worldwide.

Anderson concentrated on guerrillas not only in combat, but in all aspects of their lives; their romances, family lives, and their violent jobs are given equal attention. According to Kirkus Reviews, Anderson finds the most interesting element of guerrillas' lives are the stories they tell themselves about their lives. "The repositories of their cultural identity, [are] as essential … as the weapons with which they fight," commented a critic for Kirkus Reviews.

Many critics offered favorable reviews of Guerrillas. A Publishers Weekly contributor called it an "absorbing, instructive survey." A Kirkus Reviews commentator wrote: "It took guts to research and write this," and applauded Anderson's "superb reporting job." James Rhodes, writing for the Library Journal, lauded Anderson's ability to "draw insightful generalizations" and "evok[e] the individual uniqueness" of the guerrillas.

Anderson's next book, 1997's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, is a biography of the legendary and mysterious hero of the Left, Che Guevara. The 800-page book includes photographs and a bibliography that includes interview sources (including Guevara's widow) and documents from Cuban archives that had never been made public. The book focuses on Guevara's life, beginning in 1953 at age twenty-five, when he received his medical degree in his homeland, Argentina. Rather than follow his expected career path, however, Guevara became something of a hippie, travelling the length of South America on a motorcycle, "looking for kicks," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Guevara's development as a revolutionary, which resulted from his firsthand observations of poverty in Guatemala and from capitalist influences, is chronicled. Anderson also discusses Guevara's connections with Fidel Castro. Guevara was an ardent believer in a Maoist type of Marxism, and both aspects of this revolutionary identity put him at odds with others: first, because of his expectation that poor soldiers needed only ideological zeal to fight the good fight (even after food, clothing, and decent bedding had run out); second, because his Maoist views made the Soviets watchful—even Castro held him at arm's length in hope of maintaining the South American revolutionary's non-communist supporters. Castro kept Guevara on the move, fighting in the Congo and finally in an ill-advised attack on Bolivia where Guevara was captured, held prisoner, and "executed by Bolivian counterinsurgency rangers," according to the critic for Kirkus Reviews, rather than dying in a fight as had previously been asserted.

In a review of Che Guevara, a Publishers Weekly contributor assessed Anderson as a "thorough researcher but a plodding writer"; still, the reviewer declared that Anderson had done a major service to those interested in the facts of Guevara's life. A commentator for Kirkus Reviews noted that this comprehensive book demonstrates Anderson's love of detail resulting in a volume that is "sometimes tough slogging." Library Journal contributor Mark L. Grover emphasized the uniqueness of Anderson's sources, describing the book as "an important volume that should be in all academic and most public libraries."

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Anderson quickly turned his attention to the battlegrounds of the war on terror. Within hours of the attacks, Anderson e-mailed his New Yorker editor, as he recounted in The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, writing: "I feel like I should be heading for Afghanistan, which I fully expect to be flattened any day now." Indeed, the United States invaded Afghanistan a few weeks later, and Anderson was there to record it. His reports for the New Yorker were later reworked in The Lion's Grave. Interspersed with those columns are his e-mails to his editor, which "will be especially revealing for anyone interested in what reporters go through covering a war," Michael Hedges explained in the Houston Chronicle. The trials of a correspondent in Afghanistan in late 2001 ranged from the mundane, such as struggling with satellite Internet access and faulty plumbing, to terrifying run-ins with gun-toting men. Reviewers also praised Anderson's original dispatches, many of which focused on the mystery of the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban warlord known as "The Lion of the Panjshir." Massoud was killed by assassins disguised as a television crew only days before the September 11 attacks, and Anderson—and others—assume that the events were connected. Anderson spent some of his time in Afghanistan as a guest of warlords formerly allied with Massoud, and "his portraits of them and their generals are acute, so minutely drawn that some of the book reads as though it has been transcribed, raw, from his notebooks," Marcus Warren observed in the Daily Telegraph. As a whole, Vanessa Bush concluded in Booklist, The Lion's Grave is "a compelling look at the war and politics of an international hot spot."

From Afghanistan, Anderson moved to Iraq, where he was again present during an American invasion. The Fall of Baghdad records Anderson's conversations with ordinary Iraqis whom he met in those months, and some not so ordinary. He met Ala Bashir, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's personal physician, in 2000, and the two began a friendship that has continued and that provided much of the material for the book. "By describing events as they unfold through the eyes of a broad swath of Iraqi society—academics and apparatchiks, Baathists and barbers, poets and Muslim clerics—he weaves a rich tapestry of Iraqi life and survival first under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule, then under American bombardment, and finally amid the postwar chaos," Frederik Balfour remarked in Business Week. Once again Anderson also discusses his own experiences, "recount[ing] in riveting detail the bombing, his shifts from hotel to hotel, the struggle to communicate with his office in New York on his handheld satellite phone," explained Neiman Reports reviewer Edward A. Gargan. A Kirkus Reviews contributor also had praise for Anderson's work, describing The Fall of Baghdad as "first-rate frontline reportage, full of luminous and eye-opening details."



Anderson, Jon Lee, The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, photographs by Thomas Dworzak, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2002.


Booklist, November 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of The Lion's Grave, p. 565.

Business Week, October 11, 2004, Frederik Balfour, review of The Fall of Baghdad, p. 32.

Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 1988, Lawrence Walsh, review of War Zones: Voices from the World's Killing Zones, p. 22.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), December 21, 2002, Marcus Warren, review of The Lion's Grave, p. 5.

Geographical, March, 2005, Victoria James, review of The Fall of Baghdad, p. 83.

Guardian (London, England), November 30, 2002, Veronica Horwell, review of The Lion's Grave, p. 14.

Houston Chronicle, November 29, 2002, Michael Hedges, review of The Lion's Grave.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1992, review of Guerrillas: The Men and Women Fighting Today's Wars, p. 1285; March 1, 1997, review of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, p. 343; September 15, 2002, review of The Lion's Grave, p. 1359; July 15, 2004, review of The Fall of Baghdad, p. 667.

Library Journal, September 1, 1988, Louise Leonard, review of War Zones, p. 173; September 1, 1992, James A. Rhodes, review of Guerrillas, p. 192; April 15, 1997, Mark L. Grover, review of Che Guevara, p. 88; October 1, 2002, Nader Entessar, review of The Lion's Grave, p. 116.

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 1987, Penny Lernoux, review of Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League, pp. 7-8.

Nieman Reports, summer, 2005, Edward A. Gargan, review of The Fall of Baghdad, p. 58.

Present Tense, March-April, 1989, Glen Jeansonne, review of Inside the League, pp. 54-55.

Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1992, review of Guerrillas, p. 62; March 10, 1997, review of Che Guevara, p. 54.

Washington Monthly, December, 2004, Matthew Harwood, review of The Fall of Baghdad, p. 51.


Morning News, (October 18, 2004), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Anderson.

About this article

Anderson, Jon Lee 1957–

Updated About content Print Article