Reading, Writing, and Fighting (with Mark Helprin)
Jul 8 2024

51WdolmU-XL._SY445_SX342_.jpg For many men, surviving the test of battle intensifies the joy of being alive. A provocative claim, perhaps, but to novelist Mark Helprin, simply a fact, and one that drives his new book about men who commit themselves fully both to service during wartime and to the women they love. Listen as Helprin tells EconTalk's Russ Roberts how his service in the Israeli and American militaries, his decades of journalism and outdoor adventure, and his long career in defense and foreign policy enabled him to write The Oceans and the Stars, a lyrical and thrilling look at leadership in the crucible of war--and at sea. They also discuss Helprin's writing routine and sources of inspiration, his analysis of Israel's real-life war against Iran and its proxies, and his thoughts on the state of American culture today.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
Jul 8 2024 at 11:05am

An extremely important conversation with a very strong writer and thinker. His fictional work which Russ Roberts so champions, sounds remarkably original, but I cannot say a word about work I have not read a word of.

His analysis of the situation of the West and Israel however pessimistic seems to be sane and correct. There is no denying the Iranian effort to destroy Israel dominate the Middle East and eventually destroy Western democracy and its leader the United States and make Shiite Islam the faith of humanity. His remark about the great vulnerability of Israel due to its smallness geographically reiterates something Israel’s enemies know too well. He also understands that the United States is at this point weak and has debilitated its naval strength while its main rival China is rapidly increasing its power. The conversation is rich in both historical military analysis and understanding of the present world situation. The interview also includes much about Helprin’s own adventurous life. Helprin specializes in knowing what is going on even when others are denying the situation is so difficult. It was a great pleasure to listen to him and Russ Roberts even if much of what they said was the opposite of what I would have like to have heard.

Krishnan Chittur
Jul 8 2024 at 4:19pm

Ignoring the reality of Iran could mean the end of Israel – terrifying to imagine that all those missiles were just testing of their delivery methods for the one nuclear bomb they are assembling somewhere OR perhaps expect to get it from someone.

The common assumption is that Israel is always watching and ready to respond … but the fact that October 7 happened is perhaps a signal that not all is well with the determination of the Israelis to defend their existence from the clear and obvious danger posed by Iran – all that the world needs to know is listen to what Iran has always said they wanted to do with Israel.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: June 9, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is June 9th, 2024. My guest is novelist and writer, Mark Helprin. I think I have read every book that he has written, every word that he has put between two covers of any book. Mark was here on June of 2009 talking about his book, Digital Barbarism.

Our topic for today, among other things, is his latest book, The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story. Mark, welcome back to EconTalk.

Mark Helprin: Thank you, Russ.


Russ Roberts: We'll get to your book, but I want to start by talking about reading and writing. When you were growing up as a boy and a young man, did you have favorite authors, people you read intensely that affected you?

Mark Helprin: Yes. Do you see what's behind me?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's beautiful.

Mark Helprin: The radio audience can't see that, but there's 7,000 books there. And it's a very barbaric thing for you to ask me to choose my favorites from those.

The answer is: I read everything.

For example, when I was a boy of 13, my father--who had been and really was on and off in American intelligence and military--was sent to Jamaica because there was a--the Rastafarians made a rebellion against the British. Jamaica was still a British colony at the time. And, the Rastafarians killed six British troops.

These days, you kill six troops, big deal; no one cares about anything. But, there was a big scandal then. And, Britain thought that it was unable to handle it, particularly because it was the Cubans--this is a year after the Cuban Revolution--who had stirred all this up. And, we sent--America sent--I guess a bunch of people down there.

My father was one of them.

And he took me, and my mother. And we lived there for a while.

And, while we lived there--I mean, it was actually very dramatic. At one point, we had to go from Oracabessa, the town where we lived, to Ocho Rios, when there was kind of an uprising. I remember the car being attacked. And we drove out to the Reynold's Metals Bauxite Pier in Ocho Rios, and an American submarine came up to take us off.

But anyway, that's a different story.

Well, in the time that we were there, I read the entire Ocho Rios, or maybe it was St. Mary's--I forgot exactly which town it was--library, the whole thing. I would read for 12, 14 hours a day.

And in fact, I mean, because I have so many things that I read and that are deeply internalized.

But at that point, it was the--I was doing Irish literature. And, I read all of Sean O'Casey. And I read all of Yeats, and Synge; and Sean O'Faolain--which is ironic because Sean O'Faolain's daughter, who was sort of a kind of leftist, really slammed my first book in some British publication. And I loved her father's writing. She's a short story writer.

So, I did all the Irish literature.

And then, in my high school--in my school; it was actually kindergarten, nursery school through 12th grade--there was a little girl who was much younger than me named Susanna Barolini. And her father was a famous Italian writer who had, like so many Italian writers, come to the United States because of Mussolini.

And he was a friend of John Cheever, who was also a friend of my family. And I went to school with her and with Cheever's children. And Cheever used to swim in our swimming pool all the time. I knew him since I was a little kid.

And so, I was interested in Italian literature at the time, and I went to see Signor Barolini, who gave me a recommendation for college, to Harvard. Actually, it wasn't so much a recommendation, but he introduced me to Dante Della Terza, who was the Professor of Italian at Harvard, who taught Dante.

So, as a freshman with this introduction, I went right into Della Terza's course, and I began reading Italian literature. As far as favorites go, my lodestars were Shakespeare and Dante.

Oh, and then I did Russian, too. I even met Nabokov. And, there was a professor at Harvard called Vsevolod Setchkarev. And, he had a wooden leg. One of his legs was wooden. And, he would go boom, boom, boom, up through the lecture hall, up to the podium, and then take out of his pocket a little postage-stamp size piece of paper, which he would unfold. And, it was maybe this big. And those were his lecture notes. And, he would always go like this, 'Well--' And then, start his lecture. And, that was--Slavic 150: Russian Literature.

And, I'd read a lot of that in high school too, due to this really good teacher that I had throughout high school who was really good in terms of literature. But, he also had affairs with girls in my class, which was not good.


Russ Roberts: So, who do you read now for fun?

Mark Helprin: Since I spent most of my youth and young manhood reading fiction, I don't read fiction anymore.

Russ Roberts: Wow.

Mark Helprin: I just don't.

For one, I have a parallel career in defense and foreign relations, and I have to keep up on that. And I read very slowly and very methodically and thoroughly. I read everything.

You mentioned to me before we went on air that you read every word of a book that you are interviewing about. I do the same. I don't review fiction--and that's a whole long story of why I don't review fiction or serve on prize juries or do quotes or blurbs--or ask for them either. That's a very long story--an interesting one, actually.

But, if I do agree to read a non-fiction book--which I will do rarely--I read every word, every footnote, constantly checking it, checking the veracity of it, thinking about: 'Does this make sense in view of that,' what was just said? Is it consistent? Is there continuity?

So, it takes me a long time to read stuff, and I'm pretty much committed to all the military and professional journals and books of that nature.

Russ Roberts: Just a slight footnote correction. I said I try to read every word. Many of the books, I do. For those I don't manage to read every word because I realize I'm not as interested as I had hoped, I try to read every page--which is not quite the same thing.

Mark Helprin: I see. Well, I'm compulsive. I'm compulsive, and totally, my wife says, I have OCD [Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder]. If I start a book or a journal, I have to read every word--

Russ Roberts: No kidding--

Mark Helprin: When I was a little kid, when I was seven or eight, I would read the entire New York Times. And, by the way, it didn't ruin me--but every single word. Including all the stock quotes. You see. So, that was really--

Russ Roberts: So, I don't have to ask you if you finish the books you start.

Mark Helprin: I do, yes.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I could tell. I used to. We talked about on the program before, as I get older, I've gotten a little bit better--or worse depending on your perspective: I don't finish every book I start.


Russ Roberts: Talk about your writing career for a minute. You started off--if I'm correct, your first published novel was Refiner's Fire, which was published in 1977.

Mark Helprin: Yes.

Russ Roberts: What were you doing--and, you wrote some short stories before that. You wrote Dove of the East, the collection, and Ellis Island--I think were both published before Refiner's Fire, is that right?

Mark Helprin: Yeah, they were published in 1975. And, the stories--the first story that I published--was in 1969 in The New Yorker.

Russ Roberts: Did you have a day job before you published Refiner's Fire? And did Refiner's Fire allow you to be a full-time novelist, or did that take till Winter's Tale, which I think was the next one?

Mark Helprin: Oh, well, I started writing really, and started trying to make my living as a writer in 1963 when I was just in high school. And I went to Harper & Row and gave my short stories to an editor named Joan Conn; and got a very good reaction from it, but they didn't publish it.

And, let's see: when I published my first stories with The New Yorker, I was in college, and then in graduate school I published other stories. And then, I was in the Army in Sahel. Did you know that?

Russ Roberts: The Israeli army?

Mark Helprin: Yeah. And so, that was my day job.


Russ Roberts: How did that happen? What prompted you to do that, and how hard was that, and what was that like? I know you wrote about it in passing in Refiner's Fire and elsewhere, but--

Mark Helprin: I was in graduate school at Harvard in Middle Eastern Studies, and I spent two-and-a-half years doing that. And, when I finished, I went to Israel and made Aliyah and went into the Army.

But then, after I came home, I kept on writing stories. I was a graduate student at Princeton for a while, and then I published--I sold in 1974--the first collection of short stories, which had been running in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

And then, as far as day jobs go, I--until Winter's Tale, really, I worked in every conceivable thing you can imagine. You know, washing dishes and loading trucks and being a surveyor, an agricultural worker--many, many, many things.

And by the way, I've kept up that habit, because we have a farm here and I do just about everything on the farm. Very heavy work, even though I'm insanely too old to do it. And, I've slowed down, but I do it. The things that most people don't do at my age, or even when they're younger, if they're in the so-called knowledge professions. Always done that.


Russ Roberts: Do you have a writing routine that's been constant throughout your career as a writer, or has it evolved or changed over time?

Mark Helprin: Oh, I don't know. I can only write about three hours at a time, and that passes like that. It's as if, when I finish, I think, 'This was three hours?' It seems like one minute. I'm not aware of time when that happens.

But, on the other hand, I can't write any more than that, so I do other things. And that counts--these days, anyway.

Editing, too. I used to write--I used to do all kinds of things in the day: lots of exercise and other type of work. Reading. Tremendous amount of reading: newspapers, journals, books, magazines, whatever. And then, when I was younger, I'd have dinner and have a mug of tea and about three boxes of cookies, and then work until about one o'clock in the morning.

But, I can't do that anymore. These days, I try to work in the morning when I'm fresh.

Russ Roberts: Do you work seven days a week? Do you try to write every day?

Mark Helprin: No, because I can't. There's too many interruptions for that. But, when I'm going, yeah, I do, actually. If I can get to a point where it's sort of like a potter's wheel--you keep on pushing; it has an even--it keeps on going around and around at the same velocity. When I get at that point, then yeah, I do. I never stop.

I mean, for instance, this is Sunday and I'll be working today. It's just like any other day. Of course, this is Yom Rishon in Israel where it is a work day. But yeah, I confess: I even work on Shabbat.


Russ Roberts: You mentioned you don't reread your books. Do you have a favorite?

Mark Helprin: Yes.

Russ Roberts: Or is it the last one?

Mark Helprin: No. My favorite is a collection of short stories called The Pacific. Because, if I can be critical of myself, which I learned to do from my father, who was extremely tough on me and very, very critical, and was tough on himself--tougher on himself--than anyone else was on him--I write short stories somewhat better than I do novels. I think as a novelist, I would stand--if I had to present my work to St. Peter--granted, that's the wrong place--but if that's what I found out, if I had to say, 'Okay, here's my entrance ticket,' I would give him my short stories, not novels. And of those, the most mature and I think the best are in a book called The Pacific, which was published by Penguin Press in about 2005. And, that's my favorite book of my own.

Russ Roberts: How about your favorite novel--of yours?

Mark Helprin: You know, that's very hard. I guess--they're all different. I would be far wealthier if I were to write the same novel each time I wrote a novel. But I don't. And, the themes and the attention to language, etc., yes, that runs through everything. But, they are highly different.

I mean, this book that we're ostensibly talking about today, which we haven't even mentioned, is a book, which is--it could be mistaken if you were really dumb for a Tom Clancy book. But, on the other hand, then you have Winter's Tale, which was mistaken for a fantasy novel--which it was not: I detest fantasy. It was just a novel written in the tradition of literature where not everything is realism. It's not fantasy. It's--not at all.

And then, there was A Soldier of the Great War, which was a very realistic, sort, Tolstoyan type of novel. Freddie and Fredericka, which is a comic novel--

Russ Roberts: [?] a farce--

Mark Helprin: And, the present--they're all different. They're all different. So, I guess if the one I'd have to present to St. Peter or St. [?] would be A Soldier of the Great War. That's the one.


Russ Roberts: So, for those who are listening who have not read Mark's work, he's, I think, the greatest living novelist--and that's obviously a very subjective opinion. But, when I have an author who I love, I like to read the author in chronological order.

So, you might start with the short stories of Ellis Island and Dove of the East and then move on to his first novel, Refiner's Fire.

And, alternatively, if you're only going to take a dip into the work, I would--perfection in "The Pacific." That particular short story, I think, is an incredible masterpiece. And, almost every story in there is wonderful. I agree with you. Just stupid to even say so, but it is a lovely, lovely book.

And, for novels, I think Solider of the Great War is your masterpiece, although I like them all.

Many of your books will make the reader cry if they're in the right frame of mind and hope and experience joy and all kinds of fantastic emotions. And, there's a lot of humor in your work. Freddie and Fredericka, in particular, as you say, is a comic, but all of your books have a comic element, some more than others.

The last thing I'd add before we move on is that I read your trilogy of children's stories. You have a trilogy--I'm going to forget the name of the trilogy, when it was published as a trilogy, but the first volume is Swan Lake. You probably remember the names.

Mark Helprin: Yeah. There were three books, Swan Lake, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows. And, they were published in one volume as a--

Russ Roberts: City Far and Clear? Far and--

Mark Helprin: No. A Kingdom Far and Clear.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, correct.

Anyway, I read those in total out loud to my daughter when she was quite young, and she also became a fan. And that's a delightful book for an adult. Just FYI [for your information] for listeners.

Mark Helprin: I have to thank you, by the way, for what you said. And it's extremely generous. And you have made up for my mother. When I do a book--when I used to do, because I don't do it anymore--book events, and someone would introduce me, and I'd always say, 'My mother wrote that,' as a joke.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sure.

Mark Helprin: But, what they didn't know, and why I thank you now for making up for my mother was: my mother never read anything that I ever wrote.

Russ Roberts: That's very sad.

Mark Helprin: Yeah. Well, she had her own special needs. And, my father was really tough on everything. So, from my family, my mother and father, I got a lot of--they were wonderful, actually, but they were so tough. And, my mother actually never read anything that I ever wrote. So, thank you for what you said and making up for my mother. It's good.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, she ghost wrote that, I'm sure.


Russ Roberts: So, let's turn to the book that you published most recently, The Oceans and the Stars. On your webpage, you talk about the origins of the book. You say you began to imagine it many decades ago. Explain that. And, for listeners, it's a book set mostly at sea. Not entirely, but much of it is at sea. And, what did you mean by saying you began to imagine it many decades ago, and how did you come to write a book with that level of detail about naval military capability?

Mark Helprin: Okay. Well, it's two questions. The first: In 1967, I went to Israel in June for the Six-Day War. And, when I came back in August--I didn't have to, but I worked my passage in the British Merchant Navy. And so, I essentially joined the British Merchant Navy, which is an auxiliary arm of the Royal Navy.

And, I was on a collier called the MV--Motor Vessel--Stone Pool. And, we would go across the Atlantic. We'd carry coal from West Virginia to Europe, or wheat from the United States to Europe. And, empty coming back.

It was really strange because the United States was providing coal and wheat, and Europe wasn't sending anything to us that was bulk.

But, anyway, I stood long watches at the helm of this ship. You have to keep it on a compass heading. And, it's quite monotonous. Also, if you're a lookout and you're in the crow's nest and you go up there for eight hours or so, that's fairly monotonous if there's nothing to see on the sea.

So, you think a lot.

I was 20 years old, and the idea came to me then, because one of the sailors told me about an English ship in the 18th century called the Royal George. And, it sank. I think it capsized, whatever. And when they salvaged it, they found, in addition to hundreds of the crew, several hundred women that were on this ship. And, what were they? They were camp followers. They were cooks and maids and prostitutes and wives and girlfriends. And it was an integrated ship, sexually, which was unheard of--after that, anyway. So, it was kind of interesting.

And then I realized that on the ship that I was on, which was only men, everyone was just constantly thinking of women. The women at home. I certainly was. I mean, I was heading to the United States to a girl that I was in love with. And so was everybody, because we were all young men, most of us--even the older ones: they had wives at home. And, I thought it was kind of like the Royal George and I wanted to write a novel which took place at sea, which was essentially centered upon the women in the men's imaginations and their relations with their women.

And, when I got home, in the snows of a Cambridge winter, I tried to do it, but I couldn't because I wasn't old enough. I hadn't seen enough. I hadn't suffered enough. I hadn't experienced enough. I got about 80 pages of it, and I stopped dead because I just was not capable of writing a novel at that age. And, it took me what? Now, I'm 77. I started this when I was, I don't know, 74, 75, it took me that long to be able to write such a book.

And then, that's this book.

However, the second question is the detail, etc. I've been doing military analysis and defense consulting, and I served in the infantry in Israel--also attached to the Air Force--since I was very young. For more than half a century, now. And, to do that, you have to, not only was the actual service that I did, but also the reading and the thinking about it and the writing and the consulting and think tanks at the highest levels of government. And, I was even a cop for 10 years. So, this is all stuff that I know. And it's accurate by the way.

There are a few mistakes. For example, John Lehman, who was Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, who built for Reagan the 600-ship Navy. And, now, we have 295 ships--not even that: less than 300 and a lot of them are rusty and overworked so that they're cannibalizing parts from other things. They spend a long time in the yards because they break. It's pathetic, given that China's navy is--China's military trajectory is like this, and ours is like that [motions in air]. It's like crossed swords, ours pointing down.

But anyway--I forgot where I was. John Lehman, yes, read this book and he really liked it, but he said, 'By the way, there's a mistake in the book.' In one of the chapters, I said that at a trial, at a court-martial, the principal character and his lawyer come in and I say, 'They folded their great coats and put them on the chairs next to them.' John Lehman, having been in the Navy and been Secretary of the Navy, said, 'No, we call those bridge coats.' So, that was a mistake.

And then, there were other mistakes, too, that I caught and that people caught little ones. For example, the Barrett sniper rifle, which is a 50 caliber rifle that has a very, very long range and a long suspended fluted barrel, and it figures in the book: I said it was 50 caliber throughout most of it, but somehow in there--I think the first mention of it--said 50 millimeters, which is not 50 caliber. But, in the paperback, all these things are corrected. However, 99.99% of all the technical things and naval things are accurate.

Russ Roberts: Incredible.


Russ Roberts: In the webpage you have about the book, you mention The Ulysses Theme, which you've alluded to earlier in talking about the genesis of the book in your youth. You describe The Ulysses Theme as, quote:

the conflict between the attractions, on the one hand, of exploration, enterprise, war, and action, and, on the other, of home, hearth, family, domestic peace, and social order. This and much more is beautifully explored in one of the great works of British scholarship, W.B. Stanford's The Ulysses Theme (Oxford, re-issued 1968), a book of which, at the helm in 1967, I was completely unaware. That I had nonetheless sensed the broad outlines of the Ulysses Theme was not a testament to my admittedly minor intelligence but rather to the truth and universality of a literary paradigm followed since--or even before--Homer. [parentheses in original--Econlib Ed.]

Talk about that for a minute. You have a Penelope. There's no spoilers; we're not going to have any spoilers in this conversation. But there's a Penelope figure in the book, as there is, I would say, in many of your books. And, how much do you think about actual Homer versus the idea of home and hearth versus exploration and action?

Mark Helprin: Well, in this book by W.B. Stanford called The Ulysses Theme, which is a extraordinary book, he more or less talks about all the usages of this theme since Homer in many, many works. And, the one that I was most familiar with was Dante. And, there's a famous canto in Dante in which Ulysses is talking to his men. And, the canto--when Ulysses appears to Dante, there's a double horn with fire coming out of each horn, I think--I don't really remember--but the two horns represent, one: Home and hearth, children, women, love of domestic things and your family. And, the other one is the urge to explore, to fight, etc.

And anyone--anyway, I can't speak for women about this--but most men understand that there is a duality there. On the one hand, you are drawn to your family, and that's the most important thing, and it's something that--the things that you love. On the other, there's this driving force to do dangerous things and go to places that no one has ever been. And that sounds like Star Trek. But, to climb mountains--which I did by the way: I did technical climbing and alpinism--and to drive cars fast; to fight, whatever it is--the testosterone part of being a man.

But there's a duality. And of course, it's differently balanced in people.

Some people are much more toward one side than the other. And, if that happens, by the way, that's not a good thing. It should be a fairly even balance, because you need the testosterone-fueled exploration: defense, fighting, doing dangerous things, coming up with new things, experimentation in order to survive in the world and in order for the world to make progress. On the other hand, you're doing it all for the 'what's on the other side,' which is the things that you love and the people that you love; and your children, which is the continuation of everything.

So, this duality is, you could say, I think, I guess the first instance of it must be, I guess the most impactful--I hate the word 'impactful,'--but the instance with the most impact was Homer. And, that's why Stanford called it The Ulysses Theme. And, that's fully present in this book.

We're not giving anything away if we say there is a Penelope figure. Just as Penelope weaves the tapestry and then pulls out the threads at night so that her suitors won't--the Penelope figure in this book works--she's a tax lawyer. That's the modern Penelope. And, by the way, my wife is a tax lawyer, not coincidentally.

Russ Roberts: Write what you know.

Mark Helprin: And, also, I mean, for instance, there's a one-eyed Cyclops figure in there. I don't know if you picked that up, but Hadali, who is the terrorist in the book, has only one eye. See, that was--

Russ Roberts: I missed that.

Mark Helprin: And there's a lot of the names and relationships, etc.

There's a--for instance, Rensselaer, who was the main character in the book, is a mentor toward one of his-toward several of his young sailors.

I mean, there's many, many parallels that most people will miss, but the point is: you don't have to necessarily identify them or be familiar because this is a tradition that has sprung from things that are with us, even if we don't know it. That's what great literature--not that this is great literature, but that's what great literature is. It's something that you will understand and know because it's based on basic human needs and perceptions. And so that you don't have to be a literary critic in order for the thing to affect you in that way.

Russ Roberts: That's one of the amazing things about culture and civilization is it's in your bones, whether you know it or not--

Mark Helprin: That's right.

Russ Roberts: If you grew up in a particular way.


Russ Roberts: There's another thing on the homepage for the book, which we could come back to the theme we talked about a minute ago of your writing style: It's a handwritten page from the manuscript. And it's a mess. It's got a zillion edits written all over it. Without channeling your mother again, I have to say, it feels like your prose pours unedited from your pen. That's evidently not the case. So, do you have an editing routine?

Mark Helprin: Yeah. Well, you know, this is a strange thing. When I was young, I hated to edit; and what I wrote just came out with tremendous fluency. And I did very little editing, and I didn't like to edit. Now--it's been a long time--I much more enjoy editing than writing, actually. I enjoy writing immensely, but I enjoy editing even more. It's such a great pleasure to do that. And, any book that I write--it's always been this way since the earlier ones--I'll have maybe 12 drafts of the book if you include things that happen after I've handed--about eight drafts, and then, I hand it in to the publisher. Then the editor will read it and come back and I'll make changes, no doubt. And then, there's a copy editor, and then there's a proofreader, and then there are the blues, etc. From the time that I put a pen down on a piece of paper until the time that it's actually printed, it will have 12 different run-throughs. And that I find to be the most enjoyable thing--and productive, too, because you really can make it better if you do that.

Russ Roberts: Similarly, I love to edit. I think it's an art that's unappreciated. I think I've talked about it before maybe on the program. I'm not sure I have, but I had the opportunity to talk to Orson Scott Card about his writing class that he would teach. And, in the writing class, you got graded not on what you wrote, but what you edited of someone else in the class, to build up the muscle of responding and editing and rethinking and hearing it aloud in your head and all that. I thought that was really a lovely idea, and I recommend that for all people who teach writing.

Mark Helprin: Can I just say something about that?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, sure.

Mark Helprin: When I used to teach writing--and I don't do that anymore--and when I taught in Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, University of Iowa, Writers Workshop in Hillsdale--those are the five places where I've taught in university level--I have a poster board, which is quite big, and it's a blowup of exactly was--more or less what you saw in the website--of a very heavily edited page. And, in the first class, I bring it in and I show the students this thing, which it looks like the Rosetta Stone--

Russ Roberts: It's great--

Mark Helprin: It's just completely--and I say, 'Look, this is what I do to myself. So when I do it to you, don't be hurt, don't be offended, and this is what you should do to yourself, too.' It is in a sense criticism, but it's not criticism in a negative sense. It's constructive. 'Be grateful for this and do it yourself.' And that takes the sting away when I used to give them back in papers with tons of marks and cross-outs and such.


Russ Roberts: Now, we talked a minute ago about action and exploration. I would say, and correct me if you disagree, that one of the themes of this book is the exhilaration of war. And, by that, I would say the comradery of men whose lives are at risk protecting each other, caring about something greater than themselves with a goal in mind. We're not supposed to say that, I think, any more in polite company. But for men--and I do think it is a man's emotion as you suggested--war, or at least surviving war, to be fair, intensifies the joy of being alive. Is that a fair assessment of what you were sharing in the book?

Mark Helprin: Yes, that's true. And, I think I explore that much more in A Soldier of the Great War than here, than in this book.

But, it's a reality that, in order to survive the war, you have to commit yourself fully to it. In fact, I wrote a story called "North Light" about the Israeli army going into Lebanon; and I guess, part of the story is that the soldiers who do this realize that they can't think about their home and hearth. They can't think about the things they love, because then they have less chance of surviving. You have to commit yourself to it because you may not survive; and you go fully into it. And, when you do, you become a different person. It doesn't mean that you're not humane and ethical, but it does make you different. And, once you've survived it, then, there is a certain appreciation of life that you might not have if you haven't been tested that way. Yeah.

And, there is a spirit of--there is esprit de corps, which is very important. Paul Fussell, and you may know him, he wrote a--

Russ Roberts: Sure--

Mark Helprin: book called The Great War and Modern Memory. And, I don't know whether this was because of his particular situation or not, but, as far as I'm concerned, he went way, way overboard in extending this into the esprit de corps and the care that one has for one another into homoerotic stuff. And I said, when I read that book, I said, 'Okay, it's up to a point. Okay.' But, certainly in my experience in military formations, both in the Israeli Army and in the Air Force and in the British Merchant Navy, and as a police officer in a quite special unit, I experienced that esprit de corps, and there was never any hint of what Fussell talked about. So, I think that was his individual predilection, maybe.

Russ Roberts: But, you know, I think the--put aside the eroticism for now, I think there is an intensity of love and connection between people doing a shared project where much is at stake. And it's life affirming, it's life changing. Again, if you survive--it's very important to add that. And, I think it's clear that, for many people, they'll never feel anything remotely that intensely again; and that, they carry with them through their entire lives.

Mark Helprin: That's true. I have a connection to the few people who I still know that I was in the army with and even a connection to my friends and my fellow police officers when I was a police officer, which is like that. You have a particular regard for the person that you shared that kind of thing with. Yeah. That is so.

On the other hand, you know, here in America, when I drive to the supermarket or something and I see all the stickers and license plates and everything trumpeting people's service, that bothers me. And, by the way, in Israel, no one does that because everybody serves. And people just don't do that. It's far more modest.

And by the way, one should be about that. I would never wear a--for instance, not that this is a great sin, but--a university sweatshirt. Now, I had the misfortune of going to--of being a student--one way, a graduate student, undergraduate student, or teaching at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and Oxford--Magdalen College, Oxford. So, anyway, these five places that I could have a sweatshirt that had five lines now the way people will wear a Yale sweatshirt or something. I would never, ever, ever do that or put a sticker on my car or anything like that. That's silly. I don't know how we got [?] to that.

Russ Roberts: That's all right.


Russ Roberts: In your book, the Iranians are the enemy. Reading it a few weeks ago here in 2024 in Jerusalem, it's a little too close to home. We're in a time where Israel is attacked on multiple fronts; and Iran--I was going to say hovering in the background, but they shot 350 missiles at us. They weren't hovering in the background. The world is not eager to do anything about that, at least from our perspective here. Maybe we have the wrong perspective, but it seems that there's virtually no taste for deterring or doing anything against Iran other than here in Israel where we at least fought back on the aftermath of those missiles. What do you think is going to happen?

Mark Helprin: Well, first of all, just as a sideline, those 350 missiles and ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, cruise missiles--

Russ Roberts: Cruise, drones--

Mark Helprin: and drones--the three types--that was for calibration. That's what that was for. That was a test of defenses and calibration. And, people say, 'Oh, well, Israel--and, with some help from the United States and allies--shot them all down, except for one.'

Well, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon that's deployable, it only takes one to get through, and that would be the end of Israel. And, they've said so--they repeatedly say so: that's what they want.

But, another small point is that I wrote The Oceans and the Stars--it came out three days before October 7th; and it's about war against Iran in the Red Sea, in the Indian Ocean, of course, and terrorists who take about 200 hostages. And, this was before it happened.

And by the way, when it was published, there was a tremendous reaction amid the mainstream media here not to cover it, because they wanted to wash their hands of the whole thing, because everything--the country became divided rather quickly. The day after, while the President was in Israel, right after October 7th, he was urging Israel not to respond. Not as I would--hold Gaza for later--but rather not to respond to anything, period.

And, the United States has been facilitating Iran's march toward the nuclear weapon since Obama, and it continues to do so in financing it, by not enforcing the oil sanctions, and by actually giving money directly or trying to--the six billion for the few hostages.

And, this is inexplicable to me, because Iran's target is the United States as well as Israel, and they are on their way to getting a nuclear weapon unless Israel stops them. I thought that George W. Bush's greatest failing--and he had many vis-a-vis the Middle East in terms of his ability to prosecute a war properly--was not to take out the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, which he could have. And, his last year was 2008, and that is already 16 years ago. The United States could easily have deprived Iran of any ability to get a nuclear weapon, and he didn't do that. And he should have.

But, anyway, yeah: the book is about a war with Iran. And, by the way, that's Homeric, too, because the ship--the Rensselaer ship, the ship that is called the Athena--and they're fighting the Iranians, who are the Persians. So it's the Greeks fighting the Persians, which harks back to that time.

What shall we do? I mentioned to you before and I might as well bring this up, that I wrote a piece in the Claremont Review of Books called "Israel At the Precipice Once Again,"--it was published, I wrote it in October, shortly after October 7th--in which I said that Israel would best follow its historical pattern of making a quick fait accompli as in 1956 and 1967, because the world will always put a stop to Israel's defensive activities if they drag on. And, the existential enemy of Israel is Iran, which is developing nuclear weapons and has tremendous missilery and has, of course, armed Hezbollah and the Houthis--which by the way is pronounced Hoo-thi, not Hoo-ti--and Hamas.

Napoleon is said to have said, and this is--Churchill reported these words. Churchill quoted Napoleon as saying, 'Frappez la masse, et le reste vient par surcroît.' 'Strike the center and the rest will come as surplus.'

Now, Napoleon didn't actually say that. He said something very close to it, which was recorded by one of his marshals. And, I believe that one of Churchill's interlocutors, when the Germans were invading France and Churchill went to Paris, told him his version of this, which is actually better than what Napoleon actually said as reported by one of his marshals. 'Frappez la masse, et le reste vient par surcroît.' In other words, 'Strike the center and then the rest will come as surplus.'

That's the primary military maxim. The center in this case, the existential threat with nuclear weapons and a massive population and a massive investment in missilery, is Iran. Israel should have struck Iran, although first it would have to strike Hezbollah in Lebanon because of their 150,000 missiles of various capacities, which in a general barrage could actually destroy Israel, because Israel is very, very tightly concentrated.

For instance, you take Haifa. Haifa has port facilities, refineries, chemical factories, industry, gas pipelines, and residential and commercial areas all packed into one small geographical location very close to Lebanon. Just a question of--what?--30 miles from Russia and Akra. Missiles could destroy Haifa, could destroy Tel Aviv, could destroy Jerusalem. And, because Israel has three major urban centers, you aim your missiles at those; it would be a catastrophe.

So, first, Israel should have after October 7th made a general war against Hezbollah in order to remove that threat. And then, as quickly as possible recovered, and--at great risk to itself because it would take the entire air force--destroyed as much as it could the Iranian nuclear facilities.

And, by the way, if it did this, people would say, 'Well, they would just start again.' Well, it's taken them 30 years and more to get to this point. It's not so easy just to start up again.

Then the second objection is, 'Well, they would perhaps be given a nuclear weapon by Pakistan or North Korea.' There has never been an interstate transfer of nuclear weapons yet in history, though there could be. In this regard, I say two things. One, Israel wouldn't be any of the worse off if Iran, for instance, were to get a nuclear weapon from North Korea than it would be with a nuclear weapon that Iran manufactured. So, you take out Iran's nuclear weapons and there's a chance that maybe they'd get another one, but it would be the same thing as if you didn't take out Iran's nuclear weapons, so you might as well take them out.

And then, the second thing there--and I could tell you stories about when I was in Israel, because it's actually fascinating, my relations with the government at the time, before 1973, facilitated both by my--I happened to be the guard of David Elazar's plane that he used to take from Ramat Aviv to the Kiriya every morning, very early the morning. And, I was able to speak to him then. And, also, I had been in graduate school and my professor, Nadav Safran, was the advisor to Israel's government on nuclear affairs. And also, he knew all the haruzim and the vatikim [Hebrew 00:54:03]. So, I was able to get my message to both Golde Meir and Moshe Dayan directly through him, or indirectly through him, and directly to David Elazar. And, I warned about--the 1973. I said, 'There's going to be,'--this was in the spring of 1973, I said--'When the weather changes this fall, the Arabs are going to attack.' And, I was dismissed.

So, the reason I say this is because nobody in Israel listens to me. But, one thing that I would recommend now--and I've been recommending since, for decades--that Israel become more of a garrison state: that it is not spending enough on defense, not paying enough attention to it, relying too much on technical stuff and intelligence.

But, what I would say now, just one little thing. To deter Iran and Pakistan from giving a nuclear weapon to Iran, sorry, to deter North Korea and Pakistan from giving a nuclear weapon to Iran, which is a possibility in the event that Israel is able to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure, that Israel, it has--it's rumored to have, no one knows exactly--nuclear weapons and cruise missiles in its submarines. But, cruise missiles can be shot down and they're much more vulnerable and they have lesser range than ballistic missiles. I think that Israel should equip some of its submarines with ballistic missiles and then be able to patrol in the Pacific, giving the message to North Korea and to Pakistan, 'Don't give any nuclear weapons to Iran, because if you do, we have a deterrent in the Pacific.'

It is possible to do this. You don't need an American style SSBN--subsurface ballistic missile submarine, nuclear--with Trident missiles and very, very big capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, because it would be a shorter range. One could put in the new build of Israel's submarine tubes for missiles that in the Pacific could strike North Korea as a deterrent. Not that it would necessarily be an effective deterrent given the insanity of Kim Jong-Un, but it would be something. I would highly recommend that. This is probably not the place for it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I was going to say, I'll pass it on.


Russ Roberts: But, I think--you mentioned the over-reliance of Israel on technology. I think that's true. The other thing--and it was part of the reason October 7th happened: we thought we had monitored the surveillance of the border and were safe.

A similar thing we rely on, interestingly, which is the opposite of technology but it has similar risks, is espionage. So, our ability to do damage to Iran, either through a computer virus or the killing--it's never, I think it's not claimed--but the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, is another way that Israel has tried to push out--if it is indeed Israel that's doing that--it's pushed out the date of acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran.

But, all this talk, for many people listening, is, I think, chilling. I mean, come on, you can't do those things. You can't attack their nuclear capability.

And in fact, the reason--if you asked, 'Why not?' they would say, 'Well, it's just not done.'

And in particular, you could argue that--we're recording this on the day after Israel has rescued four hostages and we don't know how many people died. Hamas is saying over 200. There's no way of knowing. Maybe we'll find out. They don't tell the truth. But, it could be a large number and that could not be said--or could, depending on what kind of people those people were and what they did. And, it's very complex. But, the world's reaction, the Washington Post reaction, is: '274 Palestinians killed in raid to free four hostages.' Meaning: 'Look at the ratio,' as if somehow there's a moral calculus based on casualty figures. I think a bizarre, tragic mistake.

Doesn't mean Israel did the right thing--I think we did--but, just the whole idea of counting deaths as a way of defining moral culpability I find indefensible.

And the idea that Israel could do things like you're asking--we could barely respond to Iran after they launched those 350 missiles, in the eyes of the West. The United States said, 'Take the win. Nobody died, so therefore just suck it up. Show you're bigger than they are. Don't strike back.'

And, of course, Israel did strike back and did so in a way that I think was similar to the calibration. They said, 'You're calibrating what got through and what doesn't get through and what you need to do. We'll show you a little taste of what we can do if you got serious.' And, we destroyed some things we thought were strategically significant.

But, the idea that Israel could have, say, launched a war on Hezbollah, or even more crazily against Iran in the aftermath of October 7th, in the eyes of many would be literally inconceivable and unjustifiable. Would you agree?

Mark Helprin: Yes. But, you see, here's the thing. A couple of things. One: the calibration of effects or moral responsibility by counting deaths is something that started with the Soviets. Because, they claimed that they won World War II and we hardly did anything because they lost more people killed.

Russ Roberts: Over 20 million people.

Mark Helprin: Twenty million people. So therefore we did--well, that's not how you measure military effectiveness.

They did drain a lot of troops from the Western front. But on the other hand, we were fighting on two fronts. We were also fighting Japan. We had to make amphibious landings. We fought all across North Africa, all up through Italy, and then invaded France with Overlord and then fought halfway into Germany. Whereas they had a big land front, but it was a land front and it narrowed as they went west.

We did more to win the war than they did. But then, they say, 'Okay, well, we have more people killed.' And, people tend to--and even in Vietnam, the body counts. This is not a good way of looking at war or assigning moral responsibility.

But, in view of what you mentioned about how it might be impossible to justify, there are two things. One: in 1956 and in 1967, the rapidity of what happened was enough to forestall the kind of criticism that you're talking about. That's number one.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

Mark Helprin: Yeah, and that's why I recommend--

Russ Roberts: And, that would be true--that would be true of the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, which took place overnight. And it was over, and Israel took a lot of criticism, but it was already done.

Mark Helprin: That's the second point that I wanted to bring up, was that Osirak [Iraqi nuclear reactor site--Econlib Ed.] in Iraq and the Syrian proto-nuclear reactor more recently that Israel took out--it was, a). quick, a fait accompli, and b). United States was very grateful for it. Couldn't say so publicly, but of course we were grateful for it.

And that would be the same thing if Israel managed to take--now, there might be a huge reaction among people who are not really thinking very clearly, because Iran wants nuclear weapons for many reasons, one of which is to separate Europe and the United States from Israel; to dominate the Middle East. And in a sense, you can't blame them in one level. To the north, Russia has nuclear weapons. To the east, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Israel has nuclear weapons. In the ocean, the United States has nuclear weapons. They want to deter any kind of conventional--okay, so that's legitimate.

Yeah, but they also wanted to destroy Israel. To dominate the Middle East, to separate Europe and the United States from the Middle East. And eventually--and this is because they do think this way--to threaten Europe and the United States and possibly even to use them maybe even in an EMP [Electromagnetic Pulse] or whatever, because they are millenarian and they believe that the mahti will come and that the whole world will be converted to Islam. And, they are also willing to martyr themselves--the leadership.

So, yeah, the world might for a short time speak its objections, but the governing authorities in the West would be very grateful if Israel were to do that.

Not, by the way, speaking of Brzezinski, who was Carter's National Security Advisor, who said that if Israel were to mount an attack to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons, the United States' Fifth Fleet should shoot them down. So, I think that he was an antisemite, actually, big time.

But anyway, yes, if Israel were to do this--then the question is capability. The more time that passes, the less chance that Israel will be capable of doing it. In my estimation, and of course I don't know all the facts--particularly now. A lot of time has passed since I was there. But nonetheless, I think that Israel is capable, although at great, great risk, of accomplishing that mission. And, I don't understand why both Israel and the United States have not done this sooner, because the--dues will have to be paid, and they're terrible dues.


Russ Roberts: Did October 7th change you in any way, or change your thinking in any way?

Mark Helprin: No. Because I had been, as they say in America, ragging on the themes of not relying on technical means, and not relying on--beyond technical--and when I say technical means, I mean things like surveillance cameras rather than patrols. And denuding[?]--I mean, I saw the same thing in 1973 when on the Bar Lev line there was, what, one battalion for this 100 and some-odd miles on the Bar Lev line? People were relying upon Israel's reputation, and their wrong estimations of Arab capabilities.

And so, no, it didn't change me, because I've been consistent. And, if you read that piece in the Claremont Review of Books, you'll see that those themes are something that I've always been thinking. I mean, even in the book--in The Oceans And, the Stars--it is about dealing with this kind of problem in a particular way. Which I would call probity, actually.

For instance, war always requires surplus. You need surplus in war because you don't know how it's going to run. People, for instance, particularly because of the anti-nuclear movements in the West, overkill has been something which someone who doesn't know how these things work, who doesn't know about the particularities of nuclear strategy will criticize: 'Overkill is bad. Why would we need overkill?'

Well, you need overkill because--think about it. If you have two forces and they're equally balanced, and it's possible that if you have X number of missiles and warheads in the United States and X number in what was then the Soviet Union, if you don't have more than you need, then it's possible that what you have could be destroyed and you'd have no second-strike capability. That's why we had overkill, to assure the possibility of a second strike. Which would deter a first strike.

Israel should have overkill. All military forces need that. War requires surplus.

And, by the way, I have another recommendation, in case Naftali Bennett is listening--

Russ Roberts: He's listening, yeah; I'm sure he is--

Mark Helprin: and he becomes Prime Minister--

Russ Roberts: Possible--

Mark Helprin: In 1688, in the English Glorious Revolution, Britain instituted something that enabled it to become the preeminent military power that it became subsequently. And, what was that? That was the issuance of what they called consoles. Consoles are bonds that have no redemption point, and therefore the government doesn't have to pay back the principal--ever. But, it pays interest forever, indeterminately. And, when the demand for such bonds fluctuates, it's possible to have capital gains. And, there's an open market on them so that they can be sold and they can be, in a sense redeemed, but to another debtor rather than redeemed by the government.

And, consoles enabled Britain to become a great military power because it could outspend all the other powers.

And that, by the way, is the secret of why Israel has been able to prevail. Which is: higher per capita GDP [Gross Domestic Product] than Egypt, Jordan, etc. in the past. So that there's a margin that could be devoted toward military expenditures.

My beef with Israel in the last 20 years or so, or more, is that it has not devoted enough share of GDP to military expenditure in order to assure its surplus and overkill. You never want to do things on the cheap when your survival is at stake.


Russ Roberts: Well, I agree with that. Unfortunately, it's a very unpleasant necessity, if it is one. And, it's not dissimilar from our manpower--people-power--requirements, which is why we have a citizens' army of 30- and 40- and 50-year-olds fighting in this war right now. It's unbearable.

We're eight months into the work in Gaza, and people have made their own decisions about who won--which, I would argue it's way too early to know what its consequences are.

But, what is clear to me is that I have numerous friends whose children--sons mostly--are in and out of Gaza for months. And it takes a terrible toll.

And, if we were, say, to successfully extract more of the hostages and end Hamas' rule in Gaza, which would be the so-called goals of this, many people then say, 'Well, then you'll turn to the north,' and demand of millions of people that their children continue to be in harm's way for, again, an unknown period of time, a period of time that historically hasn't turned out so well for Israel in the north. It's a different territory, different terrain, different enemy, much more dangerous.

And, you know, it's much easier to pretend that it's going to be okay.

Nobody here lives that way. The way we live here--which is, I'm sure you even got a taste of 50 years ago--the way we live here is: Don't plan too much; and rely on the fact that your ability to respond is unparalleled. And, that is Israel's real secret weapon. We are not good at preventing problems. We're incredibly good at dealing with them. It's a very dangerous way to live.

And, going back to our statements about the exhilaration of war, Israel is--not that it means a lot--but in happiness surveys, Israelis are pretty happy. It's dangerous here, and it gives life a zeal and a zest and a vibrancy that is really extraordinary. It's a special place because of that danger. But it's very painful.

Mark Helprin: I remember. I remember.

Russ Roberts: We were a lot of sorrow with our joy. I heard.

Mark Helprin: Yeah, I do remember that.

And especially--people may not credit this or understand it, but strangely enough, it's particularly intense in Jerusalem. And I never could figure out why. When you go to Jerusalem, people have said that it's because of the fault that runs, that the great rift that runs right underneath Jerusalem into Africa, where evidently human life really began to develop. But there's something, it's almost magnetic. Anyway, I always felt it. It's very unusual. The vitality is beyond compare. Beyond compare.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Which is glorious. People's--anyway. Out this window that you can see the glint of the sunlight in, is the Temple Mount about a mile away. It's the center of the universe. Whether you believe in God or not, it's the center of the universe. It was and still is, and it's intense.


Russ Roberts: But when I asked you about October 7th, I didn't just means geopolitically. I meant personally. A lot of people's sense of their Jewishness and their fears of antisemitism, as people have responded to October 7th, has changed. The United States seems a less hospitable place for Jews. A lot of people have found their Jewish identity more intensified since then. Has that touched you at all?

Mark Helprin: No. Because I've always been the same. When I was in graduate school in the early seventies, I believed that eventually the United States--that it was quite possible for the United States to turn against Israel.

Now, we haven't seen that now. What we've seen are the efforts to make it so, and we've seen portions of the United States, which--historically, in recent terms, in recent history, it would have been very alarming 20, 30 years ago to imagine that this has happened, that the whole educational system has become antisemitic, in spades. I mean, just incredibly so. It came out. For many people it was a surprise. For me, it was not a surprise. I've had throughout my life, a different experience of antisemitism than most Jews in the United States. I don't know why exactly, but I experienced a great deal of it when I was young; and then even in college and as a young adult, a tremendous amount of it. And so, therefore, it's not a surprise to me. So, I haven't changed my views or anything emotionally. I guess I expected this kind of thing.

Russ Roberts: You mentioned earlier that you made Aliyah: You've served in the Israeli army; then you said you came back. I think you said you came "back home," or you may have said just you came back.

Mark Helprin: I think I said "home."

Russ Roberts: Did you think of staying?

Mark Helprin: No. I left for several reasons.

Russ Roberts: And, why did you go in the first place?

Mark Helprin: Well, I went in the first place for the reasons really that we've been talking about: the survival of the Jewish people, my connection to my past, the Holocaust, the threat to Israel. I wanted to do my part in one way or another, a small part. But, the reason I left was--several reasons. One, the country felt too small for me.

Russ Roberts: Small?

Mark Helprin: Yes. It was just too small. I was used to a really--

Russ Roberts: It's small--

Mark Helprin: Yeah. Big, big rich country. Israel is just as dynamic at the--whatever unit level you want. But, when you have that dynamism, which is then spread immensely far with a huge country and very, very rich country, there's something that I missed. And so, I wanted to come back.

And, also, the other thing was that I had warned, as I mentioned before, about the dangers; and I saw that people were being, what I thought, was very irresponsible. And, I said, 'Well, I'm not going to--I'm telling them this.' And, this was--when my advisor in graduate school, who then became a very good family friend, told Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, my estimation because I had been going one place to another in the Army, and I had observed a lot. And, I came up with an estimation. It was what I'd been studying in graduate school under his tutelage. When he told them that, they said, 'Well, what rank is he?' And, he said, 'He's a private.' And they said, 'Oh, come on.'

And then, with David Elazar, who really didn't survive the war, because shortly afterwards he was found dead in his swimming pool. They said a heart attack. But, who knows? I would talk to him in the morning--this was kind of, like, in the middle, it was like 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning--because I had been guarding his plane. And, while they were making the plane ready and starting it up and fueling or whatever, he would be standing there and I would be standing next to him with my rifle. And, I said--first I began in Hebrew, but then I'm sure I said [foreign language: Israeli Hebrew, 01:18:06], because his English was better than my Hebrew, and we spoke in English. And, I told him my estimations. And what he did was he put his hand on my shoulder. That's a way to express superiority. You do that to a kid.

Russ Roberts: Condescension.

Mark Helprin: Yeah, it's condescension. And, he looked at me with expression on his face, kind of like when [?], and he said, 'Don't worry. We'll take care of it.' You see. And, I had spoken to him a couple of times about this, and then he finally did that. I think he thought I was a pest. But I was right.

And, I was very frustrated. I said: If they're not going to defend themselves like this, what am I going to--my job would have been--because when you finish, they assign you a particular job as a [foreign language: Israeli Hebrew, 01:18:58]--a reservist, for those who don't know Hebrew. And, when I was decommissioned, I went to Bakum, which is the place where you're decommissioned in Tel Aviv--or then you were; I don't know about now. And, they gave me my certificates; and this, that and the other thing. And they told me what my job was going to be. And, it was going to be driving an ammunition truck toward the Golan. Which I thought was--I said, 'I don't know how to drive a truck. This looks like an 18-wheeler. I don't have training.' They said, 'Well, that's what you're going to do.' So, that seemed to me stupid. And also, it turns out--I didn't know it at the time--but I was in the middle of a divorce.

So, that's why I left, among other things.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's turn to the United States and the West more generally. I took this quote out of the book. I'm pretty sure it's from Stephen Rensselaer, the main character of the book. Quote:

We have become a civilization that elevates idiots, prostitutes, and clowns. Am I still to defend it? Yes, for its principles. Yes, for what it was. Yes, for what it still may be.

End of quote. There's something quixotic, by the way, about many of your characters and about your demeanor in this conversation. So, reflect on that, if you would, and where you think the West is heading, and the United States in particular?

Mark Helprin: I am very pessimistic. And, I'll tell you two recent things have made me even more pessimistic. One of them is that I just read recently in the Wall Street Journal, an article about telephone counselors who charge $200 an hour to teach people not to be frightened of the telephone. This is young people. And this is for real. You spend $200 for an hour of tutelage about how the telephone won't hurt you: You can answer it, how to answer it, and not to be afraid of it. And, this same woman that they profiled, charges $3,000 for a morning's workshop for, I guess, say, a company where they might have a bunch of people to teach them not to be afraid of the telephone.

And the other article, which was yesterday, was an article about how parents are afraid--they're afraid of unpacking their children's camp trunks because they might be dirty and smelly. And so, there are services which will take the camp trunks and unpack it for you, wash everything, fold it, and return it to you. And, there are services which will buy things, pack trunks, get it all ready for camp for you.

When I went to camp when I was a kid, my parents would take me to the Army/Navy store, and we'd buy x, y--whatever is on the list. That's it. We'd throw it in the trunk, send it to camp. Then it would come back and they would wash it. Right?

But now we have services. People can't do anything. The younger generations have been brought up to be very, very incapable of doing anything. They're frightened. They--just yesterday I looked at a news report of a demonstration in Washington, 'Free Free Palestine'. This is--in American universities, for instance, Harvard. The majority of the faculty at Harvard is actually enlisted in the encampments. They've signed petitions and everything. They're fighting the administration at Harvard, the people who really have power, called the corporation, and the faculty is fighting the corporation.

And, the new temporary president of Harvard, vis-a-vis this Palestine stuff. And, they're just highly radical.

I don't have much hope for the West and for the United States. I think there's a possibility that we may recover, but it may take a tremendous catastrophe, and even then we might not recover because we have ruined a number of generations. They're brought up to believe that: a). they're victims; b). they're helpless; and c). the indignation and hysteria and emotion are the way to deal with things, including complete unwillingness to hear other people's point of view.


Russ Roberts: Well, to cheer you up a little bit, there's not much at stake in those protests, those emotions, those--you know, here in Israel, there was a similar presumption that this current generation was soft. They call it the TikTok generation. And, yet on October 7th, they were lions and lionesses. So, many of my students here at Shalem just got in a car and drove south, took a weapon and said, 'Let's go engage. Let's find an enemy and liberate our villages and kibbutzim, and other places that have been savaged by October 7th, earlier that morning.'

And, when you're tested, sometimes you can rise to the occasion.

But for better/for worse, America is not tested. The test is: can you use your phone? Can you sit in a coffee shop with another person without your phone and have a normal conversation? I'm sure there's classes on that, too. And, my worry is that the values and principles that it takes to motivate people aren't solid.

Here in Israel, they're pretty solid. There's a feeling of family and national pride that remains deeply resilient and part of people's lives here and makes them resilient in turn.

So, I don't know about the West. It's going to be an interesting couple of decades. I don't know if I'll see it, but I think it's going to be--we might be surprised.

Mark Helprin: Yes. We have been at other times. And, people--human nature, despite what the Left believes is the perfectibility of man--human nature is constant. Even if it's--

Russ Roberts: It doesn't change much--

Mark Helprin: Yeah. Even if it's thrown off its game for one reason or another, it tends to return to certain constants because there are limitations and needs that we have based upon. I mean, we can't survive if there's too much pressure, atmospheric pressure, or not enough. You can't survive without oxygen. You can't survive if it's too cold or if it's too hot. You need food. You need--you have a sexual drive. You have the drive, which is universal, although it can be driven out of people, and has been, to have a family and protect the family, and nourish the family. These things will always have the capacity of bringing us back on track. It is true. But, we can go way off track and it can be disastrous.


Russ Roberts: Are you working on another book project?

Mark Helprin: Oh, yeah. I'm on draft, I don't know, about six of another novel. And, I think it'll be my last novel. Then I'll probably, if I do, if I continue to write, I'll write short stories because I prefer those. But, yeah, I think it's probably my last novel.

Russ Roberts: Can you tell us what it's about?

Mark Helprin: No. I can never tell--I couldn't even tell you about what my other books are about. Because they're about a lot of things. You see--that's one of the things that I have a bone to pick with the current literary culture, is that: these days you have a so-called novel, which is kind of like an expanded magazine article. You know, they'll take a subject--an interesting, clever subject--and they'll call it, like, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, and it'll be all around one thing.

Now that's okay, as one form of the art. But it's very limited. War and Peace is about war and peace. That's almost like saying that you don't know what it's about because those are too big to really say.

I like the idea of a 19th century-century novel, which is, if I may quote Thomas Keneally's review of Soldier of the Great War in the New York Times Book Review, 'All encompassing, all guzzling.' Which is kind of a funny way to put it. But if it's--the wider and broader, deeper and more capacious it is, the less likely you'll be able to say what it's about.

And I can tell you one little story about that. When I wrote my novel called Winter's Tale, my agent, who has now has been dead for, I don't know, 15 years, took me to see Harvey Ginsberg at Harper and Row, which is now HarperCollins. And Harvey is dead also. Harvey was an extraordinary guy because he was very modest, and I only found out after he died, that in World War II, he had flown the full complement of B-17 missions over Germany. And, you know, he never mentioned it. And now, we're talking about veterans who put stickers on their cars and stuff like that. Never even mentioned it.

And, it was extraordinary to have done that and very heroic. But, anyway, she took me to see Harvey, because the agents in those days anyway, would take you to visit with an editor and talk about the book.

And, Harvey said to me: What is this book about?

And, that really put me on the spot because of what I've just been saying. I can't really, but I had to, so, I said: 'Justice.' And he said, 'Justice?'

And then, when we left, my agent, Wendy, said to me, 'You know--' and I have to tell you that she was the agent at that time for a book called Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by Judith Rossner.

So, Wendy said to me, when I take a client in and they ask, what is the book about, they say, well, it's about this guy who met a girl, a girl who met a guy at a bar, and then he takes her home and then he does this and [inaudible 01:30:45]--that's what Hitchcock used to call sink to sink. In other words, Hitchcock said: the housewife is working at her sink and washing dishes. So, she wants to see a movie of a housewife working at her sink washing dishes. So, that's what Hitchcock said. And he called it sink to sink.

And, that's something which--and I'm often criticized, by the way, by newspaper reviewers or whatever--for writing things which do not connect to the current concerns and fashions of American life. Because I try to make it more universal and wider and I hope deeper. So, in terms of what it's about, I'm not telling. I can't.

Russ Roberts: That's the longest non-answer I've heard in a long time--

Mark Helprin: Yeah, it's a good one--

Russ Roberts: But, it was a good answer. It was a good answer.

I once approached an agent about a book I had written, and she said: You write very well. In fact, you write better than--and here she named a bestselling book at the time. She said: But no one wants to read this. She said, if it's not about improving your golf score, your sex life, or losing weight, it's really hard to sell a book. And, that's another sink-to-sink kind of--that's life.

Mark Helprin: Unless you are Tom Wolfe and you could write a fascinating novel about improving your golf score, improving your sex life, and losing weight, all in one, and make it very funny. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Exactly.


Russ Roberts: Are you happy with your output as a writer? Are there books you regret? Missed opportunities you didn't write? I'm very happy. Again--channeling your mom, your inner mom--I have no complaints. But, as the author, how do you feel about that?

Mark Helprin: Oh, no. Of course I'm not. I never have been able to write the book that I want to write, and I always fail in my estimation. And of course, that makes sense because I'm not Shakespeare. I'm not Tolstoy. I'm not Dante. But, I always had an idea of the book that I would want to write is the book that I would really want to read, and I've never been able to come up with that. I try, and I get as close as I can; but no. Yeah, no, I'm not happy with my output because I don't think that I did what I wanted to do.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Mark Helprin. Mark, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Mark Helprin: You're so welcome, Russ. Thank you.