Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Good Kill

June 9, 2015

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Our recent strategy in the War on Terror is similar to our strategy in Vietnam: keep killing the enemy until there are none left. That strategy didn’t work in Vietnam, and it’s not working today. The Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan, and Daesh now control large parts of Syria and Iraq. Is it time for our policymakers to try something else?

This question is posed by the recent film, Good Kill, written and directed by Andrew Niccol. It tells the story of Thomas Egan (Nathan Hawke), an Air Force pilot who has been reassigned to being a drone pilot. After two children are inadvertently killed in a drone attack, he begins to have doubts about his job. The emotional stress that Egan is under starts to cause strains in his marriage to Molly (January Jones).

Things get worse when Egan’s group is placed under the direct control of the CIA, whose rules of engagement are looser than those of the military. They have a policy of a “double tap”: firing a missile at the first responders to an attack, on the theory that most such people are likely terrorists themselves. The CIA considers it an acceptable risk that innocent people will almost certainly get killed. The characters argue about this. Egan’s fellow crew member, Vera (Zoë Kravitz), makes the case that drone attacks are causing people to side with the terrorists, while Egan’s commanding officer, Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) makes the “we can’t risk losing one American’s life” argument. The debate is never resolved one way or another. At the end, however, when Egan literally walks away from his job, it’s clear that we’re expected to see this as a moral redemption for Egan. Although it seems an empty victory, since we know that the military will simply replace him with somebody else.

Good Kills is a well-made film that raises a number of troubling questions, but its feel-good ending cant’t conceal the fact that it doesn’t offer any answers.

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Veterans Affairs

May 27, 2014

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On no other topic does our society ooze so much hypocrisy as it does on the topic of veterans. We are told over and over that we “honor our vets”. We have TV commercials in which the theme of the veteran returning home to his family is used to sell products such as beer. Yet when the government cuts unemployment benefits and food stamps for veterans, no one protests. No one protested when George W. Bush cut veterans’ benefits. No one protested when the Republicans recently defeated a bill that would have increased veterans’ benefits. We honor our veterans in words only.

The VA has a long history of scandals. (You can find a time line here.) VA hospitals are chronically underfunded. These hospitals are mostly used by low income veterans. My father, a World War II veteran, never went to a VA hospital when he was ill. He had good insurance through his employer. He didn’t need the VA.

Both the government and the military view veterans as people who are no longer useful, who are now merely a burden. That is why the VA will always be underfunded and prone to corruption.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

March 20, 2014

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The Criterion Collection has released a restored version of the 1943 British film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. The title refers to a recurring character in the cartoons of David Low: an elderly Army officer who spouts reactionary nonsense. This film’s main character, Gen. Clive Wynne Candy (Roger Livesy), is clearly meant to be associated with Col. Blimp.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tells, in flashback form, the life story of Gen. Clive Wynne Candy, from the Boer War to the beginning of the Second World War. In the film’s early scenes, Candy is on leave from the Boer War, where his courage has earned him a Victoria Cross. On his own initiative, Candy follows a German agent named Kaunitz to Berlin. Kaunitz has been spreading stories about British atrocities in the Boer War, inciting anti-British feeling among the Germans. Candy is determined to stop him. What makes this part of the film a bit icky is the fact that the British did commit atrocities in the Boer War. This is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the film implies that Candy is a bit self-deluded, although this is never made explicitly clear.

However, in the next section of the film, detailing Candy’s experiences during World War I, we learn that his biggest fault is actually that he is too decent. He is reluctant to resort to the ruthless measures needed to defeat the Germans. This problem continues into the Second World War, when everyone around him becomes exasperated with Candy’s niceness. Even his Prussian friend, Theo (Anton Walbrook), lectures him about the need to get tough with the Germans.

At this point, I had to begin to question this film’s honesty. It seems to be saying that the main fault of the British is that they are too nice to their enemies. I suspect that many people in India and Africa and Ireland might beg to differ about this. (No doubt, Gandhi had the British in mind when he made his famous quip about Western Civilization being “a good idea.”) Early in the war, Noël Coward recorded a “satirical” song titled Don’t Let’s Be Beastly Towards the Germans, which also argues that the British are too nice to their foes. This idea of the British being “too nice” to their enemies strikes me as a back-handed form of self-flattery. (Sort of the way we’re often told that the U.S. is “generous” towards its enemies, even though it actually isn’t.)

What the film also seems to be saying is that Col. Blimp – and by extension all the “Blimps” in England – is not really a bad person after all. (The filmmakers apparently did this with David Low’s blessing.) This is in keeping with the “we’re all in this together” rhetoric of the British government during this period.

So, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is actually wartime propaganda, albeit of a subtle and sophisticated kind. What is odd is that this film was the subject of much right-wing criticism at the time of its release. (Churchill tried to prevent the film from being made.) One of their objections seemed to be that the film contains a sympathetic German character. In the U.S. at about this time, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was harshly criticized for the same reason. War demands the dehumanization of the enemy.

This movie is gorgeously filmed. (The technicolor was lovingly restored for the DVD.) I was impressed by the high production values, considering that this was made during wartime rationing. The acting is superb. Livesy is impressive, convincingly aging over the course of the film. Deborah Kerr acts as the Eternal Feminine, playing three roles over the course of three generations. Her characters illustrate how women acquired greater personal freedom during this period.

One other thing that I found icky about this film is that the directors indicate the passage of time by filling up Candy’s house with the heads of animals that he killed while on hunting trips all over the world. At first, I thought this was meant to be satirical, but I gradually had the disturbing realization that this was something that the audience was supposed to find endearing about Candy. Ah, for the good old days when the British upper hunted species to the verge of extinction. Nostalgia can be a bitch sometimes.

Obama’s Speech on Syria

September 11, 2013

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The speech that President Obama just gave on Syria was a depressing example of the empty rhetoric and hypocritical moral posturing that make up the political discourse in this country. He begins by saying:

    Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement. But I have resisted calls for military action, because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.

Images of people killed by conventional bombs are every bit as sickening as the images described here. So what is it that makes chemical warfare a “crime against humanity”? It’s not until the middle of the next paragraph that Obama tries to give an answer to that question:

    Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant…

Conventional weapons can also kill on a mass scale, and they also do not distinguish between soldier and infant. The idea that chemical weapons are more inhumane than other weapons has no basis in fact. If there is anything peculiarly destructive about chemical weapons, it is the fact that some chemicals, such as Agent Orange, can linger in the environment and do long-term damage. (Although I’m guessing that Obama doesn’t consider Agent Orange to be a chemical weapon.)

Obama cites two examples from history of the use of chemical weapons:

    In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.

Obama conveniently neglects to mention that Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds and Iranians, back when he was still a U.S. ally. The president at that time was Ronald Reagan, a man for whom Obama has expressed great admiration. (I think it worth noting here that during World War I, more people were killed by artillery and machine guns than by deadly gas.)

The President goes on to say:

    When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. [Uh, you mean like Saddam Hussein?] But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.

    Let me explain why. If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.

This is a sophisticated reformulation of the “if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them over here” argument that was wildly popular back when G.W. Bush was in the White House. First of all, our troops already face the prospect of chemical warfare, which is why they are trained in the use of gas masks. I think it a fair guess that many governments – dictatorships or otherwise – possess chemical weapons of one kind or another, regardless of any treaties. As for terrorists getting a hold of chemical weapons, that is a real possibility, I’m afraid, but it would be naïve to think that bombing Syria is going to prevent any possibility of that happening.

    If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon [which is not against international law], or to take a more peaceful path.

So, this is really about Iran? Obama thinks that if he kills a bunch of Syrians, this will convince the Iranians that they shouldn’t build any nuclear weapons? Might not the Iranians draw the exact opposite conclusion? They might decide they need nuclear weapons so the U.S. won’t attack them the way it did Syria.

The President’s speech ends on an optimistic note. He tells us he has decided to postpone asking Congress to authorize the use of force, so he can pursue a proposal by Russia to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons so they can be destroyed. It appears that Putin has saved Obama from the humiliation of Congress voting down the authorization. Bullshit can only get you so far in this world. Obama has once again benefited from dumb luck.

Downfall

June 25, 2013

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Downfall is a 2004 German film about the final days of the Third Reich. It was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Bernd Eichinger (who also wrote the screenplay for The Baader-Meinhof Complex). The film mostly takes place in the bunker where Hitler(Bruno Ganz) and other members of this government are hiding out as the Soviet army surrounds Berlin.

Ganz’s performance in this film caused some controversy. Some people objected to the idea of portraying Hitler as human. This argument doesn’t make sense to me. Hitler was human. Does it make sense to portray him as a supernatural monster? Would that help us to understand what happened? Obviously not.

One thing that struck me as I watched this film was how out-of-touch with reality the German leaders seem. (Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) talks about negotiating a ceasefire with Eisenhower. He wonders whether he should give him the Nazi salute or shake his hand.) The generals talk about “loyalty to the Fuehrer”, even after he accuses them of betraying them. At the end of the film, reality finally asserts itself in the form of Russian soldiers swarming over the city.

More than any other film I’ve seen, Downfall brings home the sheer lunacy of Nazism. Children and old men are sent into battle. Civilians are shot or hanged as “traitors”. We see Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) methodically murder her own children, because, she says, “life is not worth living without National Socialism”. Some of the scenes in this film have a surreal quality to them. We see drunken officers laughing and playing cards outside Hitler’s private quarters, while their Fuehrer is planning his suicide. And we see a drunken orgy in a hotel lobby while the Russians are closing in on the city. The scene is almost like something out of Bosch.

Downfall is a great film, and arguably the best film about World War II. Watching this film, however, I kept thinking “How did people like this come to rule an entire country?” It would be interesting if someone were to make a film about how Hitler became the Fuehrer.

The New York Times Beats the Drums of War (Again)

April 14, 2013

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It was irresponsible of the New York Times to publish the op-ed piece by Jeremi Suri titled Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late. Suri argues that the U.S. should take out North Korea’s missiles. He argues that this will not result in a war because:

    The North Korean government would certainly view the American strike as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea, as many fear. First, the Chinese government would do everything it could to prevent such a reaction. Even if they oppose an American strike, China’s leaders understand that a full-scale war would be far worse. Second, Mr. Kim would see in the American strike a renewed commitment to the defense of South Korea. Any attack on Seoul would be an act of suicide for him, and he knows that.

First of all, it’s not clear how much influence China actually has over North Korea. Second, it’s just as possible that “Mr. Kim” would see the attack as a prelude to a ground invasion. And if it is true that “Mr. Kim” knows that a war with the U.S. is “suicide”, why should we worry about him having missiles?

Suri concedes that North Korea might attack South Korea:

    A war on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely after an American strike, but it is not inconceivable. The North Koreans might continue to escalate, and Mr. Kim might feel obligated to start a war to save face. Under these unfortunate circumstances, the United States and its allies would still be better off fighting a war with North Korea today, when the conflict could still be confined largely to the Korean Peninsula.

It think it worth noting that an estimated two million Koreans were killed in the last Korean war. It’s reasonable to suppose that at least that many would die in another Korean war. This is the price that Juri would be willing to pay to maintain “stability” in the Far East.

Since the U.S. clearly has not exhausted its diplomatic options in Korea, one can only wonder why the Times thought it worth running an article like this.

Paths of Glory

April 3, 2013

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths of Glory is one of the greatest war films ever made. Indeed, I would rank it as second only to Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is serving in the French Army during World War I. His commanding officer, the ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) orders him to lead his regiment in a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified hill. When Dax shows reluctance to do this, Mireau questions his patriotism. An incensed Dax tells Mireau that he will lead the attack. The next day, Dax leads his men into battle, but an intense artillery barrage forces them back into the trenches. Refusing to admit that the attack was a bad idea, Mireau claims that it failed because the soldiers were cowards. He orders that one soldier be picked from each battalion to be tried for cowardice. Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life, announces that he will defend the men in court. The trial turns out to be rigged, however, and despite Dax’s best efforts, the men are condemned to death.

This film is filled with powerful images. There is, for example, a long tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches just before the attack. The soldiers are lined up along the walls, and shells are exploding outside the trenches. We can see from the expression on his face that Dax has convinced himself that he can somehow make this insane plan work through sheer willpower. The scene is a striking depiction of the self-willed bravado that make war possible.

Paths of Glory is about bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. It makes the point that the military system actually rewards cynicism and ambition rather than courage and honor. (One can see this in the Army’s treatment of Bradley Manning.) In a scene between Dax and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the latter assumes that Dax has opposed Mireau because he wants the latter’s position. When Dax tells him that he was actually trying to defend his men, Broulard reacts with a mixture of surprise and comtempt.

Paths of Glory is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb that was inspired by an actual incident in the First World War. This film wasn’t shown in France for many, apparently because members of the French military objected to its portrayal of French army officers. (I guess these guys were a little touchy after their less than stellar performance during World War II.)

A great film.

The Fog of War

January 6, 2013

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I just got around to watching Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War. I didn’t see this film when it first came out, probably because 2003 was a busy year for me. I found it somewhat disappointing. Much of it consists of McNamara trying to justify his actions. I should have expected that, but the reviews I read led me to believe it would be much more than that. Still, the film does have some interesting moments, and it gives some insight into the way one member of the ruling class thinks. I don’t think this is a minor thing. I think that perhaps the reason so many people on the Left are suckers for crackpot conspiracy theories is that they don’t have much understanding of how the ruling class thinks.

The film begins with McNamara, who is shown in tight close-ups most of the time, discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara repeatedly points out the U.S. and the Soviet Union came extremely close to a nuclear war. McNamara uses his account of the crisis to illustrate one of the “eleven lessons” he talks about in the course of The Fog of War; in this case, “empathize with your enemy”. McNamara tells how a diplomat named Tommy Thompson, who knew Krushchev well, persuaded a skeptical Kennedy that the Soviet premier would be willing to cut a deal over Cuba, which turned out to be the case. This raises the question of why there was a crisis at all, though, unfortunately, Morris doesn’t ask this question. McNamara also uses this incident to illustrate another one of his “lessons”: “rationality will not save us”. McNamara insists that the governments of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Cuba all behaved in a “rational” manner, even though they brought their countries to the brink of nuclear annihilation. So, if this is rationality, then what is irrationality? And if rationality will not save us, then what will? Morris doesn’t ask, and McNamara doesn’t say.

The Fog of War then goes into a discussion of McNamara’s early years. During the Second World War, he served as an analyst for the Army Air Corps. Under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, McNamara helped plan the fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people. This leads to the film’s most startling moment: McNamara frankly states that he and Gen. LeMay were war criminals. Still, he expresses no regrets about what he did.

The largest section of the film is devoted to the Vietnam War. McNamara doesn’t say much about the strategic justification for the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam; he seems to consider this to be self-evident. McNamara admits that there was some confusion over what actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident; nevertheless, he and President Johnson used it as justification to launch an intensive bombing campaign in North Vietnam. McNamara also gives a discussion in which he tries to distance himself from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. To illustrate his “lesson” of “empathize with your enemy”, McNamara talks about how years after the war he met the former foreign minister of North Vietnam. McNamara says he was surprised to learn from this man that his government viewed the U.S. as a foreign colonial power trying to take control of their country. Reall? It never occurred to McNamara that the Vietnamese might view the U.S. in this way? If McNamara was being honest here, then he was every bit as self-deluded as the people who led us into the Iraq War. (It so happens that this film was released the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)

McNamara casually discusses the deaths of millions of people, yet he gets choked up when he recounts how he helped pick out the grave-site for John F. Kennedy. One is reminded here of Stalin’s dictum: “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” I don’t think it is a stretch for me to say that McNamara had some of Stalin’s bureaucratic mind-set.

Another of McNamara’s “lessons” is “in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil”. One wonders if McNamara ever questioned whether what he was trying to do was actually good.

Full Metal Jacket

December 20, 2012

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Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is an examination of the meaninglessness and amorality of war. It is also a critique of the military and its values. This film is based on the writings of two Vietnam war veterans, Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr.

The film tells two stories that subtly mirror each other. The first half of the film depicts the basic training experience of James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) at the Marine Corps base on Parris Island during the Vietnam War. He and a group of other recruits are under the command of a drill instructor, Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who was a Marine D.I. before he became an actor). Hartman aims most of his insults at Pvt. Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hapless recruit who can never seem to do anything right. Hartman gives him the nickname “Gomer Pyle” and proceeds to make his life miserable. His taunting of Lawrence has tragic results for both of them.

There were several things that struck me about this half of the film. The first is that on several occasions Hartman either slaps or punches people. In one scene, he chokes Lawrence. I was always under the impression that officers and N.C.O.’s are not allowed to hit soldiers. (Didn’t Gen. Patton almost get fired for doing that?) I have since learned from various sources that D.I.’s sometimes get away with hitting recruits, even though technically they are not supposed to do it. Another thing that struck was religious indoctrination. Hartman sometimes talks about religion to the recruits. In one scene, Hartman asks Davis if he believes in the Virgin Mary. When Davis says no, Harman punches him in the stomach. Among other things, Hartman merely asking that question violates the First Amendment. People in the military take an oath swearing to defend the Constitution. The issue of religious indoctrination in the military is one that crops up in the news every now and then. There have been attempts at the United States Air Force Academy to convert people to fundamentalist Christianity. I guess a belief in Biblical literalism helps one to drop bombs on people.

This film also depicts how misogyny and homophobia are instilled in recruits during basic training.

The second half depicts Davis’s experiences during the Battle of Hue. Full Metal Jacket manages to avoid the clichés of war movies. It leads to a harrowing climax in which the members of Davis’s platoon are picked off one by one by a sniper. For all their savage training, the soldiers turn out to be just frightened men dealing with a terrifying situation. The lone sniper turns out to be a woman. When Davis kills her, we are reminded of Lawrence killing Sgt. Harman. Full Metal Jacket ends with a scene of Marines marching through the ruins of Hue while singing the theme song of The Mickey Mouse Club. There is perhaps no better metaphor for U.S. imperialism.